Minister of a challenging coalition

IT IS NOT an easy coalition in charge of the country, Slovakia's Foreign Affairs Minister Ján Kubiš said. In the beginning, Slovakia's governing coalition provoked many questions for factual, legitimate reasons. But for the last several months, these questions have had nothing to do with foreign policy, he said an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš says Slovakia must promote its interests in the European Union and NATO.
photo: Jana Liptáková

IT IS NOT an easy coalition in charge of the country, Slovakia's Foreign Affairs Minister Ján Kubiš said. In the beginning, Slovakia's governing coalition provoked many questions for factual, legitimate reasons. But for the last several months, these questions have had nothing to do with foreign policy, he said an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

Kubiš shared his thoughts about the US missile defense system, Slovak-Hungarian relations and Bulgarian nurses in Libya - issues that have been intriguing the world of diplomacy recently.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the priorities of Slovak foreign policy?

Ján Kubiš (JK): First of all, we continuously have to enforce our interests as a European Union and NATO member. The second priority is a growing concern for our citizens abroad, meaning expatriates, emigrants, but also those who left the country to work or study abroad. There are so many other priorities, such as those on the horizon of the UN Security Council, and working on developing good relations with all of our neighbouring countries.

TSS: You have said that Slovakia should try to more effectively push Slovak interests in the European Union. Could you be more precise?

JK: We have been very active in pushing for continued EU enlargement, when the West Balkan countries are concerned. We insist that the agenda of the European Union should also include, at an appropriate place, more intense cooperation with countries lying to the east of us. Specifically, we paid a lot of attention to the questions relating to Serbia and Kosovo, and also to Ukraine - but rather in NATO, as we do have an embassy in Kiev.

TSS: You also mentioned in the media the attempt to put more emphasis on the economic aspect of foreign policy.

JK: Every visitor that I receive, and every visit abroad that I make, includes a very strong economic element. We try to analyse with our partners the situation in mutual investments and in trade, and we look for new possibilities. We are better seeing the problems which exist here. And also the facts that virtually prevent us from moving further. With these connections, we also open contacts with our former traditional partners, with whom we have cooperated less recently. In these countries, we open the doors for our entrepreneurs.

TSS: Do you mean, for example, Russia?

JK: It may be Russia, or China. And it can also be Libya, or the countries of Latin America. Recently, I visited Algeria. We negotiate with countries from the Gulf, too, where there are important financial resources, and where people are looking to use these financial resources.

TSS: In terms of Russia, China or even Libya, aren't our efforts a bit counter-productive, when our foreign policy is oriented in a different direction?

JK: This criticism is very short-sighted, as we are talking about intensifying economic co-operation, and not about a political inclination towards these countries, or about departure from the European Union or NATO. And I think this is not just a misunderstanding that I would expect from outsiders, but rather an intentional politicisation, intentionally depicting facts in different tones. Nobody has ever said that efforts like these would mean a departure from EU policy. And I am proud that, for example, we have in our efforts contributed to solving the problem of the Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor in Libya. It happened during the visit of Prime Minister (Robert) Fico to Libya.

TSS: Prime Minister Fico, during his visit to Libya, called the Bulgarian nurses, rather oddly, "perpetrators". Could you explain that in more detail?

JK: You know, I do not wish to deal with these statements, or with their misinterpretation. I know very well that at the time, Fico offered to the Libyan side that if they made progress repaying their debt to the Slovak Republic, we would be ready to give part of those repaid resources to help the children affected by AIDS. This was perceived very positively in Libya. They said it meant that to them, we did not see just one side of the problem - the question of the Bulgarian nurses, which we addressed - but also the suffering of the other side, namely the sick Libyan children. This created a positive space for further successful negotiations with the EU. We know this from our Libyan partners.

TSS: So we did not contribute financially to the release of Bulgarian nurses?

JK: As I have already said, any help in this direction is naturally connected with the clearing of Libyan debt towards Slovakia, and as far as I am informed, this question has not been resolved yet. We are constantly confirming our political interest to use part of the resources from repayment for aid. Thus, we are cited as having offered resources. I see that as a false misinterpretation of the matter. Basically, foreign policy is being used in a domestic political struggle.

TSS: But this is usually what happens.

JK: It happens, but it should not happen to such an improper extent. Maybe I am being too optimistic, for example, when I want to hear in the media an unbiased evaluation of our foreign policy from foreign-policy analysts. I do not want foreign-policy analysts to just firmly repeat the line of the domestic political struggle for influence. I find that a bit annoying.

TSS: Are you implying that the media are inclined to prefer the current opposition? After all, that is what Prime Minister Fico thinks.

JK: I think media take over the opposition's arguments very uncritically and without a second thought, without analysing the matter and without even trying to understand the matter it its complexity. I am not against them if they do not agree with the government's actions. On the contrary, the media should be one of the control mechanisms, or means of feedback, that politics needs.

TSS: Let us suppose that you are right and the media really do take over the opposition's opinions uncritically. In that case, don't you think that the explanations from government officials are lacking?

JK: I do not think so. For example, I warned at the beginning of this year that a very critical campaign was spreading because of Prime Minister Fico's planned foreign trips. Even the prime minister's foreign orientation was questioned. The campaign lasted for about two months.

I tried to explain on every occasion that the concerns had no real substance. I told journalists to look at previous visits during the first five months of the rule of this government, and analyse them. It is not right to speak about the planned trips even before an agreement on the date is reached. I told them, 'Wait with such conclusions and evaluate what has happened before. Look at the statistics of visits that have already happened.' No one took that into consideration. They kept talking misleadingly about Venezuela, Libya, China. There was no interest in anything like that until the outcry faded by itself, as it was not sustainable.

TSS: Your predecessor, former foreign minister Eduard Kukan, recently told Slovak media that the government of Robert Fico weakened the international position of Slovakia abroad, and that in the sphere of foreign policy, the prime minister failed as a leader.

JK: Kukan is pursuing his own political interests. After Fico's government came to power, Kukan took an expressly political stance. He does not see the foreign policy as a professional, but rather as the vice-chairman of an opposition party.

I am not against a critical dialogue, but it has to be factual. I do not feel such a will from the opposition. I understand the domestic political struggle, but I see foreign policy as a completely different issue. If we do have a consensus, it should not be a problem to admit it. And where there are different opinions, it should be made clear where they are really diverging. It is not about global foreign-policy orientation, but rather about positions. I consider differences in positions to be a very natural thing.

TSS: Don't you think that such a confrontational stance of the opposition towards you was also influenced by the fact that the current ruling coalition consists of the internationally unacceptable, nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS)?

JK:It is not an easy coalition. In the beginning, it provoked many questions for factual, legitimate reasons. But it has been maybe six months, or even nine months, that these questions have not been posed in the context of foreign policy. Simply, today we are transparent as a government. We do not have identical positions with the previous government, but they are positions of a very well established member state of the European Union and a member state of NATO. We have government positions in which a social-democratic orientation prevails, so that means to the left of centre. Of course, in that we are acceptable and accepted.

Smer has problems even with the Euro-socialists, meaning with its own blood group. I personally think that even they will understand that Smer is able to control such a coalition - like (former Austrian chancellor) Wolfgang Schuessel in the past, when he managed (far-right coalition party leader) Joerg Haider. Our partners have no reservations towards us.

To question us from the domestic politics point of view is the legitimate right of the opposition; however, it is not based on the truth. If it was true, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi would not have come here in July. German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not have received Fico at the beginning of May.

TSS: In your opinion, how are the current relations between Slovakia and Hungary?

JK: I consider them balanced.

TSS: Has the (alleged beating) case of Hedviga Malinová not interfered in relations with Hungary?

JK: The Malinová case is still open. I am annoyed, to use a mild expression, by the persistent efforts to politicise the whole matter. I am convinced that when all necessary steps have been made in the course of the investigation, the truth will emerge - whatever the truth is. The case will be solved. We, this government, cannot afford to let this matter fade away gradually, and when it is closed, to have a reason to feel that we failed to do something, which would make us not comply with the legal standards of a member state of the EU. But I do not wish to comment on anything as far as the heart of the matter is concerned.

TSS: We did not intend to ask about details of the case, but you are the foreign minister.

JK: I cannot comment on them, and I will not comment on them. The investigation is underway. You know, for me the Malinová case is a political game.

TSS: The question is, whose political game it is?

JK: I do not think it is the game of our ruling coalition, as we cannot win anything by this case. The truth has to come to light.

TSS: The United States plans to build an anti-missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland. How do you perceive Russia's response and the Russian proposal to create a radar base in Azerbaijan instead?

JK: It is up to the experts to evaluate whether it is necessary to create such an anti-missile defense system. Our partners from the US say that by voicing this proposal, Russia de facto confirmed its readiness to cooperate with the US by creating an anti-missile defense system. Thus, the Russians also confessed that there was probably a reason for the concerns. If there was not, they would not have made such an offer.

For me, something different is important - making sure that everything made in the anti-missile defense system finally leads to better security in our European space. And besides, we have stressed from the beginning that we want this matter to be discussed in NATO. Today, that has been fulfilled.

And the third thing is, we have been saying from the beginning that we also want to use NATO for consultations with other partners involved. Without consultations, misunderstandings arise. And they, again, lead to different statements that can make people feel insecure. We were interested in consultations between Russia and NATO. This is already happening. Currently, this is a fundamental element of NATO's stance, but it wasn't always this way. It happened later.

TSS: Do you think that a radar base in Azerbaijan would solve European security?

JK: I am not a military expert. Maybe a radar base with certain early warning parameters would be a contribution. But that's the opinion of a diplomat who only deals with military issues from the point of view of diplomacy.

TSS: Do I understand correctly that you do not want to give your opinion directly?

JK: I gave my opinion directly enough. I think that, to the best of my knowledge, such an early warning radar base would be a contribution.

TSS: Even in Azerbaijan?

JK: Even in Azerbaijan. But I cannot assess whether it would solve the strategic purpose of the anti-missile defense system that the US has planned. I cannot answer this, as I am not an expert. I heard opinions claiming that according to US and NATO experts, it does not solve this. But at the same time, the NATO experts welcomed Russia's willingness to solve similar questions.

TSS: You said several times that domestic political fights interfere with our foreign policy. In connection with the Kosovo issue, you said that Slovakia's partners were seriously worried by the internal political discussion concerning the future status of Kosovo: "We have come to a unique position, where we are the only EU country that adopted a declaration in parliament with such a categorically expressed standpoint. Of course, I respect it, and so do our partners, but I cannot say it will make our situation easier, and we must look for solutions that will not exclude us from the EU sphere at the same time." How do you see our solution of the Kosovo issue today?

JK: This is one example of how our domestic political events influenced the debate around Kosovo, and how it provoked a series of questions for our foreign partners. We are the only state in the world that adopted a declaration of parliament in connection with Kosovo. I personally was embarrassed that we talked more about Serbian interests when we adopted the declaration, which could lead to a conflict with Slovak interests. I had to point out the fact that, as we are a member of the NATO and EU, certain stances are expected from us, and this point of view was suddenly absent. Suddenly, everybody started saying that we were not interested in this, and that the whole Union was wrong about Kosovo. I say that the whole Union is right in this issue.

TSS: But why did we have such a passionate discussion about Kosovo? Was it, in your opinion, because the politicians feared the example of Kosovo - that southern Slovakia could try to separate after Kosovo separates?

JK: I do not see a similar analogy, a similar threat. But I cannot ignore it and I cannot help but be puzzled about why our politicians and analysts do see a threat. And moreover, we cannot ignore statements from the top representatives of the ethnic Hungarian SMK party, or top officials in Budapest, who - when UN Special Envoy Matti Ahtisaari came up with his plan - started saying: For us, this is the source of inspiration for how to solve minority issues in the Carpathian Basin.

TSS: So you are afraid of it, too?

JK: No. I just notice these things. But I always try to understand why they keep telling me such things. Don't they see an example in it, anyway? If they saw an example, then I must consider it. But there is no way I could see an analogy, as our situation can never escalate the way it escalated in Kosovo. Never.

TSS: But at a press conference on May 17, focused on the effort to create autonomy and on the health sector, Ján Slota said that in southern Slovakia, an autonomy "in the spirit of Kosovo" is being prepared.

JK: One has to ask those who say this for an explanation and interpretation. I notice such statements, and of course I am troubled by them. However, you must see that it is not just Ján Slota who poses these questions, for which he is criticised, and often justifiably. But you also have to see the fact that, with all due respect, our partners from a party based on the ethnic principle - the Hungarian Coalition Party, SMK - do something similar. What is it? A party formed on the basis of nationality? They try to convince us that it is not true.

TSS: Well, then the Slovak National Party, SNS, is the same. And this is a party that is a member of your ruling coalition.

JK: It is a party based on the defense of national interests of a certain nation. It has its place in the system, it reflects the interests of a certain group of our citizens. Obviously, the SMK is in a similar situation. It is just that you cannot claim that one thing is black and the other is white.

TSS: Well, there is a slight problem that the European Parliament accepts the Hungarian Coalition Party, SMK, but not the Slovak National Party, SNS. So these two parties probably do have slightly different agendas.

JK: That is the point - if the European Parliament looked a bit at the SNS agenda, it would clearly conclude that there is no problem there. I do not know how many people - apart from the SNS supporters and voters - have read its programme. I do not think people read it, otherwise they could not have such opinions about the SNS. They just identify the party with some of its representatives and some of their statements. If they looked at the fact that the SNS signed the government's programme - our government's programme does not provoke any questions whatsoever. And its implementation does not provoke any questions from our foreign partners, either.

TSS: Former foreign minister Kukan also talked about the inconsistency of the prime minister, you as the foreign minister, and the president in our foreign stances, especially in the aforementioned issue of Kosovo and the anti-missile system in Czech Republic and Poland. What do you think?

JK: Sometimes we really succeed in reflecting different views of the same thing. Sometimes this is also caused by an insufficient ability to see things in a complex way, and the inability to divide things - meaning, the policy of the government, the state, and things that represent the political view of the chairman of Smer. I admit that. Sometimes unwanted confusion occurs as a result. We try to prevent it. The dialogue between Prime Minister Fico and me is very good, but we do not always succeed in preventing this.

In any case, it is our goal to have less and less dissonance. For example, our foreign partners do not have any doubts about the foreign policy line of this government. There are no doubts about that. Sometimes, when a similar dissonance occurs, it is better to confirm when this is the policy of the government, and when the prime minister clearly says what is his personal view. I have seen similar cases where he voiced the view of a politician and a political representative of the Smer party.

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