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WHAT WAS WRITTEN: DOMINO FÓRUM

Slovakia in America

A delegation of Slovak politicians paid an official visit to the US between June 7 and 9, their third such visit since Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda came to power in September 1998.
The Slovak PM met with US President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and attended the opening of the new Slovak Embassy building in Washington, D.C. Ten Slovak journalists accompanied Dzurinda's delegation on his US visit. Slovak weekly Domino fórum published an journal recording the events of the trip by Štefan Hríb in its most recent issue.

A delegation of Slovak politicians paid an official visit to the US between June 7 and 9, their third such visit since Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda came to power in September 1998.

The Slovak PM met with US President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and attended the opening of the new Slovak Embassy building in Washington, D.C. Ten Slovak journalists accompanied Dzurinda's delegation on his US visit. Slovak weekly Domino fórum published an journal recording the events of the trip by Štefan Hríb in its most recent issue.

Wednesday, June 6
After boarding the government plane I greet Oľga Keltošová, a member of parliament for the opposition HZDS party of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. "This plane transports our Roma from Belgium," she smiles at me. We move on to talk about the next Slovak government, whom the HZDS wishes to have in it, whether Mečiar would be satisfied with waiting outside cabinet and running for president later, and about who the new prime minister might be.

Gyula Bárdos from the ruling Hungarian Coalition Party sits next to us. Later, Pavol Hrušovský, head of the Christian Democrats, comes to greet the journalists. Dzurinda didn't show up.

We have a stopover in Iceland. The Russian plane we are on isn't able to make it all the way over the Atlantic without a halt. "Only if there's a good wind," I'm told by the staff.

We wait for four hours because part of the delegation went to bathe in the Icelandic hot springs.

It is sultry at the Andrews Air Force military base near Washington, D.C. The government convoy disappears, a silent black bus driver is waiting for us. We drive through Washington at night. We pass by the Potomac River, the Washington Memorial, until we reach the Congress building. At about midnight we get to the hotel. It's called Watergate.

At the reception we are greeted in Slovak. "Hello, how can I help you," asks a young Slovak girl who works there. Her colleague jokes with us. He repeats with joy the only two sentences he can say in Slovak: "Mečiar is my friend. I like Liptovský Mikuláš."

Thursday, June 7
A weary breakfast is livened up by an interesting view. In a long corridor I recognise Mária Hlucháňová from Radio Free Europe, talking to a suspiciously familiar person. It's former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Later I find out that the protocol employees forgot to meet her at the door.

About ten minutes later Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš arrives. "This should never happen again," he says to someone from protocol. They forgot to tell him that he would replace Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan at the breakfast with Albright - an explanation for his late arrival.

The official programme starts with a meeting with the Republican congressman Hyde. Many of us are waiting at the salad bar in the spacious Congress canteen, thinking about the Slovak parliamentary buffet. After the meeting the government cavalcade almost leaves without Peter Weiss, head of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, and a member of the ruling Democratic Left Party, who again couldn't resist the journalists' microphones.

We enter the White House gardens. Our politicians come out from the building's west wing. Dzurinda smiles happily and tells us in solid English about all the things he said to Bush. We almost don't learn what Bush said to him. He repeats the same mistake after meeting with Colin Powell. But otherwise he speaks well. A prime minister of whom - at least abroad - we don't have to be ashamed.

The American journalists are recording his words. There are about seven US cameras here. Slovak Television is also recording, but only for archival use. They say they don't have money to send the recording over to Slovakia.

In the evening we talk to Slovak Ambassador to the US Martin Bútora. He is a little nervous. The official opening of the new Slovak embassy is under threat, as much work is left unfinished. The construction firm didn't finish everything on time. We say good night after midnight. The ambassador makes a phone call. "I'll be right there," he says. He's not going home, but to work. Carpets still need to be fixed to the floor.

Friday, June 8
Dzurinda holds a press conference in the legendary National Press Club. Again, he leaves a good impression. Then follows the raising of the national flag in front of the new embassy building.

We leave for the State Department. After a moment of waiting, Dzurinda comes out with Powell. They say he always sees his guests to the door.

We go back to the embassy for dinner. In the space of a few hours the construction works have advanced a lot. The volunteer student helpers are all dressed up, but there is mud on their shoes.

Celebrities come. Former Slovak hockey great Peter Šťastný arrives with current NHL star Miro Šatan.

Saturday, June 9
There is a tennis tournament in the golf and tennis club. Dzurinda plays with Šťastný, but they lose to some ambitious couple in the second round. Šatan and Mikloš are doing great, but especially good is hockey star Peter Bondra.

The look of our great hockey players is a lesson. They are positive, they aren't conceited, they reply to everyone's questions, let everyone take their photo. "They have learned how to enjoy life," says the ambassador's wife Zora. "But it took them some time, too, till they figured out that in America life doesn't necessarily have to be the fight we are all used to in Slovakia."

We leave.
The airport's staff wishes the Slovak delegation a happy flight. It seems as if Slovakia is already a natural part of western civilisation.

Then I am told about the last opinion polls, and I read in the last issue of the Economist magazine that Slovakia still hasn't found its identity, and there is concern that it may return to populism. Is the American flag big enough to cover this up?

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