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New US Ambassador picked after long wait

Carl Spielvogel was sworn in as the new US ambassador to Slovakia by Bill Clinton on August 8, ending an American ambassadorial void which had lasted over a year since the departure of former ambassador Ralph Johnson.
Spielvogel, a backer of the Clinton administration and a successful businessman in the US, was first appointed to the post on June 29, 1999. The selection was then blocked, however, by Republican Senator Charles Grassley from Iowa, who was protesting the firing of Linda Shenwick, a UN employee accused of giving away secret information when she complained to Congress about UN waste and mismanagement. Would-be US ambassadors to Switzerland and the Philippines were also held up by Grassley's actions.
But Grassley dropped his protest last week, clearing the way for Spielvogel's second appointment on August 3, a move which a spokeman at the US embassy in Bratislava said had been "unexpected." Spielvogel's arrival, he added, would be "sometime in the near future," although he could not give a specific date.

Carl Spielvogel was sworn in as the new US ambassador to Slovakia by Bill Clinton on August 8, ending an American ambassadorial void which had lasted over a year since the departure of former ambassador Ralph Johnson.

Spielvogel, a backer of the Clinton administration and a successful businessman in the US, was first appointed to the post on June 29, 1999. The selection was then blocked, however, by Republican Senator Charles Grassley from Iowa, who was protesting the firing of Linda Shenwick, a UN employee accused of giving away secret information when she complained to Congress about UN waste and mismanagement. Would-be US ambassadors to Switzerland and the Philippines were also held up by Grassley's actions.

But Grassley dropped his protest last week, clearing the way for Spielvogel's second appointment on August 3, a move which a spokeman at the US embassy in Bratislava said had been "unexpected." Spielvogel's arrival, he added, would be "sometime in the near future," although he could not give a specific date.

Economic expertise

As ambassador, Spielvogel will be expected to assist Slovakia in its ongoing economic development. According to information provided by the US State Department, the new ambassador has over 35 years of experience in international trade and business.

From 1994 to 1997, Spielvogel was chairman and CEO of the United Auto Group, Inc., then the largest publicly owned automobile dealership in the United States. He has also served as vice chairman and a member of the board of directors of the Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc.

According to Martin Barto, head of strategy at Slovak state bank Slovenská Sporiteľňa, Spielvogel's arrival could strengthen the already improving business ties between Slovakia and the US. "Exports to the US are now climbing quickly. This could add great potential."

"Mr. Spielvogel has been quite a successful businessman and his contacts could also be quite helpful," Barto continued. "He could invite his friends and partners to create an environment which would enhance business ties between the US and Slovakia. We could see the creation of a platform for Slovak businessmen to create new ties."

The US embassy spokesman added: "Mr. Spielvogel has had a distinguished business career. Every ambassador has strong points and we'd expect that Mr. Spielvogel would be very interested in discussing economic developments with Slovak government and business representatives."

US congressman John Mica, a Republican from Florida with Slovak roots, agreed that Spielvogel would be able to help the country economically, and added that the delay in swearing him in had been harmful.

"Economic development is the key for Slovakia," Mica said last year after the delay was a few months old. "In that respect, the most damaging aspect [of not having an ambassador] could be economic growth, because we want to foster Slovakia's economic ambitions."

Political effects

In addition to the potential economic benefits, Spielvogel's appointment is also expected to assist Slovakia with its western integration ambitions. Grigorij Mesežnikov, the head of the Bratislava-based think tank Institute for Public Affairs, said that because the US was a major player in NATO, the lack of a US ambassador to Slovakia had hurt the country in its efforts to gain membership into the international alliance.

"This is a key time for Slovakia becaue the country is trying to be included into NATO," he said. "The lack of a diplomatic presence created an abnormal situation for Slovakia."

Also a concern is the upcoming presidential elections in the US. Were the Republican ticket of George W. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney to win, Spielvogel would likely be recalled from his post less than six months after taking over.

Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said that while such a scenario would be less than ideal, he was confident that a Republican appointee would be equally qualified for the ambassadorial post.

"I would say that it's very probable that if Bush Jr. wins, Spielvogel will be replaced," Kukan said. "It's a shame that he couldn't come earlier to establish a more firm base for business contacts, but I'm convinced that the US would send a person with a similar strong background in economics."

Mesežnikov added that the possibility of Spielvogel being quickly replaced was still better than having no US ambassador at all. "The Republicans and Democrats have basically similiar ideas about Slovakia, they both want to encourage economic growth and political stability," he said. "But if he did have to leave, it would just serve to confirm that there are some traditions in US politics that Slovaks are going to have to learn to accept."

"But it would not be disastrous," he added. "The total lack of an ambassador was more problematic."

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