Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, who turned 60 at the end of December, exudes energy as he talks of the year ahead and the labour it will involve. For Kukan, 1999 was "the year of poetry," whereas the next 12 months will be far more prosaic, as Slovakia strives to live up to the many eloquent promises of reform it has made to western alliances.
In the very near future, Kukan will find out exactly how much work remains to be done. Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, is set to visit Bratislava on January 20 along with EC Commissioner for Enlargement Gunter Verheugen to tell the Slovak government how many 'chapters' of the acquis communautaire the EC is willing to begin negotiating. The Slovaks would like to open 15 chapters, and begin talks as soon as February.
The OECD, too, has promised to give Slovakia an answer on its entry aspirations early this year, three and a half years after the country first requested it. On April 14, the OECD has promised to begin a thorough audit to verify whether Slovakia fulfills the conditions for membership.
Finally, Slovakia should receive a response from NATO on its PRENAME programme (Preparation for NATO Membership, a document outlining the country's readiness for absorption into the alliance) some time in the first half of 2000, and Kukan has said he believes Slovakia could become a NATO member as early as 2001 or 2002.
Folksy, soft-spoken and relaxed, Kukan sat down with The Slovak Spectator on January 4 to outline what he expects from the new year.
Eduard Kukan (EK): I can't say it had any effect on my decision, but it helped me a lot to know how the situation was and is with the Hungarian minority and its situation in Slovakia. The decision to become a diplomat was not always so clear in my mind, but ever since I was a small I have always been interested in events abroad, and I started to read newspapers very early. Later, when I started to study at the Law Faculty here in Bratislava, I heard they were looking for someone who would like to study international relations in Moscow. At that time I realised that this was something which really interested me.
TSS: When you were 27, you were treated for a year in the High Tatras for tuberculosis. How have health concerns affected your career?
EK: When tuberculosis came, it was the greatest surprise of my life, because when I was told that I had tuberculosis I was at the peak of my personal and physical condition, playing football and volleyball and swimming. They told me I had to go to a sanatorium,where I spent almost a year. But eventually I was cured completely, and since then I have not had any problems.
TSS: Were you a member of the communist party?
TSS: Is there a difference between how western politicians received you then, as a member of the communist party, and how they receive you now?
EK: Even when I was a member of the Communist Party, you could still maintain a certain personal integrity. When I was posted in Washington, you could clearly distinguish between what was your duty to report or what position you had to present on different issues, and what you personally thought about it. So they accepted me at that time, and we had very solid relations.
After November, 1989, I was able to use my diplomatic skills clearly and really behave openly as far as my professional background allowed me.
TSS: You were born in Czechoslovakia, and you have said that Czechoslovakia was your country. How did you feel about the split of Czechoslovakia in 1992?
EK: To be frank, I thought that the interests of Slovakia could have been maintained within one country, within Czechoslovakia. I was saying this at that time and I say it now. I spoke about it at different meetings in New York, I remember, but as things developed I understood that it was not going to be useful to stay together because there was always going to be tension between the two parts of the country, and we would have to spend a lot of time attending to different quarrels about different issues.
I served many years in Prague, I have a Czech wife and my children are still living in Prague. It was not easy, but I could understand the necessity of the division and I was trying to put away any emotion and my personal feelings. I concluded that yes, it was fully in the interests of Slovaks to have their own country. I think that time has shown it was the right decision.
TSS: Your name has become synonymous with the word 'diplomat,' something that Vladimír Mečiar doubtless understood when he offered you the post of Foreign Minister in 1994. Why did you turn him down?
EK: I rejected the repeated offer of then-Prime Minister Mečiar because I knew that it would be impossible to serve in his government. At that time I was not a member of any political party, and I joined the Democratic Union in April, 1995. Many people asked me why I refused, and said that I could have helped the country. In politics sometimes you can be above political parties, and you can work as an independent professional. But later the situation changed, and you had to take some political power, you had to join some party or movement, so I joined the DÚ. I rejected Mečiar's offer because from what I knew about Mr. Mečiar ... I knew that I was too independent then to be a member of Mečiar's government. And developments proved that my decision was right. I simply could not imagine myself serving that government.
TSS: When you started as Foreign Minister in 1998, you gave a speech to Ministry employees in which you strongly criticized the ways things were done at the Ministry. You said you wanted to get rid of clientelism in appointing diplomats to foreign posts, you wanted to end the network of 'friendships' and turn the Ministry into a professional institution. One year after taking the post, how successful have you been in meeting your aims?
EK: I'm still at the beginning of the road. It's not easy to get rid of all those previous friendships, and the many bad habits which existed here before. I planned to spend much more time working within this Ministry, but after one year, I can say it was a very nice time, just terribly hectic. I traveled a lot as it was necessary to change the image of Slovakia abroad, so I did not have enough time to devote to the workings of the Ministry here. I also announced that this year I do not intend to travel that much and that I will have time to resolve the issues which you mention and which I mentioned in my speech when I became the Minister.
Most tasks are more difficult than I thought they were, but I am still decided to make them real. If you take personnel issues, of course there are some issues that I will not compromise on, but we are living in a real world, a government of four political parties that all want to have representation in foreign policy, so once or twice you have to take that into consideration.
TSS: In this real world we also have a very active President who has several times held up ambassadorial changes that you wanted to make. What is the proper role of the President in foreign policy?
EK: When you compare it to the previous situation, the President is contributing to the principle line of Slovak foreign policy. He visited Brussels soon after he was elected, and has said several times that Slovakia wished to become a member of the EU and to participate in NATO.
Yes, in nominating or recalling the ambassadors he had his own ideas, ideas which I accepted. He suggested that we should not make any changes before the Helsinki summit, in order not to send some negative signals abroad. I accepted that, and today we are in the process of changing the ambassadors in a civilized way.
For me, the fact that they were nominated by Mečiar is not a criteria, I evaluate them on the basis of real results and their contribution to the presentation of Slovakia as it is today. That is why we are going to behave in a very responsible way in changing the ambassadors. There will be changes. Not only routine changes, but we will also be changing ambassadors who are not able to represent the current government of the country.
TSS: Does that mean that Schuster will no longer oppose the changes that you as Foreign Minister want to make?
EK: No, he will not oppose them.
TSS: So what was the big problem before the Helsinki summit?
EK: The heart of the matter is that things are not defined very clearly in the Constitution, where it is written that the President nominates and receives ambassadors. There were cases in 1994, when an ambassador was going to be recalled and he defended himself that the President had no such right because it is not mentioned in the Constitution. So far, President Schuster has accepted all our recommendations, but if he refused... So even now, when I make presentations to the Government, I always consult beforehand with President Schuster so I know that this lady or gentleman is acceptable to him.
TSS: In connection with Slovakia's integration efforts, you have compared the year 1999 to poetry and the year 2000 to prose. What did you mean?
EK: I meant that integration is not just a matter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is an issue for all Ministries and all society, because we are going to open chapters for negotiations on agriculture, business, information and so on. This will be the less exciting part of our road to the EU, very boring I would say, because we will have to change legislation, a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of hard work. Nice political statements about our political orientation is all a matter of yesterday, and now we are expected by our partners to support these statements with concrete results.
TSS: Regarding the government's analysis of Slovakia's preparedness of to enter the EU, has it been completed, and if not, what stage is it at?
EK: We have information about Slovakia's readiness. Last year we completed the screening of practically 30 chapters [of the acquis communautaire, a document outlining the changes applicant countries have to make to become EU members - ed note]. So the first evaluation about the preparedness of Slovakia exists already, and we can build on this because the screening showed us what has to be done to close the gap with the EU and what kind of laws we have to adopt.
TSS: How many chapters will be opened initially?
EK: We shall be ready to open 15 chapters, although it doesn't seems very realistic to open that many. We think it would be realistic to start by opening seven or eight chapters, but our hope is, as I said, to have 15 chapters opened.
TSS: The parliament has decided that it will stop accepting laws in accelerated legislative proceedings, because of the poor quality of some of the laws it was handed by the government for quick passage in 1999. To enter the EU, however, the government will be wanting to pass many laws at top speed. How will you square that with parliament?
EK: I know that parliament was negative about the shortened legislative process. That can be avoided by having better planning for the process. After the first meeting [with the EC] in February, we will know which chapters the European Parliament has decided to open, meaning we'll also know which legislation will have to be changed. The legislative council of the government and the respective Ministries will simply have to work much more actively. It's a matter of more exact and more realistic planning.
TSS: The EU Commission is a body that evaluates the progress of countries towards the integration. Who is going to be the main source of information on our progress to NATO?
EK: The  Washington NATO summit agreed that the NATO Council would review the progress of a given country at meetings between the NATO Foreign Ministers and the Foreign Minister of the country in question. This will be very helpful for us to know how the other members of NATO are looking at us.
TSS: Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš said that our falling out of the NATO integration progress was one of the most costly mistakes of the Mečiar era. Do you agree?
EK: I agree. If we were a NATO member we could expect a lot more foreign investment coming to Slovakia. We could cooperate with the western countries that we do now. There are still many question marks but I hope that the speculations about Slovakia will disappear because we have brought enough hard proof about where we are going and what our intentions are. Investors want to see a secure zone for the country in which they will invest money, and if Slovakia became a NATO member there would be no questions concerning that.
TSS: Slovakia has been trying to enter the OECD for three and a half years, without success. Do you think that will change this year?
EK: I want to express my firm hope that we will become an OECD member in June this year. Again, not being a member of this orgainsation has cost us a lot of money. Our credits could go at much lower interest rates if we were a member of the OECD. Membership would have very practical benefits and a direct effect on the life of the people.
The OECD is a different organization than the EU, and can measure the level of a country's preparedness in a very exact way. So far we have not passed all the exams to become a member. In April the most important negotiation will be taking place in Paris. If we are successful, and I am sure we will be, we shall be invited by the Ministerial meeting sometime in June, I understand, to become a member of the OECD.
TSS: After Finland suspended its visa regime for Slovaks once again in late December, another 68 Slovak Romanies immediately boarded airplanes for Helsinki where they demanded asylum. How long is this going to go on? At what point will it become a serious problem for Slovakia in its attempts to become a member of the EU?
EK: This is a very difficult question. So far, the fact that Norway or Denmark or Finland introduced visa regimes has not been an issue in our integration ambitions. But I don't know how long this can go on, and I really don't know what more the Foreign Ministry can do to prevent it.
If the Roma population were really looking for work, or if they wanted to live in the EU for political reasons, they could travel to Austria, which is much closer, and save the money they spend on getting to Helsinki. But they are trying their luck with those countries which have the most lenient legislation for granting political asylum.
I really do not know what we can do. If somebody wants to buy a flight ticket you cannot refuse it. If somebody asks to have a passport issued, you cannot refuse them either. If we took sharper measures against them, there would be even more criticism for violating their human rights.
In cooperation with all EU countries, we thought that it would be very sensitive to unify the policy of granting political asylum. If not, the Roma will always be looking for countries that have a regime which allows them to stay longer.
My personal belief is that if the number of asylum seekers rises dramatically, we cannot rule out that Finland is going to re-introduce the visa regime.
TSS: As the former chairman of an SDK party, do you have a personal vision of what is going to happen to the SDK?
EK: I think that the SDK should continue to exist in one way or another. I do not hide my conviction that I am a supporter of forming one strong party, body, movement, bloc, whatever you want to call it, which would compete to be the strongest in the elections. I do not think that the Democratic Union should go into elections on its own. We have many parliamentary parties whose existence plays into the hands of the HZDS and Mr. Mečiar.
I really believe in the SDK, and I am convinced that the people of Slovakia want us to unite and to be together.
TSS: Where should this new united SDK be on the political spectrum?
EK: Right of center.
10. Jan 2000 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson, Spectator Staff