US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright returned to her former national soil in Bratislava on November 22. In the first ever visit by America's top diplomatic official to Slovakia, Albright vowed to an audience of students to do "everything in my power" to support the country.
Albright's stopover in Bratislava - the first ever by an American State Secretary, the country's highest ranking diplomat - followed two meetings in the past three months between Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and US President Bill Clinton, and an October 6 visit to Slovakia by US First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Furthermore, on November 17 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution in support of Slovakia's "progress in moving to a democratic government and a free market economy" by a vote of 404 to 12. Congressman John Mica (R-FL), who has Slovak roots, said that "with this resolution we honor the Slovak people as they march forward to meet their rightful destiny."
Foreign policy professionals agreed the recent spate of meetings was evidence of a rapidly warming relationship between the US and Slovakia, one that would be of crucial importance to the latter's efforts to join western structures.
According to Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, bilateral relations between Slovakia and the US have moved to a new level. "It's not just a matter of intensity, but more of the content of our dialogue. Slovakia is now a credible partner for the United States," Kukan said.
Slovak Ambassador to Washington Martin Bútora told the Sme daily paper that "the [Albright] visit is the peak of a process of Slovakia's returning to American attention as a solid, serious partner."
Much to say
During her short time in Bratislava, Albright met Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš and her counterpart Kukan.
While she said much in praise of Slovakia's progress under the new Dzurinda government, Albright did not shy from raising senstive themes like official corruption and Slovakia's minority record. "We had a very open and honest discussion, and we did talk about corruption," Albright said after her meetings with government officials.
According to Albright, corruption is not just a Slovak problem, but something affecting countries around the world. "Several years ago, I signed an OECD document on prevention of bribery and corruption. We consider that to be a very important international document, and fighting against corruption is one of the main problems we have to deal with generally. I spoke about that subject with the Slovak Prime Minister and the speaker of parliament," Albright said.
However, the overall tone of the visit was unquestionably cordial.
"Let me get little bit personal," said Kukan at a press conference that day. "I met Madeleine Albright for the first time at the beginning of the 1990's, when we were both representatives of our countries at the UN. As I walked into her office, I saw a picture of a nice little girl in traditional Slovak attire. It was her."
"I still have that dress," Albright responded in Slovak.
Regarding the recent decline in popularity of the Dzurinda government, Albright did not want to comment specifically, preferring instead to highlight the government's accomplishments. "I would like to say that I have been very impressed by the work this government has done in co-operating with parliament to launch economic reforms and work with legislation on the minority language law," she said.
"What I have done is to encourage all those to whom I have spoken today to follow through with economic reforms, to understand the importance of foreign investment, to stay in very close touch with the voters, and to make sure that this government is able to take its rightful place in the OECD, NATO and the EU," Albright continued.
Amid the congratulatory speeches and outpourings of good will, however, some observers counselled caution, saying that much work remained to be done before American support for Slovakia resulted in concrete foreign policy achievements.
"We should be rather careful in evaluating Albright's words," said Vladimír Bilčík, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. "She came here to commemorate the events of November 17, 1989, and to give a hand to the more reform-oriented Dzurinda government. The emotional aspects of this day played a role."
According to Bilčík, Slovakia might one day reach the same relationship with the US that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary enjoy. "But it's a time-consuming process, and we must make up for lost ground," he said.
Albright, the first female State Secretary in US history, was born in 1937 to Czechoslovak diplomat Jan Korbel. After the Second World War, her parents moved to to the US, where she became Secretary of State in 1997.