Rudolf Schuster has been in the presidency for four months, and has frustrated diplomats with his definite views on foreign policy. But his inclusive style has made him the most popular politician in the country.
Schuster's most recent excursion into foreign policy came on October 21, when he awarded the Chinese Ambassador to Slovakia, Tao Miao-fa, the Order of the White Double Cross (Class II). The decoration is normally given for oustanding contributions to Slovak interests.
The Slovak branch of Amnesty International immediately protested Schuster's decision, saying that Tao Miao-fa was a diplomat representing a country which doesn't respect human rights.
But Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan immediately came to Schuster's side, saying at a press conference on October 22 that the decoration had been consulted with the ministry, and that it epitomised Slovakia's policy of engaging rather than isolating China.
Michal Stasz, Schuster's spokesman, told The Slovak Spectator on October 26 that the president had not just blindly followed Kukan's lead, but had himself been convinced that the decoration was deserved. "The president followed the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but he himself believes that Tao Miao-fa has made a huge contribution to the development of Slovak-Chinese bilateral relations, which resulted in the seven-day official visit of Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš to China," Stasz said.
Not all co-operatin between the Foreign Ministry and the new president has gone so smoothly, however. The ministry, which exists to carry out the foreign policy of the Slovak government, has occasionally locked horns with Schuster, who say he wants to be the diplomatic agent of all Slovaks.
The main source of disagreement has been the different views held by the President and Kukan, the country's chief diplomat, on the replacement of some Slovak ambassadors stationed abroad. Foreign Ministry sources say that the Slovak Ambassadors to Poland and Italy, who were appointed by the former Mečiar government, are ripe for dismissal, but that Schuster is refusing to go along with the switches.
Jozef Božek, President Schuster's foreign policy advisor, told The Slovak Spectator on October 27 said that the Presidential Office for two months had had the names of two ambassadors that the Foreign Ministry had suggested be replaced, but that "the president is still evaluating his decision. It's not such an urgent matter."
According to Foreign Ministry officials, the matter may soon become very urgent indeed. Kukan said on the private TV Markiza station on October 26 that the ministry would like to recall eight or nine of Slovakia's 39 ambassadors during the next six months. Each nominee suggested by Kukan must be approved by Schuster.
But Stasz said that Schuster was not willing to blindly follow ministry recommendations. "The Slovak President doesn't represent just government or just opposition foreign policy, but national foreign policy," he said.
Who's in charge
Since 1995, relations between the government, the Foreign Ministry and the president have been governed by the Unified State Protocol, which sets out the precise relations between these three bodies. The protocol is now being rewritten.
Sergei Mesežnikov, the head of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), a Bratislava think tank, said that according to the protocol, although the president is the highest state representative, "he should follow the ministry's recomendations [on diplomatic appointments], because the ministry is most qualfied on foreign policy isues."
Božek, for his part, said that "it's the exclusive competence of the president to give final approval for ambassadorial appointments."
In his political career, Schuster has been a high-level communist politician (even while a self-confessed "good Catholic"), an ambassador for post-revolution Czechoslovakia, a town mayor, a national party leader and now Slovakia's first directly elected president. According to political professionals, he has always had a reputation as a skilled manager of people.
He has brought this all-embracing personal style to the Presidential Office. After his inauguration on June 15, Schuster vowed not to ban anyone from his advisory staff, which should consist of 70 people, for their political past.
Stasz himself became an early example of the president's largess. A former correspondent with the communit-era Czechoslovak press agency, Stasz's appointment was criticised by those who felt Schuster had not made a full break with his communist past.
The name Jozef Šesták was also mentioned as a possible member of the presidential staff. Šesták, who was Deputy Foreign Minister under the Mečiar's cabinet, is still working for the Foreign Ministry, and on October 26 did not want to comment on whether he would join Schuster's office.
Ivo Samson, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, said that Schuster's inclusive approach to former communists and former Mečiar-era officials was likely to go down well with foreign officials, if not at home. "When I opened the question of Schuster's communist past talking to German analysts in Bonn last year, almost all of them, despite this fact, considered him the best person to take the presidential chair," Samson said.