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American Ambassador to Slovakia Ralph Johnson: Enjoyed Slovak posting "more than any other job"

US Ambassador to Slovakia Ralph Johnson will be leaving his post on June 5, and not a few government officials will be sorry to see him go. Deputy Foreign Minister Ján Figeľ told The Slovak Spectator on May 12 that Johnson had been a "strong defender of democratic traditions and a good friend of civic society" in his three-year tenure. "He was among the most communicative and professional ambassadors we have had," Figeľ added. "Slovakia wishes to have many more like His Excellency Mr. Johnson."
Johnson is a running enthusiast whose excellent command of Slovak won him widespread credit in the country's media and official circles. When The Slovak Spectator interviewed him on May 12 at the US Embassy in Bratislava, he had just returned from an hour-long phone-in programme called "Hour of Truth" and a run around the bridges below the castle. "I don't set any speed records," he began.

US Ambassador Ralph Johnson is leaving Slovakia after over three years.
photo: Sharon Otterman

US Ambassador to Slovakia Ralph Johnson will be leaving his post on June 5, and not a few government officials will be sorry to see him go. Deputy Foreign Minister Ján Figeľ told The Slovak Spectator on May 12 that Johnson had been a "strong defender of democratic traditions and a good friend of civic society" in his three-year tenure. "He was among the most communicative and professional ambassadors we have had," Figeľ added. "Slovakia wishes to have many more like His Excellency Mr. Johnson."

Johnson is a running enthusiast whose excellent command of Slovak won him widespread credit in the country's media and official circles. When The Slovak Spectator interviewed him on May 12 at the US Embassy in Bratislava, he had just returned from an hour-long phone-in programme called "Hour of Truth" and a run around the bridges below the castle. "I don't set any speed records," he began.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How would you compare the Slovakia you arrived in to the Slovakia you're leaving?

Ralph Johnson (RJ): I think there's been a very significant change in the political atmosphere. I think late in the [1994-1998] Mečiar government people were beginning to become afraid. Afraid of being under scrutiny. Afraid that they said things that were opposed to the government in power, even if they were said in academic institutions, because there was more politicisation of academia. Secondary school principals and so forth were increasingly being appointed on a political basis. People were becoming more reticent. Some of the signs were reappearing and some of the state apparatus, the intelligence service, for example, in my view was beginning to be used, under the previous government here, in a way that was similar to what was done with intelligence services in eastern Europe before 1989.

But I think that beginning well before the elections, you could see that there was more self-confidence. There was a kind of transition period. I remember times when people would say, "Well I'm going to leave. If the elections don't turn out the right way, I'm out of here. I'm going to be gone." And then we began to see that after all, especially young people in the NGO movement and so forth, were beginning to get a little more self-confident. They were getting some harassment in the early days, before the elections, as they were deciding what the NGO movement should do in that process. But they overcame any apprehension they had, I think, and as their confidence began to grow, it became really clear that really significant change was possible.

The American Embassy in Bratislava has seen daily anti-NATO rallies.
photo:Svrček Ján

And that's what's happened, in my view. That is, first that the elections were free and fair, I think that that was a significant part, thanks to the number of monitors, not just international, but the rest of them that were out. Secondly, and perhaps this should be the first, that people participated in the numbers that they did. I mean, that was tremendous. And that was also a demonstration that the answer was not to leave, it was to participate. So I think people have increasingly felt that they could take more of their destiny into their own hands. And that's critical. Furthermore, the atmosphere of fear, I think, has dissipated. I don't sense that anymore.

I think also that institutions like parliament, which in my view didn't really work in the last years of the Mečiar government - parliament has begun to become a functional institution. Which is an enormously important step. You get the feeling that respect for the law is returning on the part of the goverment and goverment leadership. I think that there has been a very substantial change, and I think that there is momentum building, which means that the period that went before is not going to be repeated.

I think that part of the fear before was generated by things like the Kováč Jr. kidnapping and the death of Robert Remiaš, the bomb planted in front of [parliamentary deputy František] Gaulieder's house when he was thrown out of parliament, the beating up of [opposition deputy František] Mikloško - these were things that the state never investigated, and obviously had no intention of investigating, quite the contrary. As long as people had the perception that the security services could be used against them, and that there was no appeal, that they would not be able to get justice, I think that that would make people afraid. And I think what happened was that with the advent of the new government, with new people being put in place, they began to demonstrate that that's not what was going to be done in the security services under this government. Indeed, that they were going to start the process of holding the people accountable who had misused those services under the previous government.

TSS: The government has been able to function quite well without a president for the last 14 months. What, then, is the importance of a president for Slovakia, and what's going to be the significance of electing him?

RJ: You know, that's a good question, and I'm not sure I really have a full answer. I'm starting from the observation that since Slovakia and the Slovaks decided to put into their constitution the Office of President, that there must be some reason that they feel there needs to be a head of state function, as opposed to the head of government function.

Obviously, there's been a debate about what powers the president should have. As the presidential powers were curtailed, when President Kováč was in power, for example, he lost the power to appoint the head of the intelligence service, they tried to take away at one stage, as I recall, the power to appoint the chief of the army general staff. So these powers were to some degree circumscribed. On the other hand, I think that there was also a feeling that maybe the Presidential Office could be a source of some sort of stability in the political system, with a somewhat longer perspective, or at least a different one, and maybe a sort of above politics perspective, which no Prime Minister can bring, because that's not his job, or her job.

So, I abjure the same thing as you do, which is that the country has gotten through the last year or more without a president, but I also recall that when the referendum was aborted, under the previous government, that there were clear signs - the people said they wanted to vote directly for a president and they wanted a president. It seems to me that Slovak society wants there to be somebody in this office and doesn't want to see it empty, and sees that there is a function for a president, maybe it's this non-partisan above politics function. But I don't have any particular wisdom to offer. This is a different system from ours. Our president is President and Prime Minister, if you will, both. So we don't have any particular lessons to offer in all this, and therefore I take my cues from the Slovak people. I think they want a president and it's therefore significant to them that the office be filled.

TSS: What geopolitical role exists for Slovakia between now and whenever it joins NATO and the EU? Do you think that bodies like the Visegrad 4 and CEFTA are important to prevent Slovakia from being drawn towards Russia as it waits for acceptance into western structures?

RJ: I'm not sure I agree with some of the underlying hypotheses there. First of all, I don't see a good healthy relationship with Russia as being incompatible with NATO membership. I think Slovakia has obvious economic ties with Russia - gas, gas trans-shipment, nuclear, nuclear fuel - as well as historic ties. That's all quite normal, and I don't see any incompatibility between that and progressing towards NATO.

I also don't see either NATO or EU membership as being a situation in which at one point you're here, and then all of a sudden you're over here. I see it as a continuum which develops as time goes on. In the case of the EU, there are clearly economic ties that are deepening, there are changes in Slovak law, there are tariff relationships that evolve.

In the case of NATO, following the last summit there's going to be more participation on the part of the Partnership for Peace states in NATO decision making. It's a process of evolution, and Slovakia doesn't just stand still until it gets into the organisation. It can have, and we hope that it would have, perfectly fruitful relations with Russia. What I don't see is a Slovakia that is somehow adrift between NATO and Russia, or that Slovakia plays a kind of role as intermediary between NATO and Russia.

Something slightly different has happened just recently with [Foreign Minister] Eduard Kukan having been selected by [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan as one of the partners in a UN effort to try to work on a solution in Kosovo. I think that's very interesting both because it shows the level of confidence that everybody has in Eduard Kukan, and because I cannot imagine that Slovakia, whoever was foreign minister, would ever have been picked to play that role a year ago.

TSS: How are Slovak people responding to NATO's actions in Kosovo, given that Slovakia may one day be an alliance member itself?

RJ: It's very mixed. I travelled through Slovakia about two weeks ago. In Banská Bystrica I happened to run into a couple of peeple on the street and we got talking about kosovo, and their view of the situation was that basically the ethnic Albanians were extremist Muslims who represented a threat to the security of Europe in themselves. And what NATO was doing was taking the side of the extremists and supporting their independence, which would sooner or later become a problem for Slovakia because ethnic Hungarians would go the same route. Their perception was that we had gotten the problem wrong.

When I got to Košice, which has a lot more cosmopolitan population and a karger ethnic mixture, people were saying "Absolutely right, this is terrible that the Serbs are killing all these innocent civilians. NATO has to do something - they can't just stand there and do nothing."

I think opinion here is divided, and that's perfectly understandable. But in a way, this may have a positive outcome. NATO membership entails not just benefits, but obligations, and its very important from the standpoint of old NATO members, for whom this has been a key security organisation, that the new members realise that this is not a freebie, this is not something we're doing for you, this is something we do for each other. We will be prepared to commit the lives of our citizens to defend you, but recognise you take the same obligation with regard to other NATO members. Maybe the Kosovo crisis will help people understand this earlier than they otherwise would have.

TSS: Is this country doing enough to attract the investment it wants?

RJ: It certainly is doing more than in the previous period, and the atmosphere has changed - before, in privatisation, not only was foreign investment not sought - it was not really wanted. The real idea was, "We're going to privatise to our buddies and they're going to kick back into the party and support us." And that obviously wasn't very attractive for foreign investors, and this country now has the lowest level of investment per capita in the region.

I think this government has taken a lot of good steps, and they've started working on a set of investment incentives, although I don't know whether they go far enough.

We're seeing more interest on the part of US investors.Motorola is not a new investment, it was started under the Mečiar government, but I was up there [at the Motorola plant in Piešťany] a couple of weeks ago and they are going full speed ahead now building this facility which will employ 1,200 people. We'll wait to see what happens at VSŽ, but I am cautiously optimistic that if all goes well, that could also be the scene of a significant additional US investment.

One of the things that will be on the minds of investors is the economic situation, which I think is going to get more difficult in the coming months. And there are two or three other things that I would mention as having to be solved. One is that I think Slovakia is still quite a way from having a legal system and a court system that produces from the standpoint of an investor rational and predictable outcomes. There still are doubts about the integrity of the decision-making process when it comes to crunch time over an investment dispute.

I'm not just talking about foreign investors, but also Slovak investors I've talked to as well. They express reservations about whether the system is really working in an open and transparent way, for example the judicial system when it comes to making decisions on bankruptcies. The bankruptcy system is non-functional from my perspective. For a foreign investor, that's disquieting, because how do you get redress?

I think that on the procedural side - and partially, this also gets into the question of corruption - that more needs to be done so that all investors feel that if they have to go to court, the court will produce an outcome that they think is fair, even if it's not the one they want. I don't think that investors yet have a strong enough conviction that this is the case.

Secondly, no government is immune from the kind of pressures from corruption that have grown up throughout central Europe. This is certainly not a uniquely Slovak problem, and I'm convinced that [Interior Minister Ladislav] Pittner and his colleagues are dedicated to cutting back against this, against both organised and white-collar crime and corruption. But that is going to be a challenge, and I could refer to several cases but won't, where there are being some questions raised about how much corruption is starting to creep back in to some of the decision making processes. That is a matter of concern, and I say that as a friend of Slovakia, because that will be destructive because it undermines people's confidence in institutions.

TSS: Would you include the selection of Devín Banka to administer the Russian debt and the choice of Slávia Capital and Deutsche Bank to arrange the sale of Slovak Telecom among these "several cases" that are causing concern about corruption?

RJ: I wouldn't put them both in the same category. The fact is that the history of Devín Banka is quite well known, both inside Slovakia and abroad, and let's just say it doesn't enjoy a particularly high reputation as a banking institution, to put it mildly. The whole question of how the Russian debt is used, what purchases were made, where the commissions went - there are lots of serious questions marks that hang over all that, and I don't want to get into specifics about the bank's relationship to Slovenské Elektrárne, but I think there are some institutions like Devín Banka that have had a highly questionable reputation in the eyes of potential investors and frankly of the rest of us as well.

With regard to the telecommunications issue, I think that maybe the specifications for this tender were not as well prepared or designed as they might have been, but I'm not prepared to jump to any conclusions in that case. I think it was just inexperience rather than anything nefarious.

TSS: You're leaving your post on June 5. What advice would you give your successor?

RJ: From my perspective, the most urgent challenges Slovakia is going to face in the next year are going to be economic. Politically, there will always be some pushing and shoving within the coalition, but that's pretty natural. But I think it will be important to figure out how we can be supportive and help the government meet its economic challenges.

TSS: Why have you decided to leave the State Department? Where will your next posting be?

RJ: Thirty years in the foreign service is long enough, I think. I've enjoyed it enormously, and I've enjoyed this posting probably more than any other job I've done in the foreign service. I was asked if I would be interested in going to Sarajevo, where I had been involved during the war. I wasn't really sure I wanted to get into it again, so I went down a couple of months ago and took my wife Ann with me. She went down and said 'OK', but not with the same degree of enthusiasm she had said 'OK' to Bratislava, in fact not at all. But it was OK. I think it will gove me a chance to apply some of the skills I've developed over the years. It's just one of those things - you can't change an old war horse.

My job title will be "Principal Deputy High Representative" in an organisation created to implement the Dayton peace accords - it's not a UN or a US organisation, it's about 700 people now from the foreign services of the contact group countries - Russia, Japan, the US. What I would like to focus on is the economic side - in a way, what you see there is a result of the fact that Yugoslavia never went through the economic reform that central Europe did - they went through a war instead. Exhumations will be another of my portfolios, and trying to establish accountability for people who were murdered during the war. I will be falling back into the six-and-a-half day work week, I think. I'll sign a one year contract, and then see.

TSS: So not a step towards a nice quiet retirement, it seems?

RJ: No. No, I don't want any of that, you know. I've got other things I want to do.

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