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Has the Iraq crisis brought Slovakia and the US closer?

AS THE attention of the world focuses on the Persian Gulf, new bonds between countries have been thrown into relief by the differing opinions of old allies.
Unlike some of its western neighbours, Slovakia has consistently expressed its support for US-led military action against Saddam Hussein, and in return, it has been promised unspecified rewards by senior US officials.
As relations between the US and Slovakia reach a new level of harmony, what do people with links to both countries make of it all? The Slovak Spectator (TSS) asked four Slovaks living in the US and four Americans living in Slovakia how the crisis has influenced relations between the people of the two countries.


SLOVAK troops were sent to Kuwait to assist in humanitarian efforts related to US-led military action.
photo: TASR

AS THE attention of the world focuses on the Persian Gulf, new bonds between countries have been thrown into relief by the differing opinions of old allies.

Unlike some of its western neighbours, Slovakia has consistently expressed its support for US-led military action against Saddam Hussein, and in return, it has been promised unspecified rewards by senior US officials.

As relations between the US and Slovakia reach a new level of harmony, what do people with links to both countries make of it all? The Slovak Spectator (TSS) asked four Slovaks living in the US and four Americans living in Slovakia how the crisis has influenced relations between the people of the two countries.

Americans in Slovakia

Baruch Myers, 38, is Slovakia's only rabbi. He has lived in Slovakia since 1993.

Chris Phillips, 23, teaches English in Liptovský Mikuláš. He has been in Europe for two years, and Slovakia for six months.

Jeff Silverberg, 39, owns a telecommunications communications company in Bratislava. He has lived in Slovakia for 12 years.

Aaron Chase, 28, works for a nongovernmental organisation and has lived in eastern Slovakia for three years.

TSS: In your experience, how has the Iraqi crisis influenced the attitude of Slovaks towards the US and its citizens?

Myers: I don't think this influenced the attitude towards Americans who live here, that I've noticed. There are some very anti-US sentiments, but I don't think more than in other countries in Europe. I just think there are a number of people who identify with some of the other European countries like France and Germany. Furthermore, the participation of Slovakia has been presented by the government as an act of solidarity with the US, and [the government] hadn't explained what this means in terms of Slovaks' own national interests. So a lot of people have looked at Slovak support as trying to gain favour with the US, whereas I believe that the countries involved are acting in the interest of world security and therefore their own as well. But not everyone sees it that way and it has provoked some anti-US sentiment.

Phillips: Nobody seems to pay much attention to it, as far as I can tell. Either that or they're too shy to say how they really feel. I ask, but don't get much of a response.

Silverberg: I think in general Slovaks are extremely positive towards the US. I want to stress the amazing outpouring of emotion that I saw after September 11 here in Slovakia. It really knocked me off my feet when I saw the expressions of grief and respect.

I personally completely disagree with George Bush in general ... I totally disagree with the way he has handled this and I think most Slovaks feel the same way. I think Slovaks believe Saddam Hussein should be removed, believe he is a threat, but I think they would like to see all non-violent alternatives exhausted before we send 200,000 troops to the Middle East to create what I believe will be years and years and years of problems.

Chase: I haven't seen any changes in specific individuals based on the Iraqi crisis.

TSS: Does it matter to you how the Slovak government is responding to requests made by the Bush administration?

Myers: I'm personally glad that they are cooperating. I understand well both sides. If it's your own sons going, it's frightening. That's why I think it's essential that this should be seen as an alliance, not just a bunch of people helping the US.

Phillips: Yes. The "new Europe" is one that has learned from its terribly bloody past that war is not the answer to political disagreements. If Slovakia wishes to be an integral part of a future "united" Europe, it should take a cue from the French, Germans, and others who have vehemently opposed the actions and rhetoric of the Bush administration.

Silverberg: It does. In a way, I'm proud to see that the Slovak government, and in particular the prime minister, has stood up to openly side with the Americans ... it can be seen as the correct move for Slovakia and I think it's relatively courageous of Dzurinda.

Chase: I think about it, but it doesn't have an effect on my daily life. I understand why Slovakia is providing support, but I wish it was not.

TSS: Would you rather be in the US at the moment?

Myers: Deep down I think I feel more secure being in Slovakia at the moment. Although I hope I wouldn't feel afraid being in the US. I do think in general Slovakia is quieter, removed from the potential disturbances that you might get elsewhere.

Phillips: Absolutely not. I didn't vote for the current president and I don't feel he represents me or my views in the least. If it is the case that the majority of Americans also don't support the current administration's stance on Iraq, not to mention international diplomacy, then I don't wish to be in a country that is being unjustly represented. On the other hand, if it is true that the majority of Americans do support this administration, then I certainly don't feel that I can allow myself to be grouped into that herd and I am therefore sorely ashamed to consider myself "American."

Silverberg: I think that Bratislava is one of the last places for terrorists to attack. In that respect it's positive. I always believed that I'm doing my part for the US by being over here. I've been here for over 12 years and I've created hundreds and hundreds of jobs and been responsible for tens of millions of dollars of investment. I see no problem with staying here.

Chase: I can't think of a safer place to be than Košice - except for maybe Trebišov. I don't think the US is substantially more at war today than it has been any day during the last 50 years. Having a quarter of a million troops overseas isn't something exceptional, neither is shooting people.

TSS: What do you think about the fact that numerous US fast-food chains and the US House of Representative's restaurants changed the name of french fries to "freedom fries" to show disagreement with French opposition to US policy?

Myers: Without going into the political dimension, I got a kick out of the fact that some places started using the name freedom fries. It was a typical brash American reaction, not the kind of thing that you would likely get from a European.

Phillips: This is absolutely ridiculous. Yet again, I reiterate my disappointment about possessing an American passport. This crusade has absolutely nothing to do with "freedom," but with a bloodthirsty, gun-hungry redneck whose only desire is to impose his ideas of political structure upon nations that are different from his own.

Silverberg: They are hollow measures and are totally worthless. We have an expression - you vote with your feet or you vote with your dollars. If people really want to show dissatisfaction with French policies, they should stop travelling to Paris and stop buying French wine and French cars in America. Then the French might stand up and see what's going on and how important a partner America really is.

Chase: I guess I would say that individually, American politicians have to cater more to their constituencies than Slovak politicians do. I doubt that many of the members of Congress supporting that measure honestly thought it was a good idea.

Slovaks in America

Martin Bútora, 58, has been Slovakia's ambassador to the US since 1999. The former sociologist and author of various publications resides in Washington, DC.

Ján Lašák, 23, has lived in the US for four years. The ice-hockey goalie, who led Slovakia to a gold medal at the 2002 World Championships in Sweden, is a household name back home. Lašák currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and plays for the NHL's Predators organisation.

Vladimír Schmidt, 21, arrived in the US for a year-long stay in August of 2002. Schmidt lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he works as an au-pair and attends courses at a local college.

Zuzana Riemer Landres, 27, is a student living in Los Angeles, California. Landers went to the US in September 2000, after marrying an American citizen whom she met in Slovakia.

TSS: In your experience, how has the Iraqi crisis influenced the attitude of Americans towards Slovakia and its citizens?

Bútora: Since 1989 there has never been so much said about central Europe and Slovakia. With regard to the attitude of central Europe to the Iraqi crisis what is being said is positive. The embassy gets e-mails from strangers, who thank us for our support.

Lašák: In no way at all. Besides perhaps a two-word mention in [the newspaper] USA Today, the country is not mentioned at all. And even when it is, most Americans have no idea which tiny country was just mentioned.

Schmidt: Not much is being said about Slovakia in these parts of the world. Most people can't even tell the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia. Some even have trouble guessing which continent it's on. Slovakia is mentioned as part of the former eastern bloc, which before the escalation of the crisis was usually mentioned because of its efforts to join NATO. The media recently mentioned American gratitude to strong support from eastern Europe, but there was no closer explanation of why there is this support or any other background.

Landres: In no specific way.

TSS: In your experience, how has the Iraqi crisis influenced the attitude of Americans towards Europe?

Bútora: Americans, often even those who don't agree with everything President Bush does, were offended by the attitude of Germany and France. However, everyone knows that there is also Britain, Spain, and Denmark. So there is no general American attitude towards the whole of Europe.

This is obvious from a rational point of view, but if relationships between long-time friends are disturbed, emotions start being involved. Just as many Europeans are falling victim to anti-Americanism, Americans are not always able to avoid anti-European stereotypes. No one benefits from that. It's possible that even those countries that do not support US disarmament moves can play a positive role in the reconstruction of Iraq. The participation in common reconstruction could help to improve transatlantic relations.

Lašák: Some are angry at the French, some are themselves against the war. There are demonstrations supporting both sides, so I would say opinions are both positive and negative.

Schmidt: The media here plays a more important role than anywhere else in the world. People are manipulated by what they see on the news. I think the main problem is that people in the US don't really understand what war means. For them, war is a show happening in the middle of nowhere you can watch with friends on CNN, while having a beer. Around 90 per cent of the people say something like, "Yeah, they can oppose the war, because they didn't have 9/11 and don't need to be afraid of terrorism". On the other hand there are some people, although only very few, who at least try to understand the European position. But strong pro-war propaganda is prevailing.

Landres: The influence has been very negative, especially towards the French, but I often hear generalisations against Europe as a whole. Some Americans are aware of the support of eastern Europe and of the clear stand of its representatives.

TSS: What do Americans know about Slovakia's support for the US?

Bútora: In recent days you hear more and more about countries that are a part of the "coalition of the willing". The New York Times and Washington Times have recently mentioned Slovakia. We are being mentioned more often on the radio and television, and I have received calls from a number of journalists from influential newspapers. So an increasing number of Americans are learning about Slovakia.

Lašák: Ninety-eight per cent of the people know nothing at all about it, but perhaps the decision makers do know about it.

Schmidt: As I already said Slovakia is mentioned only as a part of the region. The countries that are discussed individually are usually France, Germany, UK, Russia, and sometimes Spain.

Landres: Normal Americans don't know anything. It's too bad that Prime Minister [Mikuláš] Dzurinda did not sign the open letter of [eight] European leaders [in which they declared their support for the US] a day earlier, so that Slovakia could have got into the news that way.

TSS: Would you rather be in Slovakia at the moment?

Bútora: It's always good to be home, but in the diplomatic service you don't ask yourself where you would rather be - you serve wherever it's necessary.

Lašák: I don't know. I hope both countries are safe. I'm starting to be concerned now. If there was any large conflict I would definitely want to be in Slovakia.

Schidt: I have my reasons for staying in the US and it is also very interesting to observe all of it here, so my answer is no. But I would really appreciate having access to more objective media and news.

Landres: To be honest with you - yes.

TSS: What do you think about the fact that numerous US fast food chains and the US House of Representative's restaurants changed the name of french fries to "freedom fries" to show disagreement with French opposition to US policy?

Lašák: I don't have an opinion about this issue. Generally speaking, I know that violence creates violence and that there are families in Iraq that will suffer.

Schidt: I think it's childish. You can only laugh at this stupidity. Some weeks ago it seemed like a joke, but I couldn't believe it when they actually started renaming fries in restaurants.

Landers: According to our information, fast-food restaurants have changed nothing. We recently had a chance to verify this fact. I think it's a desperate attempt of resistance, but it's not focused in the right direction. There are more effective and meaningful ways of expressing one's attitude and patriotism.

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