Kukan: Just hold the line

AT AGE 65, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan is the oldest member of the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet. He has served as Slovakia's foreign minister for seven of the past 12 years, and has been active in politics for a decade.

KUKAN does not want to base political decisions on opinion polls.
photo: TASR

AT AGE 65, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan is the oldest member of the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet. He has served as Slovakia's foreign minister for seven of the past 12 years, and has been active in politics for a decade.

But it is as a diplomat that Kukan has made his greatest mark, just as it is his diplomatic background that best explains his extraordinarily mild manner. His foreign-service career has spanned four decades, including postings to sub-Saharan Africa and Washington under the Communist regime, and to the UN to represent democratic Czechoslovakia and independent Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator interviewed Eduard Kukan on February 4.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia is said to have an "isolationist soul", and Slovaks have been shown in polls to be cautious about engaging in world affairs, such as sending troops to Iraq or opening their airspace to NATO military actions in Bosnia. To what extent do these isolationist tendencies complicate your task as a foreign minister who is trying to get Slovakia to engage in regional and world affairs?

Eduard Kukan (EK): The role of the Foreign Ministry is to explain and interpret what is going on in the country. Sometimes, as a politician or state representative, this means that you have to characterize things more positively than they really are. As a politician you have to engage and go further.

I'm very much against conducting politics and foreign policy according to opinion polls. Politicians sometimes have to go against the public mood or what is written in influential newspapers, as long as they have the inner certainty that they can convince people. This is the way I look at presenting Slovakia abroad, even though people may not want to express opinions or get involved. It's a sort of responsibly risky political engagement. Politicians see further than the average person because they have greater experience and more information, but they must be sure that people will follow them where they lead.

TSS: Why are Slovaks so reserved in their attitude to the world?

EK: Slovakia throughout its history was always ruled by foreign powers, we were always part of some monarchy or foreign state. That's why Slovaks maybe have an inborn instinct towards distrust, towards resisting what comes to us from abroad, and that attitude is still visible among the older generations despite the fact we've been independent for 12 years now.

TSS: The February 24 summit between Presidents Putin and Bush is being hailed as "putting Slovakia on the map", but in the end it's just a one-time event. Has Slovakia reached the point at which its reforms and international position are "permanently sustainable"?

EK: You're right, such one-time summits are great for the country's image, and the whole world will be watching Bratislava. But I think the trend that was started by this government - meaning being deeply pro-reform, finding the political courage to make such reforms - has to be maintained and supported until they start to bring results. That's the point at which I think developments will become permanently sustainable. We just have to hold the line.

The first stage was the government knowing that reforms couldn't be put off any longer, and finding the courage to start them. The second phase involves people coming to understand the reforms were necessary and that they have paid off, even though they may have been painful. Permanent sustainability also depends on Slovakia having the governments in the future that will continue these developments and won't try to hinder them. That's the best guarantee that Slovakia will preserve the reputation that, in all modesty, it has won on the international stage.

TSS: It's been said that the Slovak government is more reformist than the country's citizens. In foreign policy, the government has been very supportive of the policies of the Bush administration, despite frequent outbursts of anti-American feeling among Slovak people. Is the government also more pro-American than Slovak citizens?

EK: I don't think anti-American sentiment is unique to Slovakia; it's everywhere around Europe. But in this case as well I think the government has a better or more rational understanding of the importance of our good relations and cooperation with the United States than the people do. If we took a survey on the question, "to what extent do we want to work with the United States?", the answers of members of the cabinet and those of the public would probably be at opposite ends of the scale.

I agree with what the prime minister said at a recent conference, that he doesn't like "stupid anti-Americanism". He took a lot of criticism for that [statement], but he was talking about the kind of anti-Americanism that people cling to at any price, an attitude that is not examined. We want to have excellent relations with the United States and why should we be ashamed of that? Why should we have to hide it?

I recently took part in a debate with [opposition Smer party leader] Robert Fico, who said that this government had turned Slovakia into an island of American influence in Europe. I got a lot of letters after that from people saying they wanted to live on such an island.

But we don't agree with the United States at any price, and whenever we disagree we say so. Just look at the case of the International Criminal Tribunal [where Slovakia did not support a US demand for US citizens to be exempt from prosecution], where we haven't reached agreement and we're sticking to a European line.

TSS: Slovakia often presents itself as something in-between East and West, as a bridge between the US and Russia. What is the content of such a foreign policy position?

EK: I don't think it's really like that. It's not good to be a bridge; when crises erupt the bridges are the first to be destroyed. We really do have great relations with the United States today. Our relations with Russia could be described as balanced. We have very good economic relations and normal political and foreign policy ties. We want to use these ties to help Russia cooperate on international issues. We also know how to communicate with them so as not to arouse any needless tensions.

TSS: There is a struggle going on between liberals and conservatives at the moment about the identity of an enlarged Europe. To what extent is the Slovak contribution to this debate coloured by the fact that the Slovak member of the European Commission comes from the conservative Christian Democratic party?

EK: Slovakia's position on this issue is clear. Most Slovak political parties, especially the liberal ones, are in favour of strengthening the European identity, in favour of the approval of the European Constitution. This struggle for identity is indeed taking place, both in Slovakia and elsewhere around Europe. A pro-Europe mood is evident among Slovaks, largely because integration was not followed by a price shock or some kind of disappointment or disillusionment. People felt before enlargement that they were instinctively in favour of joining the EU. It wasn't a calculated thing; they just felt the European Union would bring them something positive. This mood and this feeling will ensure that Slovakia plays a strong role in shaping the EU's identity.

TSS: You spent four years at the Czechoslovak embassy in Washington during Communism, from 1977 to 1981, and you have since said that during that time you made many close contacts at the state department. How was that possible, given that diplomats sent to the Washington mission had to be trusted and closely vetted by the regime? Wasn't there too much distrust to be able to form close ties with US diplomats?

EK: There was indeed a certain amount of distrust given the global situation at the time. But even then you had some relationships built on ideology, and others that were professional relationships. We regularly went to lunch with state department officials, and we expressed ourselves as professionals; we were able to speak more freely. They knew very well what we had been instructed to say, and could also draw their own conclusions from how fanatically we presented the information, how laconically, or how much we stuck to the professional line. This was true of both sides, mind you.

Once, when the US expelled a Czechoslovak spy, it was a Sunday and the ambassador said I had to phone the state department and protest this step, that it was uncalled-for and unfounded and so on. I had to call my friend Carl Schmidt as the section chief and he was skiing, so we talked about the weather where he was for about five minutes, and then I started in with "Carl, now this is serious..." (laughs) That kind of thing happened often.

TSS: A significant number of current Slovak diplomats were educated during Communism at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations [MGIMO]. Although the US and Slovakia are now allies, are Western diplomats still a bit leery of their Soviet-educated former adversaries?

EK: The professional approach remains in place now that we are allies. But I have the subjective impression that our partners regard those of our diplomats who were trained in Russia or Moscow as if there were a warning light flashing in the backs of their minds, even though they formally accept all of our decisions. I think this [caution] is needless, but you can't prevent people from reacting in accordance with human nature. Time will solve this matter.

TSS: During the 1994 to 1998 authoritarian government of Vladimír Mečiar you re-activated your network of foreign diplomatic contacts. How do you think they handled the balancing act between supporting democracy in Slovakia and interfering in the country's affairs?

EK: It was a very difficult line to walk, between advising and interfering. It was even more important for us [the political opposition] to ensure that the statements of foreign diplomats were not presented to the Slovak public as interference, but rather as sensible advice. We consulted this issue with our foreign friends, and we agreed that the rhetoric would be clear and understandable, but not too categorical or strongly worded. Our job was to explain it at home, in the sense that no one was out to prevent Slovak voters from electing Mečiar but that the people who did so should understand that Mečiar and his style of governance was unacceptable abroad, and that if Mečiar was re-elected it would mean that Slovakia would be barred from integration groups. Our task was to make sure that Slovak voters understood the implications of their votes.

I think the best sign of how well both sides managed that balancing act was the turnout in the 1998 elections, when 84 percent of eligible voters participated. People wanted change and the victory of the pro-democratic parties was a resounding one.

But you're right, it was an extremely sensitive question and we often discussed it with the Americans, British and French. The Americans had no problem saying things very openly, and left it up to us to explain it to voters. Some Western European countries, on the other hand, were more cautious and objected to strong statements as interference.

TSS: Mečiar twice offered you the foreign minister's post and yet you refused him, whereas other career diplomats like Pavol Hamžík accepted his offer. Why didn't you take the job?

EK: Because I would have had to force myself to do so. I just couldn't. I saw how Mečiar behaved. I saw his management style. On the other hand, I don't want to make myself out to be a hero - when he offered me the job the first time, he laid down some conditions that were absolutely unacceptable: (imitates Mečiar's gruff voice) "Bring me six parliamentary votes from the Democratic Union and I'll make you minister." (laughs) That made it pretty easy for me. The second offer was without strings attached and many friends asked me why I hadn't taken it, saying I would have been in a position to do more to help Slovakia. But I think it would have lasted two weeks, tops, and then I would have quit.

TSS: Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš said in a recent interview with SPEX magazine that he could imagine a coalition between your SDKÚ party and Mečiar's HZDS after 2006 elections if that were the only way of preserving reforms. Has Mečiar really changed so much that you too would now consider working with him?

EK: (laughs) What a question. I think the name "Mečiar" is a priori regarded in a negative light abroad, whether in Europe or the United States. There are so many events connected to that name that cast Slovakia in a bad light - the kidnapping of the president's son, authoritarian rule, the stripping of an MP's mandate against his will. So as not to hurt Vlado, I dare say he has himself made certain progress since then. Maybe he's more realistic and has come to realize some things. But whether you like it or not, Mečiar is a symbol of bad things about Slovakia and I'm sure it would be very difficult to convince the international community that he was now good and pro-European. Were his name to be at the head of any government institution, it would complicate the good image that Slovakia has today.

TSS: Does that mean that you would reject a coalition with Mečiar and the HZDS after 2006?

EK: I don't know how it will be in 2006, but I could already today imagine a coalition between the SDKÚ and the HZDS without Mečiar. The HZDS has some capable people, in my opinion, some economic thinkers, even some centre-right thinkers, and I don't think it would be a problem to arrange [cooperation]. But the person of Vladimír Mečiar remains a memento of injustice.

However, in politics you can't rule anything out absolutely. We're debating now what is an academic matter, but in 2006 it will be a concrete situation and we will have to decide based on the possibilities and different variations, and in this sense I wouldn't rule anything out.

TSS: You said it would be a complicated thing to explain to the foreign community. It appears it would be complicated even within the SDKÚ.

EK: Yes, for our voters it would be equally complicated.

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