Diplomats under the magnifying glass

DIPLOMATS rarely make it into the media spotlight, unless they represent countries of key interest - or until they are involved in a public scandal.

DIPLOMATS rarely make it into the media spotlight, unless they represent countries of key interest - or until they are involved in a public scandal.

For example, the media virtually ignored the former Greek ambassador to Slovakia until he was temporarily withdrawn after being arrested in Greece for carrying illegal weapon. Understandably, Greece does not relish this kind of attention.

The fact is, when a diplomatic mission functions well, when ambassadors are highly professional and proceed in line with national policy, they are not exciting material for the national dailies.

The corollary is that when a diplomat does wrong, more harm comes to his homeland than is perhaps warranted.

Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan, during a recent meeting with ambassadors representing Slovakia abroad, criticized their performance and said that in future he might be even more demanding.

"None of you were sent abroad to solve personal, family or social problems. Even though I have an understanding for these things, I will be much tougher from now on," said Kukan, as quoted by the daily SME. The daily however, noted that Kukan was not aware that his message would reach the ears of the media.

Unofficial sources suggested that some of the ambassadors, most of them nominated by Kukan himself, had requested that their postings be extended so that their children could finish school in their country of service.

Kukan also reportedly criticized the diplomats for not developing effective contacts in their host countries.

Foreign policy experts agree that the diplomatic role has changed over the past decade. These days it seems to be more about establishing contacts and seeking ways of promoting one's country than ironing out misunderstandings and preventing, or perhaps creating, international conflicts.

A perfect knowledge of diplomatic protocol is no longer enough.

Some critics have even suggested that diplomatic missions sometimes operate as glorified news agencies, simply translating stories in the national media of a given country and sending the information home.

The diplomats who attended the meeting with Kukan agreed that their role should not be to compete with the media, but rather select information that has analytical value to the homeland, information, which would otherwise escape the attention of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

However, to be able to choose information of real interest to the homeland and analyze its content effectively, to orient oneself in the web of contacts that ambassadors make, takes experience and a professional team backing an ambassador up.

This is how some political nominees survive. They rely on a team of professionals. But when there are not any, when in fact all the key posts at an embassy are filled by political appointees, or by people getting a post to a "small" country as some sort of reward, then serious problems can arise.

Certainly, political ambassadorial nominees are not a new thing and most importantly not a specifically Slovak thing. Slovakia has seen several political nominees serving at the foreign embassies. After all, a diplomat's performance, not how he/she got the job, is really what matters to Slovakia. A skilled businessman can inspire business links and help cooperation between the countries. Having said that, a host country is not likely to turn a blind eye to ignorance of diplomatic protocol or historical and political connections.

Again, a political nominee could perform pretty well if he/she is backed up by a strong team of professionals who can prevent all those small faux pas that, in the case of a diplomat, the media examines with microscopic attention.

In 2004, however, Kukan excluded the possibility of political nominations to diplomatic posts. Still, on occasions the media's interest is kindled around rumours of possible political diplomatic nominations.

Perhaps the most typical and at the same time most entertaining example of a political nominee was Zdenka Kramplová, who served as foreign minister in Vladimír Mečiar's cabinet, and who gained an ambassadorial post in Canada at a time when Mečiar was singing his political swan-song and was rewarding those who had stayed loyal.

Kramplová will forever be remembered for refusing to return to Slovakia after being recalled by the new government, inspiring speculation that she would seek political asylum in Canada.

The Toronto daily The National Post published a feature story in 1998 about the ex-ambassador, who "at first claimed the letter removing her from her position was not properly drafted. Then she complained that her school-age children would be disrupted if they had to return to Slovakia in mid-term."

During the wave of Mečiar generosity, the former editor of a pro-HZDS newspaper and several other HZDS buddies were nominated to very short-lived ambassadorial posts. Some of them did not even have the time to leave Slovakia before they were recalled.

That Slovakia no longer "entertains" the foreign press with such stories is certainly a sign of progress. But that is not enough to successfully promote the country abroad.

There are foreign embassies in Slovakia that have been more visible in organizing cultural and business venues than many local organizations. Maybe some Slovak embassies should learn from some of their foreign colleagues.

By Beata Balogová

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