Diplomat with Slovak roots returns with more than ideas

HE CAME to serve his mission in Slovakia bearing a gift: an original copy of the Pittsburgh Agreement, which paved the way for Czech and Slovak independence 90 years ago. He also initiated an effort to preserve wooden Greek-Catholic churches in eastern Slovakia. He is U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Vincent Obsitnik.

Vincent Obsitnik Vincent Obsitnik (Source: ČTK)

HE CAME to serve his mission in Slovakia bearing a gift: an original copy of the Pittsburgh Agreement, which paved the way for Czech and Slovak independence 90 years ago. He also initiated an effort to preserve wooden Greek-Catholic churches in eastern Slovakia. He is U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Vincent Obsitnik.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Obsitnik, who has Slovak roots, about how Slovakia can keep its business environment attractive to foreign investors, help integrate the long-term unemployed into the labour market, social responsibility and the country’s prospects for visa-free travel to the United States.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Experts from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year shared their experiences with employers and labour office representatives from Eastern Slovakia, the part of the country that struggles most with long-term unemployment. What are the experiences from the United States that Slovakia can use as an example of integrating the socially vulnerable into the labour market?

Vincent Obsitnik (VO): We experienced the long-term unemployment problem ourselves 50-60 years ago. This is why we brought along the experts to speak at a seminar we had in Prešov (eastern Slovakia). The long-term unemployed often fall into the category of people who think that they are not educated enough, do not have enough experience or do not understand what it is to be in the work force. What our government did was pass laws on equal opportunity.

If a company was receiving a state contract, it had to make an effort to hire minorities who were often in that long-term unemployed category. The programme also provided equal opportunities to people in education by seeking out minority applicants.

The programme was also extended to equal housing. After 50 years of these experiences, we have had some fairly good results in the United States and we are seeing a big representation of minorities in our work force at all levels today, from blue collar workers to white collar jobs, and maybe even to the presidency.

Affirmative action, as it is known, called on people to stop debating excuses and see what is out there and what can be done. I talked in Slovakia about the possibility of having something similar here, which is certainly up to the government to do, but it is something they could consider. The long-term unemployment problem is not going to be solved this year: it will take a fair amount of time and a lot of patience from companies. But if everybody started and they were out there to hire somebody, we would see results over time.

TSS: Labour market watchers have been talking about an urgent need to build more bridges between academia and business and attune the country’s education system to the needs of business.

VO: Talking to universities and companies, I observed some positive developments here and we do see businesses and universities talking to each other. In fact, when I was visiting Johnson Controls in Trenčín, there was a meeting with representatives from the Technical University of Košice, who were exchanging ideas on what the market place needs. Universities also need to prepare for the next generation of industries, for example biotechnology and IT, as well.

As we are talking now, William J. Valdez from the U.S. Department of Energy is visiting Slovakia at the invitation of Slovak Education Minister Ján Mikolaj to discuss the best methods of teaching science and investing in research. Valdez is here to discuss how we in the U.S. stimulate scientific research and what the government can do in this area.

However, students also need to be interested in going into science and engineering.

Perhaps Slovakia needs to have some sort of programme where we can get young people more excited about engineering jobs and help them realise that the future lies in engineering.

TSS: Slovakia has been seeking ways to remain attractive for foreign investors. Countries further east are already offering even cheaper labour and more tax incentives. How can Slovakia, in your opinion, keep its business environment attractive?

VO: True, labour costs further east might be lower, but when investors look for an environment to invest in, they do not look only at the labour costs, but also the risk for their investment.

They look at the business environment, legislation, taxes, as well as the quality of people and their language abilities. Slovakia will not start losing investors simply because of lower labour costs in the east. Besides, the eastern part of Slovakia, for example, still has lower labour costs than Western Europe, which has not run out of business yet.

As the country develops, we have to look not just for labour-intensive work, but something that is more in line with the knowledge-based society or more in the higher added value area: engineering, design and technology, for example.

Some of this is already happening in Bratislava. For example, major IT companies such as IBM, HP, DELL, and Microsoft already have hundreds of employees who are providing back office support for their companies; in many cases on a worldwide basis. We have about 1,000 young people there communicating around the world helping companies to function.

TSS: Earlier this year you hinted at the possibility of a second wave of U.S. investors coming to Slovakia and you said that the U.S. embassy has been presenting eastern Slovakia as a potential investment destination. What are the advantages of the eastern part of the country?

VO: The investors are still coming. In the eastern part of the country, the unemployment rate is over 10 percent.

Eastern Slovakia has good technical universities - the industrial parks in Kechnec are very successful - and it has the incentives that western Slovakia no longer has, so the potential to attract investors is there.

I do not see another automotive plant coming here. You have three major plants now and in any country you do not want to be too dependent on the automotive industry. Other areas interesting for investors are information technology.

Also, the government promised a cross-country highway by 2010, which I hope they will be able to do. But what also would be needed for Slovakia is a major highway connection running from Poland down through eastern Slovakia to Hungary, connecting the countries on the eastern side. It would facilitate trade and have tremendous potential.

TSS: In March, you told the public service Slovak Radio that the U.S. might lift visas for Slovakia by the end of this year. Is this statement still valid and what is the course for achieving that goal?

VO: Everything that needed to be done has been done now. We now will sit back and wait. We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding and now we just need to see what the final visa rejection rate will be at the end of September. American law says that if the rejection rate is over 10 percent, the country does not qualify for a visa waiver. I am hopeful that we will be under 10 percent and we will see the programme announced.

TSS: Does Slovakia’s participation in the Schengen system boost its chances for visa-free entry? Is there any connection between the two?

VO: There is some indirect connection. The fact that Slovakia has entered the Schengen zone means that the country put in place the right security measures on the border with Ukraine and the eastern border with the EU.

We have excellent relations with the Ministry of Interior. One of the tasks of preparing for a visa waiver is to make sure we are sharing information and try to understand who may be a terrorist. It is all a question of security.

TSS: The U.S. plans to build a missile defence system in Europe, which has been a source of heated discussions all over Europe. Slovak state officials differ in their approach toward it. Are these issues strictly between the U.S. and the Czech Republic and Poland, or should other European countries get involved in the discussion as well?

VO: These are bilateral agreements between the Czech Republic and Poland, but on the other hand there have been a lot of discussions already with European nations about the plans and they have been involved. NATO’s Bucharest Declaration came out as supporting the anti-ballistic missile system.

NATO is now looking into integrating the system into its medium-range ballistic missile defence system so that in the future we might have a sort of integrated missile system. But the benefit to Europe, and Slovakia in particular, is avoiding a ballistic missile falling on these countries.

It provides a completely positive form of security for Europe and these nations need to think ahead. If we predict something is going to be a threat in five or 10 years, we have to start doing something about it now. Europe is getting an excellent defence system for not much investment.

TSS: You have listed support for corporate social responsibility as one of the areas you would like to focus on during your ambassadorship. In Slovakia, this is still an area which has not been fully explored. What should companies’ priorities be?

VO: Social responsibility comes in two segments. The first is to run your business properly and ethically and hopefully make a profit. It means that your business is free of corruption and illegal activities.

The second aspect is what your company can do for society in general because if society isn’t healthy, neither is the market for products.

The U.S. has a great tradition of companies giving to charity and society. Tremendous amounts of money are being donated. Companies in Slovakia have also been doing that, but the question remains whether they could do even more.

TSS: Slovakia will soon adopt the euro. What kind of impact will the new currency have on business ties with the United States?

VO:I see only positive impacts. The euro is going to represent a lot of stability and predictability and those are all positive aspects for investors. Some companies have already switched to the euro for international transactions.

TSS: The original copy of the Pittsburgh Agreement, which paved the way for the founding of the Czechoslovak state, has been returned to Slovakia. How did you come up with the idea of bringing it back?

VO: After I was sworn in as ambassador at the Department of State, I took a trip to visit Slovak-American organisations in the US and one of those was in Pittsburgh.

They gave me a copy of the Pittsburgh Agreement and when I looked at the date, which said 1918, I realised that 2008 was going to be its 90th anniversary. So I thought, “We need to bring this to Slovakia.”

This is how the process of bringing it back started. It shows the amount of support that the United States gave to the Czechs and Slovaks early on to help them emerge from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and form their own country.

The document says Slovakia will have its own administration, its own parliament and its own court and this is what you have today. The document also says that “slovenčina” will be the official language in schools and offices and this is what you have today, though of course there is a Hungarian minority that uses its language for their activities.

It was the initial support by Czechoslovak Americans together with Tomáš Masaryk and others laying out certain principles stating that the Czechs and Slovaks should have their self-determination.

TSS: You have family roots in Slovakia. How did you maintain a connection with the country?

VO: From 1938 until 1970, the connection was not that intense. Nevertheless, we grew up speaking Slovak at home and maintaining Slovak customs for Easter and Christmas.

I listened at nights to old folks talking about what life was like in the villages and also listening to their folk songs, which I remember to this day. Those were the kind of connections. I came here for the first time in 1970 and after 1980 I came back almost every year.

TSS: Are Slovak communities in the U.S. still strongly connected to Slovakia? How has the relationship between Slovak immigrants and their children to Slovakia evolved over the past decade?

VO: The dynamic is changing and this development is natural. Associations and fraternal organisations in the U.S. have shown great interest in Slovak culture and in maintaining their contacts with Slovakia.

But as happens with many ethnic groups who came to the U.S., while they all initially lived in the same area, in our case it was the Pittsburgh area, Cleveland and New York, they started moving around as the next generation grew up.

Now we do not have as big a concentration of Slovak Americans as we had years ago and it has changed the dynamic.

TSS: You took the initiative to help preserve wooden Greek-Catholic churches in the Prešov Region. How did you develop that idea?

VO: I was appointed by the president in 2001 to the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad, which was established to communicate with countries in Central Europe and be concerned with the heritage here that needs protection, particularly because of the influence of Communism and, to a large degree, the fate of the Jewish culture. I looked at the country and liked the wooden churches and understood that they needed help. And so we went to work, found the money.

TSS: How have Slovaks responded to you and the fact that you have Slovak roots?

VO: Everyone has been very friendly and there is no question that people think it is special that I have Slovak roots. That does not happen very often.

TSS: You were among the first people to apply for the 85th International Peace Marathon in Košice. What was your motivation?

VO: A marathon is just a great thing to do. I have been a casual runner most of my life. But then in 1995 I heard a report from the New York Marathon that the oldest man to finish it was 82.

I said to myself, “82? That’s older than I am. If he can do it, so can I.” I read up on marathons and started training and the next year I ran in one.

Since then, I’ve run in six marathons and this will be my seventh. It’s a big commitment.

General facts

Political system: Federal republic

Capital: Washington, DC

Total area: 9,826,646 sq kilometres

Population: 303,824,646

It is the world's third-largest country by size (after Russia and Canada) and by population (after China and India).
Source: CIA Factbook

Top stories

News digest: Most positive cases last week were Delta, ministry redesigns measures

The third wave will concern the vaccinated more than it could have. Police Corps president in hot water over protests. Demänovská Jaskyňa Slobody cave was discovered 100 years ago on this day.

9 h
Police Corps President Peter Kovařík

People do not want to get used to what happened in Bratislava last week, says Šeliga

Police Corps President Peter Kovařík is losing the trust of the coalition partners.

16 h
The lottery, introduced by the Finance Ministry led by Igor Matovič, should motivate people to get vaccinated against Covid.

Registration for vaccination lottery is open

People will be able to win up to €100,000 in weekly drawings.

2. aug
The skyline of Bratislava

Bratislava struggles with non-development

Tibor Lörincz from Tatra Banka takes a closer look at the particular problem Bratislava is facing when it comes to real estate development.

15 h