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The important role of activism – and women

THEODORE Sedgwick believes that encouraging women to develop entrepreneurial pursuits, and giving them the opportunity to do so, would lift the economy of any country. “If you tap this untapped resource, it would be incredibly valuable for the economy of Slovakia,” adds Sedgwick, the US Ambassador to Slovakia who, along with encouraging women’s entrepreneurship, has been preoccupied with explaining different aspects of the presidential elections in his homeland for the Slovak audience, which, he says displays considerable interest in the American presidential race. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Sedgwick about the presidential campaign in the United States, the state of the judiciary in Slovakia and its impact on the business environment, as well as his ambassadorial passion for Slovakia.

Theodore Sedgwick(Source: Courtesy to theUSEmbassy)

THEODORE Sedgwick believes that encouraging women to develop entrepreneurial pursuits, and giving them the opportunity to do so, would lift the economy of any country. “If you tap this untapped resource, it would be incredibly valuable for the economy of Slovakia,” adds Sedgwick, the US Ambassador to Slovakia who, along with encouraging women’s entrepreneurship, has been preoccupied with explaining different aspects of the presidential elections in his homeland for the Slovak audience, which, he says displays considerable interest in the American presidential race. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Sedgwick about the presidential campaign in the United States, the state of the judiciary in Slovakia and its impact on the business environment, as well as his ambassadorial passion for Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Will the results of the US presidential election affect relations between Slovakia and the United States and if so, how?
Theodore Sedgwick (TS):
I don’t think they will affect the relations between the countries very much because we’ve been enjoying good relations with Slovakia ever since Slovakia’s independence and there have been Republican White Houses and Democratic White Houses and there have been centre-left governments and centre-right governments in Slovakia. All through the different governments, particularly since 2004, when Slovakia became a partner of ours in NATO and joined the European Union, I would say the relationship has deepened over the years and I expect [it] will continue to deepen, no matter who wins the election. We just have more areas of common interest: the economy, security, counter-terrorism; all the issues that we’re going to work together on.

TSS: What have been the key issues that dominated the election campaign and the presidential debates in the US and which of these issues are likely to impact the results?
I think the issue that’s going to decide in many countries the future political representation, particularly now in the economic crisis, is the economy. It’s basically the voter sitting down and thinking: “which of these candidates is going to do a better job of making sure that my family and my children are better off in the future”. This is not an easy thing for any candidate to explain because sometimes the candidate has limited tools available to fix the economy. They do have a certain amount of sway over which direction the economy, up to a point, goes, but not as much as the voter might think.

TSS: You already had a chance to observe some of the political campaigning in Slovakia. What are the differences between the American campaign discourse and election discourse in Slovakia?
One big difference I notice is that our election campaign process takes a long time, two years at least. Sometimes literally people are running for president for four years. Here, in this country, it’s very quick, just as in any typical parliamentary system: people get out, they vote. You don’t have as many public debates as we do [in the US] and the campaigning is different. But some of the issues are very similar. “This is what I’m going to do; this is my position on the eurozone, or this is my position on how I would handle fiscal austerity and social benefits, this is how I would handle national security” – these are the same kinds of debates that we have on roughly similar issues. In Slovakia I think most people are interested in perhaps stability and more pocketbook kinds of issues.

TSS: Are Slovaks generally interested in the course of the US elections?
Yes, I find that many people are interested in it here in Slovakia. But it’s interesting to observe that the Slovak-American population could play a role in this election because there are hundreds of thousands of Slovaks who live in Pennsylvania or Ohio, in my hometown in Cleveland. It could be that the way they vote in the Pittsburgh area and in the Cleveland area could have an effect on the election. Also we have so many close relationships with Slovakia, economic, diplomatic, military and social so I’m not surprised that Slovaks are interested. It’s a healthy thing. In the United States, most people realise that they do have a role in their society. In Slovakia sometimes you get the sense that people do not feel they have as much of a voice and this is natural from such a young country. But I think it’s important that people in Slovakia realise that they really can have an effect and their activism in political and social issues is important.

TSS: You have said that among your top priorities here in Slovakia is to encourage women’s entrepreneurship and elevate the status of women in society. Why have you made this issue your priority?
If countries around the world, including our own, the United States, enjoy a greater degree of entrepreneurship that will create greater prosperity. Yet, greater prosperity will lead to greater tolerance, partnership and greater security. If we can promote women’s entrepreneurship, we’re really achieving both these goals at the same time. In Slovakia entrepreneurship among women is of a pretty low level compared to Europe, at around 28-29 percent. On the other hand, I was really impressed with how many women entrepreneurs have been successful, either because they’re naturally entrepreneurial or they found themselves thrust into this world because their husbands had died and they took over a company and it turned out that they were extremely gifted. If you tap this untapped resource, it would be incredibly valuable for the economy of Slovakia. If women generally were allowed and given encouragement to develop entrepreneurial pursuits, it would lift the economy of any country that focuses on it.

It also is true about the United States. We don’t have enough women in positions of authority among CEOs for example. I’m very proud to be working for Secretary Clinton, who is one of the most respected, admired women in the world. In fact, Slovakia achieved a woman political leader before the United States even though it is only 20 years old. With respect to a Women’s Entrepreneurship Forum that we organised this year, we have come up with some tangible follow-up: whereby successful women entrepreneurs will mentor aspiring women entrepreneurs, and a lot of this networking actually took place in the forum and we’re going to make sure that this networking continues.

TSS: The US Department of State has been monitoring trends in trafficking in persons worldwide. Based on its latest report released in September, Slovakia has achieved a Tier 1 ranking for the second time in a row. What are the challenges for Slovakia and why is the issue of human trafficking of such key importance for the United States?
Human trafficking is a despicable activity and we want to work with our partners around the world to eradicate it. Slovakia should be very proud that it is in the first tier ranking. I remember, last year, when Slovakia went from tier 2 to tier 1, I asked “how many countries achieved this?” and learned that there were only three in the world, including Slovakia. Among the things that Slovakia has done very well is to focus on the training and this is where we, in the United States, need to do a better job: training judges, training all the people who are involved in the process. Another area that Slovakia excels in is the care of the victims. An area of challenge for Slovakia is the Roma women who are naturally often victimised because they’re often not well educated and so predators come and exploit them for sex or, for the Roma community generally, for work. But I’m very impressed with the efforts, the focus that Slovakia is bringing to bear.

TSS: The judiciary remains one of the key areas of interest of US diplomacy here in Slovakia. Your embassy has organised several debates over the issue and brought in professionals from the area of US judiciary to share their experiences. What is the reason behind this interest and what, in your opinion, are the main challenges the judiciary faces here?
We’re very concerned generally about the state of the judiciary because we think that a healthy judiciary which has integrity is one of the pillars of any democracy. I think that most Slovaks would agree: around 30 percent of Slovaks have confidence in their judiciary. Obviously that means that there’s a real deficit in trust in the integrity of the judiciary and you can argue about what the reasons for that are but it’s clearly something that the country needs to come to grips with. It’s another reason that the United States is interested.

We have 130 American companies who are here. The American Chamber of Commerce did a survey of small and medium-sized enterprises and 10 percent of those had confidence in the judiciary. That’s an unacceptable number, and so if Slovakia is interested in attracting foreign direct investment it needs to correct this area and install confidence in the judiciary.
Frankly, when companies come to my office to ask my opinion and I have to be objective and represent the United States point of view I tell them “this is a great country, I encourage you to talk to U. S. Steel and the other companies who are here, the workers are terrific, the wages are competitive, the labour code is reasonably flexible and you can readily find workers and there are many advantages of being here”. But I always tell them that, based on what I discuss with other American companies, that they don’t have the confidence that there is a sound judicial system.

I happen to have a copy of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report index here and this is something that Slovakia really needs to pay attention to because the index has been going in the wrong direction for several years and most recently Slovakia is well behind the other V4 countries. In the efficiency of its legal framework in settling disputes Slovakia ended 140th among 144 countries, while in the category of favouritism in the decisions of government officials the country was ranked 138th, and in public trust in politicians 136th out of 144 countries.

Certainly, it is a moral issue, but it’s also an economic issue for Slovakia, which has been very successful in attracting foreign direct investment. But we’ve seen some firms leaving recently. If Slovakia is interested in re-starting the engine then, it is going to have to address this problem.

TSS: Has the way US investors view Slovakia’s business environment changed over the years? What are the competitive advantages that in your opinion Slovakia has managed to keep and what are the areas that are in need of improvement?
I think that Slovakia has a lot of advantages. If you look at the hi-tech arena here, it seems that the graduates from the technical universities all get jobs and they are well-trained from the perspective of the employers. American companies such as U. S. Steel, Johnson Controls and Honeywell, they’re all very pleased with the quality of the workers they’re finding. There’s a readily available pool of labour and strong work ethics. These are great advantages, particularly if you go to eastern Slovakia, you can open up a factory and very easily find the right workers.

Slovakia is a very attractive country to live in with a lot of cultural and historic assets, often overlooked in Europe. A lot of people just pass through to the Czech Republic or Hungary, but when you come here and see it, it’s really a good story. I think that the good news is that most of the American companies that are here, for the most part, they’re not leaving.

TSS: Which areas of Slovakia’s economy have the most potential for further US investments or business cooperation?
In terms of our investments through the United States’ perspective, there’s obviously steel. Slovakia has three very large auto-plants and all the ancillary suppliers around, so obviously there are opportunities and Honeywell has seen this with their turbo-charger plant. We have a lot of American companies that supply seats and different types of technology in auto-manufacturing. There are opportunities in the area of call-centres, household appliances, food and beverage, financial services, pharmaceuticals as well as energy technologies and medical equipment.

I also think there are real opportunities in tourism. It’s a shame to see these boatloads of people coming down on these huge tourist cruisers, and they dump all the tourists out and then they wander around town for a few hours and then go back on the boat. If it were properly presented, there should be a programme for them to stay for longer than a couple of hours. Tourism is a great source of business because it’s clean and it cycles a lot of euros through the economy.

TSS: Earlier this year the US Army accepted a delivery of a Slovak-manufactured simulator that will be used to train Afghan crews to operate military cargo planes. What is the significance of this deal?
The Virtual Reality Media is a great example of a Slovak-American partnership; and they basically make these simulators for helicopters and for aircraft. They’ve started successfully with some contracts in Iraq and they’ve expanded to secure contracts in Afghanistan. It is a very good product and I think there are opportunities for this kind of simulator training all over the world. It is a great story, because it is the United States and Slovakia working together to provide jobs and security around the world.

TSS: Žilina was inspired by New York and the city wants to create community gardens at the Hliny housing estate. How do you perceive this initiative and what is in your opinion its significance?
It’s interesting to think about the background of community gardens and how they arose in the United States: there are the so-called victory gardens that people developed in World War II and that was basically out of necessity, to provide food and produce for families and I think we’re coming back to that in the United States because there’s a movement back to the land, back to natural and bio-products, so I think there’s a return to these community gardens. I think that this is good for any society. Frankly, I find that in the United States or anywhere in the world, when people move to a community, they’re often lonely and something like a garden that can bring them together is very positive.

TSS: Has being an ambassador to Slovakia changed your perception of the country? Which of your assumptions about Slovakia changed after spending more time here?
I think that I’d read about how beautiful the country was but until you go and travel and see the Tatras personally, you don’t realise how magnificent this asset is. I also have been surprised, as I travel around Slovakia, at the richness of the history and the architecture and the culture. I’ve been here for two years and travelled extensively and it’s a small country but there are still many parts that I’m dying to go and visit that I have not visited before, for example the Gothic route from Levoča. The other thing I did not adequately appreciate was how sports crazy Slovaks were, just like we are in the United States.

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Topic: Foreigners in Slovakia

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