On June 29, US President Bill Clinton announced that Karl Spielvogel, a first-time ambassador and a leading American business executive, would replace Johnson as US ambassador. Although he was scheduled to arrive in Slovakia on August 26, political wrangling in Washington has prevented Spielvogel's departure and has cast doubt on whether he will arrive at all.
Both US and Slovak government officials say that the absence of an ambassador should not affect diplomatic relations between the two countries, nor should it create any problems for US businessmen in Slovakia. It could, however, restrict the economic development of Slovakia, an area that Spielvogel was expected to influence.
"Economic development is the key right now for Slovakia," said US Congressman John Mica, a Republican from Florida who has Slovak roots. "In that respect, the most damaging aspect [of not having a US ambassador] could be economic growth, because we want to foster Slovakia's economic ambitions."
Why the delay?
Spielvogel's appointment was blocked on August 4 by Charles Grassley, the Republican Senator from Iowa, who was protesting the firing of Linda Shenwick, a UN employee accused of giving away secret information when she complained to Congress about UN waste and mismanagement.
The senate then went on holiday until September, further delaying the confirmation process. The would-be US ambassadors to Switzerland and the Philippines were also held up by the protest veto.
Grassley said he did not have any personal objections to Spielvogel or the other candidates. He told the Washington Post that citizens should feel they have the right to point out UN abuses to the US government.
Spielvogel, who hails from New York, has an impressive business resumé. From 1994 to 1997, he served as chairman and CEO of the United Auto Group, the second-largest car retailer in the US. He has also served as chief executive officer to various major multinational marketing and advertising companies.
His economic background was seen as a good match for Slovakia as the county tries to reform its economy along western lines. Vladimír Bilčík, an analyst at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association's research centre in Bratislava, said that ambassadors like Spielvogel could make a real difference in the development of a country.
"It's not necessarily only a symbolic position," he said. "Look at [former US ambassador] Ralph Johnson. He made a speech in Prešov which was highly critical of Mečiar, and it was very influential both in Slovakia and abroad. It was a clear attempt to push for political change. Johnson was influential politically, and Spielvogel could have a big impact economically."
Bilčík added that not having an ambassador was "unfortunate" in non-economic areas as well. "It's unfortunate, because changes have taken place in Slovakia, and the government has said it wants to join western groups such as the EU and NATO. The US is a key partner in NATO, so having an ambassador would help send out a positive signal for Slovakia."
When contacted by The Slovak Spectator in Washington on October 27, a state department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that it was difficult to predict when the issue would be resolved in the senate.
"The senate controls its own agenda," he said. "But we hope they will vote [on the ambassador's approval] soon."
But analysts such as Bilčík said that the US presidential elections next year could complicate the issue. If a Republican wins the elections, all politically-appointed Democratic ambassadors will be recalled. Spielvogel, who contributed $126,000 to Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign, falls into this group.
Even if a Democrat wins, Spielvogel's position is not assured. Custom dictates that after a presidential election, all ambassadors submit resignations, although they are not all replaced.
The longer the issue remains unresolved, the shorter the new ambassador's term is likely to be, which leads Bilčík to believe that the senate will probably put the issue off until after the elections.
The vote is scheduled for November, 2000, with inauguration to take place in January, 2001.
"It's highly unlikely that a new ambassador will be approved before the US presidential elections," Bilcek said.
However, the US State Department official said that "it's too speculative to connect the elections with the ambassador situation." Mica, for his part, said he hoped the senate would move quickly to resolve the matter.
"I am appealing to the senators to resolve the situation sooner rather than later," Mica said.
Meanwhile in Bratislava, Doug Hengel, the US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, is now the top-ranking US official in Slovakia. According to public affairs officer Richard Lankford, embassy business is being conducted as usual.
"It's not an uncommon occurrence for an ambassador to leave the country at times or for gaps between tenures to occur," Lankford explained. "Although an ambasador adds dimensions that everyone thinks are good, we have mechanisms designed to deal with the absence."
The US Embassy's Lankford also said that the lack of an ambassador should not be taken as a slight against Slovakia. "If the senate has reasons for delaying or rejecting proposals, they do it," he said. "But this delay is not about Slovakia or Spielvogel, it's not a reflection on either of them."
Bilčík agreed, but added that the lack of an ambassador was making the US government look bad. "This has nothing to do with US-Slovak relations," he said. "But it is embarrassing because in a way it is an example of silly domestic US politics."
Mica said that no one in the US government felt any sense of embarrassment. Lankford agreed, saying that the inability of the US to approve the new ambassador was not an extraordinary situation.
"There are other countries that have their ambassador to Slovakia sitting in Prague," he said. He also disagreed that the image of the US in Slovakia was being hurt. "A lot of Slovaks understand how the US system works," he said.
1. Nov 1999 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri