“Our shared past is IMPORTANT for the future”
I’m part of the last generation to have experienced the Czechoslovak Republic (in its various forms). I look back with nostalgia at Monday evenings on television, which were reserved for Slovak productions. One reason I can understand Slovak is because of the Slovak kid’s cartoons, fairytale films and songs I saw. Under the previous regime, as a child from smog-filled Prague I spent school field trips in Slovakia’s High Tatra mountains. And some banned authors and progressive literature, including on new technology, were only published in Slovak under the previous regime. My husband was born in Bratislava. As well as some of my family, I also have many close friends in Slovakia. This means visiting Slovakia doesn’t mean going abroad for me. So it’s no surprise that I felt somewhat at home even in the rooms of the Residence and Embassy of the Slovak Republic in Prague.
H.E. Rastislav Káčer has had a highly successful career in both the public and the private sector. He has held the post of Ambassador in Hungary and the USA. As State Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, he was responsible for Slovakia joining NATO. He is Honorary Chairman of Slovak think-tank GLOBSEC.
The Ambassador and I discussed the transformation in Czech-Slovak relations, and also issues relating to security policy, co-operation at a non-governmental level and public diplomacy. I also gave him an extra copy of the Czech and Slovak Leaders magazine. It is our fervent wish that President of the Slovak Republic, Zuzana Čaputová, should feature on the next front cover of our magazine. And what is the Ambassador most looking forward to once pandemic restrictions end? To being able to meet up again, in particular through cultural events. And Czechs in Prague can look forward to a new base for the Slovak Cultural Centre.
Mr Ambassador: you began your role in autumn last year. You’ve said that you’re going to continue to endeavour to ensure that Czech-Slovak relations remain special. Could you have imagined that our special relations would suddenly be cut off?
I’ve been focused on security policy issues for almost 30 years. And from my own experience, I know that security policy experts are always somewhat paranoid and work with lots of worst-case scenarios of how things will develop. But it’s true that I hadn’t anticipated a crisis of such magnitude, considering the collapse of social contacts and the literal cutting off of personal contacts. I truly regret that. Before the pandemic, we really did hold regular meetings at governmental level. Prime Ministers, ministers, and also the highest representatives of the state, saw each other regularly. These meetings are no longer taking place. Meeting up in the virtual space simply cannot replace meeting up in person. And as diplomats, we sense it very strongly. I can’t predict to what extent the pandemic will impact, or even cool, our mutual relations. But it remains the case that when meeting in person, important emotions are engendered which are the basis for strong and long-term relationships.
I must admit I’m not even sure what Czech-Slovak relations are currently like.
That’s understandable. The pandemic dictates much of our agenda, but it is perceived as a matter of domestic policy. Countries are closing their borders and restricting travel even within their own territories, something we know from the ban on travelling outside one’s own district in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the ban on holiday travel abroad. The world is closing its doors to us. Personally, I think we sometimes go beyond the absolutely necessary measures. Foreign relations are no longer a visible priority. But let’s look at the problem from a different perspective to that of the pandemic. Relations within the European Union are very strong. Our leaders meet up in Brussels. Whether it involves meeting in person or online, there are important issues to resolve right now. So multilateral diplomacy is much more intensive than bilateral diplomacy.
And there’s also the regional dimension, the so-called Slavkov format, or S3 (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria), and its wider format also including Slovenia and Hungary. At this level, we’ve again been dealing with problems linked to the pandemic and travel to individual states.
Last summer demonstrated how much Czechs like Slovakia, and that they consider it a safe country. In terms of visitor numbers of Czechs, tourism in Slovakia achieved record figures. So when will we be able to see Slovakia again, whether this involves the Slovak mountains or our favourite spas? And I must admit that I’m probably most looking forward to halušky…
Yes, last season we experienced a real renaissance of tourism in Slovakia. I’m an optimist. From the example of the UK and Israel, we can see that vaccination is the solution. The immunity rate within the population is also increasing as the number of those who had had Covid-19 rises. I think that a combination of both these factors will allow us to return to some kind of normal state in the summer, although probably not the same as it was before the pandemic. And we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors from the Czech Republic! You know, that emotional bond between Czechs and Slovaks is still present. I often equate it to a good divorce: we’ve stayed friends, we see each other, we sometimes go out for lunch together, we talk and we support each other. And this special emotional bond is also reflected in international surveys: the Czechs are the Slovaks’ favourite nation, and vice-versa.
Considering the recent reshuffle in the post of prime minister and certain ministers in the Slovak cabinet, I don’t want to focus on the current political situation. I’ve chosen three areas in which Slovakia could serve as a model for the Czech Republic. Those areas are communication during the pandemic, the fight against disinformation and the fight against corruption.
I personally don’t like it when somebody is given to another as a model. Let’s instead talk about mutual inspiration. Slovakia has no ambition to be a model, but we do try to do things so they are of benefit to our citizens. And if we inspire others, or we find an intersection where we can co-operate, then all the better. Of those areas you mention, let’s begin with the last one: the fight against corruption. Slovakia has made huge progress here. Like everything, this too has its upsides and downsides. The bad news is that over the last year and a half, it’s been demonstrated that levels of corruption and crime within the government, the police, public prosecutors and the courts were enormous. The good news is that we are making efforts at cleaning it up, and through this Slovakia is well on the way to success.
Let’s move on to disinformation, then, which incidentally is a security policy issue very familiar to you.
In regard to communication, whether in terms of Covid or the fight against disinformation, here I think we’re in the same situation. Slovakia has unfortunately taken the Czech Republic’s place in the grim statistic of being number one in Covid deaths per million inhabitants. Communication is a complex matter. Czechs and Slovaks have certain rebellious inclinations in terms of not respecting regulations, and in downplaying the situation. I hope that both our countries will come out of the worst of it and pull through as the rate of vaccination grows. In regard to disinformation campaigns, we’re also in a similar situation. Both our countries are the target of various types of disinformation campaign: first of all, from the Russian intelligence services, and secondly from China. We are a much more frequent target than our neighbours in Poland and Hungary. And furthermore, each disinformation campaign is different. Slovakia follows this challenge very keenly, but I cannot say whether we’ve moved forward in the struggle. We really need to seriously address this issue. We are fragile. Some very fruitful co-operation is taking place in this regard outside the government. Many non-governmental organisations are focusing on the issue. This work involves traditional grass-roots organisation, meaning engagement from the bottom up. And I’m glad that in terms of the engagement of non-profit organisations fighting against disinformation, Czechs and Slovaks are amongst the most active in our region, with extensive co-operation bringing results. The activities of non-governmental organisations often substitute for activities which the state itself should be doing. On the other hand, this does give great credibility to these organisations and their activities. I’d also like to mention the positive role of the Police of the Slovak Republic, who are extremely active across social networks and are helping to expose various scare stories and disinformation campaigns, and working closely with the non-profit sector. I think this is an example of very effective co-operation. Within security policy and foreign policy generally, there is of course very close co-operation between non-profit organisations from both states.
You’ve said that countries should inspire each other, not compete or envy each other. But I really do envy you for your President. Slovakia is thriving within so-called public diplomacy. And I’d also mention another woman who is playing a huge role in Slovakia’s positive image, and that’s Petra Vlhová, fresh Crystal Globe winner.
I think it’s fine to envy us for our President (laughs). Within the traditional Central European political arena dominated by men, I consider her election as President to be somewhat of a small miracle. And she’s a fantastic President. She was underestimated as a candidate, but she demonstrated that she has massive talent, charisma, and an ability to formulate her own position without defining herself negatively against others and offending them. I’ve been in politics for over 30 years and I’ve met many male and female politicians. Our President is one of our rare political talents, and as an ambassador I’m very proud of that fact. The English word “asset” is apt here, and our President represents a great asset for Slovakia. Particularly now during this period of pandemic, President Čaputová has been shown to have the rare talent of being able to communicate in a statesmanlike, cool and calming manner, while also giving us hope.
Petra Vlhová is also a unique phenomenon. While we voted for our President, Petra Vlhová worked her way up by herself with just the support of her family, and little support from the state. And we can be all the prouder of her for that. Everything she has achieved in her career is the result of her own discipline, perseverance and support from those around her. She is not just exceptionally charming, kind and spontaneous, but she also has rare talent. I myself am a passionate skier, so I follow all her events and I root for her. Petra Vlhová is proud of her country, and she is a superb face of Slovakia. And she has demonstrated that she can shine on the world scene.
You know, in our part of the world, we often tend to complain that the West treats us as second-class citizens. Unfortunately, sometimes it is our people themselves who act like second-class citizens when they go out into the world. So we are partially to blame for that complex. But here too we have loads of incredible people who lead the world. Whether it’s in science, such as Pavol Českan, or in politics where our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivan Korčok, excels, or in other areas, such as art, we see loads of people who have made a name for themselves not just in Slovakia, but also abroad.
And what is your final message for Czech and Slovak Leaders readers?
Our nations lived together for 70 long years. Despite our divorce, we still have that emotional bond from our shared past and cohabitation. Let’s not lose it. We should do our utmost to ensure this positive emotional bond endures. The emotion and empathy it engenders are of huge value. It makes us better and stronger people. One of my challenges is to transfer this emotional bond to the next generations who have not experienced Czechoslovakia as a shared state. So that’s why I’m really looking forward to getting our cultural events back up and running again on the ground.
Mr Ambassador, thank you so much for the interview, and on behalf of the entire editorial staff, I send many greetings to Slovakia. We would love to conduct an interview with Madam President Zuzana Čaputová and with Petra Vlhová. And we look forward to the incredible stories of Slovak entrepreneurs and other fascinating figures.