SLOVAKIA: Strengthening ties with a friendly Washington
Slovakia was born only a decade ago, when Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two parts, the other state becoming the Czech Republic. With its capital Prague, the Czech side of the divided nation had a distinct advantage, inheriting all the institutions of national government. Slovakia had to build these from scratch. The new nation also had to establish a distinct identity for itself, with all the attributes of any modern state, including a democratic system of government and a civil society.
Thus, the main task of Bratislava's first envoy to Washington was to get his country on the map. Not a small endeavor, of course, but one made more difficult by a government back home that was widely criticized for undemocratic ways, making Slovakia for much of the 90s something of a European pariah. It was not invited to join Nato and the European Union when neighboring Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were, and only since 1998, with a new government in office, has Slovakia been able to join other Central European states in their rapid march to integration with the West.
Rastislav Kacer is Slovakia's third ambassador to Washington, and he says his task is different than that of his two predecessors. While the second envoy, who took over in 1999, had to work on changing the negative image of his homeland in Washington, Kacer's task is to consolidate and expand his country's "extremely good relations with the United States."
In some ways it is more difficult to get attention when you are a "normal partner of the United States," he points out. He is working to increase American investment in Slovakia and more cooperation in education and other fields.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the East Bloc economic system with the imploding of the Soviet Union, Slovakia found itself engaged in many industries that were no longer of use, mainly defense. Tens of thousands of workers were laid off as factories were shuttered.
At the same time, in the early 90s, political isolation meant that few international firms were willing to make major investments, meaning that job-creation was very slow and unemployment remained around 20 percent.
With a better political climate at the end of the decade, however, Slovakia after 1998 "changed dramatically," and began to attract major industrial projects, especially in the automobile industry. Volkswagen expanded its plant there (where the new Toureg SUV was developed and is 60 percent built today) and French carmaker Peugeot-Citroen is currently building a new plant. These and other major auto plants, together with related parts manufacturers, are turning Slovakia into one of the world's automobile-making powerhouses.
As a result, Slovakia's skilled and economical labor force is coming into its own, and unemployment has drifted downwards towards 15 percent today.
The main American investor is US Steel, which purchased a huge steel manufacturing plant in Kosice, Slovakia's second city. The plant by itself accounted for eight percent of Slovakia's GDP in the late 90s. The venture has proved very successful under American ownership, and in October 2003 it was awarded the prestigious Corporate Excellence prize by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
But Ambassador Kacer would like to see a broader range of U.S. investments, including in the tourism industry, which is largely undeveloped and undiscovered, despite Slovakia's wonderful Tatra mountain range and what the ambassador calls a "very European" destination. Part of the European scene is in Bratislava, the capital, where a large old town has been renovated and once dismal and dingy streets and squares are now crowded with picturesque cafes and restaurants.
And Slovakia has excellent wines, the ambassador says. He should know. Although possessing a PhD in chemical engineering, and having last had the position of state secretary of defense, he comes from a family of wine-makers.
His message to American businessmen is that Slovakia has an excellent, inexpensive workforce and a legal framework that invites investment. He says the government is very pro-business and flexible in its approach, being able to come up with creative solutions to encourage major investments.
Appointed to Washington in 2003, the ambassador loves the challenge of his job. "I am more than satisfied and flattered to have been appointed ambassador," he says, noting that the Washington slot is practically the same as a ministerial appointment in Slovakia.
And with a well-established democracy behind him, and a foreign policy that strongly backs the Bush administration in its war on terrorism, in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ambassador Kacer gets to enjoy the official smiles of his host city.
Biography of Rastislav Kacer
Prior to assuming the post as the Slovak Republic's ambassador in Washington in 2003, Ambassador Kacer served as the Slovak Republic's State Secretary (Deputy Minister) of Defense from 2001, preparing the country's successful bid for NATO accession.
Ambassador Kacer the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992. From 1994 to 1998 he served at the Slovak Mission to NATO in Brussels and between the years 1999 to 2001 he was as the ministry's Director General of the Division of International Organizations and Security Policy.