A Conversation with Ivan Korčok, Foreign Minister of Slovakia
ONLINE EVENT – Friday, December 11, 2020 | 10:00 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. EST | 4:00 p.m. – 4:45 p.m. CET
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Slovakia
President, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Senior Fellow and Director, Democracy Initiatives, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
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Ivan Korčok, recently the Slovak Ambassador to the U.S., has been appointed Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic in the cabinet of the new Slovak government led by Prime Minister Igor Matovič. The February 29 parliamentary elections saw the rise of Matovič’s OLaNO party, which was able to form a new governing coalition with three other parties. In the course of selecting positions in the cabinet, the SAS party headed by Richard Sulík, chose Amb. Korčok as Foreign Minister, even though he is not a member of SAS. He will serve as an independent member of the cabinet. As the new Slovak government was forming in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Minister Korčok had to quarantine for two weeks in Bratislava before he could begin his appointment. Korčok’s selection as Foreign Minister was hailed by many in Slovakia, the EU, and the West generally, as he represents a strong pro-EU, pro-NATO and Trans-Atlantic perspective, which is consistent with the manifesto of the new governing coalition.
Minister Korčok has had a highly distinguished diplomatic career. Prior to serving as Slovak Ambassador in Washington since 2018, his positions included serving from August 2015 as State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. He served as the Government Plenipotentiary for the Slovak Presidency in the Council of the EU between May and December 2016 and represented the Council as Minister Délégué before the European Parliament. He also served in Brussels between 2009-2015 as Permanent Representative of the Slovak Republic to the EU, and as Slovak Ambassador to Germany from 2005-2009. Minister Korčok began his career in 1992 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he held a number of senior positions, including Director of the Department for Policy Planning and Analysis (1997-1998), Director General for International Organizations and Security Policy (2001-2002), and State Secretary (2002-2005). In 2003, he served as the Head of Delegation of the Slovak Republic on Accession Talks to NATO and Member of the European Convention in Brussels.
During his relatively brief tenure in Washington, Amb. Korčok was a dynamic leader on many levels. He not only represented Slovakia to the U.S. Government and the Congress, but was active with the broader foreign policy community, the Slovak American and émigré communities, and in organizing important cultural programs, such as the memorable “Slovaks at Carnegie Hall” concert event in New York City in January. Friends of Slovakia extends its congratulations and sincere best wishes to Minister Korčok as he continues his service and mission advancing the interests of Slovakia and Slovaks to the world community.
The results of the recent Slovak parliamentary election and the prospects for Igor Matovic’s new government were examined in an April 28 webinar co-sponsored by FOS and the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), “Slovakia: New Government, New Challenges.” The panel was moderated by Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow with GMF, and hosted by Scott Thayer, Chairman of FOS.
Dr. Kevin Deegan-Krause of Wayne State University in Detroit, one of the foremost observers of Slovak politics, opened the webinar with an analysis putting the February 29 election results in the context of previous elections in independent Slovakia. The results pose challenges in assessing the direction of Slovak politics going forward, as it is not easy to characterize the new governing coalition on any kind of traditional left-right political spectrum. Matovič’s party had previously been in parliament as more of a collection of independent individuals who did not typically operate as an ideologically clear, unified party, as is indicated by its name: OLANO – Ordinary People and Independent Personalities. OLANO has three other coalition partners: Sme Rodina (We Are Family) is a socially conservative and euro-skeptic party; SAS (Freedom & Solidarity) is an economically liberal (i.e. free market) party; and Za Ľudí (For the People), is a moderately conservative party.
The election also saw the outgoing ruling party, Smer or Nový Smer (New Direction), come in second at 18% – a large drop in support – and the extreme right/populist Kotlebists – People’s Party Our Slovakia garner 8%, for the second election in a row.
Deegan-Krause noted the continuing Slovak trend of the proliferation of small parties, as well as the decline of most traditional parties, most of which were left out of parliament. Over one-third of the popular vote went to parties that did not enter parliament. This had the effect of increasing the power, in terms of the percentage of seats garnered, of those parties entering parliament: the governing coalition has a constitutional majority with 95 seats. He also noted that of the parties in the new coalition, none have been in existence for more than 10 years, and each has had only one leader/founder during their existence.
Dr. Grigorij Mesežnikov, President, Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava, noted the dramatic changes in the political landscape. Prime Minister Matovič is now the surprising dominant force in Slovak politics, but likely not (yet) as dominant as was Fico and his previous ruling party, Smer. While the Hungarian parties, Christian Democrats, and others have failed to enter parliament, the ‘neo-fascist’ Kotleba party has effectively consolidated a substantial position in parliament during the past two elections. He noted that Matovič’s OLANO was dominant across almost all demographic and social groups, and it appears that the major factor was the Slovak public’s desire to fight corruption, with 70% of the electorate saying this was an important factor in their vote. Mesežnikov noted that the four-party coalition will have challenges due to various ideological orientations, but it appears that the coalition supports democratic values, a market economy, and importantly, are clearly pro-EU and pro-NATO.
Mesežnikov also discussed the Slovak response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Slovakia was among the most pro-active countries in Europe in responding with measures to limit the disease’s spread, and as a result has had a low number of cases and deaths. The election and turnover in government occurred in the midst of the pandemic; both the outgoing and incoming parties worked well together in handling the transition and managing the pandemic, thus earning favorable poll numbers. Curiously however, Mesežnikov noted, that once the Matovič government was fully in charge, their poll numbers for managing the pandemic inexplicably dropped. He further noted that the new government should be more solidly pro-EU on some issues, in contrast with the sometimes ambivalent responses of the prior Slovak government, as well as those of regional V-4 partners Hungary and Poland.
Martina Hrvolova, Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia, Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) focused on aspects of the economy and the economic response to the coronavirus. She stated that the new government must be focused on corruption, particularly given the current crisis situation. The private sector will play an important role in generating economic recovery, but this may be affected somewhat by the deterioration of the Slovak business environment, as reflected in ratings since 2018 comparing Slovakia with the EU and the world generally. The new government seems to be aware of this problem, as it has appointed several prominent independent economists to an advisory committee to help foster recovery. It will also be important for the new government to address the ‘digital transformation’ of both the business and government sectors with investments in infrastructure, but also with a key focus on issues of data privacy. Ms. Hrvolova commented that during the response to the coronavirus, the Slovak population showed a much more favorable response to the help provided by China, compared with the response of the EU and others. However, this view seems to be reversing somewhat, as the EU response on both health and economic assistance is improving.
Pavol Demeš, Senior Non-Resident Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States, commented on both domestic and foreign policy issues in Slovakia. He noted that in 2019, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution was commemorated. Since 2019, Slovakia elected its first female president and now has elected Igor Matovič and a new coalition government. He feels the motivating factor behind these political events was the February 2018 murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, which served as an ‘awakening point’ for the Slovak population. It was as if Slovakia acknowledged that in the 30 years since the revolution, it had evolved against many of the goals expressed in that Velvet Revolution. Anti-corruption was the driving force behind the past two elections that installed new, younger, leadership. Yet, Matovič is relatively inexperienced and will have to put in place an effective government and communicate effectively.
Demeš noted that the new government draft manifesto, representing the views of the four parties, totaled 121 pages and appeared to be a patchwork of contributions from the four coalition partners rather than an integrated whole. Yet, given its anti-corruption and open-government orientation, its strong pro-EU stance, and its emphasis on the U.S. as a strategic transatlantic partner (the first time such a reference has appeared in a government manifesto), the new government shows hopeful signs. Demeš spoke favorably about a number of appointments to the cabinet. But the new government will face challenges in establishing itself in the context of pandemic response and economic disruptions.
November 2019 marked the 30th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent events that brought freedom from communist domination to many countries of the former “Soviet-bloc.” In Czechoslovakia, public demonstrations, spearheaded by student movements, sparked the relatively peaceful downfall of the communist government and began the country’s “return to the West,” in what came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. A number of events took place in Washington D.C. in the fall to commemorate and assess the significance of the Velvet Revolution.
Since 2001, Friends of Slovakia (FOS) has co-sponsored the prestigious Annual Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Each year, the Lecture alternates between a Czech and a Slovak speaker chosen by the co-sponsors, the Czech Embassy, the Slovak Embassy, the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR), FOS, and the Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program. This year’s Freedom Lecture on November 13 commemorated the Velvet Revolution with a special double-lecture event featuring both a Czech and a Slovak lecturer. The Czech speaker was Šimon Pánek a key leader in the 1989 student movement, who subsequently went on to found an important NGO, People in Need. The Slovak speaker was Katarína Cséfalvayová, the Chairwoman of Foreign Relations Committee of the Slovak National Council (parliament).
Ms. Cséfalvayová, who was a young child in 1989, provided a perspective as an important legislator who is in a position to look back and assess the legacy of the Velvet Revolution in the context of current challenges to democracy in Slovakia and Central and East Europe generally. Mr. Pánek then provided a first-hand perspective as a key leader in the overthrow of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. He discussed the historical events of the period and assessed the accomplishments of the Velvet Revolution and challenges democracies have subsequently faced.
The speakers were introduced with remarks by Slovak Ambassador to the U.S., Ivan Korčok, and Czech Ambassador to the U.S., Hynek Kmoníček. After the Lecture, AFoCR President Tom Dine presented the speakers with certificates of appreciation and FOS Chairman Scott Thayer presented the speakers with the FOS Medal commemorating Milan Rastislav Štefánik and the friendship of the Czech and Slovak nations.
Those interested in a contemporary perspective on Slovakia and events in Central and Eastern Europe would do well to view Ms. Cséfalvayová‘s lecture. The Wilson Center has posted a video of the full lecture event at:
In addition, you can download the full text of Ms. Katarína Cséfalvayová’s lecture.
More 30th Anniversary Events in Washington
The week prior to the Freedom Lecture saw additional events in Washington commemorating the legacy of the Velvet Revolution. Members of the Friends of Slovakia Board of Directors attended and participated in these events.
Forum at Georgetown University
On Tuesday, November 12, a forum was held at Georgetown University, Velvet @ 30: A Legacy to Uphold. The forum was co-sponsored by the Czech and Slovak Embassies in collaboration with the Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. The event featured welcoming remarks by Joel Hellman, Dean of the Walsh School, as well as Slovak Ambassador Korčok and Czech Ambassador Kmoníček. Then, a discussion was held between former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the U.S., Martin Palouš. They discussed their experiences of the events of 1989 and provided perspective on the significance of the events.
The first panel then discussed “How the Velvet Revolution Changed Our World.” Simon Pánek, student leader during the Velvet Revolution, Martin Bútora former Slovak Ambassador to the U.S., and co-founder of the Slovak-based civic movement Public Against Violence, and Angela Stent, Georgetown Professor of Government and Foreign Service, discussed the 1989 period and its implications. Gregory Feifer, Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs in Washington moderated the discussion. The second panel , “Fight for Freedom Never Ends: Velvet Revolution’s Legacy for Today and Tomorrow,” sought to view current events in light of lessons learned and point a way forward given contemporary challenges to freedom and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The panel featured Katarína Cséfalvayová, Chairwoman of the Slovak Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Václav Bartuška, a former Velvet Revolution student leader and current Czech Ambassador for Energy Security and Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The panel was moderated by František Šebej, former Chairman of the Slovak Parliament Foreign Relations Committee.
A summary of the forum can be found at the Czech Embassy website here:
Roundtable Reviews Attitudes about the Velvet Revolution
The day prior, Monday, Nov 11, FOS Board members and others in the Washington foreign policy and Slovak-interest communities participated in a roundtable featuring former Slovak Ambassador Martin Bútora and his spouse, sociologist Dr. Zora Bútorová. The ambassadorial couple served in Washington from 1999-2003 and had a significant impact on Slovak- U.S. relations, as well as opening Slovakia’s new embassy building in Washington in 2001. Dr. Bútorová presented results from her recent survey research on attitudes of the Slovak and Czech populations about the Velvet Revolution and related issues. The research was conducted under the auspices of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) a think-tank founded by the Bútoras and others. The survey results were part of a study produced by IVO, 30 years after the Velvet Revolution: Profits and Losses in the Eyes of the Public, which is available on the IVO website at:
Panel Exhibit at GWU
On October 22, the Slovak Embassy in cooperation with the Elliott School of International Affairs of the George Washington University opened a panel exhibit commemorating the 30th anniversary of Velvet Revolution, We Want Freedom: An Exhibit on the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The event was held at the Elliott School in downtown Washington. The exhibit displayed a series of panels depicting the events of the Velvet Revolution with a special focus on events in Slovakia. It is hoped that students at the Elliott School as well as the GWU student community and the general public will learn about the events of 1989 in Czechoslovakia and their significance. Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák opened the exhibit and was joined by the Slovak Ambassador Korčok, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Ambassador Phillip Reeker, along with representatives of the Elliott School and Slovakia’s National Memory Institute in providing remarks about the events of 1989.
It’s fair to say that the attendees of these events gained a greater understanding of the events of 30 years ago. They also came away with a deeper perspective on the importance of maintaining and renewing the legacy of freedom and democracy in Slovakia and Central and Eastern Europe generally.
On September 23, 2019 the Center for European Policy Analysis held its annual ‘CEPA Forum’ in Washington DC entitled, Transatlantic Anniversaries: Legacies and Unfinished Business. FOS, as it has for several years, served as a co-sponsor of this prestigious event, which represents the major U.S. policy forum focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. Among the speakers were František Ružička, Slovakia’s State Secretary of Foreign and European Affairs., who participated in the Forum’s first panel discussing the Unfinished Business of 1989: Empowering the Transatlantic Relationship.
Several FOS Board members attended and participated in the conference, which was held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The day’s events included an evening ‘donors’ dinner’ at which Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) was honored for her support of transatlantic relations and the Central and Eastern Europe region in particular. FOS Chairman Scott Thayer and Vice Chairman Ken Bombara represented FOS at the dinner.
You can view videos of the CEPA Forum on the CEPA website at https://www.cepaforum.org/
Also on the CEPA website is a recap of the ‘CEPA Salon’ that was held at the Slovak Embassy on June 28. The Salon discussed the recent EU Parliamentary elections. See https://www.cepa.org/the-message-from-central-europe .
At a conference held on July 17 and 18th in Washington, the Atlantic Council, a major U.S.-based foreign policy think tank, and GLOBSEC, a Bratislava-based security and foreign policy think tank, announced a collaboration to address current issues focusing on the central European region. At the two-day conference entitled, The United States and Central Europe: Celebrating Europe Whole and Free, Building the Next Century Together, an impressive group of foreign policy officials, and analysts from academia and the think tank community reviewed historical developments in Central Europe, particularly since the events of 1989, analyzed recent events and trends, and looked ahead to future policy of Western allies.
Representing the two organizations were, Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council, and Amb. Rastislav Kacer, Chairman of GLOBESEC, and former Slovak ambassador to the U.S. They introduced the conference and announced the release of a joint study entitled The United States and Central Europe: Tasks for a Second Century Together. They also announced that one of the authors of the report, Amb. Daniel Fried already a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council responsible for overseeing its work on Central Europe and other areas, was to be designated as the new Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow. This new position was created with support provided by Amb. Ronald Weiser, who served previously as U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia from 2001 to 2004. The involvement of GLOBESEC and Amb. Kacer, and the support of Amb. Weiser, highlighted the relevance and importance of a Slovak-related perspective in analysis of current foreign policy issues in Central Europe and the West generally.
A Slovak perspective was further in evidence at the conference as three key Slovak figures participated and made significant contributions. Current Slovak ambassador to the U.S., Ivan Korcok participated in the panel that presented the joint report noted above. Pavol Demes, Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund, participated in the panel, Identity, Values and Democracy: What Does the West Stand For? Finally, Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajcak followed a panel of the foreign ministers of Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic with inspiring closing remarks that brought the themes of the conference together and pointed a way forward for transatlantic relations.
Friends of Slovakia were well represented among the attendees at the conference, by Chairman Scott Thayer, Vice Chairman Ken Bombara, and Board members Martina Hrvolova, Richard Marko and Jan Surotchak. We highly recommend viewing a detailed summary and videos of the conference that are available on the Atlantic Council website at: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-united-states-and-central-europe-what-s-gone-right-what-s-gone-wrong-and-what-s-next
(Photos courtesy of P. Demes and R. Marko)
On July 11, 2019 members of the Friends of Slovakia (FOS) Executive Committee met with Ambassador Brink at the State Department in Washington DC to get acquainted and discuss her plans for the new post. The White House announced in March 2019 that President Trump had nominated Bridget Brink, a career foreign service diplomat, to serve as the next ambassador to Slovakia. Confirmed by the Senate on May 23 by voice vote, she will replace Adam Sterling, another career diplomat, who has served in Bratislava since 2016.
Brink is a highly distinguished diplomat who has represented the U.S. in a number of countries, including Georgia, Uzbekistan, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. She also had an important policymaking role in Washington DC serving as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Ambassador Brink is originally from Michigan and holds two masters’ degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
At her nomination hearing on May 16 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she outlined her priorities as the future ambassador to Slovakia. First, she would reinforce the U.S. defense partnership with Slovakia. As a member of NATO, Slovakia contributes to NATO missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Latvia, has been upgrading its NATO-interoperable equipment, including its recent purchase of 14 U.S.-made F-16s, and is on track to meet it 2-percent of GDP defense spending commitment. She would also encourage increased energy security for Slovakia and its region. Second, Brink would promote increased trade and investment opportunities, including opportunities for U.S. firms to export to and invest in Slovakia, and also for Slovak firms to invest in the U.S. Third, she would prioritize our shared values, including strengthening democratic institutions and rule of law as well as greater accountability and transparency in government.
The hearing was chaired by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and other senators who participated in the hearing were Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Tom Udall (D-NM). Brink’s full statement and a video of the hearing are available on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee website: https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/nominations-051619
This year, 2019, represents the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the most important figures in the history of Slovakia, Milan Rastislav Stefanik. On May 4, the anniversary was commemorated with a talk by researcher Kevin J. McNamara of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who discussed “Six Events that Made Milan Stefanik a Founding Father of Czecho-Slovakia.” Friends of Slovakia co-sponsored the talk, which was organized by the Slovak American Society of Washington DC (SASW) under the direction of Helen Fedor. It was held at the Arlington Central Library in Virginia.
McNamara’s talk was derived in part from the research for his book, The Dreams of a Great Small Nation, which described the role the Czecho- Slovak Legion played in the events of WWI and the subsequent creation of an independent Czecho-Slovakia out of the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire. The material McNamara compiled on Stefanik was largely edited out of the published book, but he thought that Stefanik’s role was so important that it deserves greater exposure, particularly as published research on Stefanik, in the English language, is rather limited. McNamara detailed six events involving Stefanik that he thought were important to the founding of Czecho-Slovakia.
Briefly, the events McNamara detailed were: 1) The fact that one of Europe’s best known Slovaks joined the Czecho-Slovak independence movement provided it with credibility since its leader Tomas G. Masaryk was half-Slovak and hailed from Prague, and his other chief aide, Edvard Benes, was Bohemian; 2) Stefanik arranged for Masaryk to meet with French Premier Aristide Briand, who subsequently issued a public expression of sympathy for the Czecho-Slovak cause; 3) Stefanik convinced Russia to support the cause by allowing Czech and Slovak veterans of the Austro-Hungarian Army, who were held in Russia as POWs, to join the Allied cause by fighting for France on the Western Front. After the Czar was overthrown, these troops became the Czecho-Slovak Legion; 4) Stefanik traveled to the U.S. to garner Slovak-American support and convinced former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt to support the Czecho-Slovak independence movement; 5) Stefanik represented Czechs and Slovaks at the Congress of Oppressed Minorities in Rome and garnered further support, particularly from Italy and France, for the independence movement. Subsequently U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing made a statement of sympathy for the Czecho-Slovak cause; 6) After Czecho-Slovak independence was declared on October 28, 1918, in Prague, Stefanik, although ill, traveled to Siberia to raise the morale of the Czecho-Slovak Legionnaires and facilitate their departure from Russia.
Once the Czecho-Slovak state was established, Stefanik was made Minister of War, but subsequently became caught-up in its internal politics and saw his role diminished. Venturing home by way of Italy after the war, Stefanik planned to return to Bratislava first. He arranged to fly an Italian airplane but as he approached the Bratislava airport on May 4, 1919, his plane crashed, and he was killed, along with two Italian passengers. He was age 39. McNamara noted that had Stefanik lived, the course of Czecho-Slovakia, and the role of Slovaks in the new nation, would likely have followed a different path. On the 100th anniversary of his death, Stefanik is still much beloved and venerated by the Slovak nation.
For more information about these historic figures and dramatic events, visit www.kevinjmcnamara.com
Friends of Slovakia is sad to learn of the passing of former Amb. Branislav Lichardus, on Feb. 8 at the age of 88. Dr. Lichardus, a noted medical doctor and researcher, became the first Slovak ambassador to the U.S. following Slovakia’s independence in 1993. He served successfully in Washington from 1994-1998, a particularly challenging time for U.S – Slovak relations. Upon returning to Slovakia, he subsequently served as Rector of Vysoká škola manažmentu (VSM), a private university affiliated with City University of Seattle, with locations in Bratislava and Trenčín. Dr. Lichardus also served on the Board of Advisors of Friends of Slovakia. We extend our condolences to his spouse, Dr. Eva Kellerová, and the family. Funeral services were held on Friday, Feb. 15 in Bratislava.