FOS Ready to Launch Its Third Student Summit

This report was prepared by Dr. Elizabeth Guran, chair of the FOS Committee on Academic Exchanges.

The Friends of Slovakia (FOS) International Student Summits are off and running! Two successful virtual summits were held in 2021 and a third summit will occur in April 2022. All three events address the theme, “Challenges of Democracy.” The students, faculty, and expert guest speakers from past summits have all participated virtually due to covid-19 restrictions and will continue to do so for the third Student Summit. To promote a robust discussion while also respecting the privacy of the students, the summits have been closed to the public and no recordings have been made.

The International Student Summit idea was conceived by the FOS Committee on Academic Exchanges, chaired by Dr. Elizabeth Guran, to promote friendship and mutual understanding among university students in Slovakia and the United States and to enhance knowledge and interest in important global issues. Eventually FOS hopes the summits will lead to in-person conferences and international academic partnerships. The Academic Exchanges Committee, comprised of FOS board members Dr. Elizabeth Guran, Dr. Martina Hrvolova, Dr. Cecilia Rokusek, and Dr. Sharon Wolchik, direct and coordinate the student summits.

Partnering closely with FOS in this effort have been Kevin Deegan-Krause, associate professor of political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and a specialist on Central European politics; and Jozef Mintal, assistant professor of political science and international relations at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, an expert on international cyberpolitics.

The Threat of Misinformation and Disinformation

The first summit, moderated by Professor Deegan-Krause, was held on Saturday, April 10, 2021. It focused on the threat of misinformation and disinformation to democracy and featured two expert opening presentations. In the first, Katarína Klingová, senior research fellow in democracy and resilience at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, discussed social trends that enable the spread of misinformation and disinformation. These include the decline of trust in traditional news media and the growing consumption of news feeds on cell phones, especially by young people. According to some researchers, Slovakia is the most conspiracy-prone country in East-Central Europe, Ms. Klingová noted.

Katarína Klingová

Jozef Mintal, the second presenter, described how the Internet has increasingly become a source of hate speech and disinformation and explained how the largest social-media companies have attained such a global reach that they are beyond the control of individual countries. Today, one person’s “disinformation” may be another person’s “free speech.” He concluded by encouraging the students to think hard about various proposals to control disinformation, all of which have advantages and disadvantages.

Jozef Mintal

The rest of the summit was devoted to candid student-to-student discussions of these important issues, both in small virtual breakout sessions and then in plenary sessions where the main conclusions of the breakout sessions were presented and debated. Students recognized the complexity of controlling disinformation and misinformation. While most agreed that governments should restrict speech that is “harmful,” they had difficulty defining this harm. Many agreed that the solution was not banning speech but improving the quality of journalism, adding that education should help citizens become more sophisticated consumers of news.  Politicians should stop using platforms when they do not know how to behave, they also noted.

Political Party Systems and Democracy

The second FOS International Student Summit was held on Saturday, October 23, 2021, and focused on political party systems and democracy, with Professor Kevin Deegan-Krause taking the lead, and Sharon Wolchik, professor of political science and a Central European specialist from George Washington University, serving as moderator. 

Professor Deegan-Krause is coauthor, with Tim Haughton of the University of Birmingham (UK) of The New Party Challenge: Changing Cycles of Party Birth and Death in Central Europe and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2020). The book is a detailed study of electoral dynamics in the postcommunist democracies of the European Union. His presentation drew on this book and his broader research on political parties and politics in Slovakia, Central Europe, and elsewhere.  

Mr. Deegan-Krause distinguished between formal and informal institutions and compared governmental structures in Slovakia and the United States by looking at various types of accountability (vertical, horizontal, and diagonal) and identifying where there are weaknesses. He cited leaders in both countries who had defied democratic processes, such as Vladimir Mečiar and Donald Trump. He also discussed how Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, has systematically dismantled accountability in that country.

Kevin Deegan-Krause

The second student summit included two virtual breakout sessions in which students from Wayne State and Matej Bel Universities engaged in lively discussions about the issues raised by the faculty presenters. Professor Wolchik asked students to consider what can be done to keep civil organizations accountable. What can we do as individuals to sustain democracy and foster democratic values? Professor Mintal asked students to consider whether structural changes to our formal institutions are needed to respond to current threats to democracy.

Students responded that much rested on the development of a robust civil society that could resist antidemocratic challenges. They identified several possibilities for change, such as increasing people’s understanding of the voting process and increasing civic education beyond just rote learning to “active engagement.”  Students recognized that in many cases those in power do not want to make changes, and that it is hard to make institutional changes if there is a lack of “checks and balances,” as is the case in Slovakia, according to one student. But checks and balances need to be strengthened in the United States as well, others noted. Students discussed the nature of the threats to democracy, such as “antivaccine” propaganda and other types of misinformation and disinformation. Polarization remains a big problem for both Slovakia and the United States, according to the students.

FOS will hold it third student summit in April 2022. The planned topic is democracy and the rule of law but in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the organizers anticipate at least some of the discussion will focus on the war and its impact on democratic societies.

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Friends of Slovakia invites you to join a webinar entitled “Russia Invades Ukraine: Implications for Slovakia” on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. EST (16:00 to 18:00 CET).

As Ukraine suffers from an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces that will likely bring immense human suffering, the world’s democratic leaders are taking action to hold Russia accountable. Additionally, Slovakia and others are expressing solidarity with ordinary Ukrainians and providing them with necessary humanitarian assistance. Europe is on the brink of war, and the United States has strongly confirmed its Transatlantic commitments.

To help us understand these developments, a panel of leading experts will review the most important political, social, economic, and foreign-policy implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for Slovakia and beyond. Among the topics they will cover are public opinion in Slovakia. What do people think about NATO, Russia, and the United States in the context of Russian and other disinformation? The panel will also examine the impact of the invasion on the current governing coalition and response of its opposition on the domestic affairs and Slovakia’s international standing and relations; the potential for a refugee crisis in Slovakia, and what the future holds for Slovakia’s economy, among other issues. 

Opening remarks:

H.E. Radovan Javorčík, Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to the United States of America

Discussants: 

Oľga Gyárfášová, Associate Professor, Comenius University, and collaborator of the Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava 

Andrej Matišák, Deputy Chief of Foreign Desk and Reporter at Pravda daily newspaper, Slovakia 

Radovan Ďurana, Analyst, Iness, Slovakia

Welcoming Remarks: Kenneth J. Bombara, Chairman, Friends of Slovakia

Moderator: Thomas W. Skladony, Director, Friends of Slovakia

To attend the webinar, please tune in here:  https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/3219380363056674829

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FOS Statement on the Ukraine Crisis

Friends of Slovakia expresses its full support for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for the freedom and democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people. We strongly condemn Russia’s unjustified military invasion of Ukraine and support current and future actions by the United States, the European Union, and international institutions to hold Russia’s leadership accountable.

We stand with Ukraine!

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FOS Celebrates 20th Anniversary with Dinner at Slovak Embassy

Current and former directors of Friends of Slovakia, along with spouses and special guests, celebrated the 20th anniversary of FOS on November 17, 2021, at a dinner at the Slovak Embassy in Washington, D.C. hosted by Ambassador Radovan Javorčík.

Earlier in the day, Beata Balogová, editor-in-chief of the Slovak daily SME, delivered the 2021 Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture via live stream from Bratislava. After learning that Ms. Balogová would not be able to deliver her lecture in Washington, Ambassador Javorčík generously offered to host an event that would not only commemorate the anniversary but would feature a policy discussion of issues raised in the Freedom Lecture. In his welcome toast the Ambassador noted that while the dinner was taking place on the 32nd anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the work of democracy building continues in Slovakia and elsewhere in Central Europe. Each generation must work to protect and expand the precious gift of freedom, he said.

Ambassador Javorčík delivering welcome toast at FOS-Embassy dinner

Distinguished guests included senior representatives of the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, Congressional staff members, the Department of State desk officer for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, plus local arts leaders, business executives, and philanthropists. FOS special guests included founding directors Joseph T. Senko and Ambassador Theodore Russell, plus Andrew M. Rajec, president of the First Catholic Slovak Union, and his wife Idka.

FOS board members Cecilia Rokusek, Scott N. Thayer, Bibiana K. Popal, Lillian McEnany, Andrew P. Rajec, Joseph T. Senko, Sabina Sabados, Ambassador Radovan Javorčík, Martina Hrvolová, David P. Frankel, Kenneth J. Bombara, Roger Kodat, and Thomas W. Skladony

Martin Bútora, Slovak Ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2003 (and a driving force for the creation of FOS), sent a letter of congratulations that was read at the dinner by Thomas W. Skladony, a founding director of FOS. “In calling to mind these many accomplishments of the past 20 years, I do not mean to suggest that your work is done,” Ambassador Bútora wrote. “History moves on, so that even as some issues are resolved, new challenges arise… I am especially pleased to know that one of the signature projects of Friends of Slovakia today is your series of international student summits focusing on key challenges to democracy, such as disinformation, freedom of the press, and upholding the rule of law.” (The complete text of the Bútora letter is available here.)

In responding to Ambassador Javorčík’s welcoming toast, Kenneth J. Bombara, FOS vice chairman, congratulated Slovakia on its successes in becoming a key member of NATO, the European Union, and the Transaltlantic community, while establishing a strong bond with the United States. He emphasized that the strength of that bond is rooted in the support of the Slovak-American community as well as those individuals, professionals, and organizations that consider themselves to be “Friends of Slovakia.”

Kenneth J. Bombara delivers the FOS toast. At right is Martina Hrvolová.

Fergus Shiel, managing editor of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was the keynote speaker. He described the critical work performed by investigative journalists worldwide and the serious threats such journalists face, calling special attention to the 2018 murders of Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová.

Mr. Shiel praised the courageous response of Slovak journalists and civil society to these shocking crimes, which eventually led to resignation of prime minister Robert Fico and the trial and conviction of those responsible for the deaths of Kuciak and Kušnírová. David Frankel, a founding director of FOS, moderated the discussion and a lively Q&A session.

David Frankel (at right), founding director of FOS, introduces guest speaker Fergus Shiel.

“Friends of Slovakia is extremely grateful to Ambassador Javorčík for hosting us on this very special occasion,” said Vice Chairman Ken Bombara, “It truly was a pleasure for me and my fellow FOS dinner committee members Tom Skladony and Martina Hrvolová to work with the Ambassador and his dedicated staff to organize this dinner and discussion, and we look forward to future collaboration in 2022 and beyond.”

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Slovak Journalist Beata Balogová Delivers 2021 Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture

Beata Balogová, editor-in-chief of the Slovak daily newspaper SME, delivered the 2021 Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture on November 17, 2021. Her lecture, presented virtually from Bratislava due to covid-19 travel restrictions, was entitled “How Journalists Survived Backsliding and State Capture.” Her talk combined a history of threats to press freedoms during the Mečiar and Fico years in Slovakia, a personal account of her decision to become a journalist, and a warning that democratic institutions are again under attack in Central Europe.

Beata Balogová

The Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture is an annual lecture inaugurated in 2000. It is hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and cosponsored by the Embassy of the Slovak Republic, Embassy of the Czech Republic, Friends of Slovakia, and American Friends of the Czech Republic.

The complete text of Ms. Balogová’s lecture is available here.

A video recording of the event from the Woodrow Wilson Center is available here.

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FOS Celebrates Women’s Leadership in Slovak Foreign Policy Making

The 2019 election of Zuzana Čaputová as the first female president of the Slovak Republic brought increased visibility to the country, especially in the realm of foreign policy. While there is still room for greater participation, a growing number of women in Slovakia now occupy senior positions in influencing, planning, and conducting Slovakia’s foreign relations. In fact, earlier this year the Slovak foreign ministry held a week-long series of events recognizing and celebrating the contributions that women now make in diplomacy and international cooperation.

On May 7, 2021 Friends of Slovakia (FOS) convened a panel of three Slovak foreign-policy leaders to discuss their experiences and impact as policy makers and role models, and to share their perspectives on contemporary issues. Martina Hrvolová, director of Friends of Slovakia and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund, moderated the session, part of the FOS webinar series.

Lucia Kišš, then-director of the Slovak Agency for International Development Cooperation, became passionate about international development while living and studying abroad, but her passion brought her back home to Slovakia. Her work at the agency involved providing humanitarian and economic assistance in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East in ways that also advanced diversity and greater opportunities for women. (Since the webinar Ms. Kišš assumed a new position as director general of economic and development cooperation at the Slovak foreign ministry.)

Lucia Kišš

Jana Kobzová, foreign-policy advisor, Office of the President of the Slovak Republic, described how her interest in democracy building and foreign policy developed at a time when Slovakia was not making decisions for itself. She asserted that domestic challenges and foreign policy are interlinked, adding that President Čaputová has consistently pursued a foreign policy based on the values of democracy, rule of law, political pluralism, media freedom, and a market economy. It is important not to compromise on these values when dealing with partners that might not make or live up to similar commitments, Ms. Kobzová noted.

Jana Kobzová

Katarína Klingová, senior research fellow at GLOBSEC, a Bratislava-based think tank, presented a new study of gender equality and female participation in Central Europe (available here: https://www.globsec.org/publications/ceeher-report-absent-voices-missing-female-perspective-in-cee/).   Ms. Klingová encouraged the use of existing rosters and databases, such as a newly launched www.ceeher.org, to identify and empower female Central and East European experts in international relations, foreign and security policy, business, economics, technology, and sustainability. Particular attention should be paid to the role identity plays in society, Ms. Klingová said, as this constitutes a reference point for people to address issues that concern their development. The next step is to develop policy recommendations that reduce or eliminate inequalities and create a more inclusive environment in which female voices may be heard, she concluded.

Katarína Klingová

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FOS Board Members Participate in NCSML Anniversary Celebrations in Cedar Rapids

A delegation of Friends of Slovakia (FOS) board members led by chairman Scott N. Thayer travelled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to participate in events celebrating the 25th anniversary of the building dedication of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSML). In addition to Mr. Thayer the FOS visitors included Kenneth J. Bombara, vice chairman, and board members Martina Hrvolová, Peter Muzila, and Thomas W. Skladony.

Dr. Cecilia Rokusek, president and CEO of the NCSML, welcomed the Washington visitors, saying, “I am thrilled that so many of my fellow FOS board members are with us for this very special weekend, and I especially grateful that Ambassador Radovan Javorčík made time in his busy schedule to join us here in Cedar Rapids.”

The original dedication took place on October 21, 1995 with the participation of Bill Clinton, U.S. president; Václav Havel, president of the Czech Republic; and Michal Kováč, president of the Slovak Republic. That historic visit of three sitting presidents to Cedar Rapids drew an estimated outdoor crowd of 10,000, according to news accounts at the time.

FOS board members Thomas W. Skladony, Scott N. Thayer, Cecilia Rokusek, Martina Hrvolová, Kenneth J. Bombara, and Ambassador Radovan Javorčík at the NCSML gala dinner

The official program began on Friday night, September 17 with BrewNost, an outdoor food-and-drink festival featuring beer, wine, and spirits from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Germany, and England, as well as numerous offerings from the Iowa craft brewing community.

This outdoor light display reminded participants to toast each other in friendship (“Na zdravi” in Czech, “Na zdravie” in Slovak) before enjoying the many beverages on offer at BrewNost.

Events on Saturday, September 18 included the opening of an exhibition of Slovak and Moravian headdresses curated by Helene Cincebeaux, the screening of a film depicting one woman’s attempt to uncover her Slovak heritage and identity, a discussion of the current visual art scene in Slovakia, and the premiere of a piano work by young composer Jacob Berenek written especially for the NCSML. Dr. Rokusek and a large group of VIP guests also performed a ceremonial ribbon cutting to open a major new NCSML exhibition entitled “Treasures of Slovakia,” featuring priceless artifacts from the collections of the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava that had never before left the country.

Capping the busy day on Saturday was a well-attended gala dinner that included congratulatory video messages from Bill Clinton, former U.S. president; Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. secretary of state; Ivan Korčok, foreign minister of the Slovak Republic; Bořek Lizec, ambassador of the Czech Republic to Canada; Vít Koziak, ambassador of the Slovak Republic to Canada, among others. Delivering in-person remarks were Slovak Ambassador Radovan Javorčík, Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček, U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (Iowa), and local dignitaries.

Several of the Washington visitors also made a brief visit to nearby Iowa City, where they toured the campus of the University of Iowa and attended a tailgate party before the Big-10 Iowa-Kent State football matchup on September 18. “We have nothing like this at all in our colleges in Slovakia,” Martina Hrvolová told Bruce Teague, mayor of Iowa City, at the Grateful Garage Tailgate across the street from Iowa’s 69,250-seat Kinnick Stadium. “This is an absolutely amazing experience for a Slovak like me and I am so glad I got to see this!”

Bruce Teague, mayor of Iowa City (in yellow shirt), welcomed Katarina Skladony, Martina Hrvolová, and Thomas W. Skladony to a tailgate party before the Iowa-Kent State football game on September 18. At right is David McMahon, professor of history at Kirkwood College in Iowa.

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