The Washington Diplomat / November 1999
By Larry Luxner
The day we showed up to interview Slovakia's ambassador to the United States, Martin Bútora, the diplomat was ecstatic. After several years of negotiations and arm-twisting, the European Commission in Brussels had -- that very same morning -- agreed to put Slovakia and five other countries on the fast-track for European Union membership.
That's a huge step for an economically struggling nation with a Communist past that came into existence only seven years ago.
"Unlike our bigger neighbors Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, we didn't become members of NATO or the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. So we have to catch up," says Bútora. "This is our government's biggest challenge."
Slovakia, with 5.4 million inhabitants, became an independent country on Jan. 1, 1993, at the same time as its larger and much more prosperous western neighbor, the Czech Republic. That completed the breakup of Czechoslovakia, a gradual process that began 10 years ago this month with the so-called "Velvet Revolution" of Nov. 17, 1989.
"The split of Czechoslovakia into two states was done in a peaceful way," says Bútora, who in 1989 helped create Public Against Violence, the leading Slovak movement against communism. "There were never any border disputes, it was just that the Slovaks wanted an equal partnership with the Czechs within the federal republic. They were not satisfied with the arrangement. It was inevitable to find a solution that would be acceptable to everyone."
The architect of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution -- the day tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Prague, demanding free elections -- was playwright Václav Havel. After becoming Czechoslovakia's first non-communist president in 41 years, Havel hired Bútora as his human-rights adviser, a job he held until Slovak independence in 1993.
"In Washington, it was worse for the Slovaks than for the Czechs," Bútora, 55, told The Washington Diplomat during a lengthy interview at his official residence in McLean, Va. "Our previous ambassador had to start from scratch, because it was decided that the former Czechoslovak Embassy would become the property of the Czech Republic. But Slovakia got the UN mission and the residence in New York."
Today, the two countries are completely separate from each other, with their own capital cities (Prague, Czech Republic, and Bratislava, Slovakia), currencies, customs services and post offices. Earlier this year, they even got their own international dialing codes: +420 for the Czech Republic and +421 for Slovakia.
"The inhabitants are gradually getting used to it," says Bútora, a sociologist who has written dozens of books and scholarly articles on post-communist transformation, foreign policy issues, civil society and anti-Semitism. "Eventually we will end up in a federation of Europe, which is good for us."
Not all has been smooth sailing, though, particularly when it comes to relations between Slovakia and the United States.
"In the beginning, when the two independent states were created, there was some embarrassment as to how the two would live together, yet from the very start, the United States was very supportive of Slovakia," he said. "The year 1994 -- the 50th anniversary of the Allies' entrance into World War II -- was the peak of U.S.-Slovak relations. Then came a more complicated period during which the U.S. and the European Union criticized Slovakia over a lack of democracy."
"Under the previous government of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, who was in charge from 1994 to 1998, the opposition didn't have a voice," said Butora, explaining that the authoritarian Meciar and Slovakia's symbolic president at the time, Michael Kovác, were at odds over just about everything. "In 1995, the president's son was kidnapped and taken to Austria, and it was suspected that the Slovak secret police were involved. This was enough to omit Slovakia from the first group of countries negotiating to join NATO."
In September 1998, the opposition -- led by President Rudolf Schuster and Prime Minister Mikulás Dzurinda -- won national elections, and Bútora was appointed Slovakia's envoy to the United States.
As ambassador here, Bútora has reached out to the approximately two million Americans of Slovak origin, who live throughout the United States but are especially numerous in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Members of Bútora's own family left their homeland in 1919 -- the year after Czechoslovakia was formed -- and settled in Chicago. There are also substantial Slovak minorities in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Canada, Romania, Australia, Israel and Argentina.
"A big part of my job is lobbying the United States for support," says Bútora, though because of his country's budget deficit, he's not been able to hire any lobbying firm in Washington to represent Slovakia.
With the recent upswing in bilateral relations, however, he may not need to. In August, when Bútora presented his credentials at the White House, President Clinton assured him that "your government has acted quickly to erase any doubts about Slovakia's democratic orientation and commitment to the highest standards of human rights."
In September, Prime Minister Dzurinda was warmly received by Clinton and top State Department officials in New York. Last month, Bútora accompanied First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to Slovakia, and on Nov. 17, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- herself of Czech origin -- will head a U.S. delegation to Prague and Bratislava to mark the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
Meanwhile, the United States is the third largest investor in Slovakia (after Germany and Austria), with Motorola, Coca-Cola, Whirlpool, Citibank and U.S. Steel among the major American companies that have established factories there. Total U.S. investment in Slovakia exceeds $300 million, while the country's GDP stands at $16.5 billion, 85% of which is produced by the private sector. Per-capita income is $3,100 per-capita -- low by Western European standards but considerably higher than any of the former Soviet republics.
While Slovakia has made progress -- 43% of its people now use credit cards and 23% have computers -- the country still dreams of being accepted into the European mainstream, looking west to Germany and Austria for inspiration rather than east to Ukraine and Russia.
"It takes less time to drive from Bratislava to Vienna than from my home in McLean to my office on Wisconsin Avenue during a traffic jam," says Bútora, stressing how crucial it is that Slovakia have warm relations with all its neighbors.
"It is in our interest to have a prosperous and democratic Russia. At the same time, from the very beginning, our priority was to become a member of the Western alliance," he says. "The best embodiment of this is a bridge now being constructed over the Danube River between the Slovak town of Sturovo and the Hungarian city of Esztergom. When the prime ministers of the two countries met at the bridge, they were cheered and greeted by people on both sides. For us, this has symbolic meaning -- a bridge to the 21st century."
Bútora is also involved in building bridges between Slovakia's Catholic majority and the country's 3,000 or so Jews, the remnants of a much larger community that was largely wiped out by the Nazis during World War II. Before his current appointment, the academic spent several months collecting and recording videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors in collaboration with the American Jewish Committee. He was also active in efforts to restore the Bratislava gravesite of Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, also known as the Chatam Sofer -- considered the greatest Jewish scholar of the 19th century.
"So much has been neglected," he said. "It was a taboo under the communists, even in many Jewish families, to claim a Jewish identity. After all these horrible events, they didn't want to discuss it with their children. We did quite a lot of research on anti-Semitism in Slovakia. While it's not a conspicuous problem today, it's an important subject for us because we have a substantial percentage of minorities [mainly Hungarians and Romanis]. The challenge for Slovakia is to perceive its minorities an an enrichment and not as an obstacle."
Another one of Bútora's priorities is construction of a new embassy to replace the office building where the Slovak Embassy is currently housed. The new building, designed by Slovak architects and estimated to cost between $4 million and $6 million, will rise on International Drive, near the Austrian and Israeli embassies.
"Our goal is to have it ready by January 2001, and we're thinking of making a great party, and inviting inhabitants from 1,000 different areas of the world," says Bútora.
Asked if people ever confuse Slovakia with Slovenia, Bútora answered sadly in the affirmative. "It is sometimes the case in America," he said, "because Americans aren't the most geographically educated people in the world. Many people think we're part of the former Yugoslavia."