“Memberships in the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and other international organisations… served as an antechamber for our subsequent accession to the EU and NATO (both in 2004), which can be considered the most important achievement of Slovak diplomacy of the past 30 years. In 2009, our EU integration was successfully completed with the adoption of the euro.”
GDL: What are Slovakia’s foreign policy objectives?
MH: Let me begin by saying that this year we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Independence of the Slovak Republic, thus the 30th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with other countries, including Greece. We are an old nation, but a young country, whose memberships in international organisations and alliances, mainly the EU and NATO, frame our basic geopolitical orientation and constitute pillars of our stability, prosperity and security.
The priority of the Slovak Republic’s foreign policy is to further develop and deepen relations with countries that share similar values, priorities and interests in Europe and worldwide. We want to be perceived by the international community as a reliable, trusted and predictable European and transatlantic ally with a transparent foreign policy.
Slovak foreign policy starts in its immediate neighbourhood, therefore traditionally we put a great emphasis on good neighbourhood relations. Our current main strategic priority is, of course, Ukraine. Helping Ukraine against Russian aggression, by providing political, humanitarian, financial and military assistance, is a vindication of our basic values and interests.
The Czech Republic is our closest ally due to several historical, geographical and cultural reasons. Poland is a strategic partner of Slovakia in Central Europe with strong mutual relations in every field. Austria is, among other things, one of Slovakia’s most important trade and investment partners. Our bilateral relationship with Hungary is based on mutual respect and cooperation.
An important additional element of neighbouring relations is regional cooperation out of which I would highlight two formats, the Visegrad Group and the Slavkov cooperation.
The Western Balkans, its EU integration efforts and prosperous development is among the top foreign policy priorities of my country. Slovakia is a strong supporter of the EU enlargement process and we are convinced that the space of stability and security should also be extended in the future to Ukraine and Moldova. At the same time, Slovak foreign policy has an ambition to strengthen its presence in Africa and the Middle East, focusing mainly on, but not limited to, trade and commercial.
Last but not least, support for effective multilateralism with the central role of the UN and enforcement of International Law is one of the long-term priorities of the Slovak foreign policy. We promote enforcement of the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in the world, with the emphasis placed on supporting media freedom and security of journalists.
“The Western Balkans, its EU integration efforts and prosperous development is among the top foreign policy priorities of my country. Slovakia is a strong supporter of the EU enlargement process and we are convinced that the space of stability and security should also be extended in the future to Ukraine and Moldova. At the same time, Slovak foreign policy has an ambition to strengthen its presence in Africa and the Middle East, focusing mainly on, but not limited to, trade and commerce…”
“Ukraine’s top officials, professionals and the general public expressed their gratitude and appreciation that Slovakia was able to set the tone for Western allies on issues of vital importance to Ukraine.”
GDL: What has Slovak diplomacy achieved so far?
MH: The geopolitical anchoring of Slovakia in the international arena and particularly in the European and Euro-Atlantic integration structures was of vital interest to a new state that was born in 1993 as a result of the peaceful split of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. Our memberships in the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and other international organisations were fundamental prerequisites for the country’s equal and full-fledged status as a part of the international community and a subject of International Law. Simultaneously, we can say that these memberships served as an antechamber for our subsequent accession to the EU and NATO (both in 2004), which can be considered the most important achievement of the Slovak diplomacy of the past 30 years. In 2009, our EU integration was successfully completed with the adoption of the euro.
Allow me to mention some successes at the UN level. During our short history, Slovakia has already chaired the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the UN Economic and Social Council and the International Court of Justice. We were also a member of the UN Human Rights Council twice. Our commitment to international stability and peace is reflected in participation in several UN peacekeeping missions, one of them being of specific importance for the stability in the Mediterranean region.
For more than 20 years, Slovakia has been sending its troops to UNFICYP, with the current number of our soldiers and police force at 249. I am proud that in 2018 the Slovak Contingent took command of the entire Sector 4. Besides that, our Embassy in Nicosia has long been a provider of good services for bi-communal dialogue between political representatives of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. They meet regularly in the buffer zone under Slovakia’s auspices for more than 30 years.
In the second half of 2016, Slovakia held, for the first time, the Presidency of the Council of the EU. In my opinion, this activity has definitively confirmed that our country is capable of handling, both at the managerial and diplomatic levels, even the most demanding tasks of this institution. After all, the results of our Presidency included, inter alia, managing the immediate aftershocks that reverberated through the Union after the Brexit referendum.
Coming back to the Western Balkan region where Slovakia has been politically present for a long time, our diplomats have considerably contributed to the consolidation of the post-war situation, as well as democratisation and rapprochement of these countries with Euro-Atlantic structures. Let me draw your attention to some key figures known for their mediation efforts in the post-conflict crises. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Kukan, who unfortunately passed away last year, was appointed in 1999 as the UN Special Envoy for the Balkans. During his subsequent ten-year tenure as an MEP, he had been chairing the European Parliament’s delegations for relations with almost all Western Balkan countries. Another skilful diplomat, Miroslav Lajčák, served as the EU Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (2007-2009) and during his tenure the country signed the landmark Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU. Mr. Lajčák also negotiated and supervised the referendum on the independence of Montenegro in 2006 on behalf of the EU. He currently occupies the position of the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and Western Balkans. I am convinced that owing to his rich experience and knowledge, these two Western Balkan countries will soon be able to normalise their relations in order to become members of the EU family in the future.
As I have already pointed out, Slovakia is a big partisan of the pro-European path of all the Western Balkan region. As a part of our diplomacy, through the development cooperation programme, we share our unique knowledge and experience, gained from our own societal transformation and EU integration process, with our partners in the region. One of the examples is the project of National Convention on the EU that was or is still being implemented in several Western Balkans countries.
A word on Ukraine – Slovak diplomats played an important role in building consensus among EU Member States on granting candidate status to Ukraine at the June 2022 European Council. Besides, the decision of the Slovak Government to supply Ukraine with the S-300 PMU air defence system in March 2022 broke the ice in other Western partner countries and their attitudes to supplying heavy combat equipment to Ukraine. In both cases, Ukraine’s top officials, professionals and the general public expressed their gratitude and appreciation that Slovakia was able to set the tone for Western allies on such issues of vital importance to Ukraine.
“Our Embassy in Nicosia has long been a provider of good services for bi-communal dialogue between political representatives of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. They meet regularly in the buffer zone under Slovakia’s auspices for more than 30 years.”
GDL: You mentioned Visegrad Group (V4) regional cooperation that includes Slovakia, Czechia, Poland and Hungary. Slovakia recently handed the rotating V4 Presidency to the Czech Republic after a year at the helm. As Europe faces multiple challenges to its unity and security, regional cooperation was identified by the Slovak Presidency as an important pillar of security infrastructure.
Can you tell us more on what the Slovak V4 Presidency achieved?
MH: On July 1st 2022, Slovakia took over its 6th rotating Presidency in the V4 from Hungary and, at the same time initiated a reflection on further cooperation in this format. Russian aggression in Ukraine and the reactions of the V4 countries revealed a different perception of the situation and development in our region and Europe. This fact has also affected the dynamics and intensity of our mutual interaction. From the beginning of our Presidency, we put emphasis on the need for a positive contribution of the V4 to a common European approach and focus on concrete practical benefits for the region’s inhabitants.
Although under the influence of Russian aggression in Ukraine, communication in the V4 Group was muted at the political level, it was not suspended, while several high-level meetings were held. A number of tangible projects in different areas were achieved under the Slovak V4 Presidency. For example, in the field of defence, the Framework for an Enhanced V4 Group Defence Planning Cooperation was adopted. We aim to build interoperability by exercising our soldiers and in November 2022 the biggest joint military exercise was launched in Poland. The V4 countries also cooperate on the protection of the Slovak airspace, executing air-policing missions flown by Czech, Polish and Hungarian jets within the Slovak airspace. I could continue by giving more examples from other fields of cooperation.
I deem important to say that despite different opinions on some issues, Slovakia considers the V4 Group a useful regional cooperation format with many positive results in its practical dimension, e.g., various infrastructure projects, cross-border partnerships or energy security issues. We need to work together in areas where there is an agreement and where cooperation is beneficial to all four countries.
Finally, I would like to highlight the role of the International Visegrad Fund which represents the joint success of V4 countries. The Fund supports development of closer ties among citizens in the region by providing grants to civic initiatives and supporting mobility between cultural, educational and scientific institutions. I wish to underline that the Fund can also finance projects carried out outside the V4 region, for example in Greece too. Grants can be requested by Greek civil society institutions, in partnership with their counterparts from at least three out of the four V4 countries. Research fellowships at the Open Society Archives in Budapest can be awarded too. If anyone is interested, our Embassy will be happy to provide more information on the Fund’s support.
“Coming back to the Western Balkan region where Slovakia has been politically present for a long time, our diplomats have considerably contributed to the consolidation of the post-war situation, as well as democratisation and rapprochement of these countries with Euro-Atlantic structures.”
GDL: What is the pace of bilateral relations between Slovakia and Greece?
MH: Our countries are EU Members and NATO allies that share the same values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as well as the same commitment to the principles of International Law. We enjoy excellent and friendly bilateral relations which have been upgraded considerably in the last two years, especially at the political level. We have organised two high-level visits to Greece, one of the then Prime Minister Eduard Heger in 2021 and the second one of the Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová in 2022.
These visits provided a further impetus to bilateral ties in several concrete areas, such as in the field of social inclusion with focus on Roma integration. This year we managed to enhance cooperation between our Ministries of Defence by signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). We are currently working on an Action Plan for 2024 that would define concrete activities to be implemented.
During the visit of the President, the Embassy along with the Greek and Slovak partners organised a Green Growth Business Forum focusing on business opportunities in the fields of energy, environment and innovation. To strengthen the economic and commercial relations, an MoU was signed between Enterprise Greece and its Slovak counterpart SARIO on the sidelines of the forum. I consider it a good basis for further expansion of our economic ties.
One field of close cooperation deserve attention. It is the cooperation between Slovak and Greek firefighters. I am very proud of the work done by our firefighters who do not hesitate to come to help their Greek colleagues in the fight against forest wildfires. Slovakia expressed its solidarity with Greece for the first time in 2021 when our brave firefighters helped to extinguish fires on the island of Evia. This year Greece welcomed three groups of Slovak firefighters, the first one which fought the fire in Rhodes, the second took part in the EU Prepositioning Programme in Olympia and the last one assisted Greek and other EU Member States firefighters in the Evros region.
It makes me proud that besides political contacts, our relations are also strong when it comes to people-to-people contacts. Fighting the fires, the local people have a first-hand experience with our Slovak firefighters who left a very good impression. We can call them ‘Ambassadors’ of Slovakia since they contribute a great deal to fostering the image of my country abroad. It is my ambition to build on this positive momentum by strengthening cooperation between the Slovak and Greek Fire and Rescue Services because both sides have useful experience and knowledge to share.
Undoubtedly, Slovakia always stands by Greece in difficult moments and is ready to help again in the future.
Other dimensions of the Slovak-Greek relations, be it educational, cultural, scientific or contacts at the regional/municipal levels, are also developing. I strongly believe that the opening of a new direct airline connection between Athens and Bratislava by Aegean Airlines on September 14th 2023 will further facilitate the strengthening of our bilateral bonds.
“It makes me proud that besides political contacts, our relations are also strong when it comes to people-to-people contacts. Fighting the fires, the local people have a first-hand experience with our Slovak firefighters who left a very good impression.
We can call them ‘Ambassadors’ of Slovakia since they contribute a great deal to fostering the image of my country abroad.”
GDL: What initiatives should both sides take with regard to cultural exchanges in order to achieve understanding between our peoples?
MH: It is my strong conviction that culture is a precious tool to foster creativity and understanding of the diversity of countries and peoples. Therefore, together with my colleagues at the Embassy, we also seek to harness the potential of cultural diplomacy with the aim of strengthening bilateral cultural relations and social cohesion. We strive to bring to Greece outstanding Slovak artists, be it musicians, painters, writers or dancers and we also make every effort to support the participation of Slovak artists in the cultural events organised in Greece.
I am also pleased to say that an intensive cooperation takes place at the local level between various towns and municipalities. Wherever possible, we try to combine visits to the local authorities with a cultural event. The partnership between the town of Kalavryta and the Slovak municipality of Nemecká has flourished for two years now. It is based on the similar tragic fate these towns suffered during the WWII.
Another partnership has recently developed between the town of Ioannina and the Slovak town of Dolný Kubín, complemented by cooperation between their secondary schools.
If I digress further down history lane, the Slovak non-fiction writer Vojtech Zamarovský, a famous philhellene, made a significant introduction of the Ancient history of Greece to Slovak (and Czech) readers. Upon the Embassy’s initiative, a bronze memorial plaque dedicated to Mr. Zamarovský was revealed last year in Olympia. It is a testament to the mutual recognition of his literary work.
Finally, I am delighted to inform your readers about cooperation between our Embassy and the George Zongolopoulos Foundation. The emblematic artworks of this great Greek sculptor and painter serve annually as an inspiration for students from the Secondary Grammar School of Dolný Kubín who participate in an artistic competition. The winners are awarded with a short stay in Athens during which they can deepen their knowledge about Mr. Zongolopoulos by visiting the Foundation and his works exhibited in Athens or Thessaloniki. My future ambition is to bring creative works of this renowned Greek artist closer to the Slovak audience and link them with artworks of a comparable Slovak artist.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life