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Cover for the book Slovakia on the Road to Independence

Slovakia on the Road to Independence

Paul Hacker, and with a foreword by Senator Claiborne Pell


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Introduction

On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist as a country and split into two independent states, the Czech and Slovak republics. I had been privileged to observe the processes that culminated that day from my vantage point in Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic, where I had the responsibility in October 1990 of reopening the U.S. Consulate, which had been closed for more than forty years.

As did thousands of Slovaks, I began that day braving the freezing temperatures on the Square of the Slovak Uprising, the Times Square of Bratislava, where the New Year’s celebration this time had an extra ring to it. While many Slovaks celebrated the birth of a new nation that early morning, there were others who regarded the breakup of their country as a tragedy and felt much the same as Californians would if they were separated from the rest of the United States in a new country with borders at the Rocky Mountains. But their voices had been drowned out by the unstoppable course of events that climaxed that day.

Later that afternoon, I finished what had been a full day’s work, despite the holiday. As a way of "closing the loop" on these events, I sent a farewell message to Ambassador Adrian Basora in Prague, to whom I had reported up to the stroke of midnight, when the two successor states came into being. The feeling was indeed strange. When one says farewell to a colleague in our Foreign Service, it is usually because one of us is leaving his post. In this case, neither of us was leaving, but the country to which we had both been accredited was now a part of history. I informed the ambassador that I had just carried out my last duty as consul general-the head of what until then had been the U.S. Consulate General in Slovakia. An hour earlier, I had exchanged notes with Slovakia’s foreign minister, Milan Kňažko, whereby the United States formally granted recognition to the now independent Slovak Republic. I had typed out the note myself from a text I received the previous afternoon at our embassy in Vienna-we had no communication facilities of our own. The original note, which would arrive six weeks later, was signed by President George Bush and was addressed to Slovakia’s prime minister, Vladimír MeČiar, who would be acting head of state until the new country’s first president was elected a month later.

Feeling a bit nostalgic that day, and still unaccustomed to my new role in charge of what was now the U.S. Embassy, I thanked the ambassador for his guidance and support and expressed regret that the breakup of the country would mean the end of our professional relationship. Quickly correcting myself, I borrowed the term that Kňažko had marketed to soften the split’s impact on Western opinion: our relations would be "transformed," rather than ended. While the Slovaks would be responsible for their own fate, our embassy in Slovakia would now look directly to Washington, not Prague, for direction and guidance. The Department of State had decided several months earlier that for political reasons, our Prague embassy should end all responsibility for Slovakia at the moment of independence. I also wrote to John Evans, the deputy chief of mission in Prague, to thank him for being my "light in the darkness." I had reported to him for the previous eighteen months. John faxed back an encouraging reply, predicting that independence would work out well for both countries in the end, and that our new status as an embassy would not cause major headaches. As I read his message, I noticed an unexpected change: it was now headlined "Česko," the still unofficial name for the new Czech-only entity. The "Slovensko" that signified the Slovak part of the state was gone.

From this day on, we would need to rely on our colleagues in Vienna, forty-five miles away, for administrative support, until we could get on our feet. Just as would be true for Slovakia itself, the embassy’s growing pains would be seen in the sweating of a thousand small details. After the country split, and until an ambassador was named, I would be his place-holder, with the title of "chargé d’affaires ad interim." When I departed that July, my place was taken by Eleanor Sutter, who by coincidence was a fellow graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, class of 1962. That fall, Ted Russell, John’s predecessor as deputy chief of mission in Prague, arrived to become the first U.S. ambassador to Slovakia.

Our transformation into an embassy was taking place with several anomalies. Our only communications were by phone or fax, which meant considerable frustration in trying to move messages. The act of establishing diplomatic relations itself epitomized the Catch-22 situation in which I found myself: the note I was to deliver had a confidential classification, yet it was to be handed over to a foreign government. Our building was not cleared to hold or even draft classified communications, but I had no choice except to bend the rules. Classified messages had to be drafted at our Vienna embassy, and any incoming classified traffic had to be read and stored there as well. Thus, I was a frequent commuter to the Austrian capital-a situation which an outsider might regard with considerable envy, but one which was in reality tense and trying due to the extreme congestion that often barred our way to the Austrian border (in both directions), and the need to travel country roads until we reached the highway just outside the city. When I arrived in Bratislava late on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, there was no one at the Slovak Foreign Ministry around to answer the phone and thus arrange my meeting with Kňažko. The duty officer who was supposed to be present was nowhere to be found.

Thus, I needed to wait until the following day to make the necessary arrangements. I caught up with the foreign minister that morning at the Slovak National Council building, where Slovakia’s deputies were meeting to formally proclaim their country’s independence (Slovak National Council was parliament, or SNR in its Slovak initials; since October 1992, its official name has been the National Council of the Slovak Republic, or NRSR in its Slovak initials). Due to a ruling by our lawyers, we could not formally recognize a government before it declared its own independence. I had been instructed to ask Kňažko to confirm that the Slovak government consented to my appointment as chargé d’affaires. He never answered the question, obviously surprised that I had even brought up the issue. He agreed to meet that afternoon in the French-built Hotel Forum, following his first press conference there as foreign minister of independent Slovakia.

The journalists present seemed to be more interested in Kňažko’s account of his festering dispute with MeČiar than in the less colorful details of Slovak foreign policy (Kňažko would be ousted two months later). But Kňažko-an actor by profession-had a well-honed sense of how to dodge such questions. Afterwards, we retired to the appropriately named Consul Room next door, where at 3:23 P.M. we formally exchanged documents of recognition while the cameras were spinning. I wondered how my colleagues in Washington would react to the photographers pointing at their confidential note, but no one took notice. I subsequently learned that shortly after midnight that day, when MeČiar began receiving chiefs of mission soon after he had addressed the crowd from the podium at the Square of the Slovak Uprising, he growled the question "Where are the Americans? Late as usual." However, we had never received an invitation to come to the event, and when I explained this later to MeČiar, his immediate reaction was that the slip-up was another example of Kňažko’s incompetence.

The next day, at a reception for chiefs of mission it was obvious how radically things had begun to change. Before January 1, we were a tight-knit group of about fifteen consuls general. The core of this group was the old Soviet bloc, plus Cuba, but minus Vietnam, which pulled out just before I arrived. The Germans took over from their East German colleagues; the day I arrived in Slovakia, coincidentally, Germany was reunited. The Italians, French, British, Chinese, and South Africans set up their offices after our own consulate was reestablished. Now, the rear of the government building at 1 Freedom Square-until 1989 named for Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia’s first Communist president, whose statue across the street was dynamited in the heady days of 1989-was filled with the Mercedes and other luxury vehicles belonging mostly to the Prague diplomatic community. MeČiar and Kňažko had sagaciously postponed their reception for one day, knowing that the Prague diplomatic corps would be celebrating the independence of the Czech Republic on New Year’s Day. This was one of several pragmatic moves. The Slovak government had offered to accredit all Prague-based ambassadors automatically. We declined to accept this proposal, and the jurisdiction of the Prague embassy now ended at the Czech-Slovak border, which overnight became an international boundary. Until January 1, my Bulgarian colleague had acted as the dean of the local consular corps. He was now dethroned in favor of the Prague-based Papal Nuncio. The Nuncio himself, however, did not make many trips to Bratislava, and the "job" of dean of the local corps was then handed to Jaroslav Šedivý, the new Czech ambassador, who in any case, continued to operate out of his own home capital for several months.

I had good reason to feel part of the larger historical processes engulfing not only Czechoslovakia but all of former Eastern Europe. Our consulate general was originally established in November 1947 by Claiborne Pell, then a young Foreign Service officer. But when I arrived in Bratislava, Senator Pell was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During its first period of life, the consulate had a short, but dramatic history. Our building housed the German Commercial Bank during World War II, and when it opened in March 1948, the Communist coup that would plunge Czechoslovakia into a totalitarian nightmare was just a week old. Pell remained about six months to set up a "listening post." Operations became increasingly difficult as the Communist regime launched a deliberate campaign to isolate its citizens from the West, and from Western institutions. Consulate personnel were harassed, and Slovaks who ventured into our consulate building were interrogated and warned off. Some of them developed the technique of timing their exit from our ground floor library precisely with the arrival of the next streetcar. At that time, streetcars were of the open variety, so a passenger could run out of our building with the plausible excuse that he was "just trying to get on the tram." But in May 1950, the full force of Stalinism came down hard on the country. At that time, five-sixths of our embassy personnel were declared "persona non grata," our consulate library was closed, and on May 27 we had to stop all operations in Slovakia. Several of our Slovak employees were arrested, and some never returned from prison. For the next forty years, the building remained virtually empty, except for an upstairs apartment used to house visiting embassy personnel who were conducting official business in Slovakia. During the period of Communist rule, the empty building remained a symbol for many Slovaks who hoped that a U.S. presence would one day be reestablished. While we had hoped to reopen the consulate in 1974 as part of a deal that would give Czechoslovakia "Most Favored Nation" status, when the arrangement fell through, the Bratislava opening was canceled, and our colleagues who had been designated to restart operations had to be reassigned. When I served as Czechoslovak desk officer from 1983 to 1985, the reopening of the consulate was regarded as a long-term objective, following the signing of a claims agreement and a consular agreement. Both of these events actually were accomplished just before the end of Communist rule in the country.

I had arrived in Slovakia on October 3, 1990, to reopen our consulate. When our embassy car crossed the Morava River into Slovakia that evening, I imagined how De Soto must have felt centuries earlier when crossing the Mississippi. In those days, there was no border between the Czech and Slovak republics, but just a small sign noting "West Slovak Region." However, one could still see remnants of the barbed wire fences that had prevented movement to the nearby border with Austria for more than forty years. When we got closer to the city, we saw long lines of people waiting by the side of the road. I joked to my wife that they must be waiting the arrival of the American consul. Actually, they were on a more practical mission: the price of gasoline would go up 50 percent that midnight, and motorists were filling up at the lower price as long as supplies lasted. When we arrived at our building on Hviezdoslav Square (named for one of Slovakia’s outstanding nineteenth-century poets), it was deserted as usual. However, we would have to vacate it within two months when an Austrian firm began a six-month renovation project that would gut the structure in order to construct needed safety and security improvements, including a fire stairway that our inspectors insisted was essential. As we were the "new guys on the block," we initially had to fight with everyone else for parking space in front of our building. After a while, the Bratislava government reserved a section of the street for consulate vehicles. In time, with the increasing threat of terrorism, the building was isolated by barriers designed to prevent car bombs.

On May 27, 1991, forty-one years to the day after it was closed, we held a rededication ceremony in a cramped "multipurpose room" on the consulate building’s third floor. The ceremony was presided over by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, and included Senator Pell as guest of honor, as well as Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiří Dienstbier and Slovak Prime Minister Ján Čarnogurský. There was also a handful of invitees who had a direct personal connection with our former consulate general. Like Dienstbier and Čarnogurský themselves, most had suffered harassment or imprisonment; one artist was invited to commemorate the memory of his father, who had been murdered in prison after serving for just one month on the consulate staff.

The ceremony had a certain Potemkin Village quality to it. The rest of the building would not be ready for occupancy for several more months, and we would not begin full operations before October. Actually, the festivities were arranged to suit Pell’s convenience, as well as our mission to "relaunch in Slovakia." Joined by his wife, Pell insisted on staying overnight at the decaying Carlton Hotel next door. He had first set up shop there on arriving in Bratislava in 1947, and the pull of nostalgia overcame any qualms about the quality of accommodations.

Our position at the time was somewhat anomalous. No better illustration could be found than the fact that we had to decline an invitation from the Slovak League of America to join them for a reception in the Carlton Hotel celebrating our reopening. At that time, our policy was still firmly in favor of "preserving Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity," which meant that the country should remain one whole. This policy (see chapter 18) was rooted in the belief that further divisions in Europe would be detrimental to the successor states’ viability, not to mention the possibility of fueling further instability. But most Slovak-American organizations, starting with the Slovak League, traditionally favored an independent Slovakia. Because of this sharp policy difference, we found ourselves in the strange position of having to boycott a reception that had been planned in our honor. Relations were not helped when the League’s secretary general, quite at odds with the truth, bragged to the Slovak youth daily Smena that the reopening would never have taken place without pressure from his organization.

He came closer to the facts, however, when he mentioned that Ambassador Black had tried to dissuade Pell from participating in the reception. Pell felt, however, that he could not refuse an invitation from people to whom he felt a kinship (the senator liked to remark that he was the "only Slovak nationalist" in the U.S. Senate). Among his closest protégés was John Hvasta, a Slovak-born American citizen who had worked for Pell when the original consulate was in operation, and was arrested as an American spy. Sentenced in 1949 to three years (later increased to ten) imprisonment in the infamous Leopoldov prison, Hvasta escaped in 1952. After a harrowing journey that lasted nearly two years, he made his way to our embassy in Prague, where he was granted refuge until the Communist authorities finally allowed him to return home in 1954. When I first met Hvasta in 1985, I was Czechoslovak desk officer at the Department of State. In one of the more remarkable cases of politics making strange bedfellows, Hvasta arrived at our office with Evžen Loebl, then a professor of economics at Sarah Lawrence College. Loebl, of Jewish background, was one of the two survivors of the infamous 1952 Slanský purge trial, in which ten other defendants were hanged on trumped-up charges. After Loebl fled Slovakia during the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, he at first gravitated to academia (Sarah Lawrence College), and then later found a niche with the Slovak World Congress-a Toronto-based organization noted for its pro-independence stand for Slovakia, as well as its favorable attitude toward the wartime Slovak state that sent tens of thousands of Loebl’s brethren to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

On the day of his arrival at our office, Hvasta launched such an emotional attack on the Department of State and our policy of "discrimination" against Slovakia that our office director, Richard Combs, warned him to calm down or be thrown out. While the Department’s relations with the American Slovak community were not generally as dramatic as during that incident, they were the relations of organizations with two very different political agendas. Hvasta was a frequent visitor to Slovakia after the Velvet Revolution that overthrew Communism at the end of 1989.

During my tenure as desk officer, Deputy Assistant Secretary in charge of the USSR and Eastern Europe Mark Palmer (later U.S. ambassador to Hungary) presided over a moving ceremony where we welcomed "democratic" Slovak exiles to our offices, and where Palmer received a sheath of documentary materials to be housed in the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1993. The ceremony had a clearly political message: one of the documents showed the picture of Jozef Kirschbaum, then the vice president of the Slovak World Congress. Kirschbaum was dressed in the Nazi uniform of the Academic Hlinka Guard, a Slovak offshoot of the SS for university students, and he was shown making a speech extolling the "Fuhrer’s great victory" just achieved in defeating France in 1940. In 1945, Kirschbaum made his way to Canada, where he became a professor of history and a prolific writer giving the nationalist viewpoint on Slovak history. The point was to make clear that the Department of State would have nothing to do with an organization that was so closely associated with people who were apologists for the wartime fascist regime.

Only in the months following the rededication of our building, with the Yugoslav experience of disintegration and inter-republic war in mind, as well as the impending breakup of the USSR, did we back off from the "territorial integrity" phrase. Our more equivocal formula stated the future of the country was one for the Czechs and Slovaks themselves to peacefully decide.

Independence and Diplomatic Ritual

It was against this background that, when Slovakia finally became independent, I was determined to insure that the opening of our diplomatic relations with that country not be marred by the falsehood that the United States opposed an independent Slovak state. For bureaucratic reasons, it was not until the evening of December 31, a few hours before independence, that I was given clearance to reopen our operations as an embassy on January 4, the first working day after the country split. On short notice, I arranged a simple, but symbolic ceremony that day, in the same room where the consulate had been rededicated eighteen months earlier. In addition to our staff, and some resident Americans involved in aid projects, I invited Kňažko, his predecessor Dr. Pavol Demeš, and Ivan Laluha, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Slovak parliament. Through this choice of guests, we had one representative each from the present government, past government, and legislative branch. This symbolic configuration also obviated the need to invite scores of guests, who could not have been contacted over the long holiday weekend in any case. I later learned that MeČiar did not take kindly to our invitation to Demeš, a close friend of the United States who was persona non grata to the prime minister due to the fact that he had served in the Čarnogurský government, which ended MeČiar’s first period as prime minister in 1991.

Addressing our guests and invited media, I gave a short speech welcoming Slovakia as an independent state, and praising the Slovak contribution to the development of our own country. Kňažko also spoke for a few minutes. Afterwards, I invited all those present to help me raise a new, larger American flag over the building, to mark the opening of full diplomatic relations. Curiously, a statement I had drafted welcoming Slovakia into the community of nations never made it to the media. The only item considered noteworthy was our announcement that henceforth all varieties of non-immigrant visas would now be issued in Bratislava. To make the point, I invited our guests downstairs to our consular section, where I issued Kňažko the first A-1 (diplomatic) visa in Bratislava, and also the first visa with the legend "U.S. Embassy, Bratislava." When the working day was over, I made a fast dash to Vienna to send two cables to mark the historic occasion: the first was a report on the embassy’s opening, and the second was a dispatch on Slovakia’s becoming an independent state.

In October 1991, when we first began issuing visas, we were allowed to deliver only tourist and short-term business visas. At that time, I had invited Čarnogurský, and FrantiŠek MikloŠko (then chairman of the Slovak National Council) to receive the first visas issued in Bratislava. With some pride, Čarnogurský answered "yes" to the question of whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, noting that he was one of the last prisoners of conscience of the Communist regime in 1989.

My principal responsibility was to report on events in Slovakia. The Slovak perspective on what was happening in the country was different from that of the Czechs. While our embassy had done what was possible to cover the Slovak scene mainly from Prague, there was no substitute for being "on the ground." I was reminded of a remark once made by Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post. Speaking in 1966 to a group of summer interns who had invited him to address them at the Department of State, Rosenfeld noted that as the paper’s Moscow correspondent in the mid-1960s, his job was essentially the same as that of our embassy’s political counselor. There was one exception: while Rosenfeld could be sure that the Soviet Foreign Ministry was reading his dispatches, the political counselor could never be sure if the Soviets were doing the same to him.

But there is another side to the picture. Barring leaks or breaches of security, a diplomat can be fairly confident that he is writing for only a limited audience within his own government. It may be several decades before his reports are declassified and made available to the general public. The journalist, however, always writes in the public spotlight, and can be called to task at any time regarding the veracity of his facts and interpretations. I was keenly aware of this when I first put my impressions down on paper. Slovakia was very much a blank spot on the political map of our readership back home. What I was not prepared for, though, was the hypersensitivity of our hosts over what was being reported back home on Slovakia. They were not only concerned over what the foreign media wrote about them (fearing a pro-Czech bias), but also worried loudly and publicly over what reports diplomats were sending home, since supposedly their governments took those reports more seriously. This concern existed even though, presumably, no copies of these reports were circulating outside those diplomats’ home countries.

This, then, is the story of our sojourn in Slovakia as the republic made the journey from appendage of a Communist dictatorship to a fully sovereign state. We were front-row observers to many of the events that took place-especially since Hviezdoslav Square, where we were located, was a favorite venue for demonstrations. But we also experienced the vexations of getting started in a country still lacking basic infrastructural support, with our umbilical cord to Prague stretching two hundred miles to the west. When we held our first Thanksgiving celebration in the consulate building for several score young American volunteers from the Education for Democracy (EFD) project, who had come to Slovakia to teach English, I told our guests that we all could understand what it meant to be pilgrims in a strange new land.

© 2010 Penn State University


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