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The slovak Ambassador to Hungary

Cherishing a common heritage

D&T
October 5, 2016

“Given the historical background, the relationship between Slovaks and Hungarians is at least a millennium old and we lived in the same country for 95% of that period. We had the same king, we had the same problems, we shared all good and bad things for 950 years,” the Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to Hungary, Rastislav Kácer tells Diplomacy and Trade in an extensive interview in which he also discusses the different aspects of bilateral relations and European integration.

When Rastislav Kácer was appointed as Ambassador to Budapest in 2013,
press reports said that the Slovak government sent a ‘heavy-weight’ diplomat,
emphasizing the importance of bilateral relations. The Ambassador tells
Diplomacy & Trade that “it is really a compliment that they call me a ‘heavy-weight’
but you should know that Slovakia has always taken its bilateral relations with
Hungary very seriously and this was reflected in the fact that it always sends very
experienced diplomats to Budapest.”

Discussing issues in a cultivated manner

As for the aims Ambassador Kácer set for himself when
he took up his position in Budapest in the fall of 2013, he notes that “I want
Slovak-Hungarian relations to be boring. This is exactly the same thing I said
about Slovak-American relations when I was appointed as ambassador to the
United States in 2003 – boring in the sense that they are conducted so smoothly
and quietly that most people never hear about them. If I look at this from a
Slovak-Hungarian perspective, what particularly comes to my mind are the times
when Vladimir Meciar was Slovakia’s prime minister in the 1990s. In those
times, we heard a lot about Slovak-Hungarian relations – and not in the most
pleasant way! So, in my opinion, the best relations are the ones that work and
you don’t hear about them! Today, I think, we have reached that point. The two
prime ministers meet often and have very good relations and the same is true
for the two foreign ministers, the two Presidents and those at lower political
levels, as well.”

At the same time, Ambassador Kácer says that this close relationship
does not mean that the two sides do not see certain things differently. He notes
that “some time ago, there was an agreement made between the two prime
ministers that whatever happens, however sensitive an issue comes up, the
quality of relationship calls for behind-the-scenes dialog, discussion in a
cultivated manner and the two sides do not ‘wash the dirty laundry’ in public.
You sit face to face, you say what you like and what you don’t like, you strive
to solve the problem and not make a big splash in the media about it. I wish to
stick to these principles during my time as ambassador here.” 

One characteristic of being neighbors and having a common historical
past is the presence of national minorities in each other’s country. The
Ambassador highlights that “this October, we are going to have a group meeting
to talk about the issue of national minorities as part of our bilateral
discussion mechanism. In Slovakia, we are very proud that the Hungarian
minority is doing very well and that they are strongly represented in the
government; a Hungarian party has important positions in the Slovak parliament
and government. The Slovak minority in Hungary has shrunk since 1918 when
Slovakia became independent of Austria-Hungary. Today, they represent a very
important matter for us. I am pleased to see how proud these people are of
their heritage, how they cherish that heritage. At the last nationwide census,
some 29,000 people declared themselves of Slovak nationality in Hungary but the
actual number of people speaking the Slovak language is lower and lower every
year. I have visited villages that had a sizeable Slovak community in the 1950s
with their own school but now, barely anyone speaks the language.”

Economic relations

The major player in Hungarian-Slovak bilateral relations is by far the
Hungarian oil and gas trust MOL. “At the beginning when MOL was trying to acquire
a stake in the Slovak oil company, Slovnaft, and get hold of a ‘strategic asset’,
the refinery in Bratislava, there was fear of what would happen to Slovak
national interests. However, the deal has turned out to be a true success and
today, the Bratislava refinery is just as Slovak of a business as it was before
and it is one of the – if not the – best refineries in Europe in terms of
efficiency. It also clusters a number of thriving businesses in the area,” the
Ambassador points out.

He adds that “apart from this, there are a lot of over-the-border small
and medium-size enterprises on which I believe we should concentrate even more
as they form a solid basis for our economies. The automobile industry is one that
plays an important role in both the Slovak and the Hungarian economies, with a
couple of big investors in both countries. Slovakia is now becoming the world’s
No. 1. in car production per capita. There is a lot of related business that is
creating a web of suppliers operating in the two countries. All this also helps
the creation of research and development activities, especially in the electric
car and intelligent car concepts with dozens of engineers in Slovakia working
on this.”

Bilateral trade is very stable and dynamic. For Hungary, Slovakia is the
third most important trading partner. “The only discrepancy I see here is that
there is much more investment from Hungary to Slovakia than vice versa. I hope
this will change – the appearance of the Slovak investment company HB Reavis in
Hungary is one good example and could encourage others to follow suit,” he
stresses.

Cultural ties

This is an area that Ambassador Kácer comments on by saying that “we
have less than I would wish for. There are a lot of great Hungarian artists
that are unknown in Slovakia and vice versa. The presentation of culture often
shrinks to the exchange of folklore groups. However, there is a huge dimension
to explore in terms of true cultural cooperation. It was a nice thing earlier
this year that Slovakia was the featured country at the Budapest International
Book Festival. We presented dozens of Slovak books translated into Hungarian.
There are also a lot of Hungarian books translated into the Slovak language –
some by ethnic Hungarian writers who are Slovak citizens. They did an excellent
job. These things bring the two peoples closer to realizing how similar our
thinking is and how common we are with only nuances of difference. This is an
excellent example of how cultural relations should evolve but we still have to
do a lot in this respect.”

As a wine lover and wine expert, Ambassador Kácer brings up the example
of wine as an area where a lot needs to be done in bilateral relations
culturally. “I grew up in a vineyard, in a wine culture. Wine is a common
cultural heritage for Hungary and Slovakia. Still, you can hardly get Hungarian
wine in Slovak stores and Slovak wines are basically unknown in Hungary.
Perhaps, the only Slovak winemaker known in Hungary is Frigyes Bott, one of the
best in this profession in Slovakia – perhaps, because his products are
marketed like Hungarian wines. ”

Talking about wine also brings into discussion issues such as geographical
protection and designation of origin, like in the case of the Tokaj brand
originating from a region whose northern part became Slovak territory after World
War I. As the Ambassador notes, “I never understood these disputes. The Tokaj
issue has always been a mystery to me. The denomination of Tokaj reaches back
some 200 years to the time of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.
I understand that many Hungarians are
nostalgic about the pre-Trianon [the peace treaty in which Hungary lost much of
its territory in 1920] era but it seems irrational to me not to comprehend that
part of the historical Tokaj region now belongs to Slovakia. This split region
should not be subject to competition – or if it was a competition, it should be
the friendliest and healthiest good-neighborly competition in the world. So,
for me this dispute is senseless and I believe the EU made the right decision
that the Tokaj denomination belongs to both Hungary and Slovakia.” One thing is
for certain, though. “When I finish this Budapest posting, I leave this country
with a big load of Hungarian wines: Furmint and Hárslevelû, as I believe these
are top-class European wines,” he adds.

As a private person, Rastislav Kácer says his posting here is obviously
very different from that in the United States. “This is the first time in my
diplomatic life that l feel like I am an ambassador in my home country. It is
very hard to compare with Washington, D.C., for instance. In the late 19th and early 20th century, there lived around 100,000 Slovaks in
Budapest with five Slovak language dailies and two theaters performing in
Slovak here. In fact, Budapest was the city with the largest Slovak population
in the world. So, it is a natural habitat for us and it is easy to feel at home
here. In the southeastern corner of Hungary, you can still see some preserved
pieces of Slovak heritage that are no longer well preserved in Slovakia because
it is a much more open environment. I like Hungarians; they are very hospitable
people – of which I’m not surprised, at all, as it is part of our common
ancestry. Wherever I go, people are kind to me and I appreciate friendship. All
this means that Hungary will have a special place in my heart after I leave
this country.”

D&T

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