A discussion with:

Amb. Daniel Fried
Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council 
Former US Ambassador to Poland

Amb. Rastislav Káčer
Chairman, GLOBSEC
Former Ambassador of Slovakia to Hungary

Corina Rebegea
Program Director, founder of the US-Romania Initiative, and Fellow-in-Residence, Center for European Policy Analysis

Moderated by:

Benjamin Haddad
Director, Future Europe Initiative, Atlantic Council 

Slovaks headed to the polls on Saturday, February 29, to vote in a general election that had important implications for the future of the country. In Saturday’s election, voters ousted the center-left Smer-SD party, which has dominated the political landscape for over a decade, and showed clear support for the anti-corruption opposition parties, the “democratic opposition.”

Amb. Daniel Fried, Corina Rebegea, Amb. Rastislav Káčer, and Benjamin Haddad unpack the results and discuss the vote’s implications on Slovakia’s future as well as the populist tide sweeping through Europe.


Note, this is an automated transcript.

Operator: Welcome to the Atlantic Council Members and Press Call, Slovakia’s General Election.  Please be aware that each of your lines is now in listen-only mode.  We will open the lines for questions, following the speaker’s opening remarks. 

Please press “star” followed by the number “1” key on your telephone to ask a question.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  Please be sure to introduce yourself when asking a question.  I would now turn over the call to the Atlantic Council who will introduce the call and begin our discussion.  Mr. Haddad, please go ahead sir.

Benjamin Haddad: Thank you.  Hi, this is Ben Haddad, I’m the Director of the Future Europe Initiative here at the Atlantic Council in Washington.  And thanks for joining our press and members call on  Slovakia’s general election.

This is really a critical election for Central Europe and this is really why we wanted to have this call with three great speakers today, the Future Europe Initiative here.  The Atlantic Council is focused on U.S. engagement with U.S. foreign and allies and analyzing the future of the European Union. 

And Slovakia has been in the news a lot, this last few years we talked about it in the – in the conversation after the murder of a – of a journalist and major protests in the country, the election of the liberal president and anticorruption activist, Zuzana Caputova last year and these elections that were really followed with a lot of – a lot of hope, but also a lot of high expectations from observers in Europe, in United States.  And this is why it’s I think very useful to have a conversation both within for Slovakia, for Central Europe, for the future of the European Union and the Trans-Atlantic relationship. 

We’ll have a conversation today with three experts followed by conversation and a Q&A with you and I’ll ask my guests to speak for a few minutes before we turn to questions.  We have an hour of conversation that is on the record unless one of the speakers decides to speak off the record and mentions it explicitly.

I’m here today with – in Bratislava, with Ambassador Káčer with the Chairman of GLOBSEC, our Strategic Partner of the Atlantic Council in Bratislava.  And, of course, the former ambassador of Slovakia to Hungary.  In Washington, D.C., I’m joined by Corina Rebegea who is a program director, the founder of the U.S. Romania Initiative and a fellow in residence  the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

And Ambassador Dan Fried, who is distinguished ambassador for Fellow Ron Weiser, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and former Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. 

So I’ll turn to our speakers for introductory remarks before we turn to a conversation.  Why don’t we start with you Ambassador Káčer in Bratislava, what is the mood and what is your analysis on the elections of yesterday. 

Rastislav Káčer:    It was a great excitement in Slovakia by these elections.  I think pre-election campaign was quite vivid, was heavy, was polarizing, was tough, to my taste sometimes well over the cliff, but this is the way how politics is going, it’s more black and white, and more polarizing, and more of a reality show sometimes.

So there was a huge excitement, there was expected high turnout in the elections.  I think the expectation was to get over, almost 75 percent in Western Slovakia and that was 85 sometimes in the villages where I checked.  But overall participation was around 66 percent, which was not bad dramatic but was higher than the average. 

And overall mood is a little bit of a mix.  Back the – I think there was a mood for change and that happened.  So the government which was empowered and the prime minister or the ruling parties there, the dominating party which was twice in power.  They’re gone, they got only around 17 percent. 18.5 percent of the vote, 18.3 percent of the vote I’m checking my iPad.  And it means they are not able to create, again, the coalition. 

There is a surprising winner.  So the old government is gone, government created out of the three parties.  They’re gone, two of them are not is elected in the parliament, only one party is in the parliament.  If there is a jumper in the election, it’s a fun name for the party, Ordinary People.  And they jumped out of five percent a year ago which is the threshold up to 25 percent which is a great surprise, they’re a big jumper in the election.

And also, what is the surprise in the election?  It’s a great number of votes which are going to be put aside because of threshold for the election, means for the individual party, it’s five percent, and so coalition was two parties running, it’s 70 percent.  In one of the key parties which was expected to score maybe second or third, they didn’t reach by very tiny margin, seven percent, it’s a coalition of two parties, Progressive Slovakia together. 

And then also Christian Democrats, they’re almost made five percent, but they are gone.  So almost one quarter of the votes casted didn’t reach the threshold and they would distribute it among other parties.  Only six parties are member of parliament which is unusual in Slovakia.  And out of these parties, probably four parties will create a coalition which will have constitutional majority probably. 

Benjamin Haddad: Thank you.  Let me turn to Corina Rebegea for your thought on this election and what it means for Central and Eastern Europe and for the European Union more generally. 

Corina Rebegea: Sure.  Thanks Ben.  I would maybe make three points about how these elections fit in Central and Eastern European sort of pattern of electoral and civic mood.  And I think it’s not – it’s not entirely new for us to see this type of protest vote and protest movement. And sort of raising up from civil society activism and turning into more political activism. 

And we’ve seen that in the region before and specifically in the past few years, all triggered by events like the murder of the Slovak investigative journalist and motivated by corruption. 

And so, one element is that the type of protest vote that we have seen in Slovakia fits to a certain extent the region pattern, and something that I would pay attention to is the tendency for such movement and such electoral behavior to inspire electorates and civic movements in other countries and we have seen that before in the region, particularly in neighboring countries.

Second, I would say that there is an increasing appetite for this type of anticorruption platforms that can be profoundly democratic in nature, but also and we’ll see what happens in Slovakia in this respect.  They can also signify a risk to sliding into a more populist agenda. 

However, these anticorruption platforms are gaining impetus and, again, I think this will have an impact on how other civic actors and opposition parties across the region will position themselves in the future just looking at the success of similar movements in Slovakia not only.

And I think if we look – if we broaden the lens a little bit, we’ve seen protests that have led, anticorruption protest mainly that have led to a surge in more antiestablishment parties both democratic and populist starting with Romania, Malta even, western Balkans, you may remember there were endless protests for months on, and Serbia and north Macedonia, and so on. 

Now, the question is, of course, how that will reflect further on in the ability to form a government in Slovakia and whether that would track late into policy including U.S. about the European Union whether that – whether that will impact Slovakia’s positioning on key agenda items for the European Union.

And this leads me to the third point which, again, fits in the regional pattern and that is the issue of fragmentation of the – of the political space.  For – let’s say for the centrist parties and more liberal political space, and that I think will be a challenge for many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, this leads to government instability and also it points to the efforts that more, let’s say, inexperienced or new parties and their ability and their efforts to create breaches in the resilience of established parties or system parties and so on.

And this will have an impact on the vitality of the civic movements.  One question and I’ll end with this, since I mentioned the EU, on the one hand, Slovakia is part of the Visegrad Group, we’ll see if the Slovak government, new government that is going to be formed will have a bit of a more pro-EU, pro-U.S. NATO stance. 

I think the Ambassador can talk about – they’ve had some interesting results in the recent survey, the youth on where Slovakian youth stand bet – in the debate of being pro-European, pro-Russian, pro-NATO and so on.

So whether Slovakia will continue to step in line with the other V4 countries or whether this push for anticorruption will be translated into EU level and support for the new prosecutor, European prosecutor that is supposed sort of take speed this year and also for the EU budget including sanctions for rule of law issues.

Benjamin Haddad: Thanks Corina.  And I think we definitely want to dig in your last point on what it means for Slovakia’s role within the V4, we know the conflictual relationship and especially Hungary had with Brussels over issues of the rule of law and the role that Slovakia could play maybe as a – as a counter on this whereas as a different voice for Central Europe.

I’m turning now to Ambassador Fried maybe to react to what’s been said and give us a few of what it means for the United States and Europe. 

Dan Fried: I think this was a significant election.  To step back a little bit, there is a sort of lazy theory that has developed in recent years.  That Central Europe was under the control of rather self-serving authoritarian political parties that used populism as a weapon to silence dissent, and that civil society had simply been intimidated into silence.

As I said, that’s a lazy theory popular with some who have internalized only clichés about Central Europe.  And in Slovakia, that theory was blown apart.  What you had in the elections on Saturday was a repudiation of the status quo from across the whole country.  And the basis for this satisfaction appears to have originated in the murder of the investigative journalist and his fiancé, Mr. Kuciak, a murder which led to the candidacy and later election as president of Zuzana Caputova who’s been president now for a while.  And now a new government. 

We have seen in different countries different aspects of this kind of a popular revolt against what was seen as corruption, official, and official indifference to corruption.  In Slovakia, in Romania somewhat, in Ukraine, in the Maidan and with the election of Zelensky last year. 

Populism is used usually in a derogatory sense as an instrument of demagogues and I understand why, there’s a long history of demagogic populism, but there was another meaning which meant a popular democratic push against corrupt, venal or ineffective governance.  And although I can’t predict to how the new government will function, that may have been the case in Slovakia this time.

People were voting for simply higher standards and better standards of governance.  Now, the four parties are united by anticorruption, they seem to be social conservative, though perhaps not the party for people former President (Tiskus’) party.  And so no doubt they will have challenges in governing.  But I remember that there were some dire predictions back last fall when these elections were being contemplated that some kind of awful red brown coalition would emerge.

I remember that, dire alarmed predictions, nothing of this sort took place.  Free and fair elections resulting in a change of government and the result of the free and fair elections reflect a popular demand for higher standards of governance.  It’s not – it’s not your pro nor anti-American, we didn’t have much to do with it.  If I were forced to say whether it’s pro or anti-European, I would say it is more pro than anti. 

That is a sense of wanting the higher standards of governance that the EU promises.  So I regard this as a hopeful sign, that maybe my American naivety, but I regarded the elections as a repudiation of the theory that Central Europe was sliding into authoritarian and despotic rule.  And I think that’s just wrong.

This is – I’m – I understand that the party of – the former party of president – Slovak President Caputova, Progressive Slovakia and the coalition – her coalition (SPOLU) failed to enter parliament by merely a couple thousand votes and I think that’s too bad. 

But this is really the will of the Slovak people and a will for change and so, this is a hopeful development.  And, frankly, I hope the United States and I hope the U.S. government will reach out to the new Slovak team and show them the United States does care about Central Europe in general, Slovakia in particular. 

So, I think this is a good thing and a hopeful sign that the region is not going to sink into this kind of passive cynical despair.  And I look forward to a good discussion now. 

Benjamin Haddad: All right.  Thank you very much, Ambassador (Fried), a hopeful development that you think it is important the context that you gave on the fears of a red-brown coalition that people were talking about a few months ago and look at the broader context. 

Let me first before turning to the conversation with our listeners, we do a second quick round of comments and reactions from our speakers, I’d just like to hear you first react to what you heard from other speakers and maybe also and I know that we are still before a coalition has been formed, so we don’t want to speculate too much on what will come out of it. 

But I’d love to also have you, Ambassador Káčer, react to (Korina’s) last point of what it means on Slovakia’s position within the V4 and its relationship to NATO and the EU.  Obviously, this is an area on which, you, as Chairman of (GLOBSEC) has done a tremendous amount of work on. 

Rastislav Káčer:    Yes.  Thank you.  And, first of all, let me say I absolutely agree with everything what Ambassador (Fried) said, it was an excellent analysis.  And truly, what we saw in Slovakia first was democracy working extremely well like a well-oiled machine, absolutely right. 

And the second thing, we saw and Corina, was here on the same point activism turned into politics which may not have always the best connotation but to me, it showed the strength and determination of people to be active, not to stay cynical, not to hide, not to neglect, turning to neglect but be extremely active in Slovakia. 

So, this was a true civic activism here in place which resulted in two things and Ambassador (Fried) mentioned both of those.  First, it brought a potentially dangerous red-brown coalition completely out of frame.  It was completely killed, this quasi-Nazi party was down and original expectations which is going to be second, (potentially) the first party in the election and they are well down the line. 

But also, I think Slovakia will remain, and here I’m coming directly to your point on the question of EU, V4 and NATO agenda, first of all, this will be very pro-regional cooperation government.  This will continue in appreciation of Visegrad cooperation. 

But I hope very much and I believe today very much on pro-European line, we may hear even there may be sometimes little euro skeptics there because at least two the parties had some members who were critical of Brussels bureaucracy. 

One of potential future coalition members is sympathizing with the views of (Mr. Salvini) or (Madam LePen) or (Boris Johnson) but I think overall, majority will remain and shape politics as pro-European. 

On NATO, I’m pretty positive that this will remain so.  But government is not going to turn bad face to regional cooperation to (Visegrád).  (Visegrád) in the past year was more – past two years – was more two plus two than four, probably this will remain.  I think (future prominence) of Mr. Matovic actually will be very close in style to Mr. Babis who is the Prime Minister of Czech Republic. 

I was talking in Prague a few days ago just before the election in the Prime Minister office (inaudible). She asked me, what do you think what this change will be.  And I said you would be surprised but these guys will have very, very similar chemistry. 

Here, I want to  point to this populism which I think can be – can have negative connotation and can have in some way positive connotation And our future Prime Minister, I think, will be the guy who will use a popular tone for the good cause, for the anti-corruption cause and for cause for better society precisely as it was described by Ambassador (Fried). 

Overall, and here I’m going to stop – overall note, overall tone, overall color of the election was about having better functioning government, less corrupt, more transparent, more for people, even for people to understand something which is easier to translate to common people. 

Benjamin Haddad: Thank you.  I think that’s very interesting, especially your point on positive populism which I think is one of the – one of the things that a lot of European and American leaders are struggling with and trying to find as a solution to the current predicament in which many of our countries are facing. 

Corina, do you want to react to some of the things that were said? 

Corina Rebegea: Yes.  Maybe just briefly because I do wonder whether Slovakia confirms the trend that makes us have a more positive outlook about what is happening in central and eastern Europe because – And I agree with Ambassador (Fried), we, in the past years because we have seen objective development among certain leaders at least and actually quite spread to capture certain executions and make them work not in the way the liberal constitutions intended them to work but rather to be submitted to particular interest or hidden agendas and so on. 

And there has been a big backlash to that.  And I think we’ve seen that quite a bit including a backlash against the negative, let’s say, populist parties.  I think we’ve seen that quite a bit in the European elections where the ant-EU parties didn’t do as well as many feared.  We’ve seen that in the Polish elections with the mobilization on the civil society and the opposition alliance including by them winning the Senate. 

We’ve seen that in the Hungarian local elections.  We’ve seen that in Romania.  We’ve seen that in other countries as well and now in Slovakia. 

So, this makes me wonder whether there is a new trend that we are seeing in Central and Eastern Europe that at least hopes to re-establish the more democratic dynamic in which citizens can feel engaged and can feel, have a stake in.  Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but this is something that I would watch for the future as well. 

Benjamin Haddad: All right.  A new trend to watch for the future, I think this is exactly why we’re having this conversation.  Thank you.  Ambassador (Fried).

Daniel Fried: I think that this is – this conversation underscores the importance of the Slovak election.  It shows that civil society is not going to be walked on.  It’s true that the parties that won have social conservative elements.  But what brought them victory was an insistence that government be accountable and not simply step on them.  That’s the fundamentals of democracy. 

And that suggests that a kind of social passivity is not the wave of the future and that demagogues are not going to come to power or stay in power by lying to people while they enrich themselves.  And I think the Slovak elections of Zuzana Caputova as President and now this coalition is an indication that the predictions of an inexorable slide of democratic standards in Central Europe is simply wrong.  And it is in a sense democracy game on and I regard that as a good thing. 

Benjamin Haddad: All right.  Thank you very much, Ambassador (Fried). 

I think we can now open it – we have half an hour left – we can open it to the Q&A.  Do we have already some questions from people listening? 

Operator: OK.  As a reminder, to ask a question, you would need to press “star,” “1” on your telephone. “Star,” “1” on your telephone.  To withdraw your question, please press the “pound” or hash key.  Again, to ask a question, you would need to press “star,” “1” on your telephone. 

OK.  Your first question comes from the line of a participant whose information was unable to be gathered.  Please introduce yourself and go ahead.  Your line is open. 

(Todd Sedgwick): Hello.  This is (Todd Sedgwick).  Can you hear me OK? 

Benjamin Haddad: Yes.  Ambassador (Sedgwick), we have the former U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia here on the phone.  Please go ahead. 

(Todd Sedgwick): It’s a fascinating conversation and (Ras), it’s great to hear your voice.  My question is about Matovic.  We know a lot about what he is against and why the people voted for him, but they voted for him because he was against corruption, against the (Smer) government, against (Pitso) in particular and a long list.  What is he for?  What is his agenda for Slovakia in terms of the EU and NATO and economic reform, advancement and so forth? 

Rastislav Káčer: Very nice to hear you, (Todd).  It was a great surprise.  Thank you for that question.  It’s an excellent question.  Truth is that I don’t know, frankly, I don’t know. 

This party is a very non-traditional party.  This is an anti-system party to a large degree.  They are not the new kids on the block; they’re already in politics for a while.  Mr. Matovic brought into politics a little bit of a different style as I already mentioned, the kind of populism which is very critical to populism.  It’s not to me necessarily a negative connotation to populism which he is using.  He’s using simplified language, he’s kind of a showman and, again, I don’t mean this in the negative terms, he can catch an attention. 

In the world of social media, a short buzzword where people don’t pay too much of an attention to dozens of pages of complicated program and sophisticated messages, he is coming with a couple of simple lines, but absolutely on the line as Ambassador (Fried) described before and that is less corruption, having government accountable and more transparent for people, and this was the main message. 

What we can guess a little bit because there was a program at the end presented, so he is not running with a party which would not be having a program, but for the victory, this was completely unimportant.  His program was unimportant because he won on  the message, I’m going to beat all mafia down.  I’m going to beat the old corruption networks down.  And I’m going to make government more responsible. 

Please don’t call me the Prime Minister.  Don’t call me Mr. Prime Minister.  Call me Igor because I’m Igor and I want to be one of you and I’ll bring government closer to you and I’ll make everybody accountable to you, to people.  So, this was his message on which he won.  He was an excellent communicator almost I would say ingenious communicator. 

What we can think, we can look at people who won on his list, that would be members of parliament and it’s a little bit of more complicated because here, you see a mixed bag of social conservatives, conservative Christians up to liberal conservatives, very pro-western, very pro-EU, very pro-NATO. 

As a candidate for Minister of Defense, (Yaros Lamadia), whom I worked with, he worked for me when I was the Secretary of Defense, is absolutely pro-EU, pro-NATO, very much the guy who I would love to see in the chair of Minister of Defense.  I’ll put my fingers in fire for him that he’s going to do the best things. 

Then the former head of military intelligence on very much the same line.  You may find some people who would be a little bit more (euro-skeptical) but not entire Europe, those who would be questioning the powers of Brussels, et cetera, this is very hard to say at this moment. 

I think the government will be fiscally responsible when I look at some parties in particular from (Mr. Suvic) party, you would remember Freedom and Solidarity party who’s potential candidate for Minister of Finance and a fiscal conservative on the budget would want to run budget and surplus. 

On foreign policy, we don’t know who is so far the job of foreign minister look to be something which is not seen as something extremely sexy which I’m so sorry to hear about.  But we will be more clever and it will be easier to respond fully to your question when we would see what kind of people he nominates for the government.  But here, I’m reasonably optimistic that the government will be a good one. 

Male: Thank you, Ambassador. 

Male: Well, thank you. 

Operator:   Again, to ask a question, you would need to press “star,” “1” on your telephone.  Your next question comes from the line (Jeffrey Stacey) of United Nations.  Please go ahead. 

Benjamin Haddad: Maybe before turning to (Jeff) – hi, (Jeff) – thanks, Ambassador Káčer and thanks Ambassador (Sedgwick) .  I just wanted to give a quick opportunity to either Corina or Ambassador (Fried) to react to this.  Corina? 

Corina Rebegea: I’m good.  Thanks. 

Benjamin Haddad: And Ambassador (Fried)?  OK.  So, we can turn to the next question, (Jeff Stacey). 

(Jeff Stacey): Yes.  Thank you, panelists for some very stimulating remarks.  And just to pick up on (Dan’s) suggestion of Americans not using too dramatic language in response to these things and the analysis  that we have, but a two-part question related to several statements that were made by panelists. 

First, former Ambassador Ron Weiser counseled ahead of the election that probably was a good idea that the U.S. administration took a more minor role in terms of being actively involved ahead of the vote.  Was that a wise strategy do you all think?

And then the second question related to something that Corina was talking about in terms of sending signals and spillovers to other countries in the region, would we see potentially some of this, not only in Poland and Hungary but possibly also the Babis administration in the Czech Republic.  Thank you.

Benjamin Haddad: Hi.  Let me start with Ambassador Fried for this question – these two questions. 

Daniel Fried: It’s always a good idea for the U.S. to keep a low profile in elections in foreign countries.  We don’t have favorite candidates.  We don’t have favorite parties.  We should simply respect the will of the people of whatever country we’re talking about.

This is a free and fair election.  And I’m glad to hear, (Jeff), your assessment if we didn’t take a high profile role.  We shouldn’t in general.  With respect to the impact on neighboring countries, the other Visegrad countries, look, the politics in all four of the Visegrad countries are rather different. 

So you can’t say that an election in Slovakia is going to favor one or another group in Poland or the Czech Republic.  I think that the significance of the Slovakia election is more profound.  It suggests that regardless of political coloration right or left, societies want their governments to be accountable. 

They didn’t like an investigative journalist being murdered.  They didn’t like the sense of official impunity, cover-up, corruption.  You see that across Europe both in EU countries, I mean, I hesitate while Ben Haddad  is here to talk about the Macron campaign. 

But he was talking about better governance and getting away from a stranglehold of old politics.  As far away as Moscow, you see on Navalny, an anti-corruption activists making that exactly the kind of populous anti-corruption point that (Matovic) was making about unaccountable governance.

I’m not trying to compare Putin’s regime with the outgoing Slovakia government.  That’s not fair.  That’s not accurate.  But the overall point is not right or left.  It’s accountability, clean government, and no special rules for well-connected people. 

You can call that populism, but I would say that I think that that’s the basis of democratic movements.  Yes, I think answered both of them or tried.

Benjamin Haddad:  Corina, do you want to add something to these two questions? 

Corina Rebegea:   Sure.  Maybe on the second question, I think civil society groups, first of all, they work together across the region and second of all the civic groups that make the transition into politics do observe what others have done and what kind of strategies and tactics have been successful.

So, I think the potential for contamination, inspiration, however you want to call it is there.  And – but I do agree with Ambassador Fried that the main motivating issue that kind of transcends the boundaries and brings all these groups together is the anti-corruption agenda and the good governance agenda. 

There are some risks to that, but I think we’re already seeing the seeds being planted out elsewhere.  If you follow the debate about of rule of law in Poland right now, this is probably likely to inform the presidential campaign later this year, I think it’s in May. 

I think along the same lines, civil society is rallying in Hungary, we’ve seen a bit of what that looks like with the local elections with a lot of new groups just popping up and joining forces and putting forth candidates that actually prove to be successful.

So that’s why I think people are watching and they are learning about what tactics are successful and what can bring them closer to where decisions are made.  How this will all turn out in practice?  It’s hard to say because, again, experience in the region have shown that sometimes these parties become ineffective when they do get to the active governing or they are rendered ineffective by the more experienced established parties, so that the tension will be there.  But I still think there is potential for more of the regional move towards this anti-corruption good governance agenda. 

Benjamin Haddad: Anti-corruption and good governance.  Thanks, Corina. 

Ambassador Káčer, do you want to add something to this question?

Rastislav Káčer: Only very briefly because those two answers were absolutely excellent.  I agree with everything what was said by the speakers.  I would only add probably two elements.  One example of inspiration and cooperation.

Mayors of four capital towns of Visegrad for – all of four of them very progressive politicians, particular in Hungary, this is a little bit of a black sheep in the, or white sheep in the black crowd, whatever will be the right connotation (to put this). 

Also mayor of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia very progressive, very much in the same line like President Caputova and there’s a new network of those four mayors producing some of the inspirational activities and I’m very glad we agreed also to run a town hall, civic talks with four mayors during our spring GLOBSEC forum.

So that’s another example of how people can inspire themselves, the progressive forces.  And second, I think in particular in the green agenda, any concern about the environment and sustainability.  I see a lot of overgrowth in regional politics and also in civic movements.  It’s another dimension where I see growing common ground very strongly. 

Benjamin Haddad: Thank you Ambassador Káčer.  I think it’s very interesting, by the way, that you mentioned this alliance of the four progressive mayors from the region.  There was a really interesting (op-ed) the Financial Times by all four of them and this is something that obviously we have followed closely here.  

Remember that we have a few minutes left.  If you want to ask a question just press “star,” “1” and we’ll take you on the question.  I actually had a question, although we’ve covered a little bit of this but I’d like to focus a bit on the role of the United States in the region and going forward and what should be the U.S. strategy.

Because this has been a key to date over the last two administrations on how to engage.  And this is something that we have followed and studied very closely at the Atlantic Council with our partners of GLOBSEC. 

Ambassador Fried, you were the co-author with Jakub Wisniewski, Denise Forsthuber, and Alena Kudzko from both the Atlantic Council and GLOBSEC.  This was a report written in cooperation between our two organizations on the report called the U.S. in central Europe task for a second century together.

I should add that this was named one of the best think tank reports of the year by the global go-to think tank index report of the University of Pennsylvania.  Maybe you can say a word of what the purpose of this report was and what you think should be the priority needs of U.S. engagement now going forward in Central Europe and I’d love to ask or other panelists the same question.

Daniel Fried: I hope that the U.S. – the Trump administration and whatever administration follows it will reach out to the new (Slovak) government and to Central Europe in general.  Now, I think the Trump administration has been constructive with respect to Central Europe. They have continued President Obama’s policies of strengthening security relations.  They have added their own element to support for the three C’s initiatives.  So, the Trump administration is on pretty solid ground in the region, I think the United States needs to be present. 

I think the notion that after EU and NATO membership, the United States had no more role to play in Central Europe beyond our general role with Europe was a mistake. I think the Obama administration did not pay enough attention to Central Europe.

So, I hope we do – we reach out to the new government.  For political reasons, if the Trump administration wants to focus on the social conservative parts of the incoming governing parties, that’s fine with me.

I’m not interested in the partisan aspects of it so much as I am the strategic aspects of being present on the ground.  The Russians are using various nasty methods of advancing their interests, disinformation, corrupt money flows, various forms of subversion in Central Europe as well as other parts of Europe and as we know in the United States.

The Chinese are spending a lot of money in parts of Central Europe with their Belt and Road initiative and we have come to learn that those loans offer – those loan offers are not nearly as good in the fine print as they appear in the headlines.

The United States shouldn’t let China and Russia attempt to exert influence without some counterbalance.  And the United States needs to work with Europe and the EU as a whole.  So this is not the United States ignoring Brussels. It’s the United States working with Brussels, hopefully through such initiatives like (3 Cs) to increase our presence in the region, working with all the political forces that want to work with us. 

Benjamin Haddad: Thank you.  Let me turn to Corina for the same question. 

Corina Rebegea: Sure.  I agree with Ambassador Fried.  And I would just add that apart from these – the political support for these big initiatives and also, of course, the investment in security and defense.  There is a more granular level where the U.S. can do a lot of good work and also talk about it.

And I think this will be really beneficial in reconnecting the U.S. with the general public.  And since the general public seems to care a lot about anti-corruption and good governance, I think the U.S. can show that it can be a leader in this field.

Again, working with the, of course, with EU and national authorities, for instance on combating money laundering and illicit money flows., working on regulations to make beneficial ownership more transparent, because a lot of the local politicians or even mafiosos are able to spend their money in the U.S., for instance, and there have been a lot of scandals from all over the region on how money circulates across the ocean.

I think this is one of the areas where the U.S. can show a little bit more presence, including in working with the civil society, but also on establishing good practices internationally when it comes to fighting corruption. 

Benjamin Haddad: Yes. Thanks. I think partnering with the EU on the issues of anti-corruption, money laundering and fighting beneficial ownership I think are really going to be key both to fight corruption in the region, but also to push back against authoritarian, kleptocratic regimes like the one in Russia and this conversation is being pushed into fore both in Washington and in Europe key states. 

Corina Rebegea: Absolutely.

Benjamin Haddad: Ambassador Káčer, a word to the same question on U.S. engagement.

Rastislav Káčer: My partner is making it very easy.  I could only shut up and everything would be said, but this is probably not what they would expect from me.  So on the top of agreeing with both of them, I would add one historical element, which we need to mention.  

And it’s very important to me because now this was 100 years, absolutely last year when the United States stepped into Europe politics in an extremely positive way.  United States were beyond the settlement of disputes and they are the godfather of the system, which was created in Europe and which created boundary states and the democratic traditions until today. 

So, you are part of our political fabric and it should remain so.  It’s extremely important.  It’s part of the important heritage.  President Wilson in 1918, 1919, then fighting Nazis and communists, Nazis in ’38 until ’45 and then in Cold War the communist soviet system.

You are the nation which helped to rebuild Europe, whole. free together, cooperating over the Atlantic and within the Europe.  And Central Europe became part of this in ’89 and also thanks to the push of the United States, Europe enlarged, reunited and is stronger and it’s a good story.

So, these was an excellent policies for the last 100 years when United States was part of European politics in the combination of values and in the combination of interests and here, I think, well, we are the same believers with Ambassador Fried, that that is the best combination and the best principle how to run the foreign policy, that this is not the horse trading thing.

This is not only vested interest driven thing, most fear of influence driven thing, but the values and the interest when they go hand-in-hand.  And we should remind and remember (this part).  We should remind ourselves and remember this all the time, that is absolutely important to say.

Benjamin Haddad: All right.  I see Ambassador Fried smiling and nodding in front of me.  Just, really, Ambassador Káčer captures the whole spirit of our work here, the whole spirit of the report.  The U.S. and Central Europe celebrating 100 years of engagement, 30 years of independence, but knowing that there’s still tasks ahead and work to be done and that we shouldn’t forget this region.

This is why I think it was so important for us to have this conversation quickly, even though there are still many decisions that need to be made on the constitution of this government, but to preview with our partners and members some of the good news and some of the hopeful news that came out of Slovakia yesterday and that allow us to maybe sort of thinking a little differently about where the region is headed.  

I’d really like to thank our three speakers, our three panelists for this fascinating conversation.  We’re going to have more of them in the coming months on major news coming out of the European Union, especially election and also key events that American policymakers and experts will have to follow closely.

Thank you so much for participating, for listening through, and for asking questions.  I’m Benjamin Haddad of the Future Europe Initiative here at the Council.  And we’ll be with you soon. 

Thank you very much.

Female: Thank you. 

Male: Thank you.

Operator:   Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes today’s conference call. Thank you for participating.  You may now disconnect. 


Related Experts: Benjamin Haddad and Daniel Fried