The World Has to Unite Against ISIS

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An exclusive interview with Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak.

Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak was the 13th European foreign minister to visit Iran since the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani became president in June 2013. Lajcak came to Iran less than a week after Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard concluded his trip to the country, and took part in an exclusive interview with Fair Observer.

Aside from his role as foreign minister, Lajcak also serves as the deputy prime minister of the Republic of Slovakia in the cabinet of Robert Fico. Lajcak is a veteran diplomat who has held several high-ranking political offices prior to beginning his tenure as foreign minister in April 2012.

From 1994-98, Lajcak was Slovakia’s ambassador to Japan and, between 1993-94, he worked as the chef de cabinet of Slovakia’s then-Foreign Minister Jozef Moravčík. In late June 2007, he was appointed as the European Union (EU) Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a position he held until 2009 when he was replaced by the Austrian Valentin Inzko.

In this interview, Lajcak discusses Slovakia’s plans for engagement with Iran and expanding mutual relations with the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation. Also addressed are Slovakia’s growing network of diplomatic representation across the world, its rotating presidency over the Visegrad Group — a political and economic alliance of four Central European countries made up of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia; EU sanctions against Russia and their impact on the Slovak economy; the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Slovakia’s contributions to the global war against the terrorist group.

Kourosh Ziabari: If I am not mistaken, this is the second visit you’re paying to Iran as the Slovak foreign minister and deputy prime minister. What do you think about the prospects of bilateral relations between Iran and Slovakia? As your ambassador in Tehran has told me, the amount of Slovakia’s trade with Iran is really low, and the two countries don’t have significant business and financial relations with each other. Does your country have plans to increase the trade exchanges with Iran?

Miroslav Lajcak: My visit to Tehran is a logical step forward in the bilateral relations between our two countries, following up on rather frequent contacts we have had in the last year. It is true that the volume of our bilateral economic and trade cooperation does not reflect the existing potential, but on the other hand we have to be aware of the existing barriers. We must reach out to the business community to rectify incorrect or outdated information about the region and the resulting prejudices. We want to tackle this issue seriously and do our homework along with our Iranian partners.

Let me specifically point out two activities in this regard: cooperation between the Chambers of Commerce has been substantiated this year by the visit of a representative delegation from the Tehran Chamber of Commerce and Industries to Bratislava. For the second half of 2015 we are planning a business trip of high-ranking representatives of the Ministry of Economy accompanied by entrepreneurs to Iran. And last but not least, during my previous visit to Tehran we have signed the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement, which sets a solid framework for practical business relations.

Ziabari: As a member of the European Union and a NATO ally of the United States, what is Slovakia’s position on the new turn in Iran’s foreign policy following the election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013? Does your country see the new developments in Iran’s political sphere a sign of reconciliation between Iran and the international community, especially the European Union?

Lajcak: We are on the right track here and I trust that this positive engagement in dialogue will persist. During my visit in Iran I have had very open and friendly talks with the highest representatives of your country, and I am optimistic with regard to further evolution of the relations between Iran on the one hand and the West on the other. We are convinced that improved relationships will bear fruit.

Ziabari: Iran currently does not have a diplomatic representation in Slovakia, and is one of the countries that do not maintain an embassy in Bratislava. What are your plans for extending the umbrella of Slovakia’s diplomatic relations with such countries as Iran and African nations, of which only Egypt and Libya have embassies in your capital? 

Lajcak: Yes, it is true that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not have a direct diplomatic representation in Bratislava and it is fair to add that at the same time the Slovak Republic maintains its embassy in Tehran or more than 20 years, since January 1, 1993 when Slovakia became the independent subject of international law. This situation is not unique, however, and it is true that the relations are not equally balanced and the potential of cooperation cannot be used to its full extent.

As for Africa, our interest to expand bilateral relations is growing, especially in the field of trade and investment. We maintain Slovak diplomatic missions in key African countries and additionally strive to expand the network of honorary consulates across the whole continent. Currently, we have active honorary consulates in 13 African countries and plan to open new honorary consulates in eight additional countries on the continent.

The years following the establishment of independent Slovakia in 1993 were quite turbulent. It took several years before the Slovak Republic started on its path to successful development and economic stability.

In general terms, our aim is to foster mutually friendly relations with all countries and we hope that the countries where we maintain our embassies will reciprocally one day establish their embassies in Slovakia. Currently, we have embassies in 64 countries worldwide, plus seven permanent missions, eight general consulates and other kind of diplomatic representation, such as the Slovak Cultural Institutes. Of course, we would like to have wider diplomatic representation abroad; our present network does not fully reflect our needs but rather our current financial possibilities.

It is a free decision of each and every country whether to open their embassy in Slovakia or not. I believe that for a more productive cooperation, better access for businessmen, tourists, cultural and other institutions to visas and information, it is always better to have reciprocal representation on both ends of the diplomatic bridge.

Ziabari: Your country is currently the rotating president of the Visegrad Group. Could you tell us about the importance of this regional coalition? How do Slovakia, and the three other members of the group — the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary — benefit from membership in this political and economic union? Do you also have military relations with the three other nations? 

Lajcak: In the 23 years of its existence, the Visegrad Group has reached the reputation of the most efficient regional initiative in central Europe. The V4 is generally seen as a respected “brand” in Europe and worldwide. In Europe it ranks among such successful regional groupings as the Benelux, Nordic or Baltic cooperation.

The V4 countries have defined strategic priorities, such as energy security, building trans-border energy and transport interconnections or deepening defense cooperation. By joining forces, we are able to strengthen our competitiveness. The GDP of the four countries has grown more than three times since the early 1990s and if put together, the Visegrad Four represents today the fifth largest economy in Europe and ranks 12th place in the world.

Slovakia, as an open export-oriented economy, largely benefits from close economic ties with its neighbors. In recent years, we have witnessed a positive trade balance with all our neighboring countries.

The cooperation of central European countries gradually developed from a free trade zone to a real political alliance. Consensus is used as the primary working method among the Visegrad partners. The lack of permanent structures allows us to be more flexible, open to new challenges and ready to build ad-hoc coalitions with outside partners in the areas of common interest. When we speak as one, major partners in Europe listen to our positions carefully.

The current Slovak presidency of the V4 pays close attention to sustainable economic growth, energy security and transport connections. We particularly focus on building synergies in areas with real potential to boost economic growth, such as digital economy, science, research and innovation.

The defense and security area is traditionally an important part of our agenda. The joint V4 Battle Group, to be on stand-by in 2016, is a perfect illustration of how closely V4 cooperates at an unprecedented level. This project will serve as an instrument for a much deeper collaboration, besides having short-term effects in terms of interoperability. This kind of cooperation in the spirit of the “pooling and sharing” principle provides mutual benefits in times of financial austerity. It opens a way for closer cooperation of our military industries, joint procurement and training, or even such activities as air-policing of our air space.

Ziabari: The Czech magazine Respekt has just published a report, indicating that the living standards in Slovakia have surpassed those of the Czech Republic, and that in recent years, Slovakia’s Gross National Product (GNP) has gone higher than the Czech one. This is while, the magazine argues, Slovakia started the process of economic modernization later than the Czech Republic, and that the average salary in Slovakia is significantly lower. What do you think is the key to Slovakia’s economic success in the years following the establishment of the independent Slovak government? 

Lajcak: The years following the establishment of independent Slovakia in 1993 were quite turbulent. It took several years before the Slovak Republic started on its path to successful development and economic stability. In the first decade of Slovakia’s independent existence, our leaders and policymakers focused their attention on the integration of our country into the OECD, NATO and the European Union. The main economic aspects of these integration processes featured liberalization and transformation of the Slovak economy accompanied by economic reforms, deregulation and harmonization of our legislative framework. These reform policies were successful in releasing economic potential of our economy and the Slovak business environment. After joining the European Union ten years ago, Slovakia became part of a half-billion strong single market enjoying four important economic freedoms — free movement of goods, services, people and capital within the EU — that provided us with another impetus for the economic growth.

Ongoing determination of Slovak governments to continue in deregulation and fiscal reforms culminated in 2009 by achieving the highest degree of integration within the EU — joining the eurozone. In a nutshell, I would say that the key to Slovakia’s economic success was successful economic transition, political and economic stability, well-considered reforms and consistence in their implementation together with a very solid industrial base as well as well-educated and skilled labor force.

Ziabari: Do you consider the adoption of the euro as the national currency in Slovakia, and the Czech’s inability or unwillingness to adopt euro as an effective factor here? 

Lajcak: The adoption of the euro has no doubt influenced the development of the Slovak economy. Despite the fact that everything has its advantages and disadvantages, joining the eurozone was a positive step for Slovakia and we benefited from the deeper monetary integration adopting the euro five years ago. Monetary stability, reduction of transaction costs, higher credit credibility of the country and the increased attractiveness for investors — those are only a few of the benefits, which are closely related to the membership in the euro area.

The fact that the adoption of the euro was the right step forward is evidenced by the positive attitude of the Slovak population that considers the adoption of the euro as a factor helping to mitigate the negative impact of the global financial and economic crisis. When examining the currencies of the surrounding countries that were not in the Eurozone, we see that their economic performance was adversely affected.

ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or whatever else they might call themselves, is a security threat against which it is necessary to unite and stand up with full seriousness and responsibility so that this evil force is eliminated before it dangerously expands beyond its current region of operation. Particular forms of possible participation of Slovakia in the fight against these gangs of savages may also be considered as required.

In brief, I am pleased to tell you, that the common European currency increases Slovakia’s competitiveness in the global economy, making our country more attractive to foreign investors. Slovakia’s economic success is due in no small measure to the fact that we act as a reliable and responsible partner that fulfills its obligations. All these factors significantly contribute to the positive economic results of our country.

Ziabari: Let’s move on to some regional and international issues. Are the EU sanctions against Russia affecting Slovakia in a negative manner? I read that after Germany and Czech Republic, Russia is the third largest import partner of Slovakia. Now, with the EU sanctions in place, do you think that your economy will be suffering? 

Lajcak: Our priority is to resolve the crisis in Ukraine through political and diplomatic means. We do not see the sanctions as an end, but as a means to an end; as an unfortunately inevitable step we have to help resolve the situation. Slovakia has supported the last round of sanctions as a way of putting pressure on Russia to change its policy with respect to the conflict in Ukraine. With regard to our economy, we are currently analyzing the impact of EU sanctions as well as Russia’s retaliatory measures with a particular focus on medium and long-term implications.

Ziabari: It is interesting to me that Slovakia is one of only five EU nations that have not recognized Kosovo following its declaration of independence in February 2008; 23 out of 28 EU member states have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, including the Czech Republic. But Slovakia’s decision to refuse to recognize Kosovo has been one of the points on which you diverged from the majority of your EU partners. Was it because recognizing Kosovo could have undermined your relations with Serbia, and that your country is advocating for Serbia’s accession to the EU? 

Lajcak: Slovakia is indeed one of the crucial supporters of the EU enlargement policy on the whole territory of the western Balkans, including Serbia as well as Kosovo. The Serbian government has done a remarkable job in terms of the necessary internal reforms going hand in hand with the dialog with Pristina; therefore it was a right decision to open the accession negotiations with Serbia in January 2014. However, close ties with Serbia and the support for its legitimate ambitions on the European path have no direct connection with our official position towards Kosovo. This position was clearly formulated by the Declaration of the National Council of the Slovak Republic in March 2007, stating inter alia that resolving the future status of Kosovo must take into consideration appropriate principles of the international law. UN Security Council Resolution no. 1244/99 has been violated by the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo and Slovak diplomacy has been consistently advocating a settlement that would stem out of a dialog of both parties involved.

Nevertheless, Slovakia calls for a constructive policy toward Kosovo and our bilateral cooperation is not obstructed by our non-recognition. We supported Kosovar membership in the European Bank for Construction and Development (EBRD), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Council of Europe Development Bank; we also support signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement between the EU and Kosovo providing that all necessary conditions are met. We have carried out several exchange visits of the parliamentary delegations from Bratislava and Pristina and have definitely no interest in creating any black holes in the western Balkans. Last but not least, we have recently offered a scholarship for students from Kosovo to enroll at Slovak universities and also expect a Kosovar diplomat to complete an internship at the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.

Ziabari: What is Slovakia’s position on the rise of ISIS in Iraq, and the fact that the terrorist group has been killing innocent civilians on the basis of their race, nationality and religion in a savage way? What is the most effective way for addressing the crisis created as a result of the emergence and rise of ISIS? Will Slovakia join the NATO if it ever decides to launch a military strike against ISIS bases?

Lajcak: The decision of the president of the United States on resolute action against militant extremists of the so-called Islamic State is welcomed and supported by us. Actions and measures which will weaken and ultimately break down this dangerous phenomenon of our time, which is an implacable enemy of civilization, freedom and human dignity represent the necessary defense of our values, where there can be no compromise.

ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or whatever else they might call themselves, is a security threat against which it is necessary to unite and stand up with full seriousness and responsibility so that this evil force is eliminated before it dangerously expands beyond its current region of operation. Particular forms of possible participation of Slovakia in the fight against these gangs of savages may also be considered as required.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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