Tag Archives: Ivan Gasparovic

Travelling presidents – Slovak presidents abroad

One of the main responsibilities of presidents in any republic is representing the country abroad. A number of presidents (particularly if they are elected by popular vote) also play an official role in (shaping) foreign policy, giving their visits to other countries more relevance. For instance, after Ukrainian presidents paid their inaugural visit to Russia Viktor Yanukovych’s first foreign trip brought him to Brussels in a bid to counterbalance his otherwise pro-Russian stance. Newly elected Polish president Andrzej Duda on the other hand chose Estonia as the destination of his first trip abroad, underlining his Russo-sceptic stance by showing support for the small Baltic nation which due to its border with Russia and sizeable Russian minority has feared to become the victim of further Russian provocation in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Yet even if the government is in charge of a country’s foreign relations presidential visits abroad can carry great symbolic importance and are indicative of political alliances and networks. German presidents traditionally pay their inaugural visits to neighbour and ally France, neighbour Poland (although only more recently) and EU institutions. In this blog post I am looking at foreign visits of Slovak presidents between 1993 and 2015 and map and explain some differences between time periods and presidents.

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After Slovakia became in independent nation on 1 January 1993 it suddenly had to shoulder many tasks which before then had been performed by the Czechoslovak institutions, most of which – including the foreign ministry – were located in Prague so that hardly any structures were available (the lack of tradition in the foreign ministry is part of the reason that Slovakia is still known among foreign policy officials as ‘the country without protocol’). Although the Slovak presidency still lacked resources, the institution came to play a key role in the country’s recognition abroad – not only because the worldwide recognition presidents Walesa and Havel in neighbouring Poland and the Czech Republic seemed to make presidents the natural contact in the emerging nations of post-communist Europe, but also because Slovakia’s neighbours soon saw inaugural president Michal Kovač as their ally against the illiberal reign of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Beginning with the term of Rudolf Schuster in 1999 (and after 15-month vacancy in the presidential office from march 1998), Slovakia’s first popularly elected presidents, the presidency’s actual role in foreign policy decreased. Nevertheless, the preparation of the country’s EU accession still gave sufficient reason for presidential travel to summits and international meetings (see peak in 2004). Schuster’s fondness of travelling also earned him notoriety among the country’s politicians and civil servants. Travel activity once again decreased under president Gašparovič (2004-2014), who was also generally less keen to engage in foreign policy. The sudden peak under new president Kiska can be explained by the fact that already shortly after his inauguration he had to attend several summits relating to the Ukrainian crisis.

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When looking at overall numbers, it should not be surprising that neighbours Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany top the list of most visited countries by Slovakia’s presidents. The United States as a traditional ally of most Central European states and Hungary, Slovakia’s neighbour to the South, too, should not be surprising given its proximity. The fact that Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also appear on top of the president-specific lists is also conditioned by the countries’ association in the Visegrad group which holds regular meetings with locations rotating between member states. Relatively frequent visits to Ukraine, too, appear to result from its geographic proximity.

An interesting pattern are the relatively frequent visits to the Vatican. Slovakia is ca. 62% Catholic with comparatively high church attendance and although although the quick succession of three popes in less than a decade certainly contributed to the number of presidential visits, it underlines the political weight of the church (although – as the anti-LGBT referendum showed – its influence is waning). The fact that Italy appears in the total number of visits more often than a powerful European nation such as France can be thereby likely explained by the ‘convenient’ location around Vatican City. Until now, Slovak presidents have visited 42 different countries, most of which very clearly mark the country’s alliances with others. While presidential visits abroad tend to be organised in close collaboration with the foreign ministry and are often connected to international summits or other events, Rudolf Schusters travels show that there is still some leeway. Schuster completed the greatest number of foreign visits in one term (74) remains the only Slovak president to have ever visited another country in the Americas than the USA, i.e. Canada.

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The data for this article comes from the official website of the Slovak president (http://www.prezident.sk) and Michal Kovač’ biography ‘Pamäti. Môj príbeh občana a prezidenta’ (MilaniuM 2010); it relates to both official visits and ‘working visits’ but excludes private visists. A MS Excel spread sheet with the data for this post can be downloaded here.

Slovakia – Perils of semi-presidentialism?! Independent Andrej Kiska inaugurated as new president

On 15 June 2014 independent Andrej Kiska was inaugurated as Slovakia’s new president, succeding Ivan Gašparovič who had served as president since 2004. Kiska is the country’s first truly non-partisan president and while his lack of any partisan affiliation was one of the main reason for his electoral victory against Prime Minister Robert Fico, it will also be his greatest obstacle to exerting political influence.

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Andrej Kiska giving his inaugural address in the concert hall of the Slovak Philharmonic | photo via nrsr.sk

Since 1993, Slovakia has experience three different presidents – indirectly elected Michal Kovač (1993-1998; indirectly elected), Rudolf Schuster (1999-2004) and Ivan Gašparovič (2004-2014; both directly elected) – all of which declared to stand above parties and act as presidents of all people. Kiska, too, declared his ambition to be a president above parties, yet in contrast to his predecessors he is – in his own words – “the first president without political or partisan past”. Non-partisan presidents are not an unusual phenomenon and given that constitutional stipulations or constitutional practices in most European republics foresee that presidents give up their party membership a number of presidents could be classified as such. Nevertheless, Kiska is exceptional in so far as he never served in any other political office and has never been member of a political party. His predecessors were all experienced politicians and (at least up until their inauguration) party members. In a European context, the only real point of comparison for such apolitical and non-partisan candidate even entering the second round of a popular presidential election would be Stanislaw Tyminski, a Polish-Canadian businessman who surprisingly advanced to the second round in the 1990 Polish presidential elections but eventually lost against Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Kiska’s lack of a political past together with his background as a self-made man proved to be his most important asset and unique selling point in the presidential campaign. However, Kiska’s independence will now likely be an obstacle to his success as a president. The political left, almost exclusively represented by the governing SMER-party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, sees Kiska as a representative of the right and will generally be hostile towards the new president (not only because he defeated Fico). While this might not lead to open conflict between government and Prime Minister, the refusal of outgoing president Gašparovič to meet with his successor is reminiscent of the way the semi-authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar (1992-1998) tried to sabotage the work of president Michal Kovač and shows how the government could try to prevent Kiska from becoming an effective check-and-balance. The fragmented political right on the other hand is wary of the new president and despite the support Kiska received from the third- and fourth-placed centre-right candidates, Radoslav Procházka and Milan Kňažko, he can hardly count on any party to act as his support base.

With the next parliamentary elections still two years away and SMER holding a majority of 55% in the assembly, Kiska is in a difficult situation. On the one hand he is in cohabitation with the government and should therefore be more active to show his closeness to and build alliances with the centre-right in parliament. On the other hand, although SMER’s approval ratings have been falling since their victory in the snap elections of 2012, it is currently unlikely that an alliance of centre-right parties will emerge that can topple the current government. Furthermore, if Kiska wants to play at least some role in everyday politics in the next two years, he needs to stay on neutral terms with the government and parliamentary majority. Although the contents of Kiska’s inaugural address should be interpreted with caution, his announcement to support political ideas from whichever political side they come from appears to be a signal in this direction.

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Kiska’s campaign poster [slogan reads: ‘The first independent president’] | image via andrejkiska.sk

In their discussion of presidentialism, Linz (1990) and Mainwaring and Shugart (1997) agree that popular presidential elections are more likely to bring political outsiders into power which can have negative consequences for political stability and presents one of the theoretical perils of presidentialism. Due to the limited powers of the Slovak president, a destabilisation of the political scene is unlikely – even the extremely frequent use of vetoes by president Rudolf Schuster who vetoed more than 10% of all legislation did not affect the parliamentary character of the system. Rather, the outsider status appears to have a negative effect on the president’s ability to influence policy and thus represents a peril for the president, not democracy.

For now, Kiska’s most likely course of action appears to be to continue stressing his philanthropic activities – he is founder of the “God Angel” charity, declared that he was willing to give his salary to the poor (see also here) and invited a number of socially disadvantaged people to the first dinner he hosted as president – while looking for a viable political partner. The new centrist formation ‘Sieť’ (Net) of third-placed presidential candidate Radoslav Procházka (the only of the centre-right candidates to unequivocally support Kiska in the second round) could be an option. According to a recent poll, its approval stands at 13% and is thus only second to Prime Minister Fico’s SMER (34.6%). Nevertheless, Kiska will likely remain cautious in affilliating himself with any political party (even inofficially) and probably wait how ‘Sieť’ fairs in local election in autumn before deciding on further steps.