‘A country more respected when stands up for values'

Slovakia, outgoing ambassador Ivo Hlavacek recalls, twice voted against Goldstone in the UN, supported Israel in other international forums.

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December 28, 2010 03:45
Slovakian Ambassador Ivo Hlavacek and Rivlin

Slovakian Ambassador Ivo Hlavacek and Rivlin 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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It never hurts to be professionally qualified for more than one career. Having the option of choices, coupled with experience in more than one field, gives people like outgoing Slovakian Ambassador Ivo Hlavacek an edge over some of his fellow diplomats, whose total working experience has been within the framework of the diplomatic corps.

Hlavacek, who has just wound up a two-year posting here, has a PhD in international law and worked as an external consultant on Eastern Europe for a well-known American law firm, Barker McKenzie, before taking up a position in the legal department of the Czechoslovakian Foreign Ministry where he served as director-general for legal and consular affairs.

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He’d gone to America on a scholarship to Columbia University, and while he was happy working with Barker McKenzie and had also received offers from other law firms, he was nonetheless homesick.

Enter Peter Tomka, who is today vice president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and who has twice been Slovakia’s ambassador to the UN. Prior to the Velvet Revolution, when they were both living in New York (where Tomka was legal adviser to Czechoslovakia’s permanent mission to the UN), he suggested to Hlavacek that it might be in his interest to join the International Law Department at the Czech Foreign Ministry.

Hlavacek duly went to Prague, “and they caught me.”

Later, following the division of Czechoslovakia into two republics, he decided to go to Slovakia, although his loyalties run on both sides of the border. He is the product of a Czech father and a Slovak mother. He felt that Slovakia needed his help more than the Czech Republic, and to work within an emerging state was more challenging.

IN THE International Law Department of Slovakia’s Foreign Ministry, Hlavacek was given responsibility for international law, multilateral treaties, consular affairs, human rights and minorities and the International Court of Justice, through which Slovakia was working out a water dispute with Hungary. At the time, he was 26 years old.



The work was intense, taking up 14-16 hours of his day. So after two years he asked to be sent out as a diplomat and was posted as consul-general to Istanbul. It was there that he met his wife, Slavka, a harpist, who is also from Slovakia. They married in Istanbul, which is a city they both love.

While they were there, they also befriended the mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now his country’s prime minister.

On their return to Slovakia, Hlavacek was asked to take charge of a state-run enterprise that developed and provided services for diplomats. He spent sixand- a-half years in that post.

Next he went back to the Foreign Ministry, and was offered a choice of ambassadorial positions that included both Israel and Cuba. With two young children, a boy and a girl, today nine and seven, Hlavacek thought it was not yet the right time to go to Tel Aviv, even though it was close to his heart. He and his wife had visited Israel on six occasions before he was posted here, and they will continue to visit in the future. “It’s only a three-hour flight,” he said in a farewell interview with The Jerusalem Post last week.

Aside from any other considerations, the Cuban posting offered greater opportunities for travel, as Hlavacek was also assigned to other countries in the Caribbean.

It was more challenging than he had initially anticipated, because he arrived when there was a hard-line European Union policy against Cuba. Trying to make any headway with Cuban government officials was frustrating not only for Hlavacek, but for all ambassadors of countries with EU membership. “There was no practical dialogue,” he recalled.

Not one to sit idle, Hlavacek became involved with the Cuban dissident movement, providing it with communications equipment and access to the Internet.

In September 2008, he went home for two months leave and was offered two other ambassadorial postings: Buenos Aires or Tel Aviv.

This time he chose Tel Aviv because it was familiar to him and he and his wife already had friends here.

DURING HIS two-year stint, Hlavacek managed to bring Slovakia into sharper focus. This was evidenced by the exchange of visits by high-ranking officials from both countries. Hlavacek also set the wheels in motion for a visit to Slovakia by President Shimon Peres in the second half of 2011.

There is a chance, he said, that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will go there too.

Relations between the two countries became closer when Slovakia twice voted against the Goldstone report in the United Nations. It has also supported Israel in other international forums, said Hlavacek.

He was hopeful that the present government, elected last June, will continue with the courageous stand taken by the previous government when it dared to express opinions that deviated from those of the majority at the EU, especially in matters related to Israel.

“It makes a country stronger and more respected when it stands up for its values,” he said.

As far as domestic policy is concerned, Hlavacek was also hopeful that the present government would continue to take a positive attitude to “the rightful demands for restitution and compensation by Holocaust survivors,” and would follow the example set by former justice minister, and current Supreme Court president, Stefan Harabin, who imposed strict penalties on Holocaust deniers and accelerated the process for dealing with restitution and compensation claims by Holocaust survivors.

There are still some forces within Slovakia that have a resistant attitude to Jews, Hlavacek acknowledged, but on the whole there is no overt anti-Semitism, he said, noting that any expression of anti- Semitism was illegal.

Slovakia’s school curricula include educational programs about the Holocaust. And the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center, located in the capital of Bratislava, has developed a Heritage Route linking 24 Jewish sites around the country in association with the European Route of Jewish Heritage. Bratislava was for centuries a major center of Jewish life and learning, and is the burial place of Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, better known as the Hatam Sofer.

HLAVACEK IS not going back to the Foreign Ministry. It has become too politicized, he said, and is minimizing the role of career diplomats. “There is no respect for those who built the ministry or for the specifics of foreign service,” he said.

The way things are now, said Hlavacek, he doubts that he would fit in. So for the time being he will go back to his professional roots – the law. “I don’t want to waste my time, energy or knowledge for these people,” he said of the current powers-that-be at the ministry. He is particularly angry that they cancelled the Christmas vacation for all ambassadors who are in the process of completing their tours of duty. This is a measure that was apparently never taken in the past.

While members of Israel’s Foreign Ministry are not short on complaints, Hlavacek said that he envies the strength of its professional corps.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman respects the fact that the people in the ministry are long-term professionals, while he will be there for a limited time, said Hlavacek. “This is not so in Slovakia. This is something that Slovakia should learn from Israel. In Israel everyone knows their limits.”

Hlavacek plans to be back in Israel at least two or three times a year, possibly as a business consultant for legal aspects of joint ventures. One of his regrets is that very little has been done in the area of strategic R&D cooperation, even though Slovakia has a highly educated work force which could easily absorb Israeli know-how.

“It’s time to move forward from declarative talks to concrete action,” he said, and was cautiously optimistic that the present government, which has stabilized Slovakia’s economy, will recognize the advantage of deeper cooperation.

Meanwhile, in addition to consultancy work, he intends to do some teaching in the law schools of Czech and Slovakian universities and to maintain a relatively low profile. If things change at the Foreign Ministry, he might go back there, he said, “or I might go into politics.”

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