This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 1 September 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.