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A Potential President? Possibly.

Does the latest political move by Slovakia’s foreign minister place him more firmly in the frame for a presidential bid? Why is Miroslav Lajcak hesitating?

by Martin Ehl 14 December 2018

It is hard for any Central European government to support anything that might be interpreted as a positive move toward immigration. So when Slovakia’s government and parliament rejected the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak resigned, in a move that can only raise his profile.


As part of his long-term policy of positioning Slovakia firmly within the EU mainstream, Lajcak has been careful not to reject migration as bluntly as other Central European countries, and as president of the UN General Assembly, he went on to help negotiate the first-ever UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions – adopted this week in Morocco.


Therefore, when other Slovak politicians pushed back against the migration agreement, Lajcak felt he must resign as a matter of principle.


Yet when Lajcak did resign, Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and President Andrej Kiska rejected his move and persuaded him to stay on as the friendly international face of Slovakia. In addition, Lajcak’s partners in government signaled that nobody else would go to Morocco to sign the agreement, so the foreign minister ended up backtracking.


Despite any potential loss of face from his U-turn, opinion polls show Lajcak as a firm favorite in the presidential elections, which should take place before 9 March next year. President Kiska, though popular, has decided not to go for a second mandate, and until speculation about Lajcak’s candidacy emerged, there was no clear favorite, only a disparate bunch of personalities. Lajcak has around 32 percent support in the polls, three times more than the next candidate.


Nevertheless, he has so far refused to enter the running. His maneuvers around the migration pact might be explained as testing the ground, to see if he can gain any voters from the opposition.


Lajcak is connected with Smer, the social-democratic governing party, which is currently under pressure after many scandals. Smer’s leader, Robert Fico, was forced to resign as prime minister this spring, following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee. Kuciak’s unfinished investigation had shown possible links between Fico and people connected with the Italian mafia, which was suspected of having ordered the killings.


“According to our research, Lajcak is the only government politician who has the potential to reach out to the voters of opposition parties,” Martin Slosiarik, director of a top Slovak polling agency, Focus, told me. “He is seen as professional, [and] as a diplomat who would represent the country well abroad.”


Lajcak made a career in diplomacy for independent Slovakia, and has also achieved recognition by being appointed to various international positions – including the EU special representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also president of the UN General Assembly.


However, his past could be a weakness in the eyes of some voters. He was educated in the 1980s at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the infamous Soviet (later Russian) school for diplomats, which was always rumored to be a recruiting ground for Soviet – later Russian – spy agencies.


That is not a problem in Slovakia, but in Poland, for example, the current conservative government has purged its foreign ministry of MGIMO graduates.


Many former students of MGIMO were top diplomats under the old regime, and many switched sides quite easily after the 1989 revolutions. Some have been European commissioners, such as Stefan Fule for the Czech Republic, or Maros Sefcovic for Slovakia; meanwhile, others went on to make their careers in business. In short, MGIMO was not a bad school for diplomatic professionals, but its graduates are more noted for their own ambitions and pragmatism than for being defenders of liberal democratic values.


However, it is now up to Lajcak to decide if he wants to enter the electoral contest, which is hard to calculate, even with the experience and pragmatism he has shown thus far.


Slovakia would get a good president, if he were to run, and win. Central Europe’s era of being represented by lauded personalities, with impeccable moral credentials, finished some time ago, and we ought to be grateful to have good-quality graduates from Soviet schools, who have proven their credentials in democracies.

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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