Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999

Bratislava N E W S M A K E R S:
Slovakia Becomes Boring

Juraj Lisiak

Although not yet officially appointed, New Yorker Carl Spielvogel will in all likelihood be the next United States Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, replacing his long-reining predecessor, Ralph Johnson. Approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Spielvogel sailed through the sometimes laborious committee process along with a dozen other Clinton appointees.

Before he can claim his diplomatic passport and have the privilege of skipping long lines at customs, his nomination must first get rubber stamped by an official Senate vote. Most political pundits predict that the issues behind the filibustering that has delayed the vote so far will be worked out by the end of the summer. However, since ambassadorial recommendations come directly from the embattled President, political shenanigans could possibly delay congressional approval in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Spielvogel hopes not. He and his wife, Barbara Lee Diamondstein-Spielvogel, have dished out over two hundred thousand dollars to the President as well as the Democratic Party and, understandably, want to see some return on their hefty investment. Spielvogel was appointed to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (a Senate-appointed panel dealing with broadcasting) and did have the pleasure of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, but for that kind of money, one expects a better deal.

Being addressed as "Ambassador Spielvogel" should about do it.

Of course, money's not really an issue for a man who runs one of the largest car dealership franchises in the US, the United Auto Group. A graduate of Baruch College in New York, Spielvogel is considered one of the leading business executives in the country.

He and his wife are also part of the New York cultural circuit, having hosted their share of glitterati and served enough lobster bisque and shrimp cocktail to be certified as fishmongers. Maybe when he is not attending the board meetings and executive luncheons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York, Mt Sinai Hospital or Eureka Communities charity, he will have time to stop over in Bratislava.

It is also very doubtful that Spielvogel will learn the Slovak language any time soon, and his stay in Slovakia will most probably be counted in weeks rather than months.

Johnson, who previously served as Coordinator for Assistance to Eastern Europe and who ascended through the ranks of the Foreign Service, is very unlike his successor. Primarily because of his experience and ability, Johnson was sent to co-ordinate the clean up in Slovakia, that is, get rid of Meciar. Now that he has succeeded he has been shipped off to another European backwater, the Balkans.

Highly involved, an astute troubleshooter and, most importantly, very discreet, Johnson was cognizant of both Slovak culture and language. He was a professional by both training and experience and he advanced US interests in Slovakia with finesse.

Spielvogel will not be able to live up to his predecessor precisely because he is in a completely different category. Lower level diplomatic personnel will carry out most of the substantive work, and Spielvogel's main task will be to read the cue cards and maybe even to pronounce a couple words in Slovak. Surely, he will manage that without fumbling.

Reportedly having refused an ambassadorship to a Baltic country not too long ago, Spielvogel looks settled on the fact that this is the most political mileage he will be getting for his financial support of the President. Heading a diplomatic mission to a relatively civilized European country continues to be one of the trinkets of splurging some of your wealth in the political arena. Of course, such appointments are not always without controversy as James Hormel, the openly homosexual Ambassador to Luxembourg, found out.

Yet the symbolism of this appointment shouldn't be underestimated. The richest, most powerful country in the world no longer considers Slovakia a problematic nation in need of a diplomatic babysitter but regards it merely as another chip to be handed out to supporting political factions. While all diplomatic appointments are political to a certain degree, there is a sharp distinction between appointing a diplomatically experienced ambassador, such as Johnson, and sending a mere figurehead ambassador with no formal training, such as Spielvogel.

Slovakia has graduated from the ranks of Belarus, Croatia and Rumania, where professional appointments are still necessary, to a higher level: a relatively stable nation where the US ambassador doesn't have to worry about getting stuck in internationally sensitive situations.

Juraj Lisiak, 4 August 1999

Information regarding the political donations of Carl Spielvogel can be found at the Mother Jones Magazine Top 400 political contributors.




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