New Slovak President Gasparovic hopes to continue "exceptional" relations with Czech Republic

Ivan Gasparovic and Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK

The Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic was in the Czech Republic on Monday for his first official foreign trip since his election in April. Mr Gasparovic started by meeting his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus, continuing a tradition of each country's president making his first official visit to the other, established after the so-called "velvet divorce", when Czechoslovakia peacefully split in 1993.

Ivan Gasparovic and Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Radio Prague went out into the streets of Prague, to ask a few Czechs how they perceive relations with their former compatriots:

Woman 1: "I think we have a good relationship. We like the Slovak people."

RP: Have you ever been to Slovakia?

Woman 1: "Yes. I've been there several times."

RP: Do you think it's a foreign country?

Woman 1: "I don't think it is a foreign country for us. I like it very much."

Woman 2: "We would like to get back together with them. I like them. I was born there."

Man 1: "I don't think that they are developing as quickly as we are but they are on the right way."

Man 2: "I think relations between the Czechs and Slovaks are good."

Woman 3: "There are quite a lot of Slovaks here, especially nurses in hospitals and sales assistants."

Man 3: "People from Slovakia come to Prague or the Czech Republic to work and we have lots of Slovaks who work in different companies in Prague and I think they are just as good as we are."

Woman 4: "Before, I didn't understand why the Czechs and Slovaks separated because I was just ten years old. Now, I'm a little happy that we are separated."

During Mr Gasparovic's visit, both presidents agreed to continue to cultivate their countries' "exceptional" relationship, cooperate more closely inside the European Union, and support further meetings of the loose grouping of Central European countries, the Visegrad Four, which also includes Hungary and Poland.

"The group will function well if it speaks about concrete projects that individual states propose and if it can jointly push them through," Mr Gasparovic said after the meeting.

Vladimir Spidla and Ivan Gasparovic,  photo: CTK
But Czech President Klaus - who has always been sceptical about the group's formal role - was quick to point out that past experience has proven the group's importance should not be over-estimated.

Speaking to journalists he said the presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers of the four Central European countries should continue to hold meetings, but noted that in key matters such as the European constitution they have failed to reach agreement and pull together.

Presidents Klaus and Gasparovic also agreed that joint Czech and Slovak units were now ready to help train Iraqi soldiers and military police officers following the decision to help reconstruct the Iraqi security forces that was reached at the NATO summit in Istanbul last month.

President Gasparovic also fostered relations with outgoing Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, the heads of both houses of parliament, and discussed the differences between the legal systems of the two countries with Czech ombudsman Otakar Motejl. Later on Monday, he met with representatives of the Slovak community, placed flowers at the sculpture of Czechoslovak politician Milan Rastislav Stefanik, and visited Prague's Petrin observatory.

Martin Mikule spoke earlier to Jan Sencak from the board of the Slovak community in the Czech Republic about Czech-Slovak relations and Ivan Gasparovics' past and present policies:

What do you think about the prospects for Czech and Slovak relations? How are they going to develop in near future?

"I think that the relationship between the Czech and Slovak Republic is going very well, it's much better than in 5 years ago. It's been improving from day to day and I hope that it will continue also under the presidency of Ivan Gasparovic."

Can you say something about Mr Gasparovic's past? What is his political and professional background?

"He was vice-president of the biggest political party in Slovakia, the HZDS - "Movement for Democratic Slovakia". In parliamentary election in 2002 he left this party because he got into trouble with the president of this party Vladimir Meciar. Later he founded his own political party, which was called "Movement for Democracy" HZD. He was a candidate for president in Slovakia but his political preferences were very low - up to 20%. So nobody predicted that he could become the Slovak president."

Slovak community in the Czech Republic
Ivan Gasparovic left the party of Vladimir Meciar. But do you believe that he has also condemned his policies, which have been generally considered quite controversial?

"I wouldn't say this. I think their view of the political system in Slovakia is the same. The political party Movement for Democracy, of which Ivan Gasparovic was the president, has the same policy as the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, so I wouldn't say that Ivan Gasparovic's policies would be much different from the one of Vladimir Meciar."

Well, if his policies are the same, or similar, as policies of Vladimir Meciar, how do you think they will be accepted abroad?

"This is a little bit complicated question. I think that political power in Slovakia is in the hands of the government and not the president. The president does not have so many tools as the government. So the relationship between Slovakia and other countries will depend on the parliamentary elections and on the government that will be in power in Slovakia."