Revolution, break-up, and thinking positively

  • 2012-05-10
  • Interview by Steven G. Traylor

Acting as a conduit to the three Baltic States, newly appointed Ambassador of the Czech Republic, Ambassador Pavol Sepelak to Latvia, recently sat down with The Baltic Times to discuss his background, diplomatic experience, and vision of “enlarging cooperation” between members of the Visegrad Group - of which the Czech Republic currently chairs the presidency - and the Baltics. Ambassador Sepelak comes to his Riga posting with a colorful diplomatic background. Prior to Latvia, he was Czech Ambassador to Pakistan following the death of the previous Czech Republic Ambassador, Dr. Ivo Zdarek, who was killed along with 53 others in the Karachi Marriott Hotel Taliban blast of September 2008 in Islamabad.

Despite the challenges of such a high risk posting, Ambassador Sepelak has traveled the world in the name of the Czech Republic, first in 1988 at the Czechoslovakia permanent mission to the United Nations. Other postings include Geneva and Luxembourg as Ambassador. Beginning his formal education at the University of Economics in Bratislava studying foreign trade in 1977, Sepelak was later accepted by the Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations specializing in international economic relations. Postgraduate studies saw this career diplomat studying in Pembroke College in Oxford, UK, completing his studies in 1994.

Ambassador Sepelak speaks about the Velvet Revolution, the breakup of Czechoslovakia , business cooperation between our two countries, and his belief in Christianity and his rejection of the Communist Party as he was growing up.

Greetings Mr. Ambassador, welcome to Latvia.  I know that you have been here only a few months; please give us some background about yourself, where you were born, and how you decided on a career in the Czech Republic Foreign Service?
I was born in the Eastern Slovakian city Michalovce, as a citizen of the then-Czechoslovakia. I spent my early and happy childhood with my parents, who were small farmers with strong Christian beliefs. At the age of fourteen I lost my father in a car accident, later on my mother because of cancer, and suddenly I had to adjust to new realities and speed up the process of maturity. While growing up in modest means, I have always had a hunger for knowledge and a willingness in getting to know foreign countries. So I entered the University of Economics in Bratislava studying foreign trade. After finishing the first year of university studies I passed the exam and was accepted by the Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations to study a specialization in international economic relations. Going abroad for studying helped me at that time also in solving my difficult social situation, as I had gotten a scholarship from the state. After finishing my university studies in 1983, I had to pass compulsory military service and, after this, I entered the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affaires in Prague at the period when Gorbachev launched his perestroika. Marrying in 1987 I was first posted abroad at the Czechoslovak permanent mission to the United Nations at the end of 1988. I finished this posting in 1992 with the split of Czechoslovakia. The next year I entered into the newly created Czech diplomatic service and in 1993/94 I did my postgraduate diplomatic studies in Pembroke College in Oxford, United Kingdom. Since 1994 I served in different functions at the MFA in Prague and had several diplomatic missions abroad, in Geneva, Luxembourg, Pakistan and now in Latvia.

Mr. Ambassador, now that you have settled into your new posting, what are the goals that you have set for your responsibility in the bilateral relationship between the Czech Republic and Latvia?
Latvia is a friendly country having many historical links and parallels with the Czech Republic. I consider it not only a great privilege and honor to serve in such a wonderful country, with no clouds in our bilateral relations, but also see many opportunities to develop and to enlarge an already solid base of our successful and multi-faceted ties. In addition, our membership in EU and NATO gives both of us a very reliable and promising platform to deepen and enhance mutual cooperation. Right now the Czech Republic holds the presidency of the so-called Visegrad Group countries [the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia] and we are very active in getting closer and deeper cooperation with the Baltic countries. We have a lot of common interests and it is always better to defend them in Brussels in such a larger group. This year we had in Prague a common meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs on March 5, and we intend to organize other meetings on the level of prime ministers at the end of June. We do have intensive contacts also between parliamentarians. By the end of April the first deputy chairman of the Czech Senate, Mr. Sobotka, is coming to Latvia and in the second half of the year we expect the visit of the speaker of the Saeima  in Prague. In a period of financial and economic crises I definitely put emphasis on the economic side of our relations, giving priority to new trade and business opportunities. Although the overall volume of our mutual trade, approximately 220 million euros, is bigger than our trade with Pakistan, that is a country of almost 200 million habitants, where I have served before, I do consider that existing opportunities and needs on both sides are far from being fully utilized. In the relatively short period of time I have been living in Latvia I had the chance to visit several regions and municipalities which confirmed their “hunger” for trade, investment and industrial cooperation. The Czech Republic is a traditionally highly industrialized country and has much to offer. In addition to already active big companies like Skoda and CKD, I would like to focus on enlarging cooperation between small and medium enterprises. They are the ones who really need more of our help and assistance.

Have you had an opportunity to meet Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis? And if so, what are your impressions and what would you like to accomplish between our two countries?
I have met Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis on two occasions and discussed issues concerning our intensive bilateral political contacts, as well as further economic cooperation. Being PM is not an easy task. It is even much harder and difficult in times of one of the biggest crises this country has had to experience. Prime Minister Dombrovskis had courage to take up this position for the third time and leads his country’s effort to consolidate and put on track the national economy. His work and efforts are internationally recognized and commended. Latvia successfully completed its international loan program and entered the next phase - recovery focused on economic growth and competitiveness. We are now preparing the visit of Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas in Latvia, plnaned for the second half of this year. I am confident that the meeting of both prime ministers will further strengthen our rich bilateral relations.

Tell us about your impression of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and how it affected you while at the Mission of Czechoslovakia at the United Nations at the time? What do you remember, and what was going on as you saw it?
It was in New York where, as many other young Czechs and Slovaks, I welcomed our return to democracy and the “Velvet revolution” of 1989 with a lot of joy and future expectations. I witnessed the first visit of then-President Vaclav Havel to New York in 1990 and the unforgettable atmosphere which surrounded it. For me the most touching moment was meeting at Columbia University, where Havel and a lot of famous personalities including Czech, Slovak and American singers as well as artists and actors from Hollywood were singing the Czechoslovak national anthem on the podium. It was a time of happiness and enthusiasm for a better world where freedom, justice and new opportunities emerged. But shortly after the Velvet Revolution our return to the family of democracies was for me marked by another important event. By the end of 1992 Czechoslovakia had divided into two countries and suddenly I had to make a hard choice between Czech and Slovak citizenship. It was not an easy moment for me as the peaceful split was accompanied by lots of emotions on both the Czech and Slovak sides. The reasoning behind my decision was, at that time, not based on career considerations; it was a family choice which brought me back to Prague in 1993. As I had lost my parents in Slovakia in early childhood, my wife, as an only child, had to take care of her old parents in Prague.

Your academic background and education is in the field of economics.  How has that benefited you in the foreign service?
I have always considered a diplomatic job as any other job, where in order to succeed you have to work hard and sincerely. Although the diplomatic profession is very closely linked to politics, a career diplomat is not a politician. We are quite often reminded that we constitute part of the state bureaucracy, which is representing the country abroad. The word bureaucracy and the work connected with it have today many pejorative connotations, but it is also recognized that today the modern state cannot function without it. As I am deeply persuaded that real values are being created by business, industry and agriculture, I do my best to use my economic background to get tangible results, especially in those fields. They are the ones which have to also sustain the so-called white collar bureaucracy, and I always have this feeling of owing them our help and assistance.

Give us some background about the time between the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1999; how did the eventual Czech Republic manage to survive in this, I am sure, very difficult time period.
You are right; the life of a person is influenced not only by his own actions and efforts, but also developments in the society you are born into and have to live in. This is very true for a Central European country like mine, which for practically every twenty years in the 20th century had to deal with wars or changes of a regime. I was born in socialist Czechoslovakia at a time when small farmers were forced to give their property to newly created collective farms. As deep believers in Christianity, they never entered the Communist Party. My wife’s parents were also persecuted by the communist regime and their property was nationalized and confiscated. I met my wife, who worked as a stewardess with Czech Airlines, shortly after my arrival in Prague and have remained there until today. The Velvet Revolution and break-up of Czechoslovakia were definitely two major events which significantly influenced my personal life as well as diplomatic career. The choices I had to make are seen from above. I am often asking myself whether I should have done this or that differently, and have no conclusive answer as of yet. The most important thing for me is my family, my feeling that I have always been frank and fair, my belief in what I am doing, and positive thinking ahead.