Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to India, Zigmund Bertok, a Doctor of Law, is a professional diplomat.Before coming to India in December 2013, he served his country in Beijing,Cairo and Helsinki,and at home in various capacities. In this interview to Ashok Tuteja and Debdeep Mukherjee, he praises Modi government's 'Open Door' policy and spells out in detail how the two countries could intensify bilateral ties.Excerpts
How do you look at the current state of India-Slovakia political and economic relations?
First of all, I would take this opportunity to congratulate President-elect Ram Nath Kovind, who is the new head of the state and frontman of India. I hope his election will bring a new period of ties between India and Slovakia.
The Slovak Republic came into existence on 1 January 1993. Our relations with India developed on the basis of excellent political, cultural, and economic ties. Surely, Slovakia, located in Central Europe, might seem a small country by its size, but based on the common values with India such as democracy, full-fledged membership in the European Union and NATO, there are many shared interests between us, and I believe there is a vast potential for extending existing cooperation.
Why has there been no major investment by Indian businesses in Slovakia and vice versa?
I have to disagree. The largest Indian foreign investment in the last two years has been in Slovakia, by the Tata Sons owned Jaguar Land Rover. JLR is constructing its biggest European factory in Slovakia worth 1.5 billion GBP. The plans are to start producing cars by the end of 2018. The investment will attract their subsidiaries, SMEs, R&D and other. There have been three major car-producing plants in Slovakia owned by global companies namely Volkswagen (Germany), PSA Peugeot Citroen (France) and the KIA Motors (South Korea). From the Slovak side, the reciprocal interest has been machinery, engine and railway cooperation and defence cooperation. Also, since the Indian Army uses Russian/Soviet products, we continue extensive cooperation in this field from the past.
Slovakia is an important member of the European Union (EU). How do you think India andthe EU can strengthen and diversify their relationship?
The 13th EU-India summit in 2016 concretised the areas of cooperation under the strategic partnership. The counterparts will meet again in India this October, to discuss pending questions on the Free Trade Agreement. The open markets in both places need to be utilised more for business, to create jobs, transfer technologies, etc. We have environmental cooperation and water partnership signed last year so that we and other European companies can essentially help the Indian government's policies like Swachh Bharat or Clean Ganga… It has been a very clever policy of the current Indian government, I must say, to 'Open Doors' for improving ties between both sides. I also have to highlight the Honourable PM Narendra Modi's personal involvement in the on-going reform efforts. I would say that over the last three years, the Government of India has taken several steps in the right direction. The notable reforms, such as GST enhance transparency and bring us closer on track. I believe the summit in October will bring new stimuli to the overall progress of IndoEuropean relations.
How strong is the Indian community in Slovakia?
Slovakia has population of just 5.5 million; however we are open to people coming from India. I think, the first steps came when Indian restaurants and shops opened in Slovakia, but now we see more and more students, marriages, even investors, but mostly for employment such as IT and financial specialists. Slovakia is centrally located in Europe, so many logistic centres of huge companies like TCS, Reliance and Infosys and others look for extending their cooperation in Slovakia.
How do you think India and Slovakia can promote people-to-people contacts?
The gates are open, and our Embassy conducts activities to boost cooperation in the field of science, education and culture. An important part of this cooperation is art and traditions such as yoga. On the International Day of Yoga this year hundreds of people underwent the group practices in Slovakia.
What is the tourism potential of Slovakia? What steps are you taking to promote your country as a tourist destination for Indians?
Slovakia has pristine forests, mountains with glorious scenery and picturesque settlements hidden in valleys. There are vast opportunities for winter sports, high mountain hiking, cycling, swimming and other sports. Also, due to many historical towns with beautiful castles, chateaus and manor houses, the country presents extraordinary romantic opportunities as wedding or honeymoon destinations, but also for conference tourism or corporate activities. Notably, visitors in Slovakia can enjoy our typical cuisine, and remarkable local drinks such as beer and wine. The opportunities for tourism could be explored through the so-called V4 Road Shows that we regularly organise together with other Visegrad countries. Last year we had group activity in Mumbai and Delhi.
Anyhigh-level visits planned this year?
Political contacts are basic key for good ties amongst countries, and also mark important milestones in relations. In August 2017, the Foreign Minister, Mr Miroslav Lajcák, will be visiting New Delhi as a guest of the Indian government, also in the special capacity of being the President-elect of the United Nations General Assembly.
In end-September, we plan to organise another high-level visit in India. The State Secretary of the Foreign Ministry, Mr Lukas Parizek, will be coming to Delhi to conduct political consultations, and also to open the third Slovak honorary consulate in Bangalore (after Kolkata and Mumbai).
From the Indian side, the Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh previously visited Slovakia on the occasion of a global security conference, GLOBSEC, Bratislava 2015. Slovakia has also extended invitation for the Hon'ble Lok Sabha Speaker Smt Sumitra Mahajan. Also the Hon'ble Slovak President Mr Andrej Kiska wishes to come to India soon on an official visit.
Do you see the possibility of cooperation between India and Slovakia in the field of education?
We have a lot of cooperation in this field, as the number of Indian university students coming to study in Slovakia is booming. The main focus is on the technical education and medical schools. The exchanges between the academies of science are also growing. Our intention is to improve the possibilities for Indian students and young scientists through guidance by the Embassy in order to select the most suitable local partners and find the best candidates.