Slovakian Ambassador, an ice-breaker in so many ways
Words MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
HIS Excellency Stanislav Opiela is a highly experienced diplomat who is not afraid to say what is on his mind or display his well-developed sense of humour. The Ambassador, who began his term in Thailand officially on December 30, 2015, is a big ice hockey enthusiast and was happy to discover he could pursue his passion here in the tropics. Together with his Slovakian wife, Viera, he is fully engaged in strengthening bilateral relations between Slovakia and Thailand.
Ambassador Opiela was born in 1952 in a small town of Levoča in the northeastern part of Slovakia close to Poland. Levoča is a famous and well-known historical town that was also added to UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 2009.
“I didn’t want to be a diplomat originally; I was interested in foreign trade. That’s why I decided to apply for entry to the University of Economics in Bratislava with a specialisation in foreign trade. After almost finishing one year at this university, I had the chance to switch to the famous Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).
“I was admitted and in 1971 started to study there in the faculty of foreign economic relations,” said Mr Opiela. An opportunity to study at MGIMO was regarded as a great honour in those days.
“Almost everybody who was a student at MGIMO from the former Czechoslovakia was so-called a ‘reserve cadre’ for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and as I understood only later, it was almost impossible after finishing a degree to say, ‘thank you, I don’t want to go into the ministry’. This is because the Czechoslovakian government paid for the students’ education in Moscow. I was told that I must go into the ministry, ‘we rely on you, we need you’, etc.”
When he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Prague in 1975 he had already decided to make the best of it. “I had always liked to learn and read about foreign countries, and I thought it might open the possibility for travel. In this period the country was relatively closed and it wasn’t easy to travel abroad, especially in a western direction. Everything was forbidden and, at the same time, very attractive. So I looked at the MFA as a means of experiencing something different than what was around me.” That’s exactly what it has been.
“Besides holding various positions back home, I served in Congo, Tunisia and Canada before coming to Thailand. In fact, I have had three postings in Canada and each one cost me a child,” said the ambassador with a smile.
“When I finished my first posting in Ottawa my oldest child, a daughter of 16 years at the time, stayed there. During my next posting, my older son decided to stay on too, and when I completed my third posting in 2010, this time as ambassador, my younger son also stayed behind. So all my three children are now living in Canada, even though they were all born in Slovakia.” When asked how long he has been married to Viera, Mr Opiela smiled again and said, “Since before my daughter was born.”
“Thailand and Slovakia established diplomatic relations on January 1, 1993, the date the Slovak Republic was born, and we opened our embassy here the same year. We have good relations with Thailand now, in the old days Thailand, as a close ally of the United States, wasn’t our friend. Our relations with the rest of Southeast Asia go back a bit further. We were good friends with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar because these were communist or socialist countries and cooperation with them was very good.
“In this period of time we didn’t have an embassy in Thailand; our embassy in Rangoon covered Thailand. Only after the political changes in 1989 did the Czechoslovak government decide to open an embassy in Bangkok, and after the division of the country to the Czech and Slovak Republics on January 1, 1993, the embassy was separated accordingly.”
“I came to Thailand for the first time in December last year and presented my credentials to His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn on August 17. I am covering four countries: Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar as well as Thailand, which is quite a lot of work. To really follow closely developments in four countries is practically impossible, especially if you don’t know local languages. I rely a lot on the local newspapers and some other information in English,” Mr Opiela said.
“Concerning Myanmar, it is less difficult to stay abreast because we are receiving information daily from the European Union Delegation in Yangon. They provide us with information and articles from English-language newspapers in Yangon and articles in the local language translated into English. After reading these reports I know everything.
“The situation is somewhat similar with Laos, but the information comes only on a weekly basis and not very regularly. This is not so good. Concerning Cambodia, there is no information - nothing. I do learn things from English-language newspapers and Thai newspapers translated to English. But I don’t receive information on Cambodia from the EU.
“What I receive from the EU are only extracts from the newspapers without comments or anything else. Still, it is very helpful. I can follow up and go on the internet to find more information.
“There is a lot of information on the four countries I am assigned to on the internet, but to track it and digest it takes a lot of time, which I don’t have. We are a very small embassy with only two diplomats. The other diplomat is my deputy and she is dealing mostly with consular issues, which is very time-consuming work.”
Mr Opiela said he did not request to come to Thailand. “It was not my choice. My minister approached me and said, ‘You are going to Thailand. What do you think’? I replied, ‘I'll take it.’ A few months later I was here in Bangkok.
“After I was offered the job, I spoke about it with my wife of course. At first, she wasn’t very happy and a little bit shocked because she used to say that she could go anywhere except Asia. She has an extreme fear of snakes and she thought they are everywhere. But after I told her about the job offer she softened her stance and said, ‘We can go to Thailand, why not’. And fortunately, she has learned that snakes are not a problem here.
“I had never been in Thailand before my arrival last December, but I did have some first-hand experience in Asia because in my last assignment at the MFA in Bratislava I was Director of the Office of the First Deputy Minister and we travelled a lot together. I had the chance to visit several Asian countries with him, including Sri Lanka, India, South Korea, Japan and Kazakhstan. This gave me some picture about Asia, but I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Bangkok.
“I didn’t know it was such a developed and organised city. There are so many cars and motorcycles, but it’s relatively clean and quiet. For one thing, there aren’t so many drivers using their claxons here like, for example, in Arab countries and also in Slovakia. And everybody was smiling from morning to evening and very polite. I am very close to this nature of the Thai people because I also like to smile, talk to people and enjoy life. My wife and I were very happy to be here right from the beginning.”
Mr Opiela travels outside Bangkok often and tries to visit interesting places in the provinces. “I went to Chiang Mai to be in the mountains and get a look at the famous farms created by the ideas of His Majesty the King. It was very interesting to pick such tasty strawberries at an attitude of more than 1,000 metres and see where coffee and other crops are grown. I have also visited Hua Hin, Phuket and other places throughout Thailand.”
The ambassador said that at the present time Slovakia doesn’t have an economic section at its embassy in Bangkok as there isn’t a long tradition of bilateral relations. “However, our trade with Thailand is relatively high compared with other SouthEast Asian countries - around €210 million both ways. It is nothing special but it’s a relatively solid number. We mostly both import and export electronic products.
“The Slovakian government doesn’t influence much, for example, what products will be exported to this or that country. This is totally in the hands of the companies involved and that’s why I can’t give exact statistics on what products made in Slovakia are exported to Thailand and vice versa. Moreover, the statistics that we have are created with regard to groups of products. It doesn’t mean that all these included in the group are being imported or exported. This makes it very difficult to give an exact composition of trade figures. I can say, for example, that furniture for IKEA is made in Slovakia and exported to Thailand.”
A fair number of the cars on Bangkok roads, mostly high-end, are also made in Slovakia. Mr Opiela said that there are three major international automakers producing passenger cars in Slovakia for export: KIA, Volkswagen, and PSA Peugeot Citroen, with Jaguar Land Rover joining soon. “These three car producers represent almost 80 percent of the Slovakian gross national product. We are the biggest car producers in the world per capita. The population of Slovakia is around 5.5 million. Some electronic products by Sony and Samsung are also made in Slovakia and exported here.”
“In March of this year, Thailand’s Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs visited Slovakia. It was the first relatively high-level visit in the history of our bilateral relations and it was dedicated mostly to economic issues. We expect good things to follow from it.
“We see a lot of possibilities on both sides, but the distance, financing and cultural and language differences create some obstacles for development. Slovakia doesn’t have companies like Mercedes-Benz and Philips that have been known in Thailand for many years. Competition is very high here and there are many well-established foreign companies.
“We are in the beginning stages, but we are not starting from zero on the economic front. For example, the Thai company Delta Electronics employs more than 1,000 people in Slovakia and they want to expand their activities. They want to construct new buildings, and that means they are probably happy with business conditions in Slovakia. We are also happy to support them.
“At the same time, we want to bring Slovakian businesses to Thailand. I can tell you that several weeks ago I participated in a few meetings with a Slovak company, DRON Industries, which came here to offer a unique technology for the liquidation of old tyres. It is technology that has achieved a high standard of approval in Germany and other EU countries. It is not cheap, but there is a great benefit in the recycling of tyres in an environmentally totally friendly way. Tyre disposal is a big problem all over the Thailand and no one knows what to do about it. This technology is an answer.
“We are also expecting a group of experts from another Slovak company to come here with proposals for another unique technology that has solutions for general waste management.
“We are not here to penetrate all Thai markets and to be number one. We are trying to find possibilities for business activities which we expect to be beneficial for both sides. We don’t want to come here and just try to gain a lot of money and after two or three years say goodbye. We want to have a normal and productive long-lasting economic cooperation here. The embassy can open the door but the rest is up to the companies and business people.”
“Slovakia holds the presidency of the Council of the EU for the last part of 2016, from July until the end of December. This is a very important and prestigious activity, especially for the foreign services and diplomatic corps,” Mr Opiela said.
“What makes the Presidency demanding is primarily the preparation and chairing of meetings of the Council and its preparatory bodies. The Presidency organises formal and informal meetings not only in Brussels and Luxembourg but also in the country of Presidency. In Bratislava, there will be 19 ministerial events, around 180 events at working level, seven parliamentary events, including the meeting of chiefs of parliaments.
“Altogether it will represent more than 20, 000 delegates. Unusual and exceptional was a big summit of 27 leaders of the European Union - not 28, because we already excluded the United Kingdom - which took place in Bratislava on September 16. The EU is looking at what to do about Brexit, and it was not very appropriate to have the British there. But what made this summit very interesting was not only Brexit but also because it was held in Bratislava.
“Usually EU summits are held in Brussels, not in the country that holds the presidency. I don’t know why it was held in Bratislava, but naturally, it was a big PR event. It was a very important summit for the future of the EU as a whole, and what is important for the EU is important for other countries as well.
“At the same time, it was especially important for Slovakia as we were directly responsible for its success. Twenty-seven leaders tried to draw up a roadmap, so called Bratislava Process, for the future. The aim is to present more concrete proposals at a summit in March of next year that coincides with the 60th anniversary of the bloc’s founding Rome Treaty.
“As a member of the EU, we have to follow its rules and policy decisions. After the military came to power here in 2014, the EU decided to restrict relations with Thailand. In practical terms this means diminishing contacts at the level of permanent secretary on the Thai side and on our side at the level of state secretaries or deputy ministers.
“The EU took the decision to stop discussions on free trade agreements and so on. Also, the “lowering of contacts is” still in place because the EU doesn’t consider that Thailand has taken the necessary steps to warrant a change in approach. There are discussions under way and Thailand generally, moves in a positive way.
“So the possibilities are a little limited, and because we have restricted our contacts relations are not so warm on the Thai side. No one is happy that relations aren’t normal, but there is a clear solution to the problem.
“Not only does the situation handicap our embassy’s ability to work with the Thai government, we also have a certain viewpoint because our country was for a long time under a communist regime. If you always have someone telling ‘you can’t do this, it is not appropriate, it is forbidden’, this is not good.
“I personally hope that next year will be another story and the situation will improve. If there is no dramatic move against so-called democratic principles, I believe the EU will make at least a small change in its approach towards Thailand. But it appears that what we ambassadors from EU countries here in Bangkok think is not so important; what matters is what the people on the European Commission in Brussels say. The Foreign External Service in Brussels is responsible for everything. We can provide recommendations, information and opinions but the decision is taken by Brussels.
“Although I haven’t had a lot of experience with the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so far I can say only positive things. They organise a lot of different activities and always provide excellent service. Everything is done at a very high level, and in fact, in this regard, it is much better here than in Ottawa. Thailand is very generous towards foreign diplomats; it is superb.”
When asked to compare the diplomatic environments in Ottawa and Thailand, Mr Opiela said: “My wife and I have spoken very often on this subject. It is quite natural since we were there for so long. Frankly speaking, we find diplomatic life in Thailand little bit different than what it was in Canada.
“In Canada, the atmosphere was friendlier within the diplomatic corps. There were no divisions between countries from the EU, the Persian Gulf, Latin American or African countries or elsewhere. It was one big, very friendly community and we enjoyed it very much. Most probably, after more time and we enter activities a bit more deeply here, we will find it is not so bad, but as I look now, sort of from the outside, I see that there are divisions.” The ambassador added that the diplomatic community in Thailand is much smaller than in Ottawa, and not even all the EU countries are represented here.”
Adjusting to the tropics
Mr Opiela said the climate here is a bit of a ‘special issue’ for his wife and him. “We spent more than 12 years in Canada, three postings in a row, with some intervals when we returned home. It gets very cold in Canada in the winter and we were used to engaging in outdoor activities in the winter. To say it simply, here in Bangkok we miss the Canadian winters.
“In Slovakia, I played a lot of indoor soccer, tennis and so on, but in Canada, it was ice hockey and cross-country and downhill skiing. I enjoyed winters in Canada very much and the hot and humid climate here has made it difficult for me in terms of sporting activities.
“Finally, I have started to play ice hockey in Bangkok. This is thanks to my Czech colleague, Ambassador Grepl, who strongly recommended that I join the team. He is also a team member and a big ice hockey enthusiast.
“I am playing now on the international ‘no name team’ team every Thursday-Saturday evening. We play at the arena on the 7th floor of Central Rama 9. It is a regular international-size venue. Our games are one and a half hours, which is too long. We don’t follow exactly the international rules. It is ice hockey for fun.
“A few weeks ago I received information by email about the creation of the Bangkok ice hockey league. We should start in November and we’re expecting to have at least four teams. I have applied to be a player. We will see if I am accepted and if so what my level of participation will be.
“There are now two ice hockey teams in Bangkok, mostly foreign players, including from Canada. There are some Swedes, Finns, Russians and also some young Thai players. They are very good. I play as a defender. Ice hockey is a very fast game and if you are not fast enough it is a big handicap.
“I brought all my hockey gear back from Slovakia when I went there on holiday, except for my skates which were already very used in Canada. My daughter visited me here early in the year and I asked her to bring me the skates from Canada. The funny thing was that when I looked at them I saw they were made in Thailand!”
Other sporting activities Mr Opiela enjoys are biking, which gives him a chance to learn more about Bangkok, and roller skating in Lumpini Park.
1971-1975 Moscow State Institute of International Relations
1970-1971 University of Economics, Bratislava
2014-2015 Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic, Director of the Office of the 1st Deputy Minister
2012-2014 Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic, Department of Americas, Senior Desk Officer
2011-2012 National coordinator for the Slovak Republic to the EU Strategy for Danube Region in Prime Minister Office
2010-2011 Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Slovak Republic, UN Department, Senior Desk Officer
2005-2010 Embassy of the Slovak Republic to Canada, Ambassador
2002-2005 MFA of the Slovak Republic, Senior Desk Officer
1999-2002 Embassy of the Slovak Republic to Canada, Deputy Head of the Embassy, Minister - Counsellor
1998-1999 MFA of the Slovak Republic, National coordinator of the Slovak Republic for Central European Initiative
1997-1998 Embassy of the Slovak Republic to Canada, Charge d’Affaires, a.i.
1995-1997 Embassy of the Slovak Republic to Canada, Deputy Head of the Embassy, Counselor
1994-1995 MFA of the Slovak Republic, Department of European Integration, Acting and later Deputy Director
1993-1994 Embassy of the Slovak Republic to Tunisia, Chargé d’Affaires, Counselor
1975-1993 Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the former Czech and the Slovak Federal Republic, different position at the headquarters in Prague, including foreign postings in Congo (1984-1988) and in Tunisia (1990 -1992)