The European Union’s ability to confront Russia with a united stance is being undermined by a narrow-minded pursuit of business interests by member states, Slovakia’s President-elect Andrej Kiska said.
“We see division in the EU, which some say is based on pragmatism, but I would call it a bit of an egoistic approach of individual countries,” Kiska said in a June 11 interview in the capital, Bratislava. “The European Union’s position has been weakened by its approach to Russia. European values are based on democracy, not oligarchy, and we need to preserve this.”
Debate over further penalties against Russia is splitting the EU, which relies on Russia for 30 percent of its natural gas. Tension between Russia and Ukraine, which flared into the biggest standoff since the Cold War, has led the U.S. and the EU impose asset freezes and travel bans on 98 people and 20 companies, while stopping short of broader curbs on investment and trade that may also damage their own economies.
Slovakia, a member of the euro area which neighbors Ukraine and is a key transit link for Russian gas to Europe, was too slow to react to the escalating crisis in Ukraine, according to Kiska, 51, a businessman-turned-philanthropist who will be sworn in as president on June 15 after winning a ballot in March.
The comments put Kiska at odds with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who said last month that he was “very skeptical” about further penalties against Russia for fear of choking his country’s economic growth.
Slovakia and the neighboring Czech Republic and Hungary, which overthrew Soviet-backed communist rule almost 25 years ago, have opposed a tougher line against Russia to preserve access to its energy resources and consumer market of about 140 million people. Poland and the three Baltic states have sided together in seeking a more robust position after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March.
“We are a small country, we are dependent on Russia, but we can’t let economic interests prevent us from calling things what they really are,” Kiska said. “If something is an act of aggression, it’s aggression. Period.”
Soon after the 1989 fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, Kiska went to mop floors in Delanco, New Jersey. Later he created Slovakia’s biggest consumer-loan business in the mid-1990s.
He co-founded two consumer-credit companies, which he sold to the Slovak unit of Intesa Sanpaolo SpA in 2005. Kiska collected about 10 million euros ($13.5 million) for his stake.
Since then, he’s focused on philanthropy, having donated at least 2.5 million euros to the nation’s largest charity, Good Angel, which he founded. He’s pledged to give up his presidential salary and transfer it to a charity in Slovakia, according to local media reports.
Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million wedged between Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, needs to have “an honest, open debate” about its military budget as it’s among NATO members whose defense spending is below the minimum limit required by the alliance, he said.
In Slovakia, “nobody is really afraid that something can happen to us even as we watch fighting in a neighboring country,” he said. “Our attitude is that we have big allies, who will protect us if anything happens. But, sometimes we forget that if we are getting something, we should also be giving something back.”