Czech Diplomacy: Two Ambassadors, Deputy President- Interviews in Prague Lifestyles Magazine

Who hasn’t day-dreamed of having a life in the diplomatic service? Sitting on the hotseat of international relations … jerking awake to the red telephone jangling in the middle of the night … jetting to conferences and conflicts anywhere in the world – not to mention the social intrigue at the fabulous dinner parties!

Three public servants give us a more realistic glimpse at what it’s really like to bear the responsibility for representing their country, and, at the same time, show us a picture of the Czech Republic from their unique perspectives. Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa comes to us with all the fresh excitement of her whirlwind, first visit to Prague; the Greek Ambassador to the Czech Republic Vasilios Eikosipentarchos holds up a mirror to show us what he’s observed, before going to his new appointment in Warsaw; and the Ambassador of Peru, Alberto Salas Barahona, describes for us his continuing fascination with the Czech Republic, which is giving him more and more reasons for staying.

The Deputy President of South Africa
“Czechia, Here We Come!”

The Deputy President of South Africa sits at the head of the hotel conference room table; South African Ambassador Nomusa Dube and three staff members look on. Asked if this is her first trip to Prague and the Czech Republic, Deputy President Mlambo-Ngcuka admits that it is, “and I was rather shocked!” she laughs.

The South African staff laughs with her, appreciatively. But there’s no time in the Deputy President’s schedule to find out more details. This is a whirlwind stop. And, “I have to come back,” she continues in her charming, lilting accent. “What I would like to seek is beyond Prague, and I feel that the beauty öf the country is quite something.” Then she adds firmly, “And I don’t want to come and work! – Sorry, Ambassador!”

Everybody laughs again.

The lively Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka has come to Prague to discuss cooperative programs with Czech government officials. “I think we do need to invest in the development of people relations,” she continues. “Because when governments are gone and change, the people remain. So the exchange programs involving young people, academia, tourism – those are some of the very classic building blocks we need, to make the distance between us shorter.

“The textile engineering people in Liberec are proposing a fantastic work of collaboration to improve our capacity for success,” she continues. She says there is great interest in Afro textile design. “We do have our own sort of program in color. The historic textile  engineering and design in South Africa was more – very Eurocentric,” she says. “So now we’ve got more designers who are more proudly South Africans.”

Her voice lowers as she divulges a serious discovery she’s just made: “They’ve taken a South African stone, and out of the stone they are generating a fabric. And when you touch it, it feels like silk.” Then she brightens, her voice rising in a playful warning, “We’ve got the stones, guys! Watch us!”

Laughter erupts once again.

From the factory to the classroom

Far from starting her life in politics, Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka’s first job was working in a South African textile factory with a Czech connection. “We have a textile factory which actually has a good relationship with the country here, because of the training that Czechs provided. And when I was a child, whenever we would go past it by bus my grandmother would tell me, “Oh …” [shaking her finger towards the factory, to remind her of her future]. “When I finished primary school it helped me just enough to become a worker in the factory. But I didn’t not see myself going to university, you know? And I was like, ‘I don’t know what this old lady is all about!’” More laughter fills the room.

But she did go to university and became a teacher. “I always wanted to be a teacher – still want to be a teacher when I give up my [current] job. If I didn’t live in a country that had apartheid, the struggle to fight against, I probably would have been a nice little principal somewhere … But, you know, people of my generation in South Africa, if you were not
against apartheid actively, there really was something wrong with you.

“I left teaching you know, but it’s after some time, and now I’m old!” She laughs. “I’m like …” (adopting a huffy voice) “‘Where did my years gone? When I grow up I want to be a teacher again.’ I’m still looking forward to that. What an opportunity and a privilege, to have an opportunity to make a direct, positive, sustainable – sustainable – impact in
somebody’s life!”

She continues, “When I was at the university, the teachers who talked to us about their life – lived – experience, that was the most impressive and most enjoyable than the textbooks.” She pauses and then asks: “Can you imagine me standing in front of a history class or an international relations class and say…” (she cocks her head and adopts a stiff, lecturer’s voice), “When I was in Prague …” – the whole staff laughs – “you know, the students will go (she jolts back in her chair, her eyes wide) … ‘Oh my god! She was in Prague!’”

And the entire room breaks into laughter once again.

Building a shared economy

The Deputy President brings a lot of joy to her meetings: This is a woman who has embraced with both hands what lifehas to offer. Yet the underlying theme of her mission is a serious one: “We [in South Africa] don’t have a shared economy now because a lot of people are not in the mainstream,” she says. “How do you remove those things that limit a people, and build a country?”

The legacy of apartheid and abrupt inception of democratic government have left South Africa unprepared for the rising need for a skilled workforce. Although the country’s economy has been growing at an average rate of over 5 percent annually, the critical skills shortage threatens to undermine future growth. That’s why the Deputy President’s office launched a special training program, the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (JIPSA) two years ago. The program focuses on training new, skilled workers in engineering, skilled trades, health care, and education – all areas which the Czech Republic excels in, and areas which Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka hopes will provide more government support and exchange programs for students and trained workers from the Czech Republic.

“I will put it in my next report, my exit report,” she smiles: “Czechia, here we come!”
For our interview with South African Ambassador Nomusa Dube, see Lifestyles Volume III.

in public
South African Deputy President
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Her name is as magic as Africa itself, and you say it like this: Foom zil ay –
M’lam bo – N – (now click your tongue: it’s like a brilliant green frog pinging
off the lily pad into the brown water) – Kooka.
She has served as Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa since
2005, and has held a number of other posts, including Minister of Minerals
and Energy, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, and Member of
Her teaching credentials include Chancellor of Tshwane University of
Technology, lecturer at the Impumalanga Teachers Training College, and
teacher at Ohlange High School, KwaZulu-Natal. She also has been actively
involved in leadership positions for several NGOs.
About her life in public service, Presidency Communications Manager Denzil
Taylor remarked, “She wants to make government an NGO!”

The Ambassador of Greece
Going…but not too far away

His Excellency Vasilios Eikosipentarchos was the Ambassador of Greece to the Czech Republic from 2004 until this spring. He then returned to Athens for a short visit, landed in Warsaw, and already is busy with his next assignment. We asked him, via the Internet, to share some of his favorite memories and observations about his time in the Czech Republic. His long professional experience, yet deep personal appreciation for the human side of international relations, comes across clearly – even through cyberspace.

Looking back, what kinds of things have given you special satisfaction during your work in the Czech Republic?

Personally, I feel a special satisfaction about the membership of the Czech Republic in the EU. This must be considered an historic event for the Czech Republic, and a milestone in the relations of this country with Greece and other “older” EU member states. While I was serving in Athens in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was the head of the department for relations of EU and non-member states. So, I had to deal with the Czech Republic at the beginning as a nonmember state, and then as a candidate country for the EU. I also remember when the Document of Accession was signed, in Athens in April 2003. It was during the Greek presidency of the EU. Now, besides our membership in NATO, Greece and the Czech Republic are members of another family, the EU.

Do you have some outstanding impressions or memories about the Czech Republic that you’d like to share?

Given that my first visit to the-then Czechoslovakia dates back to the ‘80s, when I came to Prague as a member of various Greek diplomatic delegations, my most impressive experience was with the so-different country that I encountered as Ambassador of Greece in the Czech Republic starting in April 2004. By then, Prague had become a completely different city – politically, culturally, economically, and so on. And of course the attitude of the Czech authorities was radically different.
Back then, I was not treated exactly as today. … However, the Czechs even then, I have to say, were kind and hospitable hosts and fair negotiators, although political considerations played a very important role then.

What has surprised you most during your tenure as Ambassador?

The main thing … is the incredible speed of the decisions taken by the Czech authorities after 1989 in order to alleviate Czech society from the shortcomings of the previous regime. I have been impressed by the smooth and exemplary system (in comparison with other ex-socialist countries) for the restitution of private properties, the re-establishment of a free market economic system, the introduction of modern democratic institutions, the restoration and maintenance of cultural monuments and historical buildings, the high influx of foreign capital and investments, and the incredible increase in the number of incoming tourists to the Czech Republic, especially to Prague. And by the way, more than 250,000 Czech tourists visited Greece in 2007!

What advice would you give to young Czechs who might be curious about a career in diplomatic service?

First of all, I have to emphasize that all my Czech colleagues – the young ones included – with whom I cooperated during my four-year tour in Prague, were excellent professionals – very knowledgeable, well-selected and prepared for their jobs, and who accomplished their duties with great devotion and deep consciousness of their mission. Thus, the advice I would give is to just follow the good example of their compatriots who are already in the Czech diplomatic service. At this point, I have to point out and commend the excellent job that is being done in the Czech Institute of Foreign Relations, that is supervised by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and which “produces” the new Czech diplomats.

What are your plans for the future? Will you be staying in the Czech Republic?

After finishing my tenure as Ambassador of Greece in Prague, I went back to Athens, where I am at the disposal ofthe Minister of Foreign Affairs, to be sent on special missions.  Currently I’m a representative of the Greek Presidency of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in Warsaw. This is the seat of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, more widely known as the office which monitors elections in different countries. Given all the elements of the post-1989 Czech Republic, I feel very fortunate that the time of my tenure in this country coincided with the era of new opportunities for relations of the Czech Republic with the international environment.

Greek Ambassador
Vasilios Eikosipentarchos, Ambassador of
Greece to the Czech Republic (2004-2008),
Representative of the Greek Presidency of the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, 2008
Mr Eikosipentarchos holds economic and political
science degrees from Athens universities, including
a degree from the Law Faculty of the University of
He began his career in diplomatic service in 1974 as
Attaché to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens and
served as Consul of Greece in New Orleans, Louisiana
with jurisdiction over eight states. He was also appointed
Secretary of the Embassy in Madrid and Counselor of
the Embassy in Vienna.
For more than six years he worked in the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs in Athens, and in 1997 was appointed
Ambassador of Greece to the Slovak Republic. He
returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before his
appointment as Ambassador of Greece to the Czech
He holds several decorations, including the Spanish
Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, and
the Greek Grand Commander of the Order of Phoenix

Staying near the land of ‘Libuše’

Ambassador of Peru
The Ambassador of Peru to the Czech Republic shows us in to the Residency sitting room. Amid his stellar collection of antique Bohemian glass, Napoleon III furniture, and classic Peruvian antiques and artifacts, His Excellency Alberto Salas Barahona tells us why he has been enchanted with Czech life since 2005 when he presented his diplomatic credentials in Prague.

“It’s a wonderful time I have spent here,” he says in a gentle, quiet voice, “and not only because of my diplomatic work. I’m very happy that we’ve reached a lot of goals here, but it’s also the country – I’m fascinated by this country and its culture, music, people.”

His work has often taken him out of the capital to the outskirts of the country, particularly to conferences at universities and bilingual schools. “I have a long line of conferences in Spanish,” he says, “and I have been to Hradec Králové, Pilsen, Olomouc, Brno … every time my secretary calls to me, ‘You have the conference!’” He ticks off the wide variety of topics: “I have been invited for ‘The Inca Empire,’ – oh, yes – ‘the Discovery of America,’ relations with the Czech Republic, international relations, diplomacy …” – he smiles proudly, with a little bit of wonder – “and every time they invite me for a second time!”

Moreover, he has been fascinated to discover that ties between Peru and the Czech Republic reach deeply back into history several centuries. “The relationship between Bohemia and Peru goes from the time of the Hapsburgs,” he explains. “Yes. Most of the people coming from Bohemia came to Peru to explore, to discover, to make investigation of botanical discoveries, to study Incas. In 1745 we had a big earthquake in Lima and 90 percent of the city fell. In fact, somebody from Strahov prepared the construction of the cathedral! Yes. And someone from Bohemia made the first map of the Amazon.”

His joy of discovery continues, “In the middle of the 19th century a lot of people from Bohemia went to Peru to make glass factories. The first brewers arrived in Peru in 1868. They came from Pilsen, and the name is still used today.” He chuckles and lowers his voice: “I remember there was a Peruvian journalist here, he came to the Czech Republic for the first time, and he said –” (the Ambassador whispers in an urgent, shocked voice) “Ambassador! There is also Pilsen here!” His Excellency laughs delightedly.

Although Peru was one of the first countries to recognize Czechoslovakia in 1918, and established an embassy here in 1922, for many years during the Cold War official diplomatic relations ceased; the Embassy in Prague was re-opened in 1970. Nonetheless, economic and trade relationships continued. “My father used to say that the best industry was from Czechoslovakia. Peru used to import Czech motors and machinery in the ‘50s, even though there wasn’t an embassy here. But the human relations and the economic relations worked, and that was very important,” he says.

“The business relations today are not so important as they should be,” he admits, “because the Czech Republic and Peru are not competitors but economic complementary countries, we are having a lot of conversations with the Czech government in order to improve. Businessmen here are very interested in improving the relationship with Peru.”

He explains that the main Czech imports from Peru are minerals and metallurgic products. Fruits and vegetables, which arrive via wholesalers from Germany and France, certainly offer opportunity for import by Czech companies. Gold, copper, fish oil and mineral oil, and textiles are also targets for import to the Czech Republic. Technology and machinery in the electrical industry, specifically for hydroelectric power, are attractive Czech exports with a large potential market in Peru. Interestingly, the large number of Peruvian sites boasting thermal water may provide a partnership-development project of great potential interest to Czech experts in spa tourism. Great emphasis has also been placed in recent years on student exchanges between universities in Lima and other Peruvian cities and Czech universities, as well as the Czech Academy of Science.

But for someone as experienced, cultured, and thoughtful as Ambassador Salas, the relationship extends far beyond just the university lecture hall or the offices of the foreign trade ministry. His personal collection of antique yellow and green Bohemian glass – over 220 pieces – is legendary indiplomatic circles. Music is another Czech specialty which keeps him interested in life here, especially opera and Czech composers.

He is an enthusiastic advocate of Czech classical music: “There are a lot of composers on the level of Mozart from the Czech Republic. Myslíveček, for example. You hear him playing [on CD] and you say, ‘Mozart!’ but no, it’s Myslíveček. When I was stationed in Vienna I used to go to the opera once a week. But now for the first time I’ve just heard ‘Libuše.’ In the Czech Republic I heard Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek – I don’t need to go to Salzburg, to Vienna for opera!” And he seems delighted.

His Excellency has spent his entire career, 33 years, in some form of diplomatic or international relations service. Although he still has several years before the mandatory retirement age of 70, Ambassador Salas has already been thinking about his future life. “Of course, I feel Peruvian, I am Peruvian, I love my country, my family is there, my childhood,” he says. “But I still have a lot of friends in Vienna. It’s very difficult to choose one or the other – and that’s the problem with most people [in international service]. So I have decided to have part of my life in Lima, and part of my life in Vienna – to stay close to the Czech Republic!” he laughs.

So it seems he is one of the fewer than 200 Peruvians putting down some roots in the Czech Republic … with plans
to never be too far away.

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
of the Republic of Peru to the Czech Republic
Alberto Salas
Among other degrees, Ambassador Salas holds a bachelor
of law and of international relations degrees from Peruvian
institutions, a diploma from the diplomatic section of L’Institut
Internationale d’Aministration Publique, France, and a Doctor
de l’Université in international public law from the Université
de Droit et des Sciences Economiques de Paris. He graduated
from the Ecole Nationale d´Administration of France (ENA –
Promotion Michel de Montaigne).
From 1976 to 2004 he held a number of positions in the
Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Director
of the Cabinet and Director General for Legal Support and
Humanitarian Affairs. For over 6 years he also worked as an
official and representative of the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA); and also served as the Chargé d’Affaires of
the Permanent Mission of Peru to the United Nations Office at
Vienna, as well as the Chargé d’Affaires of Peru to Austria.
Mr Salas holds a number of medals and distinctions, including
the Officier de l’Ordre National du Merite de France, the
“Grosse Silberne Ehrenzeichen unit Stern fűr Verdienste” of
Austria and the Orden “Al Mérito por Servicios Distinguidos,
Grado Gran Cruz” of the Peruvian Republic.

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