CEDAR RAPIDS — Slovakian Ambassador Peter Kmec, in a visit Monday to Cedar Rapids, thanked the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library for keeping the Slovak heritage “alive and thriving” in the United States.
Speaking of the sizable Slovak and Czech immigrant populations, much of it concentrated in the Midwest, he called the museum the place “where all of the cultural traditions are collected.”
“We appreciate this concentration of Czechs and Slovaks that creates this opportunity to keep the traditions and the heritage alive at the museum and library,” he said after meeting with about a dozen trustees, staff members and Czech Village business owners. “We very much appreciate such a beautiful building … and also Czech Village where there are many, many lovely shops.”
Kmec visited as the guest of U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, R-Dubuque, who is co-chairman of the House Slovak Caucus.
The bipartisan organization is dedicated to discussing and educating other members of Congress on issues related to Slovakian heritage, culture and economic development. It also seeks to build on the ties between the United States and Slovakia, an emerging economic power in Europe.
He thanked Blum for his work with the caucus “for promoting our interests and to build Slovak-American relations.”
Kmec is particularly interested in trade relations with the United States. Although “agriculture is booming” in his homeland, Kmec expressed interest in maintaining corn exports from the United States.
“You’ll see a lot of that in the next hour,” Blum joked before they left Cedar Rapids for Dubuque, where they will tour a John Deere plant. Slovakian farmers have begun to buy Deere tractors.
The Slovak-U. S. relationship has been improving quickly, Kmec said, noting Slovakia’s purchase of Black Hawk helicopters and F-16 fighter jets as part of “intense cooperation” on the military front.
Slovakia is replacing Soviet-era military equipment with Western hardware. A NATO member, Slovakia has committed to increasing its defense expenditures to 2 percent by 2024.
Slovakia is keeping a wary eye on Russian activities in Central and Eastern Europe. Although it is bordered on the east by Ukraine, it’s not directly exposed to “physical engagement” by Russia, Kmec said.
“Luckily enough, we are a member of NATO and under the Article 5 umbrella,” he said. “But we are quite exposed to Russian propaganda and meddling in our democratic society.”
Article 5 commits each NATO member to consider an armed attack against one member an armed attack against them all.
That democratic society is observing 25 years as an independent nation. Kmec called Slovakia, with a population of about 5.5 million, “a real success story” in Central Europe.
“We have our own challenges from localization, but also from, you know — democratic development is always a process,” Kmec said. The government is fighting corruption and at the same time trying to attract investors to create a “more complicated economy.”
Kmec, 51, who has been Slovakia’s ambassador to the United States since September 2012, praised the Cedar Rapids museum, which has grown from its beginnings in 1974 as the Czech Fine Arts Foundation. Four years later, a museum was opened in a three-bedroom house. In 1995, Presidents Bill Clinton, Václav Havel of the Czech Republic and Michal Kovac of the Slovak Republic attended the dedication of the current museum building. It was moved to its present location after being damaged by flooding in 2008.
After visiting the museum, Kmec took a walking tour of Czech Village, stopping in a shops and posing for a picture outside Czech Village Antiques that had painted “Vitaje Slovensky Velvyslanec” — “Welcome Slovak Ambassador” — on its window.