Martin Sajdik: Austria’s Diplomat on Central Park

A conversation with U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik, now an ‘insider’ in New York

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | February 2012

Amb. Martin Sajdik arrived in New York in January for his “dream job”! (Photo: Martin Fuchs)

The New Year had just turned when Martin Sajdik arrived in New York City with his wife and daughter to begin his new posting as Austrian ambassador to the United Nations – surely a big change from Shanghai, where they had spent the previous four and a half years.

Now, just three days later, we were meeting in the Café Sabarsky at 5th Avenue and 66 St., an authentic outpost of Viennese culture in the heart of Manhattan and the calling card of Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie of German and Austrian art.

"This is the first time I’ve been here," Sajdik confessed, craning his neck to look around as he introduced his wife and 9-year-old daughter Leonie. "Remarkable! It really looks Viennese!" It was hard to deny: The lustrous wood paneling, the marble tables on wrought iron pedestals and ebony-black bent wood chairs, even the spiral twist sugar jars with shiny silver pour spouts… Just like home.

We were each served coffees – a Melange or a Kleiner Brauner – each on a little silver tray in the Viennese fashion with a glass of water and a spoon. Leonie selected a Sachertorte, and the adults, Apfelstrudel.

"I hope you don’t mind that we all came," Sajdik offers graciously. I smile; on the contrary. The Sajdiks would be living just around the corner at 87th and 5th, and they wanted to check on the renovations.

"It’s the one that the Austrian government bought for Kurt Waldheim when he was Secretary General of the UN. Think of that! So much history!"

As a long-time diplomat, Sajdik has also made his own history, most notably as Austria’s Deputy and then Director General for European Integration and Economic Affairs, and then Ambassador to China, holding key posts in critical years. But he is a modest man, which presumably makes him all the more effective.

The Mehlspeisen arrived and everyone took a bite. Sajdik wrinkled his brow. "Too sweet," he decided. "The most important thing about Apfelstrudel is to use Saueräpfl – these aren’t sour apples. And…" he lowered his voice, " the spoon is too big!" We all laughed. So Sabarsky’s hadn’t got it quite perfect after all. Still, it was very good, and none of us had the least interest in complaining.

From here, conversation turned to Central Europe, where the sovereign debt crisis was posing a serious threat to further development. Representing Austria in Eastern Europe for a decade from 1997 to 2007, Sajdik knows this territory intimately – and has written several books on the subject, including the highly regarded EU-Erweiterung (Nomos Verlag, 2000), appearing in English as European Union Enlargement: Background, Development and Facts, with Michael Schwarzinger, (Transaction Publishers, 2007).

Had the European Expansion moved too far, too fast?

"No, not at all. I truly believe this was a success story. The people who discuss this don’t really look into the economics," he insisted. "Of the 12 [mainland] member countries, only two – Hungary and Latvia – are in economic difficulties. There are other problems, corruption, democracy deficits, but these are not because of economic weakness.  But in the accession negotiations, economic stability was the only issue: Refinancing pensions, tax collection, the judicial system, these were not on the table."

And Bulgaria, singled out by Transparency International in 2009 as the most corrupt country in Europe?

"There is corruption, yes, but no economic weakness," he said. "There, the goal was to get them to establish institutions to combat that corruption; the EU was very strict on that. We did not have these later accession strategies at that time – this worked in 1997."

But it’s hard to talk about Central Europe without coming around to Hungary – the model new democracy that seems to have gone careening off course. Just what went wrong?

For New Yorkers, Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie is "in" for all ages | Photo: Cafe Sabarsky

"The Hungarians always said they were a model," Sajdik agreed, "but a model for what? That’s the question. What we see now, this is nothing new. Orban was like this before. The Hungarians always had a strange idea of how to deal with their past, this whole mythology of GoulaschCommunism: ‘We have never been real Communists.’ But in fact they were: the Hungarian KGB had the same structures as the Soviet KGB, just with a twinkle in the eye – which didn’t really change anything."

Now, the past is catching up with the Hungarians, Sajdik believes. "I have to be careful," he cautioned, citing that he had left the region for China in 2007.  "But it is interesting: The Hungarians did the same thing with the EU that they did with the Soviets – always friendly, smiling, agreeing to everything. But it was all on the surface, on the outside. With the EU, they cooperated with everything,  but never actually made any changes; it was all with a smile and a wink."

Like many Austrians, Sajdik watched all this from what was in effect a ring-side seat – but not without conflicting emotions. Ties with Hungary were strong, largely surviving the communist era. Austrians felt in tune with Hungarian economy and politics, and it was the first CEE country they really invested in.

And as Hungary prepared to enter the EU, Austria pressed for needed changes.

"But no one followed up, or monitored it," Sajdik remembered. "We never nailed the Hungarians down."

"Martin Sajdik?" The ambassador looked up as a handsome couple approached the table from within the café. Rising to his feet in surprise, Sajdik beamed and introduced Ernst Ehrenberger, a tall, lively man with steel grey hair and his fair-haired wife, around the table. They had worked together on a hospital project in eastern Siberia in the early 90s, when Sajdik was Director for International Business with the Maculan Group, an Austrian construction company. The Ehrenbergers were on holiday – a random meeting in this center of Austrian life in New York.

"Think of it," Sajdik said, turning back to his wife. "We have been here for three days and we are already running into old friends!"  He was clearly delighted to be in New York for what, at 62, will probably be his last posting. And about being at the UN, which he described as a "dream job."

"For a country of our size, and a neutral country, the UN has been the forum to interact with the other countries to present our views, to try to make our position an international position," he said. "Of course now we are part of the EU Foreign and Security Policy, but this basic approach has not changed."

His goals at the U.N. are three: Promoting the rule of law, the rights of civilians in conflict regions, and the protection of journalists, whom he considers essential to open societies.

"For us, the UN is a great means to promote the rule of law on a world-wide basis," he went on, "to make it more binding for everyone. We have had great legal initiatives on this." And here, unlike other areas like climate change, the US has been an active supporter. "They see the merit of this, and work with us."

Just then, the waiter arrived to clear away the dishes. Was everything all right? All smiles and thanks; not a word of the missing sour apples. In Austria, die Klügere geben nach: the clever know when to give in. Anyway, they were in New York!

"I’ve been here so often – but I had never dreamed of having the chance to live in Manhattan with a view over Central Park!" Sajdik gushed. "And the way we are treated!  I arrived on the 2nd and already gave my credentials to [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon. He greeted me in German!"

With Vienna as the third UN center, Austria has a kind of insider status at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Moon has made sustainable development a core issue of his second term, an issue the country has long supported. The Secretary General is also simply fond of Vienna, and was planning to attend the Opera Ball as a guest of President Heinz Fischer.

Moon has been able to look to Austria as a paradigm in environmental policy.  "It’s not only a nice slogan; we have tried hard in this and we had something to show," said Sajdik. He cited hydroelectric power, making up about half of Austria’s energy production; bio fuels, like the Güssing plant in Burgenland, which has become "central pilgrimage for foreign delegations"; and forestation.

And no one knows better that the Austrians how to run a city, with Vienna getting top marks world-wide again and again for quality of life. "The Chinese [before the Olympics] came to Vienna many times to the Stadtgartenamt to study how they do the flowers around the city," Sajdik reported.

"I always wonder why the city doesn’t promote this: Vienna City Engineering [Wiener Stadtplannung] could sell these ideas. And how to run a subway, for example. It’s remarkable how well it works. But the city doesn’t have this attitude."

With life in Shanghai still fresh in his mind, Martin Sajdik was alive with a sense of possibility. "The entrepreneurial spirit there is so inventive. Everybody catches it." he said, unable to suppress his enthusiasm.

"And there are Austrians everywhere, Austrian companies with niche knowhow." He rattled off examples including the technology for ATM machines for all the sporting events. "And the cameras mounted on the ceilings – that’s an Austrian company, too. We’ve transformed this sector in a very short time."

Some things are simply easier to see from the outside. "It’s incredible how our society has developed since the 90s – the influence of the government on the economy. It has set the entrepreneurial spirit of the people free."

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