Slovenia: No News is Good News

After 20 years of independence, Slovenes are proud of their success

News | Christian Cummins | July / August 2011

One of many murals commissioned in the Soviet era by Yugoslav dictator Tito (Photo: Christian Cummins)

"Nothing really happens here anymore," says Janez Fajfar with evident pride. Slovenia, the most successful European country to emerge from communism, is conspicuously absent from global headlines – and proud of it.

"We had ten days of troubles 20 years ago when we detached ourselves from the rest of Ex-Yugoslavia. But after that, apart from a few ups and downs our development has been very calm."

The troubles that Fajfar is referring to started on June 26, 1991, the day Slovenia declared itself independent from Yugoslavia six months after 88% of its population had voted for secession. The Yugloslav army attacked the next day.

The war lasted ten days and cost 66 lives. The attack was a shock and remains a scar that is still felt today, but in light of what was to happen later in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo – the shelling, the murderous violence and the ethnic cleansing – it feels as though Slovenia got off relatively lightly. Unlike the other parts of the Federation, it was ethnically homogenous and the Serbs who did live in there had few quarrels with the Slovene leadership. There was little appetite for a prolonged fight and Slovenia, as a new nation of two million people, was able to tip-toe into an independent future.

Fajfar, who is white-bearded, white-suited and jolly, is mayor of the tourist resort Bled, which is now a particularly quiet part of a particularly quiet county – a big change from the Cold War era. We are having lunch on the veranda of Vila Bled, the white block-like villa overlooking the choppy water of a glacial lake, of former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito.

A Slovene-Croat, Tito had it built in 1947 so he could entertain such illustrious guests as Indira Gandhi, the former Indian Prime Minister, and Nikita Khrushchev, the shoe-slamming former Soviet leader. Inside, there are huge murals in the Socialist Realism style paying tribute to the communist partisans’ victory over the Nazis at the end of World War II. It’s all muscular backs, flag-waving and gore.

Fajfar says that the older generation has a retained a respect for Tito as a flawed but charismatic leader, who undoubtedly had innocent blood on his hands, but who also stood up to Stalin and kept Yugoslavia non-aligned as well as more free and more wealthy than most of the communist world. You can still see the functional room where he used to sleep; it looks like the set of a 1960’s James Bond film.

In the 1980’s, the palace was turned into a hotel which Janez Fajfar himself used to run as manager. It seemed like a mausoleum when he first arrived and he kept expecting to find Tito’s embalmed body lying around in some forgotten corner "like Lenin in Moscow."

Among some parts of the older generation, there is certain nostalgia for the days when world leaders turned up in Bled and Slovenians were part of a federation of 22 million.

"You mustn’t forget that for some businessmen, it was easier to sell goods with the Yugoslav economy than it is in Europe," he says. The novelist Ales Car has written that independence provided the hard-working Slovenes, the most successful Yugoslavs economically, with a psychological dislocation from being "the dominant north of the Balkans to just another, minor country in the south of Europe."  But Fajfar attributes most of the nostalgic to the fact that these people were young when Tito was in power.

"We always think things were better when we were young," he laughs.

But of the generation that is young now? How do they see Slovenia? On the banks of the lake I meet Maya, who was an infant when Tito died. Her generation has a very distant relationship with the historical figure, and she is more interested in the present and future within Slovenia than she is in the Yugoslav past.

"We are doing our best to make ourselves known," she says, but added that as the media was obsessed with negative news, it was probably better to be out of the headlines.

Maya is quietly spoken and serious. She shows me around the red-roofed castle that perches dramatically on a cliff rising vertically up from the lake. She’s proud of Slovenia and wishes the media spent more time learning about life in neighboring countries.

An amateur cross-country champion and coach herself, Maya highlights Slovenia’s athletic history which ‘has done more than anything’ to put her country on the map. Slovenes revel in their role as underdogs, punching above their weight, and in recent have achieved giant feats of endurance and bravery, often mixed with a tragedy.

Tomaz Humar, who died in the Himalayas in 2009, was one of the most famous mountaineers of his generation. Jure Robič, perhaps the greatest endurance cyclist of all time, won the Race Across America five times, before he was killed in a collision with a car last year. Martin Strel, born just around the corner from Bled and happily spared any tragedy, became world famous for swimming the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and the Amazon. Cross-country skier Petra Majdic won bronze medal at the Vancouver Olympics despite breaking four ribs and suffering a collapsed lung in an accident immediately before the race. For many people, inside and outside Slovenia, she was the real heroine of the Games.

Here’s something I find refreshing: when Slovenes look for their sense of identity, they look to cultural giants rather than military commanders. Cultural distinction also comes from the unique Slovenian language, of which Maya says there are 160 separate dialects, thus playing a dominant role in national consciousness.  The squares of Ljubljana are peppered with the statues of poets like France Prešeren rather than men with swords on horses with big testicles that you see in most cities.

And their national anthem, Zdravljica, written by Prešeren is a drinking song that asserts that sweet wine "summons out of despair."

The non-marshal spirit is seductive, worshipping Bacchus, the god of wine, rather than Ares, the god of war. Over a blueberry brandy, I suggested to Maya that Slovenes must be very laid-back people. She seemed offended, interpreting laid-back as lazy and told me that Slovenes were famous world-wide for their work ethic, with the post World War II émigrés proving paragons of industry in their adopted countries. Realizing I had caused offense I turned back to sporting heroes. It was a lesson for me: don’t patronize the Slovenes!

The country has great charm but is certainly no utopia. Its economy, which had been such a source of pride, has been shaken by the financial crisis. Before then, under the center-right government of Janez Janša, journalists complained that they had been subjected to political pressure and censorship. The political leadership was accused of being embroiled in corruption. But things are said to be improving under Borut Pahor’s Social Democrats. And last year, Slovenia made positive headlines when Ghana-born doctor Peter Bossman was nicknamed "the Obama of Piran" when he became the mayor of the Adriatic resort town. He was the first black mayor in formerly-communist Europe and his election was hailed by analysts as a success for progressive-thinking integration.

And the next 20 years? Maya would like to keep many things the same.

"But we have to care more about our environment," she asserts. Slovenia’s natural beauty is one of its prime assets and must be protected. "I’d like to see fewer private cars and more projects to keep the environment intact. But we are on the right path."

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    the vienna review July / August 2011