Books on Slovenia
Update No: 126 - (26/11/07)
Slovenia sometimes appears a pretty sleepy place, like Switzerland, its fellow
Alpine success story. Good news is no news.
But things are happening there, just before it assumes the highest international
profile of its existence, the presidency of the EU on January 1.
After emerging victorious from a November 11 run-off against Christian democrat
first-round winner Alojz Peterle who was prime minister when the country
declared independence in 1991, (and the favourite of the centre-right government
of Janez Jansa), left-leaning and long-standing diplomat Danilo Türk will
become Slovenia's next president.
A strong candidate
Türk, who is aged 55, is expected to be sworn in December 22, when President
Janez Drnovsek's mandate expires. Drnovsek, leader of the Liberal Democracy of
Slovenia (LDS) party, did not seek a second term.
He was a strong candidate, with an international career in diplomacy that must
have appealed to voters just as Slovenia is to assume a high profile on the
Türk was Slovenia's first ambassador to the United Nations since 1992 - when
the ex-Yugoslav country gained international recognition - until 2002, when he
became the assistant to the U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Türk, an expert
in international law, returned to Ljubljana in 2005, where he was an associate
dean at the Ljubljana Law Faculty.
Despite coming second in the first round on October 21, Türk garnered
two-thirds of the vote in the run-off, largely thanks to votes transferred from
Central Bank governor Mitja Gaspari, a fellow left winger he narrowly beat. In
the first ballot, Peterle won overall with 28.7 percent, while Türk had 24.5
percent and Gaspari 24.1 percent.
Türk will take over from Drnovsek, president since December 2002. The country's
first and only other president was Milan Kucan, who assumed the newly created
role in October 1991.
New Slovenian president becomes president of Europe
The president's first year will be an important one. Starting on January 1, the
country of 2 million people will take on the rotating six-month presidency of
the EU. Prime Minister Jansa is hopeful that Slovenia, the only former Yugoslav
republic in the union, will use the chance to further the cause of EU candidate
countries in the region.
Türk agrees, but has reservations. "I hope this will happen. But progress
in this process depends on the pace with which each country fulfils the
conditions of membership," he told World Politics Review in a November 6
One condition, in the case of Croatia, would be the resolution of a dispute over
ownership of the waters of Piran Bay, which it has made into a fishery, denying
Slovenia direct access to the Adriatic. "Croatia's fishery zone contravenes
an agreement made with the EU several years ago and with the U.N.'s Law of the
Sea convention. In that sense these are no longer bilateral issues. They concern
the EU as a whole, which is very faithful to pacta sunt servanda [respect for
contracts] and international law."
If Croatia continues with this, against the EU and Italy and Slovenia, then
troubles are likely to come. The fishery zone is unacceptable to Slovenia
because the Croats defined the border unilaterally. It is to be hoped that it
can be settled bilaterally because an arbiter or conciliator would be much more
Türk admitted he did not know that Slovenia voted against Croatia in a vote for
a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council at the end of October. "In
1997 I was ambassador for Slovenia at the U.N. and led the campaign to join the
Security Council and frankly did not know about this voting behaviour. These
things are irrelevant." It does however seem to an outsider to be rather an
As for Austria, its neighbour to the north, Türk says that Slovenia should
consider declaring itself a successor to Yugoslavia and so enforce the Austrian
State Treaty of 1955, which guarantees the use of official languages, including
Slovene. "Some of the provisions are not fulfilled. Slovenia has every
reason to be attentive to its implementation," says Turk, referring to the
failure of various parts of the southern Austrian province of Carinthia to
provide bilingual road signs.
The presidential campaign re-awakened a festering debate about events in
Slovenia during World War II, when the Church collaborated with the Axis
occupiers. The debate was welcomed by neither candidate.
"There are attempts to rewrite this history, redefining the national
liberation struggle against the German and Italian occupying forces as an
ideological or civil war," said Türk. "This is nonsense. I think
these attempts will die out."
Cabinet might resign after opposition candidate elected president
Turk's victory is having important domestic repercussions. Prime Minister Janez
Jansa said on November 13 that his Cabinet might resign following the
overwhelming victory of the opposition-backed candidate in the presidential vote
on November 11. "We will analyze the situation further, but all
possibilities are open, including the resignation of the government," Jansa
told reporters after a meeting of his centre-right Cabinet.
Jansa insisted that Türk's campaign "was directed entirely at settling
accounts with the government."
"It is particularly worrying that a lot of energy was invested in
blackening the government abroad," Jansa said, claiming his opponents
portrayed Slovenia "as Belarus" or some other authoritarian country.
"That makes the government's work more difficult, even its routine duties,
and especially its preparations for taking over the European Union
presidency," he said.
While analysts and media in Slovenia saw Türk's victory as a warning to Jansa's
government a year before parliamentary elections, his statement still came as a
surprise. He declined to answer reporters' questions.
On November 12 Jansa congratulated Türk on his victory, saying that in
elections, voters "state their wish and express their will in a sovereign
way." He added that he wanted to cooperate with Türk "in working for
the prosperity of Slovenia."
Polls show that Jansa's coalition government now has the approval of only about
a third of Slovenians. Borut Pahor, the leader of the opposition Social
Democrats - currently the strongest party in surveys - said the government's
resignation, ahead of the takeover of the EU presidency, "won't be a good
While admitting that it is up to Jansa, Pahor said that it would be best for
Slovenia if "the government successfully leads the European Union and if
regular parliamentary elections take place."
Gregor Globic, the leader of the center-left ZARES party, said it would be
"unwise and irresponsible" of Jansa to step down just before the
country takes over the EU presidency.
The departing president, who remains head of state until just before Christmas,
is an unusual man and deserves this tribute:-
Martin Fletcher, Times Online
It is not often that you ask a European head of state whether he has gone loopy,
but in the case of Janez Drnovsek, Slovenia's reclusive President, the question
seems almost unavoidable.
Bald, monkish and skeletally thin, Drnovsek has abandoned his capital for a
mountain retreat. He no longer speaks to his Government. He boycotts state
occasions, and disappears for weeks at a time. He has turned vegan, talks like a
New Age mystic of his quest for "higher consciousness" and "inner
balance", and communicates with the Slovenian people through books on
spirituality. He set out to tackle the problems of the world from a country
smaller than Wales, and has become a champion of progressive causes.
It is an astonishing transformation for a man who, as Slovenia's Prime Minister
from 1992 until he was elected President in 2002, was regarded as a dull, grey
technocrat. It was triggered by the prospect of imminent death. In 1999 he found
that he had kidney cancer and, in 2001, that the cancer had spread to his liver
and lungs. His doctors said his condition was incurable.
Any serious illness comes as a shock, but "the shock can be beneficial
because one is caught in patterns of behaviour and somehow you do them
mechanically and without really thinking about them. You do like others
do," Drnovsek explained in the course of a two-hour interview with The
Times- the first he has given in months. "When you are confronted with the
perception of the end of your life, it's an opportunity to look at things from a
different point of view, to change priorities and establish a distance to this
daily existence and all these material developments that you are taught are so
important," he said as he sipped black tea in his office.
He accepted that some people thought that he had gone crazy, but was not
perturbed. They do not understand, he said in soft, heavily accented English.
"Why should I worry what people of this level of consciousness should say
or think about me? This is so irrelevant." He used a Chinese philosopher's
tale to illustrate his point: "The frog in its well was convinced that this
well was the whole world. And then came a turtle from the sea. The turtle told
this frog that there was a big ocean and the well was nothing. The frog said:
'OK. This turtle is crazy'."
In fact, most Slovenians have grown very fond of their singular President.
Despite - or perhaps because of - his eccentricities he will complete his term
of office next month as one of the most popular figures in his country.
Drnovsek is an erstwhile banker who won his nation's respect - if not its
affection - by helping to negotiate its peaceful secession from the former
Yugoslavia in 1991, and then steering it from communism to democracy and
membership of the European Union and Nato. As late as 2000 - one year after he
had a cancerous kidney removed - The Economist described him as a
"singularly uncharismatic . . . poker-faced trimmer" whose
preoccupations were growth and stability. It quoted him saying, glumly:
"People demanded vision. I hate vision. The cemetery of history is full of
Drnovsek says that his conversion from conventional politician into
"Slovenia's Gandhi" - as one commentator has dubbed him - was gradual,
and he adopted a low profile as he fought his illness. He abandoned conventional
medicine because his doctors told him that they could not cure him. He dabbled
with Indian and Chinese healers. He gave up meat, dairy products and alcohol in
favour of organic vegetables and home-baked bread. He fasted for days at a time.
He also sought to nourish his soul, leaving Ljubljana for a remote home set in
beautiful beech forests south of the Slovenian capital. He lives there alone,
reading and writing, without so much as a television for company since his dog
died. He says modern man has lost contact with nature, but it is "very
beneficial for health, for body but also for soul . . . Somehow we can purify
ourselves of all negativities that are concentrated in towns and urban centres
where there is all this activity and stress."
The new Drnovsek began to reappear on the public stage in late 2005, but more in
the guise of national guru than president. He cut his staff. He quit his centre-left
political party and launched the Movement for Justice and Development that was
open to "all people who wish to change the world for the better". He
became a champion of the environment, animal rights and the oppressed, and a
fierce critic of a political class that is, he says, concerned only about power
and image. "If only we had a candidate like Drnovsek, or even a shadow of
him, the world would quickly become less intolerable," gushed Brigitte
Bardot in the midst of the French presidential election.
Drnovsek travelled around the country. He was photographed wearing a crown of
leaves. He published books entitled Thoughts on Life and Awareness and The
Essence of the World that are found in the spirituality - not politics -
sections of Slovenia's bookshops. He wrote a monthly advice column in a popular
women's magazine, and a blog in the name of "Janez D", whose subjects
ranged from diatribes against pesticides to apocalyptic warnings about climate
change - he says that humanity has perhaps 20 years left to save itself.
Drnovsek also began to intervene in international affairs in a way that
infuriated Slovenia's new conservative Government. He upset nearby Serbia by
supporting independence for Kosovo. He visited Jerusalem, where he urged the
Israelis to talk to the newly elected militants of Hamas, and Sri Lanka, where
he tried to meet Tamil Tiger leaders. In China he defied the authorities by
visiting Tibet. He went to India for a conference on spirituality, and to
Bolivia for Evo Morales's inauguration as that country's first indigenous
president "after 500 years of colonialism and neo-colonialism".
His most ambitious undertaking, however, was a one-man drive to resolve the
Darfur conflict that ended with the detention of his envoy and the
non-appearance of Sudanese and rebel leaders at a Ljubljana peace conference. It
was an embarrassing episode, and he admits that he was probably naive, but says
that he felt morally obliged to try to stop the suffering. While international
diplomats were living in luxury hotels, earning fat salaries and indulging in
endless talks, people were dying, he says. "I thought somebody had to do
something to wake up everybody."
By the summer of 2006 Drnovsek had exhausted his official budget, and the
Government seized the chance to ground him by refusing further funds for his
"exotic activities". He was forced to cancel a state visit to Spain
and an appearance at the UN in New York, and grew ever more scathing in his
denunciations of the Government.
Drnovsek has described Janez Jansa, the Prime Minister, as the "Prince of
Darkness". He disagrees with nearly all of what the Government does, and
accuses it of moving towards a "kind of totalitarian system" by
curbing the independence of the media. He stops only marginally short of saying
that it was unfit to assume the EU's rotating six-month presidency on January 1.
"I will say nothing. I'm still President of this country," he replied
Drnovsek has now abandoned his conflict-resolution efforts. He tried his best,
but was dismissed as "this crazy Slovenian President", he says.
"I came to the conclusion that the only way to change the world is to
change the consciousness of as many individual people as possible, and then the
pressure on politicians will increase to act differently."
He has once again become an absentee President. He spurns official receptions.
He boycotted Slovenia's National Day celebrations in June. " At a certain
level of spirituality . . . it becomes more difficult to do these things of this
material life," he says. "You feel the ephemerality of everything, and
if you know your activity will have no real effect, you become more selective
about what you do and what not. I still have activities, but practically I
stopped all unnecessary political activities - those involved with other
He vanished entirely from June until mid-September, and failed to greet Romano
Prodi, the Prime Minister of Italy, when he visited Slovenia in August. Drnovsek
said that he spent some of that time visiting monasteries in France, tapping
into the "positive energy" that monks had built up through centuries
Drnovsek has infuriated the Government, but his people have warmed to his
evident humanity. His books are bestsellers, and while a few of the Slovenes I
approached in Ljubljana's central market said that they found his conduct
embarrassing, many more expressed support and affection for their unusual
"He's a good and wise man," said Katja Berlinc, a 21-year-old theology
student. "He's great. He's not afraid to speak his mind. He's not afraid of
anything," said Asim Begtasevic, who runs a flower stall. "He stands
for basic moral values," said Sasho Adamich, a young TV assistant. When a
former lover revealed that Drnovsek had a 19-year-old daughter, it only boosted
All this infuriates his critics inside and outside the Government. "Nobody
dares to question Drnovsek's conduct or his travels, because of his illness, and
because he was some sort of hero of the transition to democracy," says
Janez Markes, the editor of the newspaper Delo.
Drnovsek's colourful and controversial presidency is drawing to an end. He is
not seeking re-election, and the charming old streets beneath Ljubljana's castle
are awash with posters of the more conventional politicians fighting to replace
him. He is not planning any great farewell when he steps down. He is not
concerned about his legacy or image. He accepts that a certain amount of
ridicule is the price to be paid for stepping outside the political system, and
he certainly will not mind the anonymity. "I don't have worries. I don't
have fears. I don't have wishes. I'm very calm."
Drnovsek also has one incontrovertible riposte to those who say he went loopy.
Against all odds, and in defiance of every medical prediction, he has not died
in office. Indeed, he now claims to be cancer-free: "I am completely
healed. I am cured of everything. I can't prove it beyond being alive. I don't
need confirmation from a doctor. I just know."