The Slovene lands were part of the
Holy Roman Empire and Austria until
1918 when the Slovenes joined the
Serbs and Croats in forming a new
multinational state, renamed Yugoslavia
in 1929. After World War II, Slovenia
became a republic of the renewed
Yugoslavia, which though Communist,
distanced itself from Moscow's rule.
Dissatisfied with the exercise of
power of the majority Serbs, the
Slovenes succeeded in establishing
their independence in 1991 after
a short 10-day war. Historical ties
to Western Europe, a strong economy,
and a stable democracy have assisted
in Slovenia's transformation to
a modern state. Slovenia acceded
to both NATO and the EU in the spring
of 2004 and has been held to be
in exemplar of the post-communist
Update No: 126 -
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 international stage.
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 interview.
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 expensive.
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 extraordinary admission.
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 move."
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 visionaries."
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 when pressed.
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 politicians."
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 of prayer.
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 President.
"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 his popularity.
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."
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