Slovenia’s dogged diplomat
Bruxell, 03/28/2003 | statement
Portrait of Dr Janez Drnovšek - By David Cronin –The European Voice
Slovenia’s president used to be flanked by a big slobbery dog. Artur, a French mastiff similar to the canine star of detective movie Turner and Hooch, has since gone to the big kennel in the sky. His demise has prompted Janez Drnovšek to seek companionship with a smaller tail-waggler called Brodi.
It is telling that Drnovšek’s four-legged friends have been a talking point among ordinary Slovenes. For fellow politicians say the man who is urging compatriots to endorse EU and NATO membership in concurrent referenda this Sunday (23 March) isn’t as adept at cultivating a warm rapport among humans.
“He was untouchable,” says one Slovene MP, referring to Drnovšek’s previous job as a prime minister of almost ten years’ standing. “I cannot recognise anyone who is his friend. He was always behaving more like an institution than a person.”
So why then do surveys still show that Drnovšek is the country’s most popular politician?
A former minister describes his appeal in terms that could equally be applied to a certain cattle-rancher from Texas: “He is not a very eloquent speaker and sometimes he’s not a front-liner in political struggles. People in Slovenia appreciate someone who is more reluctant than outspoken.
“He also became a symbol of stability; there were no earthquakes while he was prime minister. He was more patient than others. Even in very complicated situations, he was able to achieve compromises.”
Drnovšek first came to prominence in April 1989, when he was elected Slovenia’s representative at the collective presidency of the Yugoslav federation.
Battling against dyed-in-the-wool communists, the ambitious 38-year-old strove to move Yugoslavia towards a market economy and closer to the then European Community. He strove, too, for the end of one-party rule.
One factor that is often overlooked in recent Balkan history is that tranquil Slovenia had a seminal role in the violent break-up of the old Yugoslav federation. When Slovenia declared independence in June 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army retaliated with a military strike.
The war lasted just ten days, with only a small number of casualties. The death toll might well have been much greater but for the diplomatic skills of Drnovšek, who acted as principal negotiator with the Yugoslav army in the Brioni talks, which resulted in a cessation of hostilities. He was rewarded with his election as prime minister of an independent Slovenia in April 1992.
The terms of the settlement may not have been entirely honourable. There have been reports that Milan Kucan, Drnovšek’s predecessor as Slovenian president, told Slobodan Milosevic he would accept Serbia’s right to defend its kinfolk in other parts of Yugoslavia in return for recognition of Slovenian independence. Whatever the ethics of the deal, however, it helped Slovenia remain mercifully free from the genocidal outrages witnessed in Bosnia and Croatia.
“We had the pre-war to the real war in Slovenia,” recalls Carl Bildt, former UN envoy to the Balkans. “It was the famous ‘hour of Europe’.”
“He’s [Drnovšek] been president of two countries so he has a unique insight into the personalities of the era. His election provided democratic stability during those years.
“We have to remember, also, that Slovenia is ethnically and nationally fairly coherent, compared to some other countries in the region.”
Bildt reckons that Drnovšek tried his utmost to ease tensions with his country’s neighbours, particularly Croatia. Zagreb, which applied for EU membership last month, has been involved in several protracted disputes with Ljubljana, particularly over the border between the two countries, control of a state bank and the nuclear power station Krsko. Yet, while Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan had succeeded in finding common ground with Drnovšek on these issues, his hands have been tied by more nationalist-minded elements in the Croatian parliament.
Zagreb, however, will not be at the forefront of Drnovšek’s mind this weekend. A Europhile polyglot (he has a good command of English, French, Spanish, German and Serbo-Croat), the president has described this Sunday’s vote as the second most important date in the country’s history: for Drnovšek, it is only surpassed by 23 December 1990, when 90% of his compatriots voted to secede from Yugoslavia.
He has defended his decision to consult the public about EU and NATO membership on the same day. Support for joining the Alliance is considerably weaker than that for entering the Union, but he believes that holding the polls simultaneously should ensure a reasonably high turn-out, helping both referenda to be carried.
“The link between EU and NATO is actually very tight,” he has remarked, contending that the latter provides security for the former.
Like other EU and NATO aspirants, Slovenia has come under fire from French President Jacques Chirac for siding with the US in its war preparations. Similarly, Slovene peace activists have called on their government to withdraw from the ‘Vilnius 10’ declaration (by states aspiring to, or recently invited to, join the Alliance) expressing solidarity with Washington.
Mindful that the surrounding controversy is having an impact on the referenda campaigns, Drnovšek has strove to play it down. In an interview with TV Slovenija he claimed the country did not wish to choose between what US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has labelled old and new Europe. “Our allies are both the US and the EU,” he opined.
Indeed, Drnovšek has acted as a diplomatic ‘ham in the sandwich’ before.
In 2001, for example, he played host to the first ever meeting between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in Brdo Castle, one-time home of Yugoslav leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito. (The meeting prompted Slovenes to recall how the US president had greeted Drnovšek as the “leader of Slovakia” during a previous visit to Washington.)
Even if their president is not overburdened with charm, Slovenes still feel a sense of gratitude to Drnovšek. Although the state’s wealth was affected by Yugoslavia’s disintegration, his steady-handed stewardship is considered an important factor in ensuring it remains the richest of the Union’s candidate countries. National income per capita was about €16,000 in 2001.
His stint as prime minister wasn’t without controversy, however. He was accused of potentially wasting public money by advocating a more expensive model of government plane than the one eventually chosen. And he was forced to deny claims that he used a log cabin reserved for official state entertainment for his personal enjoyment.
One factor that has been cited for the respect, if not adulation, he enjoys from ordinary Slovenes was his unflinching honesty about his health problems. In 1999 he had a kidney tumour removed and last year he revealed that he has a rare lung condition.
While doctors’ orders forced him to take life a little easier in his final days as prime minister, he announced he would only run for the presidency if he felt well enough.
There is not much to indicate that his energy levels have fallen. A keen sports fan, Drnovšek continues to jog each morning in a Ljubljana park and has boasted Javier Solana, the Union’s high representative for foreign policy, as an occasional running mate. Fittingly, his efforts to join the EU and NATO have been akin to a gruelling marathon. This weekend, he should pass the finishing line.
A note by the PR Ofiice of the President of the Republic of Slovenia to the portrait of the Slovenian President dr. Janez Drnovšek, published in The Europan Voice:
Brodi, in the picture, is mentioned in the portrait as a smaller tail- waggler. Seeing Brodi who is an English mastif as was Arthur before him, one would ask himself, how big must even big dogs look like.
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