Slovenia Strides Ahead

Ljubljana has made huge economic and political strides on the quiet

Slovenia Strides Ahead

Ljubljana has made huge economic and political strides on the quiet

In the ten years since Slovenia seceded from the former Yugoslavia, the country has been top of the news agenda on two occasions: in its first two weeks of independence and in the past fortnight. The contrast between the two occasions could not have been greater and indicates how far Slovenia has come.

In June 1991, the international community decided not to recognise Slovenia's independence declaration. As a result, the small, alpine republic was obliged to defend its territorial integrity alone. In June 2001, it hosted the first face-to-face meeting between US president George W Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

The choice was no accident. Politically neutral, Slovenia has excellent political, economic and cultural relations with both countries and no historical hang-ups about either.

Slovenia, which has a population of around two million, has had to punch consistently above its weight since leaving the former Yugoslavia. When last in the media spotlight ten years ago, the country was a battlefield. Two days after Slovenia declared independence on June 25 1991, the Yugoslav People's Army moved to crush its hopes of seceding from the old federation.

For ten days, as Slovene soldiers fought against their former compatriots, and European Community foreign ministers and diplomats frantically attempted to mediate an end to hostilities, Slovenia's future hung in the balance. Perhaps inevitably, media images of the conflict portrayed Slovenia as a plucky, little nation determined to stand up for itself.

The decision to secede was not taken lightly. Moreover, it was not driven by hostility towards the rest of the country to which it had belonged for more than 70 years but by a desire to join the process of European integration.

This goal could not be fulfilled as long as Slovenia remained within Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic's rise to power, his drive to create a Greater Serbia and the virtual inevitability of conflict in the country's ethnically mixed republics, prompted Slovenia's exit. Ljubljana managed to distance itself from the devastation to come and, at the same time, to align itself politically and economically with Western Europe.

In the heady days following the breaching of the Berlin Wall, many Slovenes hoped, even expected, that their country would rapidly be embraced by the West and invited into the major Euro-Atlantic institutions. It was not to be. Nevertheless, the lengthy association process for membership of the European Union and NATO forced Slovenia to go it alone, and has helped the country build a self-confident, modern national identity.

Formal international recognition came on 15 January 1992, almost seven months after the independence declaration. Meanwhile, Slovenia launched a new currency, the tolar, whose value has held up in money markets during the past decade. As war engulfed Croatia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina, the traditional market for Slovene goods disappeared, forcing Slovene businessmen to look elsewhere to sell their wares.

Compared to other former communist countries declaring independence in 1991, Slovenia was well-prepared for going it alone.

Its economy had been the former Yugoslavia's motor, with per capita income double that of neighbouring Croatia. Indeed, despite falls in GDP in the early 1990s, the economy has been growing since 1992 and Slovenia today boasts a per capita income of over $10,000. Economically, it is on a par with poorer members of the European Union.

Although Slovenia was able to join NATO's Partnership for Peace programme right after its launch in March 1994, the country couldn't purchase the modern weaponry and communication systems necessary for building a modern military because, as part of the former Yugoslavia, it remained under an arms embargo until the Dayton Accord, the peace agreement ending the Bosnian war, came into force in December 1995.

Today, Slovenia is the largest foreign investor in Bosnia and, since Milosevic's overthrow, has been forging new links with Serbia. It also contributes troops to NATO operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, coordinates mine clearance operations in the region and is also taking up a role as a minority rights monitor.

Throughout the last decade the country's politics have remained remarkably stable. Milan Kucan, Slovenia's president, is the only one of the eight leaders of the former Yugoslavia republics and provinces still in office.

The most recent issue of The Economist contains a survey of democracy in ex-communist Europe, in which Slovenia alone is awarded the highest rating for progress in implementing reforms, stability and clean government. And it is these achievements, which Slovenes hope will help their candidatures for membership of both the European Union and NATO, and keep their country in the news for the right reasons.

Chris Bennett, who is of Slovene origin, is a regular IWPR contributor. He covered Slovenia's independence declaration and the ensuing 10-day war for Western media.

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