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Slovenia is the “New Europe”

Slovenia is the “New Europe”  

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Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise    distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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abstract: The number of tourists who come to Slovenia in a year exceeds its total population.  Geology has shaped this land into a marvel of mountains, green plains, lakes, rivers, and sea shores. Slovenia might well have been called the proverbial Switzerland of its region if the original was not itself in the neighborhood. For centuries, its inhabitants -barely two million- have tenaciously held on to an identity as Slovenes largely based on a distinct Slavic tongue. Their small size was also conducive to the politics of participation. Slovenia was the first to pull away from the failing Communist Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. It lost no time in joining regional institutions of Western Europe, NATO as well as the European Union. Cultural integration has proven more challenging as it threatens the very Slovene essence that has survived multi-ethnic groupings in the Austrian and Yugoslav eras. This background framed my observations during a recent trip to Slovenia, reported here.                        

 

            keywords: Slovenia* Ljubljana* Plecnik* Tito* Bled* Postojna                 

 

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Pedigrees

            As travelers coming from Croatia in early October 2007, we were subjected to strict passport control at the border of Slovenia. This was also the border of the European Union. Slovenia had recently become a full member of the EU; it was preparing to hold the EU’s rotating presidency next year.

            Slovenia’s separation from Croatia and the rest of the old Yugoslavia was largely motivated by economics; with only one-thirteenth of Yugoslavia’s population, Slovenia was the source of one-third of its gross domestic product. That level of productivity was an effective platform for the independent Slovenia’s economy to grow rapidly: its per capita income is now two-thirds that of the EU average. Slovenia is often mentioned as an example of a successful European “transition” (to free market) country. As a member of NATO since 2004 and a contributor to American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also a model of the “new Europe” in the parlance of Washington.

            That Slovenia is now considered a “developed” country meant that it would be more expensive for us tourists. “Prices are much higher here than Croatia, and the currency is Euro,” our guide, Irena, said. She counted education as a main reason for the high productivity of the Slovenes. “The high schools are for nine years, instead of eight in Croatia.” More than 96.5% of those eligible are attending “upper secondary school.” Equally impressive, women constitute nearly 40% of the labor force. Women are provided with a generous maternity leave, as Irena related in the story of her sister, a civil engineer, who had given birth to a child this year. “She could have even had an extension of the paid leave, but she was bored. So she went back to work and her husband stayed home to take care of the baby. There is no comparable compensation for such husbands, yet; his job was such that he could work from home.”

            We left modern times to go into a cave in Postojna which has been receiving visitors since 1819. This was in the southwestern plateau of Kars -which has given its name to the Karst phenomenon-, a limestone region of underground rivers, gorges, and caves. There are more than 80,000 caves in Slovenia. The one in Postojna is the largest and most visited. A train took us to its well-maintained galleries. At its widest, the cave expands to a vast area framed with thousand-year-old stalactites. “This is the concert hall,” our guide said, “on special occasions we are allowed to have music here. Ten thousand people could fit in this area.” Imagine the disturbance that this might cause for the natives of the cave, including the most famous, the rare light salamander (Proteus anguinus) in the exhibit pool which was lighted just for a few minutes as our tour group passed by. There are 130 uncommon species in this cave. They are the subjects of “speleobiology,” a field of study that originated in Slovenia.

            Not far from the Postojna cave we saw another reason for Slovenia’s old claim to fame: two Lipizzaners, horses from the nearby village of Lepic which have long been admired for their elegance, spirit, and friendliness. Still a further reminder of Slovenia’s renown in the bygone days were the vineyards of Dolenjska which we were now crossing. “The wines from here were prized by the Romans,” Irena said.

            She then told us a local joke that described the people as well as the geography of three important regions of this country. “We are going toward Gornjska, whose inhabitants are teased as being stingy. Once, a man from Dolenjska, and one from Stajerska invited their friend from Gorenjska to a picnic. The first said he would bring wine, the one from Stajerska said he would bring food. The man from Gornjska said: ‘OK, I will bring my brother.’” Like their fellow Slovenes, we chuckled at the expense of the Gorenjskans.

Virtuous Small

            Soon, however, we had occasions to delight in Gorenjska’s own culinary contributions, the Bled cream cakes and the buckwheat soup with wild mushrooms picked in the woods around the lodge at Lake Bohinj. At the foot of Triglav, the country’s highest mountain, Bled is a tourist complex of hotels, villas, and restaurants built in the last hundred years around a pristine lake, complete with an island in the middle and a castle perched atop the cliff on its shore.

            The morning mist notwithstanding, the best panoramic view of Bled was from the castle. At the entrance to the castle, a man was raking the fallen autumn leaves, the way it had been done for centuries. Alas, commercialism intruded in the front yard, in the form of a shop purveying “sealed personal certificates” made by a printing press advertised as being from Gutenberg’s time.

            We took the touted pletna -a wooden boat rowed by one person from the back- to the island in the lake . “This is Bled’s answer to the gondola of Venice,” our oarsman said. The scenery that surrounded us, however, accepted no comparison. The mountains rose high, shielding closer hills that were ablaze in autumn colors . The water shimmered as it turned the whole lake into a reflecting mirror of nature in glory .The fog did not obfuscate but intensified . The ducks that swam around us surely knew that this was bliss .

            The ubiquitous “mobile” phone interrupted our peace. When the oarsman finished the call that he had just received , he mumbled an apology, “business,” as he shook his head. He was a chatty type. He was closing for the season soon. Now, I am going on vacation.” When I asked where he would go, he said “Cuba!” He had already been there once. “That is a beautiful country. Not so much Havana, but out on the Island.” He especially liked Trinidad which, as I told him, I also had visited some time ago. The Cubans had built special hotels there for guests from the Communist bloc. We talked about the exceptional sunset of the Caribbean. Perhaps afraid that this incongruous conversation might distract me from the present environment I reached to touch the water of the lake.

            When he deposited us at the foot of the steep stairs to the church on the high point of the island, my new friend, the oarsman told me about a local tradition. “On the wedding day, the groom has to carry his bride up those 99 steps.”

            In the elevator of our hotel, I tried my Slovene: Dubro Yurta. I did not get any reply from the three stout ladies riding with me. When I said Gutten Morgen they beamed and responded in unison. Austria was just on the other side of the mountains and that evening German-speaking tourists curtained off half of the restaurant for their private waltzing party. This was the frontier for the Slavs in Europe; the Julian Alps had trapped them. From the 14th century until 1918, the Hapsburgs ruled Slovenia. The Slovenes, to preserve their identity and culture, successfully clung to their Slavic language.

            Language also helped them in resisting the Serbs in their 10 day War of Independence in 1991. “Our language is a bit different from the Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian spoken in the rest of the former Yugoslavia,” Irena said. This difference enabled clandestine communications which mobilized the Slovenian Territorial Troops. The Serbian Federal Army of Yugoslavia could disarm only forty percent of them. The Army chose not to fight. Only a few shots were fired.

            Today this small nation of two million people prides itself on resisting “Americanization” of its culture. To that end, it manifests loyalty to “national” products.  Symbolically, there is no Starbucks in Slovenia, since every local café is believed to serve “a good cup of coffee.” But this is a losing battle. “I guess it’s just a question of time for Starbucks,” a Slovene blogger recently wrote. There are already seven McDonalds in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s biggest city.

            When I went shopping for local souvenirs, as folk art I was offered replicas of old primitive paintings -scenes of peasant family gatherings, or historical and religious events- done on small pieces of beehive box panels. Beekeeping has more than half a millennium of history in Slovenia. Colorful beehive boxes still dotted the countryside as we drove toward the medieval town of Raduoljica. There were also many “double haystacks,” distinct structures which are another element in the Slovene folk architecture.

            Old castles, manors, and churches were common in this landscape.  Buildings reflected nature as in decorations of the church we saw in Bohinj that imitated the azure and emerald colors of the Sava river running by it. Footpaths were everywhere -maps showed them traversing the country from the northeast to the southwest and crisscrossing it all in between.  Houses were two-story structures adorned with red geraniums in window boxes. The houses appeared to be all of almost equal size. They evoked a sense that an egalitarian community should exist here, helped by the contentment induced in an environment of pastoral beauty in the rolling green hills.

            Indeed, the ancestors of the people who lived in these homes inspired no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson. The American Declaration of Independence was influenced by Jefferson’s reading the account of how Slovene farmers contractually consented to be governed by their Duke -written by the French political philosopher John Bodin. The democratic tradition has been nurtured in the culture of accessibility of this nation. The local owner of our restaurant in Raduoljica “recently ran for President of the Republic,” Irena told me.

            I was disappointed when Irena said: “We don’t have any public performance of folkloric dances or music; these arts are preserved only by volunteers groups.” Instead, she took us to a ginger-bread making bakery, Lectar.This is also a restaurant that has been serving guests since 1822, in a country inn which is five hundred years old. We dined on a dish called “peasant’s feast,” while two men played the polka on accordions . Heavy, the meal showed its peasant roots.

Legends

            In Slovenia, it is Ljubljana, the capital city, that is considered cosmopolitan. Although its population is only 265,000, Ljubljana boasts a most venerable philharmonic hall. Dating back to 1701, its stage has seen performances by Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Smetana, and Dvorak. More recently, Gustav Mahler conducted here.

            Ljubljana was settled more than 2,500 years ago, but its “old town” is mostly Baroque, with some Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings . The early 20th century architect and urban planner Jozef Plecnik is credited with many of Ljubljana’s structures. Plecnik has enjoyed a curious reputation in Europe since the 1980s. His “spiritual touch” is said to have created a “cosmopolitan feng shui” by “tweaking the delicate interlacing of Ljubljana’s different eras.”

            Plecnik’ most famous legacy is the Tromostovje, a triple-span bridge over the river Ljubljana not far from the city hall square. On this day I saw a beggar commandeering the main pedestrian wing of the bridge; but the city’s street of fashionable shops extends from that square . Its best restaurants and cafes line the banks of the river . “Ljubljana is a small town. We often run into high government officials on this street and in those restaurants,” Irena said. I asked for a fish restaurant where the working people ate. Ribca was something of an institution with plain good food but Formica tables, situated by the river one level below, under the arcaded open market.

            The most interesting landmark of Ljubljana is a few blocks away, and it illustrates the hazards of small town politics. This is the Slovene parliament building constructed in the 1950s. Originally, Plecnik had submitted a design but that was rejected out of concern that the Yugoslav federal leader Tito would consider it too grandiose. The more modest substitute by another architect is grandiose in its explicit socialist realism: its portals celebrate all types of workers equally in nude sculptures.

            Politics has played a role in the fate of another famous sculpture nearby, that of Edvard Kardelj. This native son of Ljubljana was the chief ideological theoretician of the Yugoslav Communist Party and the principle drafter of its 1974 Constitution. “For that reason, since independence many people have campaigned for the removal of his statue,” Irena told me, “but he has his supporters and that is why the statute is still standing.”

            Josip Broz, alias Tito, whose mother was Slovene, also has many supporters in Slovenia. “No matter what else could be said about him,” Irena said, “he was a great man. He was very popular until the end. He was especially admired for his leadership of the Partisans in defeating the Nazis during World War II. There are some memorials to him in other towns.” At the entrance to the lodge in Lake Bohinj I saw a display case publicizing its famous guests. The fading pictures showed only two dignitaries: Tito and Willy Brandt. “There is no nostalgia for the communist times. There is no desire to return to those days,” Irena assured us, her American guests. In Ljubljana they have changed the name of the street that used to be called Tito. 

            I recalled a commentary on the website of the U.S. State Department about contemporary politics in Slovenia:

“For all the apparent bitterness that divides left and right wings, there are few fundamental philosophical differences between them in the area of public policy. Slovenian society is built on consensus, which has converged on a social-democrat model. Political differences tend to have their roots in the roles that groups and individuals played during the years of communist rule and the struggle for independence.”

            The legacy of Tito’s socialism, however, persists. Western critics blame practices based on concepts of “socially owned,” and “worker management” as impeding needed reform of the Slovene economy. As Slovenia’s economic growth came to depend on trade with Western Europe, its industry was successfully adjusted to the new trade partners’ needs for middle to high tech manufactured products. The recent slump in the economy of those partners, however, called for a new source of capital infusion into Slovenia’s economy. Experts have advised foreign investment. This requires privatizing the still public-owned companies, especially in the service sector. The Slovenian government has been “cautious” in deference to the public’s fear of the economy being “bought out” by foreigners. The state continues to own Slovenia’s largest bank (NKBM) as well as the company (Triglav) that controls more than fifty percent of the insurance market.

            In the imposing new door of Ljubljana’s Cathedral I saw a symbol of efforts by religion to come back from the communist times. The scenes on the massive iron door which was installed in 1997, depict the history of the Catholic Church in Slovenia, under the paternal gaze of John Paul II . Some 58% of Slovens declare themselves Roman Catholic. “We are not really observing Christians,” Irena told us, however. “We go to Church only on holidays like Christmas.” Indeed, according to a recent poll, 10% of the population still identify themselves as atheist, and another 15% decline affiliation with any religion.

            The history of religion in Slovenia shows greater allegiance to “Sloveneness.” As Irena told us “Christianity was brought here by two Greek monks. The Slovenes who became Roman Catholic changed to Protestantism as a result of the Reformation in the 16th Century, then reverted to Catholicism after the Counter-Reformation some 150 years later.”

            The “Greek monks” she was referring to were Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who were sent by the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century to minister to Christian Slavs in their own language. The brothers could speak the local Slavonic vernacular. While Methodius was an abbot, Cyril is better known as a Constantinople theologian. He had a good command of Arabic which qualified him as a Byzantine emissary dispatched to discuss religion with Arab theologians and to strengthen diplomatic relations with the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.

Transition to Now

            The right corner of the door at the Ljubljana Cathedral alludes to the threat from the Muslim Ottomans which emerged after the 15th century. Religion, however, did not play a significant role in Slovenia’s break from its Yugoslav compatriots, many of whom were Muslim. Indeed, Slovenia’s main lingering conflict is with its co-religionist, Catholic Croatia. In this, characteristically, both the primacy of economics and Slovenia’s adjustment to new realities are on exhibit.

            The nuclear power plant in Krsko is the prime example. Irena pointed it out as we drove by. “That power plant was built with Croatian money in the early 1980s. Its output is shared between Croatia and Slovenia.”  The plant provides one-fourth of Slovenia’s power requirements. Slovenia’s contribution is to furnish storage for its spent fuel waste. The original agreement called for another joint nuclear power plant to be built in Croatia, but after independence Slovenia has declined to accept storage responsibility for its additional waste.

This article entitled Slovenia is the “New Europewas published on the Website of Protocol Professionals, Inc. in 2007, with the related pictures: 

                        http://www.protocolprofessionals.com/articles_slovenia_new_europe.htm

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