SLOVENIA: Graduating head of the transition class
Thomas Cromwell

Slovenia is a like an A student who is well-mannered and diligent but goes unnoticed as he quietly pursues his studies. Only when the class grades are posted on a bulletin board at the end of the year does anyone realize who he really is, and what he can do. His name is at the top of the list. He has worked the hardest and done the best.

The class in this case is the group of countries that won independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. Of the East Bloc nations, Yugoslavia had already long since made its mark as the most independent and forward-looking socialist/communist state, and among the Yugoslav states, Slovenia had been the most advanced and prosperous. 

Last year, Slovenia was the first of these so-called transition countries to move from net recipient to net donor as an IMF member. But this was only the most recent of a string of firsts. It was the first country to break away from Yugoslavia and set up its own independent government and market economy, in 1991. It was in the first group of transition countries to qualify for membership in the European Union and NATO. It is the first transition country to hold the presidency of the OSCE. And it will be the first of the new EU members to hold the EU Presidency in 2008. You get the picture.

Asked why Slovenia has stood out so well among the transition countries, Slovenia’s 43-year-old ambassador to Washington, Samuel Zbogar, says that Slovenes have always “had to stick together to stay alive as a nation.”

In fact for a part of the world that has seen countless migrations and population shifts brought about by wars, economic privations and other supranational forces, the people of Slovenia have remained remarkably intact.

Even today, Slovenes make up 92 percent of the two million population of Slovenia, with the balance of the population small official minorities of Italians and Hungarians, as well as members of Croat, Serbian, Bosnian and other ethnic communities. This long-lasting homogeneity served Slovenia well when Yugoslavia began to break apart in 1991. After just a ten-day war with Belgrade’s Serb-dominated army, Slovenia had won its independence. This quick success was due to “Good leadership and the unity of the people,” says Ambassador Zbogar. He adds that the concentration of Slovenes in Slovenia, some 98 percent of his country’s population at that time, “Made it easier for the Serbs to let us go.”

Slovenia quickly adapted to life as an independent nation with a clear orientation to the West. There were several factors that influenced Slovenia’s Western orientation. Within Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia were the two predominantly Catholic states. Bosnia was predominantly Muslim, with large Croatian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox minorities, while Serbia and Macedonia were predominantly Orthodox, with large Albanian Muslim minorities. Slovenia and Croatia use Latin-based alphabets, while the rest of Yugoslavia uses Cyrillic letters. Also, Slovenians speak their own language, which includes what the ambassador calls “archaic forms” of Slovenian, differentiating it from Croatian, Serbian and other Slavic languages.

And Slovenes are the very antithesis of nomads. Their migration rate is a tiny 1 in 1000. “For Slovenes, it is difficult to imagine people moving from one city to another, let alone leaving the country,” the ambassador explains. And, indeed, the primary administrative unit in Slovenia is the municipality, of which there are 182.

This traditional insularity made one EU membership requirement particularly difficult for the Slovenes to swallow: allowing other EU nationals to own Slovenian property. There were worries that there would be a flood of eager buyers as soon as the laws were brought into line with EU guidelines. But the changes to Slovenia’s constitution were made, “and we survived,” says the ambassador, with a chuckle.

Slovenia now is a one-year veteran member of the EU and NATO. Its parliament easily approved the new European constitution earlier this year, and Ljubljana is a strong believer in further European integration, including a single president and foreign minister. Ambassador Zbogar says that, “The EU is very creative in finding solutions,” and will therefore find a way to get around the recent French and Dutch rejections of the constitution. “So far, the EU always found a way out of such situations.”

The ambassador says that “full integration of transition countries into the EU takes some years,” but that Slovenia’s chance to be viewed on a par with the 15 West European countries which were the earlier members of the Union, will come when it assumes the rotating presidency of the EU, either for the first half of 08 or, if the constitution is adopted by all EU members, as part of a presidential troika with Germany and Portugal, for all of 2007 and the first half of 08. (In the new system, the three “presidential” nations would establish common priorities and share responsibilities.)

The ambassador says that he believes the new structure, if adopted, will raise the EU’s profile in international affairs, since the Union will speak on foreign policy (and many other) matters with one voice rather than many.

There are two other milestones along the way to Slovenia being viewed as an established member of the EU. The first is adoption of the Euro as its currency, something it is eligible for in 2007. The second is entering the Shengen Treaty under which Slovenia’s border with non-EU countries will become the EU’s border with those countries. Slovenes will be able to move freely within all the Shengen group of nations, and live and work anywhere within the EU. Slovenia is moving towards this in a process that will take two more years to complete.

At the same time, provisions have been made for Croats and Slovenes living in their border region, granting them special passports that allow free movement across the border at 26 specially designated crossing points, and up to 10 kilometers inside each other’s territory.

Already, Slovenian leaders are looking beyond EU and NATO membership for a new identity for their country. For trade and investment, Slovenia would like to be used by international companies as a base for business in the former Yugoslavia, or Southeast Europe, where Slovenian businesspeople have experience from the 70 years that Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia. The ambassador notes that Slovenian labor costs are not particularly competitive, but the labor force is highly skilled and well educated.

There are no doubt other areas where Slovenia will excel. After graduating head of the class, it is bound to find many constructive uses for its many talents.

Curriculum Viate of Ambassador Samuel Žbogar
5 March 1962, Postojna, Slovenia

BA in Political Sciences - International Relations

English, Italian, Croatian, Serbian - active
French - passive

Work Experience
1986 - Entered the Institute for International Scientific, Technical and Cultural Cooperation in Ljubljana as Secretary of the Foreign Students' Club

1987 - Adviser, Department for Neighbouring Countries of the Republican Committee for International Cooperation, Ljubljana

1990 - Third Secretary, Department for Neighbouring Countries in the Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Belgrade

1991 - Counsellor, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia and Secretary to the Slovenian Delegation at the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia

1991 - Secretary at the Slovenian Representative Office to the Monitoring Mission of the European Community in Zagreb

1992 - Counsellor to the Minister and Secretary in the Office of the Secretary-General of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs

1993 - Chargé d'Affairs a.i. and First Secretary, Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia to PR China in Beijing

1995 - Counsellor to the Government/State-Under-Secretary and Director of Department for Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific, Ministry for Foreign Affairs

1997-2001 - Minister Plenipotentiary and Deputy Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Slovenia to the United Nations in New York

1998-1999 - Deputy Representative of the Republic of Slovenia to the United Nations Security Council, New York.

2001 do 2004 - State Secretary

2004 - Head of Task Force for the Republic of Slovenia OSCE Presidency 2005

September 2004 - Ambassador to United States of America