Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

EUROPE: Little Slovenia Takes Charge

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jan 4 2008 (IPS) - Slovenia saw one of the greatest honours in its short history of 16 years as an independent state Jan. 1 when it took the rotating presidency of the 27-member European Union (EU) for the next six months.

The tiny Alpine nation of two million, squeezed in between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, is the first newcomer into the EU to hold the post; it joined in 2004. It is also the first former Yugoslav republic that joined the EU at all – it is the most developed and most westernised area of what used to be Yugoslavia.

“This is a historic project for us,” Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel told local media. “It’s not normal for us to be asked to lead such a presidency, and so we want to make an extra effort.”

The country has allocated 93 million dollars for advisors, strategists and interpreters to see the next six months go smoothly. Slovenia will organise dozens of conferences and ministerial meetings. On the one hand, these are intended as contribution to EU policy; on the other, they could promote Slovenia.

Slovenia’s achievements since independence in 1991 have been amazing. At 22,200 dollars, its per capita gross domestic product is close to that of developed EU nations. Unemployment is lowest in the Balkans at nine percent, while inflation is below five percent. Its success earned it use of the euro as currency.

“Slovenia was always a step ahead of all former Yugoslav people (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins), and it was normal to see it rush towards the EU,” analyst Misa Brkic told IPS. “It’s a pity others did not have the same idea.”

Slovenia waged a short 10-day war with the army of former Yugoslavia in June 1991 when it proclaimed independence. The fighting, that took 14 Slovenian lives, was a prelude to the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia that followed. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia cost more than 120,000 lives. The only peaceful divorces were the independence of Macedonia in 1992 and of Montenegro in 2006.

Rupel has said that “one of the priorities of the Slovenian presidency will be to take the Western Balkans close to the EU.” Slovenia, he said, “can be an efficient bridge with the EU, as we know the region and issues best.”

Croatia aims to become an EU member by the end of the decade, while Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro must wait at least until 2012.

Serbia is currently at odds with the EU, which plans to recognise the independence of its Albanian-dominated southern province Kosovo in coming months. But Rupel has said that “the access (of Serbia to the EU) should not be linked with Belgrade’s easing of stand on Kosovo.”

Slovenia has defined five aims for its EU presidency. These are to usher in the Lisbon treaty (an EU-wide plan of action to replace the draft EU constitution), launching the “new Lisbon strategy cycle” (investment in research, knowledge and innovation, development of a competitive business environment, adaptation of labour market, and response to demographic challenges), more attention to climate-energy issues, strengthening the European future of the Western Balkans, and promotion of inter-cultural dialogue between European countries.

Slovenians see themselves as modest and hard working people. But others point to dubious Slovene practices, such as the cases of the “erased”.

In February 1992, shortly after independence, thousands of non-Slovenes were simply erased from citizen books, and stripped of residence. Many were forced to leave, even to the war zones of Croatia or Bosnia, in violation of international law.

Neva Miklavcic Predan, head of the Slovenian human rights watchdog Helsinki Monitor, described these measures to IPS as “administrative ethnic cleansing.”

Predan is to stand trial for making such statements to foreign media, on the orders of the conservative government of Prime Minister Janez Jansa. The police say Predan was “deliberately tarnishing the image” of her country.

Jansa’s government has been targeting the media as well. It has objected to reporting of “marginal subjects” such as the ‘erased’. About 600 journalists signed a petition in October 2007, accusing Jansa of “suffocating media freedom and imposing censorship.”

“In 2006 this government replaced the editors of 80 percent of Slovenia’s media through direct or indirect ownership,” Blaz Zgaga, co-author of the petition told Croatian media. “It changed media laws to gain control over most of the media.”

To visitors, however, the tidy and picturesque Slovenia, and its capital Ljubljana, present an idyllic picture of life in the new Europe. And that is what most Slovenes would like the EU to see.

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