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The Boston Phoenix Our Man in Slovenia

The most ignored region of the old Yugoslavia is also the closest to being a peaceful democracy.

By Wes Eichenwald

JULY 19, 1999:  LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA -- To those who knew how this city normally looks, it was a surreal scene. Traffic diverted, barriers erected, cops on every corner, airport-style security around the largest public square in town. My relaxed "city of human dimensions," as it bills itself, had taken on the look and feel of an armed camp.

The weather had also gone haywire. Ljubljana gets more than its share of rain, but this had been pounding away without a let-up for hours, whipping in at a 45-degree angle. The plaza was an unbroken sea of umbrellas, and news camerapeople and their equipment, all wrapped in plastic, jostled for angles atop makeshift wooden bleachers. Most of the 7000 in the crowd had stood there for two hours or more and weren't getting any wetter. Finally, around 6 p.m., the introductions came: the loudest cheers went to Hillary and to Madeleine Albright, before the Man Himself strode onto the podium, umbrella in hand, a large, beaming, charismatic figure in a charcoal-gray banker's overcoat. The crowd went wild.

Bill Clinton couldn't stop grinning and waving at the bandanna-wearing, fist-pumping kids pressing against the waist-high barricades. He waved; they waved and shouted back, chanting "CLEEN-ton, CLEEN-ton." He was loving it, flirting with the crowd, using none-too-subtle body language to come on to them. And they were inviting him upstairs. Dissenters and demonstrators skirted the fringes, but none were seen in the square.

The day Clinton arrived in Congress Square also happened to be the day NATO declared a formal halt to the bombing campaign in Serbia, 300 miles south, and the day the pullout of Serbian troops from Kosovo was (officially) completed; all the more reason for the crowd's applause. But the main incentive for their cheers was simply that Clinton had deigned to come here at all, to the capital of this crumb on the map that hardly anyone in the States has ever heard of.

Clinton's speech was brief and basically news-free; he thanked Slovenia for standing with NATO (for which it's "an excellent candidate") and praised the eight-year-old nation's democratic structure as a regional model: "Slovenia can lead the way. And America will help." At the end, he offered his thanks "for making us feel welcome. We never will forget this; I hope you won't either." Fanfare, handshakes in the crowd, exit.

For the Slovene government, it was something of a coming of age. This was even bigger than last year's visit of the star of the Mexican soap opera Esmeralda, a cult hit in Slovenia. Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek, at that evening's banquet, went as far as to say that Clinton's visit "has put us on the world map."

For Clinton, it was barely more than a whistle stop on his tour of the former Yugoslavia: 19 hours in a country the size of Massachusetts with a population of two million; an afternoon, evening, and overnight, followed by a morning departure for a Macedonian refugee camp. The next day, CNN gave far more airtime to Clinton at the refugee camp than to his first official visit to the country that's as close as any to making a Balkan republic work.

Slovenia generally stays out of the news. Even in articles about the former Yugoslavia, most journalists give it a passing mention at best. Slovenia's tourist brochures knock you out with pictures of gorgeous scenery -- Alps, pastoral landscapes, elegant Baroque cities, and the laid-back Italianate coast -- but outside the region it remains a well-kept secret.

Bordering Italy and Austria on the west, Hungary and Croatia on the east, Slovenia is the northernmost and westernmost of the former Yugoslav republics. Ten years ago, when Marshal Tito's Yugoslav federation began to fall apart and a power-hungry politician named Slobodan Milosevic seized power in Serbia, Milosevic's heavy-handed putdowns of the increasingly volatile Albanian situation -- and his 1989 revocation of Kosovo's autonomy -- alarmed the Slovenes. Their leanings became increasingly democratic and independence-minded, and the ideological rift between Serbia and Slovenia deepened quickly. By the end of 1990, a sweeping majority of Slovenes voted to secede from Yugoslavia; in June 1991, along with Croatia, they did.

And, along with Croatia, Slovenia was attacked by Milosevic's federal army. But they fared far better than their neighbors. After a tidy 10-day war with minimal casualties (66 dead), Slovenia set up an independent state with its own government, largely run by old-line Communist officials turned pro-Western reformers. With no substantial Serbian minority, Slovenia didn't hold Milosevic's interest long; besides, he had other fish to fry. Since then, through a mixture of luck and shrewdness, Slovenia has managed to stay at peace while Croatia, Bosnia, and, finally, Kosovo suffered the brunt of Milosevic's push for a Greater Serbia. Meanwhile, Slovenia's government has been trying as hard as it can to distance itself as much as possible from its troubled former countrymen. Its message to the West is simple: Balkans? What Balkans? This is Central Europe.

The few Western expats who find their way to Slovenia discover a self-contained micro-universe that's directed far more inward than outward. According to Ales Debeljak, a Slovene writer and scholar, the country's heritage as a loyal province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire affected the citizens' psyche more than Tito ever let on. Like the Austrians, the Slovenes actually obey WALK/DON'T WALK signals at crosswalks. However, in old socialist fashion, they still shove their way onto city buses, then elbow their way to the back. As a British Embassy staffer once remarked to an acquaintance, "Slovenia is the bastard son of a German soldier searching for his Slavic mother."

For all the turbulence in their past, Slovenes remain rather conservative socially and politically. The government is a multi-party parliamentary democracy, but President Milan Kucan, Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek, and the leading figures in Slovenia's independence movement remain in power a decade on. Under Kucan and Drnovsek, Slovenia's reform efforts have been praised by the West, but criticized by dissidents and disgruntled anti-communist Slovene expats as window-dressing. Though it cherishes its European Union dreams, Slovenia, a nation of individualist do-it-yourselfers, is used to going its own way.

It's a fine line to tread: knitting yourself into the fabric of Western Europe without losing your soul.

All this was more than I knew when I arrived in Ljubljana on an October night in 1996 (it was also raining then). I knew that Slovenia enjoyed the highest living standard of any country in Eastern Europe and was intrigued that, although it was surrounded by larger and very different nations, it maintained its own distinctive identity.

The first time I heard Slovene spoken had been in a cassette-and-book package bought at a Framingham bookstore. To me, it sounded like Russian spoken with an Italian accent. Not a promising beginning. At least it uses the Roman alphabet (unlike the Serbians and Russians, who use the Cyrillic), but the grammar seemed like an instrument designed to torture foreigners. Even most Slovenes have trouble with all the case markings and rules, but they seem to like it that way: their language, a very private thing.

Over the centuries, this quirky language, more than anything else, is what held the people together. Apart from about five years in the late ninth century under a leader named Prince Kocelj, the Slovenes were under another government's thumb until 1991. Without an independent state, culture substituted for politics in their national myth -- music, art, and, above all, literature. From the mid-19th century on, when Slovenes began to develop the concept of themselves as a distinct ethnic group with a right to self-determination, it was poets and writers who set the tone for the debate -- beginning with the national poet, France Preseren, whose vision of Slovene nationhood would not be fulfilled until a century and a half after his time. Today it's writers, poets, painters, architects, and scientists who grace Slovenia's paper money and dominate the public monuments. The tradition continues: Slovenia's drive to statehood is considered to have begun in earnest when a highbrow Ljubljana magazine, Nova revija (New Review), published a detailed program for an independent Slovenia in 1987 (Belgrade was furious, but brought no charges against the authors).

Ljubljana, the capital (it's pronounced l'yoo-BLAH-nah), is very much a cultural capital as well. It's a walkable city of 300,000 with elegant Baroque, Art Nouveau, and Neo-Classical architecture set against the willow-lined Ljubljanica River. LJ is also a college town, and the 35,000 worldly English-speaking students here affect the city's life much as do their counterparts in Boston, but with more taste -- and their elders seem to treat them better. The city boasts four professional orchestras, 22 museums, more than 100 libraries, an influential alternative-theater scene, and a small but spirited collection of punk- and garage-rockers. WELCOME TO LJUBLJANA, CITY OF CULTURE read the signs, in Slovene and English, at the city limits.

Ljubljana's signature asset is its hilltop castle and the surrounding crescent-shaped, cobblestoned Old Town core below. But as Slovenia modernizes and brings itself more into line with Western Europe, a new Ljubljana is slowly morphing onto the old. It seems that every other student, shortly after graduation, opens either a kava (coffee) bar, a stylish Old Town boutique, an import-export business, an auto school, or a language school. And each week, another Tito-era gostilna (the equivalent of the Italian trattoria), heavy on chocolate-brown wood and orange formica, seems to give way to another café done up in smooth blond wood, plate glass, and consciously retro couches. These are swiftly populated by ultra-hip, chain-smoking college kids and espresso-swilling, cell-phone-happy Yugoyuppies driving late-model BMWs and Hondas.

Still, old habits die hard. In some stores, it is still normal to visit two cashiers' windows to a) pay and obtain a receipt from a cashier behind a bank-teller-like window, and b) present the receipt to another clerk behind the main counter, who carefully wraps, tapes, stickers shut, and bags your single nine-volt battery. And there still exist endless neighborhood bars populated by men who pass most of their waking hours in a nicotine cloud nuzzling a pale glass of Union or a fizzy bottle of Zlatorog beer, drinking and talking to their fellow imbibers in a continuing battle to drive away any possible change in the order of things.

To some, the contrast between new and old is more reminiscent of other Central European capitals than of the Balkans. A reporter from USA Today even suggested last year that LJ could end up as the new Prague. That's doubtful: it's too small, for one thing, and it's not set up for a large influx of foreigners. Although it's true that Slovenes share some American traits -- primarily, a focus on work and business -- they take time to visit friends and family, too. And -- oh yes -- they're polite and modest. The modesty is best expressed by their inevitable surprise whenever any outsider (say, Bill Clinton) takes an interest in them. One of my early encounters in Slovenia was with a middle-aged man who, when I told him I'd relocated to his country and planned to write about it, said, "You came all the way over here -- just to study us?"

Smallness can be a blessing. Slovenia's place in Europe might be compared to that of the youngest, overlooked child in a large family, who, while his siblings noisily quarrel over their share of the blankets, quietly puts together his own bed. Smallness can be a curse, too. Slovenia's politics are as personal, petty, and filled with lifelong grudges as anything Boston's history has to offer. A local paper once published a cartoon titled "Slovenski Ring," depicting a Slovenia-shaped boxing ring inside which a lone boxer beats himself up.

The cultural homogeneity that has allowed Slovenia to survive has its distasteful aspects as well. For one thing, there's the '50s-style sexism. Although a woman, Viktorija "Vika" Potocnik, was recently elected Ljubljana's mayor (Hillary Clinton stopped by City Hall for a public chat), females are just not seen in national politics. And racism, or xenophobia, is what one would expect in such a monocultural society. Although the small Italian and Hungarian minorities at opposite ends of Slovenia have constitutionally guaranteed minority rights -- including education in their own language and parliamentary representation -- no such guarantees exist for the true invisible minorities in Slovenia: the perhaps 150,000 or more emigrants from the other Yugoslav lands, including an estimated 50,000 Serbians.

A poll taken last year by a government economist and a university professor asked people the question, "Who would you not like to have as a neighbor?" The tally for Slovenia's former countrymen was rather high (except for Croatians). So was the tally for Jews -- an eyebrow-raising fact, given that even before 1939 there weren't many Jews in Slovenia and today there are probably less than a thousand. Also unpopular: Hindus, Muslims, blacks (not too visible either), gay men and lesbians (less rare), alcoholics (not rare at all), and even friends -- Slovenes do value having friends, just not next door. Their ideal neighbor seems to be something like a taciturn Finn.

In general, permanent residency in independent Slovenia is hard for non-Slovenes to get. A friend of mine named Vuk -- an ethnic Croatian Web designer with a Yugoslav passport -- has forged a successful Ljubljana-based career while renewing three-month tourist visas for the past eight years. He reports never having experienced prejudice from the locals, but then, as he points out, he moves in hip professional and collegiate circles in the capital. "If you're good at anything and you've arrived at your niche," he says, "you will have very little problem. You don't have active repression of any sort, so this does make Slovenia a safe haven compared to Croatia or Bosnia."

Things are different for Westerners. Once a month, Ljubljana's English-speaking expats -- mostly Brits, with the odd American or Aussie -- gather at a basement bar called Klub Drama to insult each other, commiserate on the difficulties of learning Slovene, ask each other for work, and rag on their home-away-from-home. I usually give these meetings a wide berth, but one Expat Night, on a cold, slushy evening in December 1997, sticks out. I was settled into a booth with four others, listening to a monologue by Andrew (not his real name), a scruffy Brit in his 20s. When I mentioned Slovenia's expected entry into the EU in five or six years, it set him off on a toot.

"Five or six years! More like 15 or 20! There are 80 books of regulations alone that all have to be translated. Five or six years? This country is headed for a crash in three years. When they're forced to compete one-on-one in the European market, they're going to be picked a-paht. There isn't one sector they're competitive in."

Andrew grew more agitated; his voice rose to a shout. People at neighboring tables started to glance in his direction. But he'd built up a head of steam: "The people in this country have been ripped off since the day they were born. They have no idea what fair market value is. They don't know how to be competitive! There are 30 banks in this country. For two million people. That's more than there are in Britain, with 56 million people!

"Just ask yourself," Andrew continued, "where's the money coming from?" The question hung unanswered. "There is no rule of law in this society. This isn't Europe, this is the Balkans," he said with an air of finality.

"Well then," said the Slovene-Australian gentlemen across from him. "If you feel this way about your host country, why don't you just pack up your bags and leave?"

"Because I love it. It's a magical country -- that's fucked up from top to bottom!"

The mists outside thickened. Eighteen months later, Andrew is still in Ljubljana.

As Slovenia slowly knits itself back into Europe, it faces tough choices about how much of its hard-won independence it will willingly surrender to EU directives from Brussels. To be a Slavic Switzerland, a success story outside the normal European alliances, doesn't seem realistic. But there is widespread concern that EU-topia would lead to a blurring of the country's distinct culture, its small farms, its elaborate costumed small-town pageants, its quality handicrafts, its traditional (pre-polka) folk songs with weirdly compelling harmonies.

Then again, others can't wait for the day. "I am happy that Slovenia is now independent and that it's not communist," says Ifigenija Simonovic. "I am not happy with the slowness of the change."

During the early to mid '70s, Simonovic was a young poet of some note on the Ljubljana scene. She moved to London in 1978, and now visits the city once or twice a year, with no plans to move back. "I think the main concern," she says, "is that the [old] communist regime is still dictating. Far from changing to Western ways, it's sticking to the old Eastern communist way with problems, which is keeping them undealt with for as long as possible. All the people who were prosecuted through the communist regime are still not getting compensation. They are made to go to court to prove their innocence when they were prosecuted, which is not even legal. People who live abroad still don't have their pensions! It's been 10 years! They supported the independence of Slovenia and they still don't get anything."

To Simonovic, Slovenia remains part of the Balkans. "Not because of history, but because of the behavior: how we behave in politics, economics, in doing things non-openly. I think we're not civilized enough."

As for the redeeming parts of the Slovene character, she says, "They are the most creative when they're left alone. They don't like to do projects in groups. They don't get involved in politics in other nations. That might preserve them from being immersed in Europe or globalization, which we are quite scared of."

Metelkova, an army barracks dating back to the 19th century, is the spiritual home of Ljubljana's alternative arts scene. Before the massive, orange-roofed complex was built, the site was a public hanging ground on the outskirts of a city a tenth of its present size. Today Metelkova houses artists' studios, galleries and experimental theaters, 'zines and literary reviews, offices of various cultural societies, an anarcho-pacifist collective, a house for gays and lesbians, a center for the "handicapped deprivileged," a women's center, a pub or two, and a punk club called Channel Zero.

Among its other distinctions, Slovenia was known in the '80s as the punk-rock capital of Yugoslavia, and this compound is about the only place left in town where you can get a whiff of Ljubljana's pre-independence ferment. By one estimate, in the declining years of the Yugoslav federation 80 percent of the younger generation was listening to the spawn of Johnny Rotten and the Clash. Even today, garage bands such as Dicky B. Hardy and 2227 pound out a beat -- with Slovene or English lyrics -- that wouldn't have been out of place in mid '80s Boston.

Most observers agree that punk's rise here at least indirectly contributed to Slovenia's independence. "Punk was important for democratization," says 33-year-old journalist Ali Zerdin. The music -- and the resulting heavy-handed crackdowns against the fans -- catalyzed a local debate about freedom of speech versus repression. "Belgrade," he adds, "rejected this debate."

It's the Saturday night before Clinton Monday, and Zerdin and I are hoisting a few at the Orto Bar, one of LJ's essential rock clubs. At the dingier end of a small, sooty side street called Bolgarska, the Orto Bar only really starts hopping after midnight, and bops until dawn or past. No tourists ever find their way here. The clientele is young and gregarious, and the vibe and the interior suggest lower Manhattan, only with drinks one-third the price. Zerdin is covering Clinton's visit for Mladina (Youth), a half-satirical, half-serious weekly with a pedigree dating back to the middle of World War II. (The title originally referred to Slovenia's Communist Youth League.)

"The problem in Slovenia is the human resources are small," he says, sipping a glass of cider. "We have enough people to form one and a half governments. I think there are perhaps 25 people in Slovenia who are clever enough to be members of government."

When it comes to foreign influences, Zerdin will take the US over Europe any time. "It's difficult to have respect for European politicians," he says, because of their record in the Croatian and Bosnian messes.

"The stereotype we have about ourselves," he continues, "is workaholics, modest, polite, hard-working, thrifty. Another is, 'We are not part of the Balkans, we are part of Europe.' If I say to someone that his way of thinking is Balkanic, these are heavy words."

Still, even if it's no Kosovo, Slovenia is tied to the Balkans by geography and by history. Slovenia's politicians have thus far avoided Balkan entanglements, aside from letting NATO planes fly over their airspace, but in a sense, many Slovenes actually have fairly close emotional ties to Serbia, deny them as they may.

Over here, it's called Yugonostalgia; most people will tell you it doesn't exist, but there seems to be a longing in certain circles for the food, the dances, the more casual spirit, and, yes, the self-confidence of their estranged southern cousins. There is also profound ambivalence over NATO's bombing of Belgrade -- arguably necessary, but a tragic fate for a city once a vibrant center of cultural and intellectual activity for all Yugoslavia. Says Ali Zerdin, "I personally had a lot of difficulties to accept the bombing of Belgrade, but I couldn't think of any better solutions."

Milan Kucan -- the only president Slovenia's had since independence -- has known Slobodan Milosevic longer than practically anyone: since 1962, when both were law students and involved in Yugoslav communist youth organizations. A few years later Kucan became president of the Slovene youth league, and in the '80s lived for four years in Belgrade.

This puts the president in an interesting position. "Kucan," says Zerdin, "should be the one who should be asked every time what to do with Milosevic."

The potential to be a regional player isn't lost on Kucan. He has proposed that Slovenia play host to a European conference on stability in the Balkans, an idea endorsed by Czech president Václav Havel. My friend Vuk, however, dismisses this: "The only interest that Slovenia has in this is to organize a grandiose public-relations conference and get public-relations points."

The Slovenes do have a knack for PR and diplomacy when the occasion arises. Since they speak the West's cultural language and understand the Balkans as few others can, why not be a bridge between north and south, east and west?

"Slovenia would have no interest in doing so," cautions Vuk, "and the south would be wary of Slovenia." There's a reason, he adds, that a leader from Finland was chosen to broker peace in Kosovo.

"The average Slovene," says Zerdin, "would say Milosevic is not our problem -- we never belonged to this part of the world."

That sort of historical amnesia seems widespread in Slovenia these days. However, a recent exhibit at the Museum of Recent History examined with frankness and clarity the legacy of Tito-era repression, spying, and censorship. It was well attended by all ages and may have been a watershed in the development of a society still groping for its identity and a way to deal with both the bright and dark sides of its history.

"Today in your Congress Square," said Clinton to Slovenia's elite at a banquet in a 16th-century castle, "I saw the future -- in the faces of the young people who braved the rains to express their support for our shared dreams. I saw those who will lead a free Slovenia into the new millennium."

Clinton may have been on rhetorical autopilot, but he was correct about one thing: the sound of young Slovenia is much different from the old polka tunes. The most hopeful sign may be that young Slovenes are scared of Slovenia isolating itself, which seems to have been the trend over the last couple of years. They travel a lot, are increasingly intolerant of borders and more tolerant of differences, and want to call Europe home. Ali Zerdin, for one, calls his country's isolationism "narrow-minded and egotistical."

If Slovenia, as Clinton suggested, is to serve as a model for the Balkans and other struggling countries in the region, it must adopt another unofficial motto for itself besides "Slovenia for the Slovenes." For all the denials coming from the barstools and the Parliament, it's clear that the citizens do still care about what goes on to the southeast. Just look at any local paper and note the column inches devoted to Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

While he praises Clinton, writer Ales Debeljak makes this clear: "If we were totally dependent on the goodness of flying presidents, this would be too much. We can be manipulated only to the extent that we don't believe in anything positive, anything original, anything honorable. As an independent country Slovenia does not always take the most admirable way, but is steadily demonstrating that it can also have ideas of its own."

Shortly after Clinton and company departed, headed for the Macedonian refugee camp, the cloud cover went from monotonous gray to a few non-threatening bits of fluffy white. The sun shone brightly. The air was refreshing. The reviewing stand, platforms, and barriers were dismantled before noon, and few signs of the previous day's events remained save for the face-lifted park and the Ljubljana city flags fluttering from the nearby buildings. Cool jazz wafted from speakers at the tourist office and the ticket office over by the Cankarjev dom cultural center, aiming to put passersby in mind of the 40th annual Ljubljana Jazz Festival at the beginning of July.

I strolled along the river, as I'd done a thousand times before, and gazed toward the postcard view of Preseren Square and the triple bridge. I saw an exquisite picture of harmony and grace. Part of me knew it was a wonderful illusion. For all the problems on this patch of ground, though, I saw a saner, calmer way of life than the one I'd left behind in Boston. And my heart still leapt.

My city was back.

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