Slovenia, Poster Child for the New Europe

Xenophobic, protectionist, and on the verge of economic decline.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia—At a little wine store on one of Ljubljana’s central boulevards, the proprietor is proud to offer customers a bottle of the local red wine, Teranton, vintage 1988. “It’s older than our country,” he says with a smile.

Welcome to Slovenia, the poster child of the new Europe. On May 1 it will be one of 10 countries to join the European Union. With the exception of the islands of Cyprus and Malta, all will be former Communist states. Slovenia is widely vaunted as the most promising of them all.

With its clean and bustling downtown, charming bridges crossing the Ljubljana River, and Hapsburg-yellow municipal buildings, Slovenia’s capital is a picture postcard of the post-Tito Yugoslavia that should have been. For many of the country’s 2 million inhabitants, it is. Slovenia achieved its independence after just 10 days of fighting, thus side-stepping the horrendous ethnic conflict that tore the rest of the former country apart. The newly formed nation inherited a modern infrastructure, excellent trade connections, lots of tourism, and modern factories. The Slovenian gross domestic product has had solid growth of between 2 percent and 4 percent over the last five years, while Western Europe is fighting off stagnation. The average take-home pay per month is more than 700 euros, compared with about 400 euros in Hungary. Today, Slovenians enjoy the highest standard of living among the former Communist bloc countries entering the European Union.

As nation-states go, Slovenia is the equivalent of a quiet but comfortable middle-class suburb. But like any suburban fairy tale, the Slovenian story has its dark sides. The tiny Alpine country prides itself on its conservatism, with an overwhelmingly homogeneous Catholic population that likes to identify itself with the Sound of Music values of Germanic Central Europe rather than the chaotic Balkans to the south.

But Balkan chauvinism is not as far away as many Slovenes would like to think.

Fireman Anton Debevec found that out in 1992 when he tried to register his daughter’s car only to have his identification papers confiscated and declared void. Although he was born in Slovenia, he had lived in Serbia as a child, and so the Slovenian authorities considered him a Serb. Debevec was told he was no longer a legal resident of Slovenia. He lost his health insurance, his right to own property, and his pension. “I was suddenly without any rights at all,” said Debevec. “I was a foreigner in my own country.”

Debevec had been erased.

When Slovenia declared independence in 1991, the more than 100,000 Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats living there were given six months to apply for citizenship. Most completed the necessary paperwork and became Slovenian citizens. But at least 18,000 did not register properly, either through ignorance, because they thought they could maintain their residence status without changing their citizenship, or because they could not obtain the necessary papers because of conflicts, such as the Bosnian Muslims who were told to go to their Serb-occupied hometowns for their birth certificates.

These 18,000 lost their citizenship and all their rights. They became known as “the erased people.” “It was a massive illegal act of political vengeance,” said Matevz Krivic, a former judge for Slovenia’s constitutional court.

Like Debevec, most of the erased didn’t find out about their illegal status for months and sometimes years. They lost their jobs and access to health care, the right to own property or collect pensions. Some were deported and at least seven committed suicide. Aleksander Todorovic, the head of the Association of Erased Persons, who found that he’d lost his legal status when he went to register his daughter’s birth, calls it “a refined form of ethnic cleansing.”

Slovenia’s highest court has twice ordered that the newly illegal aliens be reinstated, but the government’s attempts to comply have been thwarted by right-wing opposition parties, led by the misleadingly named Slovenian Democratic Party, which has generated widespread public support with allegations that the erased are Serbian war criminals or other unpatriotic types and that compensating them could cost the country $3 billion.

The erased people “didn’t believe in Slovenia when the country was established,” said Janez Jansa, the politically savvy leader of the SDS.

His party, along with other conservative and nationalist groups, forced a motion through parliament calling for a public referendum to overturn a bill it had passed in February to restore the former citizens’ rights. The referendum was held in early April and drew about one-third of the electorate, more than 94 percent of whom voted to block the government from granting the erased legal status. Government officials say they will continue reinstating the erased, some 4,000 of whom are still stateless. The referendum process, which is loosely comparable to Californians’ ability to trump their elected leaders, is still very murky in this fledgling country, and it’s unclear how binding the results will be.

While the erased are still in limbo, Jansa’s party gained an electoral boost, and it is now threatening to unseat the ruling post-Communist government in the fall’s general election, a testament to the success of playing the nationalist card. Jansa acknowledges as much, saying about the erased, “The issue itself is not very important, but it’s a catalyst for other things.”           

Osman Djogic, the mufti of Slovenia, knows the nationalists’ tactics well. Djogic is about as far away from the firebrand mullahs you read about in the papers as one could get. With his measured, rambling style, he appears to be discussing a point of religious law rather than the ostensibly mundane topic of the city zoning board.  

What’s at issue is neither academic nor mundane: Will Slovenia get its first mosque to accommodate the country’s more than 50,000 Muslims, most of whom, like Djogic, are ethnic Bosnians? At zoning hearings with the Ljubljana city council, Djogic had to address concerns that worshippers would bring virulent diseases from the Middle East and that the 90-foot minaret would disrupt the capital city’s skyline.

This is the sixth time since 1969 that the mosque has been put on hold. In the latest effort, the city council finally granted the Islamic community a site on the edge of town, but a referendum scheduled for May 23—which is being heavily promoted by several right-wing opposition parties, including one called the Clean Water Party—threatens to derail it once again.

“The erection of the future Muslim center, with a 27-meter minaret, raises some objections in the sense of its predominance and extension,” read a revealingly Freudian press release from the Social Democrats, some of whose leading members are opposing the mosque. Their opposition is the least strident of the various opponents, couched as it is in concerns about zoning issues and disruption of the skyline (an objection that is clearly disingenuous, since the proposed mosque site is located next to a garbage dump and a chemical warehouse on the outskirts of Ljubljana in a neighborhood known as Siberia). On the far right is the leader of the anti-mosque forces, Mihael Jarc, who told the Associated Press that they would accept smaller, more modest prayer shrines, rather than what he called a “megalomanic Islamic center, which could turn the area into an ethnic ghetto and pose a security risk amid rising international terrorism and Muslim fundamentalism.”

Djogic is willing to settle for Siberia, because if they lose this site it will mean a further delay of three to five years. “We have been looking for the piece of paper that would allow us to build the mosque for 35 years,” he told me.

As Slovenia prepares to enter the European club, even its much-touted economic prowess is in question. Much of the country’s fiscal strength stems from a decade of economic protection. Its largest industries, from telecommunications to insurance, are still in state hands. Many of the other large Slovenian corporations—for example, in the banking sector—are run by a small elite with close ties to the state. The benefits the country derived from free trade with the former Yugoslavian countries will disappear when it is forced to adopt EU trade tariffs on May 1.

“Things that might look competitive today could prove to be fragile when we enter the EU,” said Janez Bester of the Institute for Economic Research in Ljubljana.

Perhaps most worrying is Slovenia’s rate of foreign investment, which is among the lowest of any of the European Union members-to-be. It’s what the Slovenes wanted, a consequence of relatively high labor costs, top-heavy regulation, and most of all, a fear of letting formerly state-owned industries fall into foreign hands that “has verged on hysteria,” according to the Financial Times.

Slovenia has not been alone in failing to realize that the European Union is more than a trading organization. It is understandable. Brussels politicos are notorious for blowing hot air about economic dynamism and human rights with little follow-through. Each of the May 1 accession countries has its own problems with corruption, entrenched business elites, and nationalist politics. For both EU members and prospective members, it is almost a prerequisite to hate your neighbor, or worse, your resident minority: The British hate the French, the Poles hate the Germans, the Hungarians hate the Romanians, the Baltic countries hate their Russians, and everybody hates the Gypsies. And anti-Muslim sentiment is nothing new to Western Europe, as any Muslim living in France, Britain, or Germany will tell you. If anything, Slovenia is a microcosm of the problems of the whole European Union.

The EU project is by definition one of mutual tolerance. The polygamous marriage of sovereign states was formed after World War II with the express purpose of binding former rivals into a shared future that would force them to move beyond their seemingly unalterable nationalisms. That the French and Germans are a block on foreign policy is a testament to the union’s success.

Bojan Bugaric left Slovenia for America in 1993, and by the time he returned in 2000, he had become a professor of international law at UCLA. Today he is the deputy interior minister. Perhaps naively, he was surprised to find 21st-century Slovenia  in the throes of xenophobia. “People are not prepared to take other cultures, other races, other religions, as part of their own culture. It is shocking, worrying, and disappointing. I thought things would have changed, especially because we are about to join the European Union,” Bugaric told me.