Slovenian Joys I: Where it is and How it Came to Be

You may not know much about Slovenia, but Slovenia knows a lot about you. Not in a threatening, surveillance way, but in a curious, observing sense. The Slovenians, admitted to the EU in 2004, are very much attuned to developments in Europe and the United States. The bookstores are packed with books in all European languages, and boast a much wider and more interesting selection of books in English than I’ve seen in any German bookstore. Slovenia’s "leading intellectual," Slavoj Zizek, is better-known than many of his European counterparts, owing to his ability to write sleek, playful English prose.

The imbalance between what I knew about Slovenia and what Slovenians knew about my country was embarassingly large, and I’m wagering the same might be true of some Joysters. So here are the basic facts. Slovenia’s population is just under 2 million, and it sits near the Adriatic coast between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. Its capital is Ljulbljana, which has about 230,000 residents. Slovenians speak their own language, Slovenian, which is written in the Roman, not Cyrillic, alphabet. Slovenians are ethnic Slavs, but the majority are Roman Catholic. Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, after only thirteen years of independent statehood.

Slovenia had declared its independence in June of 1991, prompting an invasion by the Yugoslav National Army. The national army faced resistance from the Slovenian population and police, for which they weren’t prepared. The Yugoslavs turned back after conducting only a few bombing runs and capturing a small amount of territory. Their retreat was so hasty that they left behind spare uniforms and equipment, which are now on display in the Slovenian Museum of Modern History.

Eventually, the EU intervened and brokered a compromise settlement according to which the Yugoslav Army would completely withdraw in return for Slovenia’s promise not to take any further steps toward independence for three months. The actual fighting war had lasted only ten days, and resulted in 66 casualties. In the following months, the Slovenes held a referendum in which 88% of the population voted for independence. After initial European reluctance to recognize Slovenia (for fear that regognition would speed the crack-up of Yugloslavia), Germany took the lead in December 1991 and recognized Slovenia and Croatia as independent nations. The EC followed suit a month later, and by late 1992, over 95 countries had recognized Slovenia.

Independence was the culmination of a long process during which Slovenia preserved its unique identity within the former Yugoslavia. First, Slovenia was the place where things got done. Slovenia had virtually eliminated illiteracy by the 1920s, far in advance of other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and its population produced a portion of Yugoslavia’s GDP far in excess of its numbers. Throughout the 1980s, Slovenians, often with the tacit approval of local Communist authorities, introduced greater political freedom and built the workings of an autonomous nation-state. The key development in this process was the 1988 trial of four Slovenian journalists, one of whom, Janez Jansa, had published plans formulated in Belgrade to foment unrest and justify an invasion of Slovenia, in case the Slovenes got too cheeky. The trial was held in Serbo-Croatian in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, which was perceived as a double affront, and which triggered large demonstrations. The trial helped crystallize the wish for national self-determination, and after 1988 Slovenians intensified their use of excellent European diplomatic contacts, media savvy, and language skills to begin laying the ground work for an eventual independence bid.

Of course Slovenia, unlike other parts of the former Yugloslavia, did not have a combustible mix of different ethnicities living side-by-side. This is a crucial distinction that makes comparisons between Slovenia’s post-Yugloslavia course and that of other nations of the former Yugloslavia very dicey.  Without downplaying this important distinction, though, it’s hard not to admire the skill with which the Slovenians outfoxed the authorities of the former Yugoslav state. While much of the rest of the former Yugloslavia was electing braying nationalist demagogues and forming shadowy militias, the Slovenes were doing grown-up things like establishing a functioning state apparatus and staging orderly referenda. They are the nimble Roadrunner of this story, and the Serbs the Wile E. Coyote. Just as he realizes the Roadrunner has escaped him once again, he notices he has run far past the edge of the cliff, into open air. He turns to the viewer, waves, smiles a weakly ironic smile, and plunges into the abyss.

Next: Government Ministers in Shorts; or the college-campus nation.

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