LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - In 1999, Texas governor George W. Bush publicly confused Slovenia with Slovakia at a time when both belonged to a group of ex-communist east European states striving to join the European Union.
Since then, Bush has become president of the United States, while Slovenia has joined the EU and NATO, adopted the euro currency and entered Europe’s passport-free zone.
In January, the Alpine republic of two million people, tucked below Austria on the eastern shoulder of Italy, takes over the EU’s six-month presidency.
But to the outside world it remains largely unknown.
“Slovenia’s been somehow isolated, like a continental island in Europe, for centuries, and some of its politicians seem content to keep it that way,” said an EU diplomat with a vast knowledge of the region.
“But the EU presidency will raise its profile on the global political market.”
Slovenia’s clean and prosperous countryside — becoming attractive to tourists — looks more like Switzerland than communist Yugoslavia, which it quit in 1991 after a brief war with the Serb-dominated federal army.
Slovenes saw themselves as hard-working, prosperous and Western-oriented. The Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims of Yugoslavia thought of them as haughty and uptight, without the relaxed charm of other Balkan Slavs.
Cynics called Slovenia ‘the poor man’s Austria’.
Despite Slovenia’s economic and political successes — it is the wealthiest east European state with GDP per capita close to EU levels at 14,800 euros — critics were quick to point out that its model image was not so perfect.
“Slovenia’s last real success was the smooth introduction of the euro last January,” said Zagreb-based political analyst Davor Gjenero, who writes for Croat and Slovenian newspapers.
“After that, we saw the incompetence of its administration in fighting inflation, shameful conflicts with the president and central bank governor, attempts to control the media, slow privatization,” Gjenero said.
Generous welfare, a rigid labor market, a high level of protectionism and state control of business helped push headline inflation to 5.8 percent in November, the highest in the euro zone.
“The latest figures, particularly inflation, show that Slovenia is losing some of the advantage it had over other EU newcomers,” said political analyst Meta Roglic at daily Dnevnik.
Media freedom and human rights, issues that never undermined Slovenia’s EU membership campaign, also came to the fore in the past year.
Almost 600 journalists signed a petition in October accusing conservative Prime Minister Janez Jansa, a leading anti-communist journalist in the last days of Yugoslavia, of stifling media freedom and imposing censorship.
“In 2006 this government replaced the editors of 80 percent of Slovenia’s media through direct or indirect ownership. It changed media laws to gain control over most of the media,” Blaz Zgaga, one of the two authors of the petition, told Reuters.
Jansa said journalists were tarnishing Slovenia’s image abroad by hyping marginal issues.
He used the same words a year ago when media reported the plight of a large Roma family expelled from its home in central Slovenia after a spat with angry villagers which prompted the EU to condemn “racist behavior.”
Also last year, dozens of human rights campaigners made a bus trip to Brussels to plead the cause of some 18,000 non-Slovenes who could not obtain Slovene documents after independence. About 4,000 still have no passports.
Jansa’s row with popular leftist President Janez Drnovsek left Slovenia without a central bank governor for two months earlier this year, tainting the smooth adoption of the euro.
The latest upset came in November, when Jansa threatened to quit after an opposition-backed candidate won the presidential election. Jansa recovered his political composure by calling a confidence vote in his government, which he won. Danilo Turk took over as president on Saturday.
Neighborly relations have also been a problem. Failure to reach agreements with Croatia on borders and a jointly-owned nuclear power plant, to end 16 years of bickering, has become an object of ridicule.
To curious West Europeans, however, picturesque Slovenia, and its capital Ljubljana, form an inviting picture of life in the new Europe, and that is what visiting EU officials will see.
Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic and Marja Novak, Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Janet Lawrence