Slovenia: Forging a Way Forward

Interview with Ambassador Božo  Cerar

By Sierra Prasada and Patricia Keegan

photo courtesy

photo courtesy

H.E. Ambassador Dr. Božo Cerar (tsuh-RAR) presented his credentials as Republic of Slovenia’s Ambassador to the U.S. at the White House on September 17, 2013. He comes from a rich background of active diplomacy beginning in the early 90’s with the breakup of Yugoslavia and a series of wars that saw ethnic cleansing and genocide return to Europe. With a PhD in international law, a master’s in diplomatic studies and a BA in law, he speaks six languages and has served his country in key foreign postings.

In 1991 he was lead coordinator of activities of EU observers in Slovenia. When Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991 a 10-day war ensued which resulted in the Yugoslav army pulling out. Slovenia was recognized by the EU and the U.S. as an independent state on January 15, 1992.

Slovenia, a nation of two million, lies in the heart of Europe between Croatia and Austria. It is the only country in Europe where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, and its unique beauty and natural environment has made it a popular destination for travelers.

Washington International (WI): Your country is going to hold elections in July. What’s at stake for Slovenians?

Ambassador Cerar (tsuh-RAR):  Well, as far as the elections are concerned, I believe everyone in Slovenia would like to have them as soon as possible. What we need is political stability. Not so long ago we were in recession and this year, after three or four years, for the first time, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are growing and we would like to keep it that way. We need a full-fledged government to make decisions and to keep this momentum.

It was a more or less unexpected event that the prime minister resigned a few weeks ago. She was challenged within her own party, the main coalition party, and she lost this challenge to the founder of the party and the mayor of Ljubljana. This was not that good a decision because the party fell apart. And it was natural that the prime minister said, well, if I don’t have support in my own party, then I can’t expect to have firm support in the governing coalition earlier. And now we have elections on July 13.

WI: Might the election have an effect on foreign affairs?

Ambassador Cerar: I don’t expect much influence, if any. Before and after elections, Slovenia will remain part of NATO, the European Union. And the main thrust of our foreign policy — being an active part of the United Nations, especially as far as human rights are concerned — it will continue.

The same applies to our good relationship with our neighbors and the rest of former Yugoslavia. We are the advocate of Western Balkans' aspirations to become members of the European Union and NATO. We are trying right now to get a consensus in NATO around Montenegro’s membership in the Alliance. These are things that won’t change after the elections no matter who ends up in power.

WI: What are the implications for the economy? Might privatization efforts be affected?

Ambassador Cerar: As far as the privatization is concerned, as a concept, the decision was made by the parliament to start with the privatization of 15 huge companies. Also given the expectations of the European Union, we are obliged to continue with the reforms and with the privatization. It’s not privatization as such but whether the second wave will follow immediately after the first, how huge it’s going to be, and what will be the timetable — here we can talk about some possible variations. As for the first wave of privatization, there is no other way except to finish and here I believe there are no differences of opinion.

WI: So that’s the light at the end of the tunnel?

Ambassador Cerar: Well, the light at the end of the tunnel is the fact that, judging by the numbers, we are officially more or less out of the recession. There is growth, for the first time after four years. It’s still rather meager, a few tenths of a percent. This is nevertheless something that we’re pleased about. But of course it’s not just this growth, there are some other positive developments as well. For instance, our exports have been growing for quite some time.

WI: What are your main exports?

Ambassador Cerar: Slovenia is a manufacturing country. Our main exports are pharmaceuticals, cars, car parts for all the main European car producers, then home appliances and electric appliances. Services are growing in importance as well.

WI: What are the employment numbers like?

Ambassador Cerar: The problem is that in the past, my country was not used to unemployment. In Yugoslav times it was, it was the part where the rest came to find jobs. Then in the first years of independence, Slovenia was, again, a success story. But then the economic crisis struck us in 2008 and with it came unemployment, especially among the younger generation. We’re not talking about huge figures, but if you’re used to low unemployment and the figures go up to 8-10 percent, it’s quite something. But with these new developments and some assistance to employers with regard to employment of youth, I hope this will change.

WI: Does this cause restlessness in the youth population?

Ambassador Cerar: We did have some two years ago developments which were not typically Slovenian: Demonstrations, people disappointed with the government, disappointed with the political elite, disappointed with the crisis. They went to the streets — some of them. More or less, now, this dissatisfaction is being manifested in the formation of new political parties, parties taking part in the elections on the 13th.

WI: On a lighter note, as the summer begins, what are some of the attractions likely to prove popular with tourists?

Ambassador Cerar: Tourism is one of the important branches of our economy. Slovenia is getting more and more popular as a tourist destination not just for the neighbors – Austrians, Italians, Germans – which is nothing new, but what is encouraging is the fact that the number of American tourists is getting bigger and bigger. For the last year, each year, there is an increase of 12 percent.

Slovenia’s a very green, very picturesque country. It’s small, the size of New Jersey, but it’s an Alpine country, a country of rolling hills, Pannonian plains, the Karst region, especially Postojna Cave. It’s one of the biggest caves in the world, definitely the most visited cave in Europe. You are taken by small train into the cave — that’s how huge it is. But it’s not the only one, there are quite a few.

The Škocjan Caves are on the UNESCO world heritage list; even the word karst comes from Slovenian. Then you have a bit of the Mediterranean coast as well. It’s the third most-wooded country in Europe. We are ecologically very conscious. Over a third of the territory of Slovenia is protected as a natural heritage.

Not far away from Postojna Cave, the same Karst region, there is a place called Lipizza: this is the place where the famous white horses, Lipizzaners, came from. The stock is still there, established many hundreds of years ago. In our language, Lipizza means a small Linden tree. You can still go there and see the white horses roaming.

Then in the alpine region, there are a few places that I would definitely recommend. One is Lake Bled. It’s a lake amid mountain peaks with a small island and a church on that island. It’s a famous place to get married. Why? There is a saying, if a groom is able to carry his bride from the coast of the lake up 99 steps and into the church, it will bring a successful marriage.

WI: How many of them are able to do it?

Ambassador Cerar: Well, the majority.

WI: Or else, they wouldn’t attempt it?

Ambassador Cerar: Exactly!

Another attraction, Socha, is a river, more or less on the border between Italy and Slovenia. In the First World War, on this river, there was a frontline, and apart from northwestern France and Belgium, it was the main battlefield in the First World War. Hemingway wrote about this place and these fights in A Farewell to Arms. But the river itself is still a very pristine, very popular destination with fishermen and those who like white water rafting.

Then on the coast, we have a few coastal towns, very much in architecture and appearance like Venice, and it’s not a coincidence. In the past, for a certain period, it was part of the Venetian Republic. When you see the buildings, you can feel the influence. You can see the coat of arms of the Venetians. And in this same area, next to this attractive town, which is called Piran, are salt pans, more than 700 years old. And this is such an attraction that it’s listed by UNESCO as something of international importance.

The highest mountain in Slovenia, named Triglav, means ‘three-headed one,’ so it’s a mountain with three peaks. It’s on our flag and coat of arms. Its 9,396 feet. You have to be in good shape to get up there, and there is another saying: you are not a genuine Slovenian if you haven’t done it. In summertime, yes, it’s a sort of a pilgrimage, but it’s a demanding one.

Mountaineering — not climbing but trekking — it’s sort of our national sport. Out of 2 million of us, membership in the Slovenian mountaineering association is more than 120,000. We are a nature-loving country.

WI: It sounds like there’s a strong consensus in protecting the environment, yes?

Ambassador Cerar: It’s in our genes, I would say. I believe, being in favor of nature, this to some extent has to do with our enthusiasm about various sports.

WI: Of course, around the world, it hasn’t always been easy to balance the interests of manufacturing with those of nature, but it sounds like you’ve managed to do so.

Ambassador Cerar: Well, it wasn’t easy all the time. In the past, when there was an accent on heavy industry, steel works — now they are gone. As I said, it’s manufacturing, but home appliances, not heavy metal or steel works and other heavy polluters. So in that sense we are a bit luckier. But it was not easy in the past. I remember when I was younger, it was a huge fight, because on the one hand, you would like to have employment, you would like to have economic success, but on the other hand, you’d like to have a healthy environment, one you can enjoy. And now there is legal fighting going on over the wind turbines; many believe it disturbs the countryside, the birds.

WI: What about solar energy?

Ambassador Cerar: It’s expensive. There are hydropower stations in Slovenia, and some powered by coal. There is a rather huge and heated public discussion as to what to do in the future. Then we have a nuclear power station, which is, in a way, the cleanest energy but it has its own risks. One-third of our demand is being fulfilled by nuclear power.

WI: You’ll celebrate 25 years of independence in 2016 — what has it been like for you to witness change in the country over the course of your lifetime?

Ambassador Cerar: It’s really something to witness when a new country’s being born, but if you participate actively, it’s additionally challenging. I was there from the very first day, and I still remember this air of optimism, enthusiasm, where you believe everything is possible if only you would wish it.

Once you proclaim independence, the job is not done yet — you have to be internationally recognized. Here’s where diplomacy gets to work. And then after you’re internationally recognized, you’d like to enter the most important organizations, the United Nations, for instance. After that, to join the European Union and NATO. We wanted to be part of the Euro-Atlantic family. We wanted to be part of this democratic society.

WI: Was it because you saw the other world of Europe living so close to it?

Ambassador Cerar: Yes, this was one of the important elements. Slovenia was the most Western part of former Yugoslavia, neighboring Austria and Italy. In Tito’s Yugoslavia those borders were open, meaning you could go freely. Private initiative was limited in Tito’s communist Yugoslavia; if some Slovenians were not happy with that, they just went to Italy and established their own company there. In our capital you could watch Austrian TV, Italian TV, even times when there was no satellite TV yet, no cable, no internet, but you were in touch with democratic systems in neighboring countries. And definitely, this did play an important role in our efforts to join this part of the world. We wanted to bring Yugoslavia with us. When it was not possible, we went independent.

WI: So did you grow up watching television from other countries as well?

Ambassador Cerar: Yes. And listening to radio. In Europe at that time, it was very popular — Radio Luxembourg. The latest music from the west, so we were very eager to listen to it. So with that came joining NATO, the European Union; we celebrated the 10th anniversary of joining both of them a few weeks ago.

So we were, in the beginning a success story, but then came the economic crisis in the year 2008. We were a bit naïve, indulgent — it won’t happen to us, we will somehow manage. And speaking frankly, we didn’t move early enough to undergo certain reforms or to introduce certain measures to avoid being hit by the recession or the economic crisis. And I must say that, to some extent, we were not that good at managing certain state companies. There was corruption...

It seems that we’ve somehow managed to get out of it, but we underwent substantial reforms: pension reforms, labor market reforms, referendum reforms, and restructuring our banking system, balancing public finances, meaning, to some extent, lower salaries in public enterprises and government administration. So it wasn’t easy. But it seems that it was the right thing to do. We just have to persevere, just finish the business we started. That’s why I come back to the importance of the forthcoming elections. No one likes to deal with a state where there is political infighting, a weak government, not in a position to make necessary decisions, and so on.

WI: And what, in light of that, would you like to see develop in terms of US-Slovenian ties during your time in Washington?

Ambassador Cerar: When you come to a new posting you’re very eager to do something, to produce results. Of course, it doesn’t depend only on myself, but nevertheless, what I’d like to achieve is not just to preserve the good relations between the US and my country — we’re allies in NATO, in Afghanistan, there is a good relationship between the Colorado National Guard and our Army — but also to develop it further: politically, economically (to increase mutual trade, to get new American investments in Slovenia), cooperation in science and education. People-to-people contacts are very important. Here, of course, I can build on the existing networks of the American Slovenians.

WI: How large is the diaspora in the US?

Ambassador Cerar: Difficult to say, but if we include the third and fourth generations, there are between 300,000 and 500,000 American Slovenians. That’s not to say that all of them are still involved in the relationship between the two countries, but there are still links, some of them established recently. In February of this year, for instance, an American-Slovenian educational foundation was established in San Francisco, just trying to contribute to the student exchange between our two countries.

There’s a lot I would like to do, but will I be able? Believe me, I’ve been very busy.

WI: Thank you Ambassador Cerar.

Dr. Cerar’s diplomatic career has included numerous postings at the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the years since 1991, punctuated by key Ambassadorships. He was Charge d'affaires of the Embassy in London from 1992-96. He returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as State Undersecretary and Head of the Minister’s Office from 1996-97.

He was awarded his Doctoral degree (PhD) in international law from the University of Ljubljana also in 1997. He served as Ambassador to Canada from 1997-2001, returning to the Ministry in 2001 as State Undersecretary and Head of Division for Multilateral Relations. While there, he also served as Undersecretary and Head of Division for NATO from 2002-03.

He was appointed Ambassador to Poland in 2004 until returning to the Foreign Ministry as State Secretary from 2005-06. He then served as Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Slovenia to NATO in Brussels from 2007 to 2011. He returned to the Ministry as State Secretary in 2012, followed by his current posting as U.S. Ambassador in 2013.

Ambassador Dr. Cerar is the author of numerous articles and books on international relations and diplomacy.

Slovenia photo by Stephen Colebourne