The Ambassador of Slovenia to the United States, Stanislav Vidovic, sat down with Balkan Insider Editor, Ryan Scherba to get to know the ambassador better, discuss EU and NATO enlargement in the Western Balkans, Slovenian-US relations, and the upcoming parliamentary elections on June 3 in Slovenia.

 

Thank you for meeting with Balkan Insider today, Mr. Ambassador. We want to get to know you a little bit today, so what do you do when you’re not attending diplomatic events?

Ambassador Vidovic: My family and I – my wife and son, like to travel around. We use practically every weekend to go around the United States, and not just stay in Washington DC. We try to see as much as possible of this beautiful country. Just last weekend (April 27-29) we were a part of the NATO festival in Norfolk, Virginia and had a great time. There was a nice parade that the Slovenian military personnel took part in. I was also trying to inform the several thousand guests in our tent about the beauty of Slovenia. This is what we like to do on the weekends. We have seen nearly everywhere from New Haven to the Florida Keys on the East Coast.

It’s a great thing to travel throughout the country, the United States is a little bit bigger than Slovenia.

Ambassador Vidovic: It is bigger, but I wouldn’t say Slovenia is a small country.  It’s about perception. Slovenia is a country of great varieties because we have the Pannonia region with flats, mountains, Alps, and the seaside. We have everything the United States has.

What are a few things you’d like Americans to know about Slovenia?

Ambassador Vidovic: I would like to share with Americans that we have a special day of American-Slovenian Friendship on April 7th. We celebrate it as a day of friendship and alliance with the United States and American people. It is on April 7th because it marks a day during World War II in 1943, when Slovenians in a small village saved American airmen who were shot down by the Germans. The local people actually saved their lives and we remember on this day that there were actually 806 US Airmen saved by the locals. Around 250 American airplanes were shot down on the territory of Slovenia controlled by either locals or Partisans. It wasn’t only the Partisans who helped save US Airmen, but also the locals who didn’t have anything to do with the Partisans. The United States is the only nation with which we celebrate a day of friendship. Slovenian-American Friendship and Alliance Day is on April 7th.

Also, Slovenia is one of the most environmental friendly countries in the world. Only four Scandinavian countries are better in this than we are – Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland. More than 50% of Slovenian territory is under government protection and more than 60% of our territory are forests.

And, of course, the First Lady is from Slovenia.

Speaking of the First Lady, is there any chance we see President Trump head to Slovenia, maybe see his mother-in-law and father-in-law’s village?

Ambassador Vidovic: Actually, President Trump has visited Slovenia in the past. I don’t know how many times (exactly), but he has visited maybe 2-3 times. I read in Slovenian papers that he visited Melania’s parents. It’s something to check.

We are hoping that President Trump and First Lady are going to visit Slovenia in the near future. We don’t have any date or confirmation, but it would be very convenient to give us a chance to host the President of the United States again since we’ve hosted President (George W.) Bush and President Clinton. They both visited Slovenia so we believe it would be fine if also President Trump would find time to visit Slovenia. But this takes a lot of planning and now President Trump is dealing with very important things, so I’m not convinced that this happens this year, but hopefully we start planning for a visit in the next few years.

That would surely be something special. How would you describe US-Slovenian relations right now?

Ambassador Vidovic: I would say that our relations, when we talk about relations between two countries, are excellent. This can be proved very simply by looking at trade exchange. Our trade exchange is growing nearly 50% per year. This year, for the first time, we have gone over $1 billion in (total) exchange, which is a lot because we are several thousand miles away. The European Union, as a whole, is the first economic partner of Slovenia and the second single most important economic partner of Slovenia is the United States. This is one thing that is not well known, even in Slovenia. With more than $1 billion US dollars, we’re actually doing much better than many of the European countries by themselves. But as a whole, the EU is our most important economic partner. This shows the relationship.

I would also say politically we have good relations. We support each other in many of the multilateral foras, including supporting some candidacies of the United States, and you are supporting us. You have supported our presidency of the human rights council, for instance.

The only thing I’m hoping will happen in the future is more visits of  high-level officials, not only by President Trump, but   also some other high-ranking officials from the United States. This is not only a problem of Slovenia, but most of the Central and Eastern European countries. The visits of high-level officials are not as often as we hoped it to be, but this is not the fault of this government. This is something that happened after big events, for instance, the meeting in 2008 of President Bush and Putin in Slovenia. After that, the interest of the United States for Eastern and Central Europe under the presidency of Obama just went down because there were no real high-level visits. This happened  to Slovenia, the Western Balkans, and Eastern and Central European countries, except maybe Poland. Poland  was visited also visited by President Trump. Poland is one of the biggest European countries and has a lot of immigration here in the United States, so it is understandable that he paid a visit Poland.

Talking about the EU and NATO, Slovenia is a member of both organizations. There are some other former Yugoslav Republics that are trying to get into NATO and the EU. How could Slovenia’s path help these other former Yugoslav Republics get into these international organization?

Ambassador Vidovic: I would like to first say a few words about what the EU means. Usually when the citizens speak about the EU, (who might not) have the right perception about what the EU is. I want to make it as simple as possible. The EU is made up of 28 states and this is a political and economic union. This means we have the same regulations about the functioning of the market economy and how main political issues like democracy and freedom should be handled. We also have a single currency in  19 EU states.  Furthermore, another specific aspect is the Schengen regime, which means we don’t have borders between states. Before the Schengen was established and the Schengen Treaty was in place, we had borders. It would mean if we went from Virginia to North Carolina, you would have to show a passport. Now, with Schengen it doesn’t work like that and we have now 26 countries. There are also non-EU countries in Schengen, including Norway and Switzerland. So the EU is very important for everybody and for all the members, but also for the neighboring countries, and especially the Western Balkans.

The EU presents the opportunity that your economy would be a part of a larger economy which consists of 500 million people, still including the UK. That’s more than the United States with 320 million people.

The EU  is important for  all the countries of the Western Balkans, especially  the candidate countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, who is now in the waiting line for the starting of negotiations, Kosovo is in the waiting line, Serbia is negotiating, Montenegro is negotiating, and also Albania is, if I’m correct negotiating already. We have a bunch of countries that are actually trying to get into this mighty economic and political alliance. Also, we hope that Macedonia will resolve its name issue with Greece and will start negotiations in the near future.

So for all these countries it’s very important that they become members of the EU and I believe in the American slogan introduced by President Bush, “We need Europe whole and free.” Should be only enabled only if all the countries become members of the EU.

It’s important to attract them to become members of NATO of course because of our and their own security. Montenegro became the newest and  the 29th member of NATO  last year. We hope that by the NATO Summit in July in Brussels, the name issue between Macedonia and Greece will be resolved, so Macedonia could be invited because Macedonia has been a part of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) for too long. We also hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina gets the invitation to MAP, even if they are not fulfilling all the requirements regarding the military property. They cannot be a hostage of Republika Srpska. They should get the chance to start as a whole to be a part of the MAP. We hope that soon the former Yugoslav countries will join NATO. I don’t have hopes that Serbia will be willing to start negotiations very soon, but Serbia has very good military cooperation with most of the NATO countries, which is good. I would say it’s a sign of good will on their side that they’re ready to cooperate, even if they are not a part of formalized cooperation that would lead them into NATO.

Thank you for the very thorough description. Back to Slovenia and the Embassy here – what events are you holding this year? On May 12, there is the EU Open House and part of the Slovenian UN initiative of World Bee Day will be celebrated here. Could you talk about May 12 and other events you are holding at the Embassy.

Ambassador Vidovic: We are having quite a big variety of events mostly in cooperation with some clubs in DC. We just hosted the Tesla Company in mid-April for World Youth Day promoting electromobility and sustainable environment. It was a very nice event with over 100 people, including a Slovenian band, which you can find on our webpage. Ten days ago, we hosted a culinary event. In the future we will hold different events where we will present Slovenian culture, food, and wine.

One of these opportunities was  on May 12 for the Open House of European Embassies of members of the EU. We celebrate the Day of Europe on May 9, so we are using Saturday to present ourselves as members of the EU. It allows for working people to come and to see what we’re doing. This year we had over 3,000 visitors so these are not small events.

Most of the event this year was dedicated to World Bee Day, which was declared last year in the United Nations with the support of the United States. It is celebrated on May 21st and we presented bee caretakers with a photographic exhibition and two bee hives here. One totally new, and one used. We also presented some products made by bees like honey.

We also had a presentation of potica, or walnut bread, which is famous. It became very famous when President Trump visited the Vatican and the Pope asked Melania if she was feeding him potica. The answer from Melania was, yes, of course. But Italian journalists confused it with pizza. He was not asking about pizza, but potica because Pope Francis knows it from Argentina where we have a large Slovenian population. He also visited Slovenia when he was younger.

You must meet many Americans as the Ambassador to the United States, like the 3,000 visitors last year. What similarities and differences do you see between Slovenians and Americans as people

Ambassador Vidovic: I wouldn’t say I see many differences, maybe the only difference is we make ourselves coffee at home home instead of going out. I’m only joking!

We share practically most of the everyday concerns that people have – job certainty, good economy, everything functions, and we will have enough money. So we are very similar in those basic understanding of how we would like to live life. I wouldn’t say there are many differences between the Slovenian and American people. Sometimes we have advantages because we are actually only 2 million people so we want to understand others, and we have a unique language, Slovenian. Usually Slovenians speak at least one foreign language, but most young people now speak two or three foreign languages.

Also, we are not so inclined to move to different cities. If you live in one city, you would want to get a job in that city. So, we don’t move like Americans – there is no commuting 100 miles a day. First of all, it’s a problem to find such commuting space of 100 miles. We’re not so much willing to move around. Most people are living in very close proximity (to their work). This is one difference in the way of life. We also like to travel and experience different cultures like Americans do and we are also inclined to make friendships with others. You are a melting pot – you became a nation from that process and were ready to bring in many different nations, races, religions. We are also ready to meet other people and hoping one day that all those coming to Slovenia will become Slovenian citizens as you have nice Slovenian-American citizens.

One last question – There are early parliamentary elections coming up on June 3. What do you think the key issues are and what does it mean for the future of Slovenia?

Ambassador Vidovic: I would say that Slovenia is a stable democracy. We are not a young democracy that could be hurt by political turmoil. We have a stable parliamentary system so the rules on how we get the government are very clear. Maybe six or seven are going to get more than the required percentage of votes to get into parliament. After, we are going to have the results of the elections for parliament. The president will nominate the prime minister and he will try to form the government. This opportunity is usually given to the party with the most parliamentary seats. If the first candidate for prime minister doesn’t succeed then the second candidate with the second most votes is given the chance to form the government. We usually don’t have a problem with that. We get a government sooner or later. It doesn’t take as long, for instance, like Belgium, where they hold the world record of almost 2 years for forming a coalition for government. We usually form a government after 2-3 months of elections. We usually have a coalition government – usually at least 3-5 parties are members of the coalition and you’re going to have different aspects of everyday life which will then present the interests of these parties.

The key issues will be the growth of Slovenia. Today, the European institutions put out the forecast for 2018 and Slovenia is 4.7 % growth of GDP. It is one of the biggest in the EU. When they are competing for votes, they are probably going to explain how their party will enable the economy to grow even more. Also, how they’re going to address structural problems, decrease unemployment, and how the youth should be treated in the future. Furthermore, elderly people and how we should cope with the fact that we are becoming an older nation. We are not having enough children.

I would probably say the environmental question (will be brought up) since we’re very concerned with the environment will be discussed. Some of these questions were solved by the mandate of this current government. For example, we are the first nation in the world to prohibit water sources to be privatized. And this is in the constitution. What this means is that no company can buy water sources. For instance, if Coca-Cola wants to use Slovenian water, they have to pay the Slovenian state. They cannot own the springs coming out from earth. This is what I expect what they’re going to discuss during the election campaign.