Last, Best Chance

Delo’s Saturday supplement Sobotna Priloga ran a rather disturbing text on the upcoming referendum on the arbitrage agreement by Tine Hribar. The very fact that Hribar wrote a piece on the issue is news, not in the least because Hribar is viewed a member of core group of people who laid – shall we say – intellectual groundwork for Slovenian independence. His opinion carries an enormous amount of weight which is the primary reason why pengovsky feels somewhat out of his depth writing this post. However, there are things that need to be said.

Tine Hribar, Ph.D. (source)

To be honest, there are points where pengovsky agrees with Hribar. Like Hribar, pengovsky too noted the curious lack of a definite rejection of the arbitrage agreement by Janez Janša‘s Slovene Democratic Party. However, Hribar takes it even further and says that most of Slovene political right wing supports the agreement, either of their free will or due to outside influences. These outside influences, he notes, mostly come in the form of both the Vatican and the United States supporting the agreement. Then he switched gears and calls the referendum a charade, a scam if you will, and urges caution, since the Croat side was so quick to accept it. At this point Hribar’s writing and reality part ways.

The Croat Factor

Croatia was not “quick to accept” the agreement. Yes, given the fact that the whole dispute lasts for almost two decades, the agreement was concocted relatively quickly, but Hribar forgets (conveniently so) that Croatia was operating within a limited time frame which would still enable it to continue EU membership negotiations (so called accession conferences) and it was in Croatian interest to get a move on things. Furthermore, it was not as if Croatian parliament passed the agreement en passant. It took a deep cabinet crisis, countless negotiations, accusations of high treason and one very long session of Sabor (Croatian parliament) to pass the agreement. And even then with an added statement that the infamous word “junction” does not mean Slovenia’s direct access to high seas (in return, Slovenia declared that is exactly what the word means).

Some Most Slovene politicians suffer from a sort of inferiority complex in regard to Croatian foreign policy. Slovene media is happy to reinforce the sentiment and Slovene public is happy to accept it. In this picture Croatia has this world-class diplomatic machinery on a par with (lookie, lookie) the Vatican, which enables it to forcefully assert its interests and whose sole aim (apart from making Croatia a regional power) is to disenfranchise Slovenia in any way, shape or form possible. As a result, Slovenes should be wary of Danaans Croatians bearing gifts.

Curiously enough, Croats think the same way about Slovene diplomacy. If you feel this notion preposterous, just read any Croat newspaper for two weeks in a row and you’ll be surprised to learn that Ljubljana is home to some world class diplomats. The feeling one gets from reading Croat media is that Zagreb sports a rag-tag diplomatic core full of semi-competent people who have never heard words like “strategy” and “coordination”

So. Each side is convinced that the other side is trying to outfox it. It became the accepted truth of the past two decades and a starting point for any analysis of either country’s moves. While it is understandable that such a climate eventually permeates virtually every pore of a nations’ psyche (twenty years is after all a bloody long time), it strikes me as odd that an intellectual of Hribar’s stature whose feet pengovsky would be unworthy to lick, had he been in the feet-licking business, is unable to look beyond the constraints of daily politics and common-sense geopolitics (for the uninitiated: in political science “common-sense” has a negative connotation, not unlike “simpleton”)

The Foreign Powers Factor

History of the Balkans is replete with clashing of foreign powers’ interests. The bloody trail 20th century left in this particular part of the world testifies to that. In the case of the arbitrage agreement a lot was said about the role of the Vatican and the United States. Indeed, both countries are highly influential in this part of the world. The Vatican because it was one of few active sponsors of Slovene and Croatian independence (hoping for an increased role of Roman Catholic Church in both countries) and the US for obvious reasons: not only are both Slovenia and Croatia NATO members, the US also actively helped Croatia win their Homeland War with operations “Thunder” and “Lightning” in 1995, as well as the fact that Balkan carnage was stopped only after US under President Clinton stepped into the conflict. Therefore, the US – while obvisouly having leverage in Slovenia, mostly courtesy of former foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel – has way more leverage in Croatia which would probably still be one-third under Serb paralimitary control had it not been for the US and the international community as a whole

It is understandable that Vatican influence makes Hribar nervous. Not only is anti-clericalism one of his predominant themes (not that there’s anything bad with anti-clericalism, especially due to the dubious role Roman Catholic Church played in contemporary Slovenian history), but the fact that the Vatican has much more leverage in Croatia should make eyebrows go up. However, the Vatican support came in the form of Cardinal Franc Rode, former Ljubljana Archbishop saying that “since both sides are unhappy with the agreement it must be good” which is as muted and unofficial response as one can get. Remember, this was not the official position of the Holy See, but an opinion of a powerful clergy-man who is a) Slovenian and b) close to the pope.

Also, we must not forget that Slovenia is a member of the EU. While the Commission was “worried” about Slovenia blocking Croat negotiation process, unofficially some member stated were actually encouraging Slovenia to stick with it, not in the least because it a) curbed German/Austrian influence in the region, b) had and still have doubts about EU’s so-called enlargement capacity and c) had their own axes to grind with Croatia and were more than happy to see someone else take the lead. This goes most notably for Great Britain which has issues with Croatian (non)tackling of corruption, The Netherlands which has issues with Croatian (non)cooperation with the Hague Tribunal (the issue of so called artillery logbooks during operation Thunder) as well as possibly France on the issue of audio/visual copyright.

Point being that if there were strings pulled (and no doubt there were), it was Croatia that was leaned on much more than Slovenia. Not only because Slovenia is an EU member (this may have won Ljubljana some support, but also alienated some other member states), but mostly because a) Slovenia is playing ball in other areas and was calling in favours as well as b) Croatia was politically and strategically indebted in so many ways that it simply ran out of credit. Which is possibly why former Croatian PM Ivo Sanader resigned and was succeeded by Jadranka Kosor, after which the arbitrage agreement just sort of happened.

The Clinton factor

Much was said and written about a sentence by former US President Bill Clinton during his last visit to Ljubljana. Clinton (who, according to Robin Williams had the unfortunate accident of finding himself the only Jewish girl who couldn’t get a stain out) said that “Slovenia should be happy and content with the 42 kilometres of coast it has”. This was predictably taken as a direct snub and “a clear message from Washington” by those who oppose the arbitrage agreement and interpreted as the final proof of almightiness of Croat diplomacy (see above) which obviously lobbied for support in
Washington and got what it wanted. Hribar says as much as well in his article.

The thing, however, is that the whole sentence is taken out of context in so many ways that it hurts. First of all, Hribar should be aware of the fact that there is a tacit agreement between Bill Clinton and the White House that the former president does not comment on foreign policy, with his wife being the Secretary of State and all. Secondly, Clinton was visiting Ljubljana on a speaking tour, hosted and paid for by Diners Club Slovenia and was booked months before Prime Ministers Pahor and Kosor started their flirtatious relationship. Therefore Clinton was not “sent by the White House to tell Slovenia to back off”, even though the entire Slovene political elite was present at this speech. Even more, Clinton (who still enjoys the status of semi-diety in Slovenia) was careful not make his visit look like an official one, so he wouldn’t even meet PM Pahor officially. The two instead “met by chance while strolling in Ljubljana” thus allowing for one of the more bizarre scenes of contemporary Slovene politics (PM Pahor is “by chance going down to Prešeren square”, something catches his attention and he nudges his aide: “My word! Is that… No, it can’t be… But it is! President Clinton! My god, what a coincidence!” whereupon the two fall into each other’s arms and have a coffee)

Anyways, that is the relationship context that Hribar got dead wrong. Even more important is the content of Clinton’s speech which Hribar completely misinterpreted. The above sentence about 42 kilometres of coast can indeed be read as an ominous warning. Until one remembers that it was a part of a 45-minute speech Clinton gave on the subject of climate change and that the next sentence was something like “if the sea levels rose by a metre, you’d have so much more sea that the dispute with Croatia would cease to exist”. Ergo, Clinton was not “delivering a message from Washington” but was rather piggy-backing on his former VP Al Gore, stealing his material and trying to fill 45-minute time slot for which he was reportedly paid a five figure sum. The fact that his speech was rather boring and below-par only reinforces the notion that Hribar and those like him are reading way too much into everything anyone is saying about anything remotely connected to the dispute. Why is this?

Moving on

A couple of reasons, methinks. First and foremost the fact that – as much good as he had done and contributed to Slovene independence – Hribar failed to move on. It is  no longer just about establishing Slovene identity in relation to neighbouring states, but also about making Slovenia a responsible member of European and international community who is able to look beyond its immediate needs, however corny that may sound. Secondly, it has to do with ego. If the last piece of homework would finally be finished, the need for guidance from “founding fathers” the likes of Tine Hribar would be gone as well. While it is true that history repeats it self, first as a tragedy and then as a farce, it is also true that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.

And this is where the current arbitrage agreement is such a novelty. What were are dealing here is an outside-of-the-box bolution. Definition of “junction to high seas” does not exist. Yet both sides subscribed to it. Why? Because any other term that was put forward was rejected either by Slovenia or Croatia. If thinking within established parametres gets you nowhere, think outside of them. It seems that people who established Slovenia are unable to do so. Their role was crucial, however, they have – in this instance at least – outlived their usefulness. As things stand now, neither side has an absolute guarantee for success, nor is it guaranteed failure.

Whether Tine Hribar likes it or not, the arbitrage agreement between Slovenia and Croatia is the last, best chance for settling the issue. The odds are as even as they have ever gotten. And this is why pengovsky hopes that people of Slovenia will support the agreement on June 6.

Perhaps this way fantasies about Croatia “occupying” Slovenia will finally end. Today we celebrate the other kind of resistance against occupation. The one which made it possible for Slovenia to become an independent nation fifty years later and showed the world that this nation is independent, unbreakable and proud. The time has come to show that we’re sensible as well.

Happy Resistance Day, everyone! Smrt fašizmu, svobodo narodu!

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

8 thoughts on “Last, Best Chance”

  1. I can see you’ve been hard at work, so “Happy Resistance Day” to you too!

  2. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but heck I’m so darn good at it, so I’ll go on. It seems to me that Slovenia would do well to send these “national heroes” off to some Greek isle paradise retirement home. Their understanding of contemporary politics is perilously flawed and the spread the germ of misinformation around the land because editors are too reverent to simply say “Take a hike grandpa.”

    All this is not to say America doesn’t give a shit about Slovenia, but um well, I lie, I do mean to say that America doesn’t really give a shit about Slovenia. It may give a bit more of a care for Croatia, but in case Mr. Hribar hadn’t noticed (and who could blame him? since his brainspace is still filled with memories of those halcyon days of yore, when he told Belgrade where they could stick it lo’ those 20-some years ago) America’s got MUCH bigger fish to fry these prayers. And the only person who could possibly be getting messages from America via Former Prez Slick Willie is Kim Jong-Il, where the people are easily 20-30 years behind the rest of the world and Our Dear Leader is of dubious mental stability (Though I can’t say much better of the people running Slovenia. Heck, at least Kim is interesting!)

    But I digress, my main point here is that while Pengovsky may deign to lick the feet of these old school Slovenia freedom cats, the country would be better off if you (and the rest of the media) would do it in the privacy of your own homes rather than splayed across the pages of newspapers where it can influence the already warped thinking of Slovenia’s voting public (read: the rest of the old people). Whatever gets you off is kill with us, just please adhere to that Clinton golden oldie, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

  3. and oops “Whatever gets you off is OK with us”

    I should not comment this early in the morning, I think Satanic messages are trying to come through my typos…

  4. @Adriaan: Thanks! It sure felt good to have a Tuesday off! 🙂

    @Camille: Run that last paragraph by me again, would you? 🙂

  5. Camille, what you say sort of reminds me of something the poet Tone Pavček said in a recent interview for the Delo Saturday supplement. He said: when Korošec (a prominent pre-WWII politician) died, I was taken to the funeral, and people said the greatest son of Slovenia had died. When Kardelj (a prominent post-WWII politician) died, I went to the funeral, and people said the greatest son of Slovenia had died. When Pučnik died, I didn’t go to the funeral, but I did hear people say the greatest son of Slovenia had died. By now, I think to myself – God, please just stop sending us these greatest sons of Slovenia, we’d do better with some honest hardworking folk.

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