Slovenia heads EU as Balkan neighbors begin to stir

Serbs vote Sunday in polls in which Kosovo independence is a central issue. Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia.

Damir Sagoij/Reuters
Europe's candidate: Pro-European Union Serbian President Boris Tadic, center, faces off against nationalist challenger Tomislav Nikolic in polls on Sunday.
Rich Clabaugh

This tiny verdant patch of Europe has been a star pupil among new European Union states. Now, after three years of diligent study, Slovenia took over the EU presidency on Jan. 1, the first central European state entrusted with such a job.

And, unexpectedly, the Alpine nation of 2 million is on the hot seat. In an irony of history, Slovenia, the first republic to break with Yugoslavia, is in charge as Kosovo tries to be the last entity to gain independence. That move may be imminent.

Kosovo is Europe's No. 1 security issue – especially as Serbs vote Sunday in polls pitting the pro-Europe incumbent president, Boris Tadic, against a hard-line nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, who has made keeping the ancient Serb heartland of Kosovo, a crossroads of cultures and power tangles, his main platform.

"Since this seems to be an election about the European future of Serbia, the election does matter," says Slovene Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel. "I really hope Serbia step ups and intensifies its drive toward the EU, whatever happens in the elections."

For Slovenia, escaping the rotating presidency of the former Yugoslavia and earning the EU presidency has proven a long trip in a short time. It is also sensitive and tricky, analysts say.

"Kosovo will be the defining issue of Slovenia's presidency," says a Western diplomat here. Slovenia is attempting to manage the demands of 27 states, while not angering Serbia, Kosovo, or other Balkan neighbors.

This week the EU foreign ministers voted not to give an easy path to Serbia for EU membership until Belgrade takes steps to hand over Gen. Ratko Mladic, accused of war crimes in Bosnia. But in a later deal, the EU offered Serbia perks such as freer trade and expedited visas that have not been allowed other EU candidates. In a five-hour Brussels meeting described as "extremely grueling," Slovenia came out strongly in favor of making Kosovo's status and Serbian EU membership separate issues.

"We want to exhaust every effort to help Serbia and Kosovo. We aren't putting all our eggs in one basket, either Kosovo or Serbia," Mr. Rupel says. "In the years we were together in Yugoslavia … Belgrade was a very competent administrative center. Serbia is capable of being in the family…. In a few years, everyone will be in Europe, this is my belief."

Rupel also spoke of possible delays on both Kosovo independence and the deployment of 1,800 EU police officers to Kosovo, but would not say more.

Slovenia is sometimes affectionately described as a bit sleepy. But it is not sleepy now. The old saying that the Balkans "has always produced more history than it can consume" was vividly true this week: In Moscow Tuesday the Russian foreign ministry condemned "secret actions" being taken by the EU to send a police force to Kosovo, something the EU voted openly for in December, and threatened "unspecified actions" if Kosovo declared independence. Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha accused Serbia of trying to "destabilize" the Balkans. President Tadic told a Moscow newspaper that no "foreign military bases" would be allowed in Serbia – a counter to Mr. Nikolic, who has said he advocated that Russian forces set up along Serbia's borders.

Of key significance, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, whose support was seem as crucial for Tadic in Sunday's runoff, on Wednesday said he would not support Tadic. The news was viewed with gloom in Ljubljana and elsewhere – since Kostunica could realign Serbian politics after the election by joining with Nikolic's Radical Party to form a genuinely nationalist pro-Russia, anti-Europe government.

"In the EU, we want to make progress but not compromise on principles," says Slovenian President Danilo Turk in a Monitor interview. "What I would say [to Serbs] before the elections is that the EU is here, it is open, and it is waiting for you."

Balkan turmoil is hardly all the EU president faces. Slovenia, which holds the presidency until July, has been the venue for subjects from Turkish membership in the EU to European standards on technology. This week, the Slovenian Parliament ratified the Lisbon treaty, the second EU nation to do so. The treaty, set to start on Jan. 1, 2009, after the French presidency of the EU, will ideally streamline the governing structure for the EU, and usher in a much-delayed common foreign policy.

Slovenia left Yugoslavia in 1991, setting off the dissolution of the socialist state and formally joined the EU in 2004. Slovenia's per capita income in 1991 was about 5,000 euros; today it's above 20,000. Serbia, by contrast, has remained at about 3,000. Many in the Balkans sometimes grumble about Slovenia's departure and subsequent alleged disinterest in the tragedy that enveloped in the region thereafter.

President Turk calls this perception "unfair and inaccurate.

"Slovenia tried for a peaceful dissolution…. But we were realistic … we didn't indulge in illusions. Yugoslavia ceased to exist in the mid-80s. It was defunct. We proposed radical changes and peaceful dissolution … we had to think about our own existence. We didn't want to be part of a larger war that was looming on the horizon. How could we help by being a war victim?"

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