Slovenia, bordered by Austria, Hungary, Italy and Croatia, is both territorially and demographically smaller than Israel, with a population hovering just over 2 million.
Nonetheless, says Ambassador Barbara Susnik, the nation is economically important to Israel because its port of Koper is a gateway to Western Europe for Israeli exports, which is just near the top of the boot of Italy, and politically through the many organizations of which Slovenia is a member with voting rights.
Slovenia was one of 119 member states of the United Nations that in September 2015 voted in favor of permitting a Palestinian flag to fly in front of UN headquarters.
This did not go over well in the Jewish state, and according to Susnik was not understood due to the low priority that Israel gives to political dialogue with Slovenia.
As an ambassador, Susnik does what all ambassadors do in terms of promoting bilateral trade and tourism.
But the main mission that she has set herself – she tells The Jerusalem Post in the course of an interview in her office overlooking Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center – is to enhance political dialogue and to persuade Israel to open an embassy in Ljubljana.
For some years the ambassador to Austria was also responsible for Slovenia. It takes two-and-a-quarter hours to fly from Vienna to Ljubljana. Alternatively there is a night train that takes a little over six hours and a night bus that takes five-and-a-half hours.
However, after a previous ambassador to Austria complained that keeping track of the two countries was too difficult, Israel’s ambassador to Slovenia operates from Jerusalem, a situation that people in Slovenia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry find far from satisfactory.
Slovenia, which on June 25 celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence, has membership in the UN, EU, International Monetary Fund, NATO and a host of other organizations – most of which in one way or another can influence Israel’s place in the world.
Slovenia is also a party to international agreements on air pollution, biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, Law of the Sea, marine dumping, nuclear test bans, ozone layer protection, ship pollution, wetlands and whaling.
Until it joined NATO, the country never had an army, Susnik said.
Because her people had for so long been without independence, they could understand and empathize with other nations seeking independence, she explained.
Prior to the break-up of Yugoslavia of which Slovenia was one of six republics, all Slovenians were dual nationals.
“We had Yugoslav passports, but no one in Slovenia said, ‘I’m Yugoslavian.’ We had our own constitution and only the Federal budget, defense and foreign policy were determined in Belgrade. We learned Slovenian at school and studied Serbo-Croatian as a foreign language. We were six republics with five languages, three religions and two alphabets.”
When war broke out in Yugoslavia in 1991 and Susnik’s mother woke her that morning to tell her, Susnik could not believe what was happening. “This was 20th-century Europe. It was tragic to watch... It was a terrible war between Croatia and Bosnia.”
As far as Slovenia was concerned the war was over in 10 days. It became an independent nationstate, and in a relatively short time joined the EU.
Though a little sad at the breakup of Yugoslavia, with hindsight Susnik thinks that it was good for all six republics to become nationstates in their own right.
After gradating in political science from the University of Ljubljana, her first job was in the international resources division of Slovenia’s parliament. Her work included keeping tabs on Slovenian minorities abroad of which there are approximately half a million.
These do not include Slovenian minorities in neighboring states, she explained, “because they didn’t move. The border moved.”
The country differentiates between national minorities who remained put and those who migrated. “We pay a lot of attention to minorities in Slovenia,” she said, noting that the most prominent are Italians and Hungarians who are represented in parliament.
Of the 90 MPs, one represents Hungarian nationals and another, Italian nationals.
Susnik’s first overseas assignment was in Canada whose migration and integration policy she greatly admires. “People can preserve their cultures and traditions and still contribute to Canada. The system is adapted to people coming from abroad. They feel welcome, and they integrated – but they do not assimilate.”
Her subsequent overseas assignment was much closer to home.
She was appointed deputy to the permanent representative of Slovenia in the Council of Europe, and she was able to either drive her car or ride her bike from Strasbourg to Ljubljana without having to show her passport to anyone or to change currencies. People in most of Europe could travel freely in this way for study, work or vacation, or simply to have a day’s outing in another country.
“But Europe is changing,” said Susnik with a note of regret in her voice. “Borders are coming back to where there were no border crossings...”
An avid people watcher, Susnik was thrilled when the lease on the Slovenian Residence in Herzliya Pituah expired, enabling her to move to Tel Aviv to an apartment not far from the Habimah Theater from which she can walk to work.
She loves sport, but hasn’t been able to bring herself to swim in the sea, because the water is too warm and too rough. She’s used to a cold but tranquil sea. She would also like to get back to jogging and to spend more time on her bike.
Like most Slovenians, she also loves to ski, but having surveyed the weather conditions in Israel, she decided to leave her skis at home.
During the year in which she’s been in Israel, Susnik has traveled to many parts of the country, but she likes Tel Aviv best, especially the panoramic view from her office, but also the vibrancy of the people. “They’re warm, open, smart and intelligent.”
She also likes Jerusalem, which she says has a special energy. Her other reason for being fond of Jerusalem is the famous sculpture of a black horse in Menorah Park on King George Avenue, adjacent to the building soon to become the Knesset Museum. The tiny park, which is part of Moshe Baram Square, is often referred to as Gan Hasus (“Horse Park” in Hebrew).
The horse, which was created in bronze by Slovenian sculptor Oskar Kogoj was given to the city by the Slovenian Republic in 1997.
Slovenia has had a representative office in Ramallah since October 2007.
For Slovenia’s independence anniversary of, Susnik hosted State Secretary Darja Bavdaz Kuret, who happens to have been their country’s first ambassador to Israel.
Kuret also took the opportunity to meet with Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi.
Slovenia has actively assisted Palestinians through humanitarian and development projects, with an emphasis on the rehabilitation of children from the Gaza Strip. Slovenia also supports efforts aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hope that through direct negotiations, a two-state solution will materialize, enabling both peoples to live side by side in peace and stability. Susnik has been to Ramallah and Milko Dolinsek, the Slovenian representative in Ramallah, has been to Israel.
The two diplomats compare notes, but each is active only in his or her respective post.
While Kuret was in Israel, she attended an evening of Slovenian poetry in anticipation of an anthology of Slovenian poetry to be published in Hebrew and Slovenian later this year. The reading was held at Hasandag Studio in Jerusalem. The presentations were by Polona Vetrih, an acclaimed Slovenian actress; actor and puppeteer Robert Waltl; and Hava Pinhas Cohen, an Israeli poet and writer who is editor of the anthology. Susnik is particularly proud of this project which is supported by the Embassy and by Slovenia’s Culture Ministry.
Last year, when she attended The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference only a few days after presenting her credentials to President Reuven Rivlin, Susnik was impressed by a short cartoon-style documentary film which she regarded as a novel approach to raising awareness of children’s vulnerability to sexual abuse. The film, commissioned by cosmetics tycoon Ronit Raphael, was something she had not expected.
It concerned a subject close to her heart and one that she had worked on for three-and-a-half years while at the Council of Europe before she could get anyone to sit up and take notice. She has since formed a close relationship with Raphael and they have put their heads together to try to come up with additional ways to bring the film to the attention of a wider public.The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place in Jerusalem on November 23.