An engaging diplomat

Slovenian Ambassador Alenka Suhadolnik explains how her country can learn from Israel.

Alenka Suhadolnik (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alenka Suhadolnik
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nestled away in south-central Europe, the diminutive country of Slovenia is best known for its snow-capped mountains, lush green forests and breathtaking natural beauty. But a little more than two decades ago, Slovenes garnered international headlines when, together with Croatia, they decided to secede from Yugoslavia, a move that precipitated the federation’s collapse and was followed by the Balkan wars. But since joining NATO and the European Union in 2004, Slovenia has taken its place alongside its larger neighbors as an equal in every respect.
Tasked with the responsibility of representing Slovenia in Israel is Alenka Suhadolnik, a charming and engaging diplomat who has served her country for more than 20 years both in the capital city of Ljubljana as well as abroad at the embassy in London and the consulate in New York. In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, she discussed her country’s transition to democracy, as well as anti-Semitism and the restitution of property to Holocaust survivors.
There appears to have been a warming of relations between Slovenia and Israel over the past few years. To what do you attribute this?
I would say that diplomatic relations between Slovenia and Israel, which were established 21 years ago, have been good throughout but they are lately becoming more intensive.
If you just look at data on trade volume or Israeli tourists visiting Slovenia – from 2011 to 2012, Slovenian exports to Israel are 35% higher and the overall trade between the two countries went up by 22% in the past year.
And the number of Israelis visiting Slovenia increased by 32 percent. And then there is the Slovenian port of Koper, which is becoming one of the really important routes for Israeli exports to Europe. Slowly, Slovenia became an item on the Israeli map and I am very pleased about it.
What about the bilateral diplomatic and governmental level?
On the bilateral diplomatic level we have also had intensified contacts. In the past two to three years we exchanged visits of the foreign ministers, President [Shimon] Peres visited Ljubljana and our prime minister visited Israel. So there are intensive contacts of late, but what I also deem especially important is that we are starting to work closer in the field of culture, arts and sciences. I think that people-to-people exchanges and academic conferences are extremely important, and in July of last year we signed a new program in the fields of art, education and science between the two countries.
The first anthology of Hebrew writing was translated into Slovene and has been published, and the first anthology of Slovene poetry is being translated into Hebrew and is coming out this year. This is a big and very important endeavor.Slovenia is a small country with a small population, as is Israel. Do these similarities affect how you relate to the Jewish state?
I would say so because the smallness of a country definitely imposes some limitations on it, but on the other hand it forces one to be innovative and creative in its endeavors. And here is something that also links Israel and Slovenia. You might have noticed that in the recently published Bloomberg Global Innovation Index, both Israel and Slovenia are prominently featured, with Slovenia listed as 19th and Israel at 32nd. This actually came as a surprise to me because I have observed here in Israel that the number of patents per capita and scientific articles published in research journals is similar to that in Slovenia, so I expected Israel’s ranking to be closer to ours. But there is something that is lacking in Slovenia, and that is how to translate this into business opportunity. And that is one particular area that I would like to advance. To see what you are doing so well that we can learn from you.
Slovenia became independent more than 20 years ago. How has the transition to democracy been?
For a very long time, Slovenia was called the best student in the class. This refers to the new EU members or so-called ex-Eastern European countries.
Now why were we considered to be the best student in the class? For a number of reasons. First, the transition to democracy went smoothly. Second, because of GDP growth – we had really admirable numbers up until 2008, but since Slovenia is a small country, we were severely hit by the European economic crisis. We are an export-oriented economy, and if our main partners are suffering then that obviously influences our economy as well, and now our data is not as good, although it is already turning around. This is also an area where we are looking at Israel, because Israel succeeded [in weathering] the crisis without even [going into] recession.
Yes, your GDP growth went down a bit, but it is still a very healthy and solid economy.
In March 2012 the Slovene human rights ombudsman declared that circumcision for non-medical reasons was a violation of children’s rights, while in the autumn of 2012, your government sought to impose restrictions on the kosher slaughter of animals. Where do these two issues stand nowadays, and doesn’t this signify that Jews are not welcome in Slovenia?
According to the Slovene Constitution parents have the right to provide their children with religious and moral upbringing in accordance with their beliefs. In the statement the Slovene ombudsman underlined that the above provision should be looked at in connection to the rights of the child and the child’s right to bodily integrity.
On your question whether this signifies that Jews are not welcome in Slovenia, the answer is no, it does not. It is also worth noting that there is a substantial Muslim population in Slovenia that practice the rite of circumcision.
Amendments to the Animal Protection Act that include restrictions on slaughter without the stunning of the animal is in the parliamentary proceedings.
In an article last year, the spokesman of the Slovenian Jewish Association was asked if it was fun to be Jewish in Slovenia, and he answered, “No,” citing anti-Semitism that he had experienced. What is your government doing to combat hatred of Jews?
The government is doing a lot. But before getting to that, let me mention what the civil society is doing.
For instance, this year, for the fourth year, we commemorated International Holocaust Day and I can tell you that the number of events that were going on throughout January was tremendous and it was organized all over Slovenia. Historically, the Slovene Jewish community was always small. Prior to the Second World War it was around 1,000 strong. It was especially prominent in the Prekmurje region on the border with Hungary. And unfortunately, Slovene Jewry in Prekmurje suffered the same fate as Hungarian Jewry in 1944.
A group of young historians and the Science and Research Center of the Slovene Academy for the Sciences and Arts recently carried out an excellent local research project on Jewish heritage in Slovenia and how it influenced the modernization of that part of the country.
In the government sphere, Holocaust education is always part of the curriculum.
When I was in primary school, The Diary of Anne Frank was obligatory reading. In the fifth or sixth grade, every pupil needed to read seven books per year, and The Diary of Anne Frank was one of them. When my daughter – who is now 19 – went to school, she also had The Diary of Anne Frank on the curriculum. The one thing that changed is that it was one of a list of 12 books out of which they had to read seven.
Holocaust education is not a question in Slovenia. Slovenes had one of the largest percentages that were sent to concentration camps and work camps, for various reasons, which included political reasons. That is also part of the reason that Holocaust education was always part of our education from primary school onwards. But one thing that was not done, but which is now being done, is historical research on Slovene Jewry.
And that is going on now. Just at the end of last year Margins of Memory, a new book on Prekmurje Jewry, was published in Ljubljana, and a workbook for primary and secondary school on the same topic is planned to be published together by the Slovene Academy of Arts and Sciences and Yad Vashem.
Most of Slovenian Jewry was murdered during the Holocaust. There are only six Slovenians who were considered Righteous Among the Nations, whereas Croatia had 107 and Serbia 131. Why didn’t more Slovenes step forward and try to save Jews?
Two answers. First, some of the Slovenes are listed under other republics of the former Yugoslavia. Second, we are just now working on Cyril Kotnik, a Slovene diplomat in Rome who was based at the Vatican. He saved Jews and he received posthumous recognition from the Roman Jewish community for his actions. It is possible that not enough was done by Slovenes, but not enough research has been done on this. That is changing as well. Documentation for eight Slovenians from the Prekmurje region that helped save Jews is under preparation to be sent to Yad Vashem. Also part of the reason is that when it happened, for example, when the Jewish community of Lendava was taken away, it all happened within an hour.
According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Slovenia has no legislation for the restitution of communal property. Over the past decade, your government has appointed two commissions – the Committee for the Unresolved Question of Religious Communities (in 2000) and the Sector for Rectification of Committed Injustices (September 2005) – to study the issue of the restitution of communal and heirless property. When will this process be completed and restitution begin?
The government appointed two commissions to research the question of the restitution of Jewish property.
None of the studies established that there were grounds that would require additional restitution of property beyond the restitution provided for in the 1991 Denationalization Act that was passed by parliament. Nonetheless, the Slovenian government recognizes the suffering of the Slovenian Jewish community during the Second World War [at the hands of] the occupying forces, and is therefore willing to talk about the options of how to honor it and ensure its remembrance, and that is what we are doing. The act from 1991 allowed private persons to put in their requests until the end of 1993 and legal persons until 1995.
So what those two studies have established is that there is not a systematic problem concerning the restitution of Jewish property. But I need to stress that the Slovene government realizes that there should be recognition of the suffering of the Jewish community.So does “recognition” mean memorials or restitution or both?
The talks are still ongoing so I cannot say. But I can tell you that when I was speaking about International Holocaust Day and how that is commemorated, to a large extent that is done by the Sinagoga Maribor institution. Maribor synagogue, one of the oldest in Europe and one of the most important in Central Europe during the 14th century, is now the “Center of Jewish Cultural Heritage.” And possibly one of the ways it can be done is through bigger support for that center, which is doing excellent work.
In October 2011, Slovenia voted in favor of the Palestinian bid to join UNESCO, while in November 2012, your country abstained when they sought to upgrade their status at the General Assembly. This seems like a very confused stance. Can you clarify it?
You need to understand where Slovenia comes from and what makes us who we are. As you mentioned before, we achieved our independence a bit more than two decades ago. The right to self-determination is seen as a sacred right of any nation and that is what makes us who we are. But still, as you pointed out, there is a bit of difference in the voting pattern, and the last decision that was made was done in consideration of the tremendous security threat that the State of Israel faces.But isn’t this a matter of Israel’s internal affairs? What gives Slovenia the right to interfere? Internal affairs? What, exactly?
The basic position is that the borders under a two-state solution should be defined through negotiation, based on the 1967 lines, in a way that will achieve peaceful coexistence of a viable Palestinian state and Israel with secure and recognized borders. And speaking as Europeans we would be ready to offer any support that would be needed. But the legal stance is obvious.Slovenia also has border issues with Croatia such as the Bay of Piran. Croatia has offered to split it down the middle, which seems consistent with the wording of the International Law of the Sea. So why wouldn’t Slovenia be willing to give up land – or in this case a bay – for peace?
That has been an issue for a long time, but the two sides decided on arbitration and have handed in their memorandums, and the matter is now in the hands of the arbitrators. But the story of the Bay of Piran is a bit different. In the former Yugoslavia, while there were delimitations between the borders of the republics, there was no delimitation of the sea. And the whole Bay of Piran was under Slovene jurisdiction.
And [an outlet] to the high sea is a vital interest of Slovenia.
In the 1990s, the Balkans saw widespread ethnic cleansing in which people were forced out of their homes because of their identity, because of who they are. When the Palestinian leadership or various European countries call for the removal of Jews from Judea and Samaria, how is that different from ethnic cleansing?
This is a matter of the status of the territory. The major question is that of the 1967 border and the occupied status of that territory.
Slovenia is a member of the European Union. Do you think the EU will survive in its current form? You know, the European Union is adapting all the time. And it is changing all the time. If the question is whether the same countries will continue to be part of the EU, I would say yes. Or actually no – because Croatia is waiting to become the next full member.
The European Union is of course not going through the easiest time, but one should emphasize over and over again, and I really believe this strongly: how did the EU come into being? There was the end of the Second World War. In a way, it was really a peace project. How do you reconcile the countries that were on different sides? At the beginning you did so through economic measures.
And actually the EU is going through transformations all the time, and I am sure that it is going to do that in the future. Recently, I spoke to one of your colleagues in the media who told me that he went driving from Ljubljana to Trieste just to see that you can cross the border from Slovenia to Italy without noticing it. That is the success of the European Union.
That should be emphasized over and over again.The flip side of that is that as a small country, the openness of the borders can dilute your national identity. Are you concerned about that?
On the contrary. For instance, what is interesting is that since the 1990s, the strength of regional dialects in Slovenia has grown. More of the dialects are entering into the public space and the importance and richness of dialect are growing. So in a way, even the local identities are becoming stronger, as is the national identity. When you confront somebody you also need to define yourself more clearly than before.
Media reports indicate that Slovenia has been threatening to derail Croatia’s planned entry to the EU on July 1 because of disputes over borders and banking debts. Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, recently said, “It is completely unacceptable to hold up the expansion process with such bilateral problems.” If you really believe in the EU, then why would you allow such issues to stand in the way of its expansion? Well, with regard to the border issue, I have already explained that it is in front of the Arbitration Tribunal, so that is not going to be an obstacle.
As for the second issue that you mentioned regarding the bank debts, the European Council in December said, “the Council encourages Croatia to continue addressing all outstanding bilateral and regional issues including succession issues building on progress achieved so far.” The banking debt question has to do with issues of succession among the countries that constituted the former Yugoslavia. Even that is under way and is being dealt with, and two financial experts from the Croatian and Slovenian side are meeting regularly, and our two foreign ministers just had a joint meeting and a press conference on February 6, where they announced that the solution is on the way. I must say that it is in Slovenia’s interest that Croatia enters the EU, and we are one of the big promoters of the entry of the other former Yugoslav republics.I would have thought the opposite. Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic that is currently in the EU and that puts you in a preferential position vis-a-vis the others. You have a foot in both worlds, and from an economic and commercial point of view that gives you many advantages. So wouldn’t you prefer to keep countries such as Croatia and Serbia out, thereby maintaining your unique position?
Not really, as our biggest volume of trade is with those countries. It is in our interest that we all become part of the same community because these things are going to accelerate. For example, in the field of tourism, we have been doing a joint presentation together with Croatia for the past few years at the International Mediterranean Tourism Market under the slogan “Experience Croatia, Feel Slovenia.”
And the numbers are going up, which proves this approach to be right.When you look back at the break-up of Yugoslavia, who was the bad guy? Who is to blame for the violence that followed?
I think that the story of ex-Yugoslavia and what happened there 20 years ago is more or less clear. As you know, Slovenia and Croatia did try an amicable divorce. We proposed the concept of asymmetric federation.
The Serbian leadership at the time under [Slobodan] Milosevic unfortunately had the idea of a Greater Serbia. They actually hijacked Yugoslavia and the result was what happened in subsequent years.Nowadays, do you view the Serbs as a friend or a rival?
One of the biggest investments that Slovenia has is in Serbia, along with the biggest trade volume. Rivalry is never a good basis for policy decisions. One needs to look at the synergy that cooperation can have. So in that respect we definitely see the countries that came out of the former Yugoslavia as some of our strongest partners and we do support them in their endeavors.
You mentioned that Slovenia and Croatia attempted an amicable divorce. But wasn’t it Slovenia’s unilateral withdrawal from the Yugoslav Federation that made bloodshed inevitable?
Our withdrawal from the federation came when nothing else was possible. Everything was tried, and the international community also tried, but unfortunately that was the only way it was possible because of the state of the Yugoslav federation at the time.
One also needs to mention that according to the Yugoslav constitution the constituent nations had a right to self-determination and secession.
For the second time since August, Standard & Poor’s cut its rating on Slovenia, citing the rising debt burden and uncertain growth prospects. And you may be heading to elections for the second time in two years as the coalition government appears to be crumbling. Are you concerned about Slovenia’s stability?
It is true that the discussions are being held among the parties on the possible establishment of a technocratic government or holding new elections. That is a result of the economic crisis, that hit Slovenia badly. But we will soon see. Concerning Standard & Poor’s, we are rated as A- with a stable outlook. The emphasis is on a stable outlook.We are here in your office in Tel Aviv, but Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. Why is your embassy in Tel Aviv?
If the peace process would go on and the question of Jerusalem were to be solved, we would not be bound by the constraints that we face now regarding having the embassy in Tel Aviv.
You served previously in London and New York. Why did you choose to come to Israel?
I am a career diplomat and for us one of the most interesting posts is Israel, for various reasons. It is one of the most interesting jobs that you can have and I am glad that I was appointed ambassador to Israel.Are there direct flights between Israel and Slovenia?
There are, but unfortunately only in the summer season. They are operated by Adria, the Slovene national carrier, and Israir. But that is one thing that we really need to push for because all the trade data and the increase in the number of Israeli tourists requires a more regular schedule between Tel Aviv and Ljubljana. Israelis love hiking, white-water rafting and similar things, and for that Slovenia is ideal.
And Slovenia of course is known for winter sports, especially skiing, which is becoming more popular among Israelis.
I should also mention that the Eurobasket 2013 is going to be held in Slovenia in early September, so I would encourage Israelis to come and cheer for your national team.