>Ljubljana diary

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I arrive at night Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport (newly renamed after the dissident and statesman, who led the anti-communist DEMOS coalition and founded what is today the centre-right Slovene Democratic Party – just ejected from office in parliamentary elections). We’re then whisked by minibus in pitch darkness in the direction of Slovenia’s capital. I try to imagine picturesque mountains and well tended , frosty fields outside, although breakneck narrow roads and the minibus’s driver’s juggling of fag, mobile and steering wheel tends to distract.
20 minutes later we’re dropped off near the station. It’s looks pretty unprepossessing , but after I’ve walked a couple of streets things get neater and better tended and I am in a street lined with imposing 19th century banks and hotels. Then, suddenly, I am in Prešeren Square, the heart of the city. It’s draped all over with blue and white Christmas illuminations and, slightly less magically, filled with oompa music . There are some open air stalls and bars and I treat myself to Carolian sausage and a honey brandy (medica) to psyche myself up for the search for my hotel Three minutes later I am already there. Ljubljana is indeed small.

(….)
Viewed in daylight, my initial impression is that Ljubljana that has the look and pace of a Austrian or Scandinavian regional capital albeit with some architectural gems and government ministries unexpectedly thrown in. My Slovene colleague at the University of Ljubljana has been incredibly helpful and I have interviews to do and a translator to help out recruited via the local student union. First port of call is Slovenia’s pensioners’ party DESUS, where I meet both the party’s General Secretary and it 2002 presidential candidate Prof Anton Bebler, whose flawless English and political science background make for a very smooth and interesting interview. (Slovene academics, I later discover, often make the transition to politics, not infrequently acting as independent expert nominees for ministerial posts).

The headquarters of Slovenia’s main labour federation is, understandably, a smaller and more compact affair than the vast echoing trade union HQ I visited in Prague last month, But it also seems busier and more business-like – Slovenia is the most unionized country in CEE and, although membership rates have slipped – is still a force to be reckoned with. The representative of Slovenia’s pensioners’ trade union who are kind enough to make time for me despite being are on a tight schedule, are clear and informative. They also ask me some good questions at the end. Next day at the Slovene pensioners’ federation, my translator- who has more experience with arts and cultural events than issues of interest aggregation – has a much more challenging time, especially when discussion turns to the political structure of Socialist Slovenia’s highly complex, multi-layered brand of self-managing socialism. Luckily, she is resourceful and clever enough to cope and I am (just about) well informed about socialist Yugoslavia to follow it all. Terms like ‘self-managing community of interests’ are now part of my (very limited) Slovene vocabulary. Going over my notes and the diagram my interviewee helpfully drew for, I realise that such legacies are indeed central to what I’m interested in.

Making an early New Year’s resolution to learn some proper Slovene, I head off to buy a dictionary and a grammar for foreign learners. All the bookshops, bar one, seem to be owned by Mladinska knijga but, in any case, there’s a good (if expensive) selection of both. There’s also an interesting selection of English language books on politics and current affairs mixed in with the Slovene language ones. Later I’m very pleased to meet political blogger Pengovsky and over lunch I learn inter alia that Slovenes are, as I had suspected, big readers and bad drivers and, that electoral appearances aside the the Slovene right has never enjoyed the social and political traction it has elsewhere in CEE. There are , admittedly, bitter arguments between Slovenes about the moral and political status of the wartime communist partisan movement and collaborationist domobranci , but a Slovene lustration law or a flat tax reform would be about as likely as a snow flake in July.

(…)

Before meeting to colleagues at the Social Sciences Faculty, I still have a little time to kill. I feel a a bit guilty just walking round the Old Town seeing the sights, so as the rain sets in I set off for the Museum of Contemporary History, which is just outside the city centre in grounds of the Tivoli park in a small chateau-cum-palace. By the time I get there, the skies have darkened and the rain is pouring. I’m dripping wet and also the only visitor. They switch on the lights and multi-media displays especially for me. There’s a special exhibition about Slovenes in the First World War as well a permanent exhibition about the Slovenia’s ‘s 20th century history. I am struck by the intensity of the propaganda drive to attach Slovenia to the emergent Yugoslav state in 1990s; the fact that even the most radical Slovene nationalists seem not to have contemplated independence (perhaps Slovenia, like Slovakia was then too small and too poor); and the slightly odd jumps from darkly condemning post-war crimes of the Tito regime against political opponents to celebrating Slovenia’s industrial achievement in 1960s and 70s.

The exhibition culminates with a room commemorating the Ten Day War in 1991, when Slovenia’s territorial forces and police put up unexpectedly stiff resistance to the Yugoslav Federal Army’s brutal, but ill-coordinated (and ultimately short-lived attempt) to keep them in the disintegrating Yugoslav federation by force. A multi-screen documentary tells the story through well cut archive footage interspersed with interviews. It is emotive and manipulative in places – there is a broader and much grimmer political outcome to think of – the Ten Day War as the overture to wars of Yugoslav succession) but every new country needs a founding narrative, and as these things go, seems one that stands up. As I watched the scenes of tanks pushing aside bus barricades and angry crowds chanting ‘okupanti‘ at soldiers at passing armoured vehicles, it all struck me as eerily reminiscent of August 1968 in Czechoslovakia – and, of course, Czech failure to resist after Munich September 1938 is still an open wound. I suppose the Czech equivalent is the Velvet Revolution, but can (and has) been dismissed as the overdue collapse of a rotten regime, rather than an active national project.

(…)

I turn up at Pučnik airport an hour before my 7am flight. I needn’t have bothered. The usual security and passport checks take a grand total of 20 minutes, boarding takes place 10 minutes before take off. There are various coffee bars in the recently modernized airport, but they are all closed. I sit and sleepily re-read Sherlock Holmes for a while. Most of the passengers sensibly appear at the departure gate five minutes before boarding. The Adria Airways jet, is like Slovenia itself, is small and comfortable but unflashy and unfussy. At Gatwick we walk for 25 minutes to get to passport control.

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