In a country of only two million people, it is not surprising that even the big cities are not really all that big. Slovenia's capital Ljubljana is also its biggest city, with a population of about 270,000. Next in line is Maribor, the historic capital of Hapsburg Styria, with all of 110,000 inhabitants. Maribor is home to the country's second university and the country's second-largest bank. But Maribor is striving for more, and success has never seemed more likely.
Slovene Independence Day was celebrated on 25 June, and Mayor Boris Sovič was the key-note speaker at the commemoration at the castle of his city, Maribor. Throughout the country, Slovenes were celebrating the establishment of their first independent state and the new freedoms and opportunities they have enjoyed since 1991, when Slovenia seceded from the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia.
But Sovič did not share in the excitement. The speech he gave on 25 June sounded more like a eulogy. According to him, independence has done nothing good for Maribor, and his city has paid the highest price in the transition to independence, democracy and a market economy.
He cited a list of figures, all quoted in the Maribor daily newspaper Večer. "At independence, there were 83,000 jobs - this year there are already only 70,000. Unemployment has risen from 9000 to 14,000 people. A city of 200,000 inhabitants was split up into twelve towns, with 110,000 remaining in Maribor."
Sovič, however, is a Mariborčan. And Mariborčani are nothing if not hopeful. He ended his speech by pointing out the great potential of his city, and drew his hope from the great level of consensus in the city council which is integral to making their dreams of success a reality.
Boris Sovič has been mayor of Maribor since 1 January 1999, when he surprisingly defeated incumbent Dr. Alojz Kužman under the slogan "The Maribor of a New Generation." The post of mayor carries a four-year mandate; the next elections will be in 2003. And if things continue as they have, he probably will become the mayor for another four years.
The priorities he has set concern social activities, economics and the raising of the profile of this, Slovenia's second-largest city. He sees the University of Maribor as the city's defining feature and proudly calls Maribor "a college town."
In the year and a half that he has been in office, unemployment has finally started to go down as more and more new jobs are created. Even though things do get done in the Sovič administration, one of the few criticisms that Mariborčani have is that perhaps things could get done a bit quicker. But overall, the public is behind their mayor.
Overlooked by the government
Two weeks ago, the new Prime Minister, Andrej Bajuk, made his first official visit to Maribor. He met with Sovič and others, and said at a press conference: "[my team and I] are trying to acquaint ourselves with concrete problems also outside of our Ljubljana." While he played the role of the gracious guest well, when asked about various local issues, Bajuk came off as poorly informed and non-committal.
Given his current approval (or, more accurately, disapproval) ratings, Bajuk perhaps should have tried a bit harder to make a good impression. The rivalry between Maribor and Ljubljana has been particularly charged since the announcement last month that the newly-created Agency of Energy would not be based in Maribor as expected.
Even though Maribor has been lobbying to get an important state institution established in the city, the government decided that the Agency of Energy should have its seat in Ljubljana. The official reason was that there are not enough experts and professionals in Maribor for the work of the Agency for Energy.
Boris Sovič publicly called the government's rationale "baseless nonsense." In fact, up till now the Directorate for Energy Supply (which is being reconfigured to become the new Agency), has been based in Maribor without a problem. Maribor also is home to several energy-related private sector firms and a university faculty of electro-technology.
The real problem, Sovič said, was that "the Agency will be one of the most important institutions in the regional energy market in Slovenia and ... will also be a power center in its own right." To a government that Sovič sees as being hell bent on centralizing its power in the capital, it is unthinkable that such an institution would be located somewhere else.
During Prime Minister Bajuk's visit to Maribor, he was asked his opinion of a plan that seems to be Maribor's consolation prize: the possible relocation of the Service for Local Self-Government to Maribor. Bajuk answered vaguely that "it is wise that Slovenia not concentrate everything in Ljubljana." And that is where he missed his chance to win the support of the 110,000 Mariborčani.
Open conflict with Ljubljana?
The Agency of Energy fiasco has done nothing to assuage the resentment Mariborčani have for the capital. This week, Večer published a scathingly critical commentary of Ljubljana mayor Viktorija Potočnik on the occasion of the half-way mark of her term. And even though the commentary was written by a resident of Ljubljana, it is hard to imagine that the Maribor-based daily did not enjoy publishing it.
The author of the commentary condemns Potočnik for building new housing units without setting a policy on who gets them. Current residents in need of housing should have priority, since if newcomers get the new housing, the pressing problem is only going to be compounded.
Potočnik is accused of doing nothing to solve the large problems of traffic and parking, but commissioning studies and taking no action on their results.
But the sharpest criticism is lobbed at Potočnik's recent bout of international travel. She has recently visited Moscow and Brussels in an effort to work on cooperating with those cities on various issues. The author questions what a city of 200,000 can learn from a city like Moscow, which has more than 10 million inhabitants.
More reasonable, the author feels, was Potočnik's planned visit to Vienna, but that was canceled. "Perhaps it would be better," the commentary continues, "if she would visit Graz (Gradec), Linz, Klagenfurt (Celovec), Trieste (Trst), or some such city. And not just their shopping centers!" Reading the commentary in Večer, the laughter of Mariborčani practically rings out of the page.
Local concerns and successes
An article in Večer last week declared that Maribor's image was being tarnished by scores of empty commercial spaces. Andrej Krapšet, head of the Division of Management of City Properties of the Town Council of Maribor, was consulted on the problem.
He told Večer that "the majority of the commercial spaces which are abandoned in the center of town... do not belong to the city." But the city owns enough of them: of the 492 commercial spaces that the city does own, 14 percent sit empty.
What merchants in the city now have is a growing fear for their future, as Maribor prepares to open a major new shopping center, Europark, on the outskirts of town in the not-so-distant future. Krapšet mentioned that to Večer, saying that aside from high rental costs, "the other difficulty which faces merchants in town is the unmistakable fear of competition with the big shopping centers."
Many merchants are making plans to abandon ship and find new livelihoods that will remove them from competition with the new Europark complex. This will expand the problem of unused commercial space in town and quite possibly wreak havoc with unemployment figures.
Things are not all bad, however. Last month, Mayor Sovič announced that Maribor had entered talks with the German auto maker BMW concerning the possibilities of establishing of a plant in Maribor near the old TAM auto factory. The government has pitched in and offered BMW incentives if it decides to set up shop in Maribor, but several other Central European cities are also in the running.
True to the Maribor spirit, Sovič remains hopeful. In announcing the opportunity, he said that "the transportation infrastructure is only one of the qualities which give Maribor an advantage over the competition. Nearby highways, railways and an airport are also just a part of what awaits BMW.
There is also the fact that Maribor is a university town, that it has experience and the necessary potential for this sort of industry, and this is another advantage. However, we cannot dare to have any sort of illusions - the others will certainly stress their advantages and if they have the support of their governments, the competition will be very difficult."
During his recent visit, Bajuk assured Sovič that the new government fully supports Maribor in the BMW bid. The final decision will be made by BMW in two or three months, but in the meantime, the city continues to look for strategic partners for the TAM complex, and for now, the complex is doing some small-scale production of vehicles for the military, as well as building train carriages, among other products.
With all of the problems Maribor has had with Ljubljana and the government lately, it is no wonder that Mayor Sovič is looking in new places for help. Sovič attended an international conference in Portorož this week on financing for infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe organized by the Ministry of Finance.
He told the conference that cities and towns should look to international financial institutions, commercial banks and the private sector for help in financing infrastructure projects.
This is necessary for Maribor, Sovič said, since the government is continuously laying new responsibilities on towns and cities in Slovenia but is not putting up the necessary funding. This is a particular problem with environmental legislation and other new legislation designed to harmonize Slovene practices with those of EU Member States.
Maribor, led by Mayor Sovič, has high hopes for Slovenia's bid to become a member of the EU. Sovič believes that there are tremendous economic benefits for Maribor to be had, and that those benefits could be just what Maribor needs to finally succeed.
Culture and tourism
One thing Maribor has going for it is its cultural scene. From 23 June to 7 July more than 3500 artists from around the world are performing on seven stages and even in the streets, as part of the Lent Festival.It is the biggest annual summer festival in Slovenia - more than 450,000 people attended last year, more than four times the population of the entire city.
This year's festival again features a highly eclectic program, including concerts of just about every style of music, from classical to ballet, jazz, world music, pop and rock to blues. There are also folklore events, street theatre, children's and sports events and fireworks. The highlight will be a concert by the legendary Serbian musician Đorđe Balašević.
This weekend, coinciding with the festival, representatives of the Detour - Development of Tourism in Urban Europe - will visit Maribor. Detour is a program of the European Commission to develop tourism and to create new jobs in so-called "compact" cities. Its members are the British city Derby, the Belgian city Ghent, the Greek city Patras, the Hungarian city Veszprem, the Lithuanian city Kaunas and Maribor. The development of tourism is a particular goal of Mayor Sovič.
The Maribor of a new generation
The youth of Maribor are the city's future, and a commentary in a recent issue of Večer showed that the city's youth are ready to grab the baton from the older generation. Young people in the city are razing the old Mariborčan stereotypes of being over-traditional, disorganized, and uninclined to creativity.
Young people were the driving force behind the highly-successful "Festival of Visual Communication" earlier this year. Having achieved much with little money,
Maribor's role as a "college town" will ensure it a continuous supply of well-educated young people with new ideas and fresh perspectives. And as Mariborčani, they are sure to carry the city's spirit of hope. The year 2003 will mark the end of the first term of Mayor Boris Sovič, who came to office under the slogan "The Maribor of a New Generation."
By coincidence - or by destiny - 2003 is also the year in which Slovenia hopes to gain full membership in the EU. Maribor has pinned much of its hope on EU accession and perhaps it will be in the all-important year of 2003 that the city will overcome its second-class status and become truly the Maribor of a new generation.
Brian J Požun, 3 July 2000
Photo credits: "Slovene Currency" by Dragan Arrigler and "Maribor, Main Sqaure" by Marko Feist are courtesy of the Slovene Government Public Relations and Media Office
"Maribor Coat of Arms" is courtesy of the City of Maribor
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