Since gaining independence ten years ago, Slovenia has struggled with a major problem—obscurity. It is one of Europe's smallest countries, with just under two million inhabitants and just over 20,000 square kilometers of territory. Its history, submerged in that of Austria and then Yugoslavia for the past millennium or more, is virtually unknown to the uninitiated. Its flag is easily confused with those of several others in the region. Seventy-three years spent as part of Yugoslavia conjure up nightmares of Balkan bloodlust to those who can even make the association.
And perhaps the most painful is the fact that the very name of this country, which was once part of Yugoslavia, differs from that of another country in the region—once part of another Slavic federation, Czechoslovakia—by just two letters.
This image problem hampers not only the country's tourist industry but also its hopes of international prestige. Since 1991, Slovenia's major foreign policy goals have been membership in both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), but both efforts are suffering due to the lack of public awareness about the country "on the sunny side of the Alps," as the national tourist board has dubbed it.
The fact that few can place Slovenia correctly on a map, or realize it escaped the wars of its former fraternal republics, is perhaps the primary reason why the country consistently ranks at the bottom of Eurobarometer polls. While it is arguably the best prepared for membership, citizens of the EU perpetually say that it is one of the countries they would least want to join the Union.
Slovenia tripped on the same hurdle in 1999, when NATO conducted its first round of expansion, taking on the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as new members but denying Slovenia. The unofficial reason was that the public in NATO member states knew virtually nothing about the country.
Now, it is essentially a given that an invitation from NATO is in the offing, but Slovenia received a major push last weekend when it was launched onto the pages of newspapers around the world with the stunning announcement that it has been chosen as the site of the first meeting of American President George W Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But can Slovenia make the most of the chance to enlighten the world of its existence?
Friends in high places
The summit has been in the works for some time, but the major sticking point was when and where. Washington wanted either Madrid or Warsaw to play host, since they were already on Bush's itinerary. Moscow refused both. Spain is too far, and Poland is out of favor for supporting the American national missile defense plan.
But Slovenia was fresh in the minds of both parties. Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel visited Washington in March and lobbied for Bush to visit Slovenia during his European tour (See: Take the Ball and Run!); and Prime Minister Janez Drnovšek has built up a cordial relationship with Putin. The two have met twice before, first at St Anton in Austria last winter and again at the Kremlin in Moscow earlier this year. In any case, Putin had intended to visit the capital, Ljubljana, in September.
Early last week, representatives from Washington called Ljubljana inquiring as to whether Slovenia was up to organizing the meeting. The news that Slovenia had been selected was formally announced on Friday, at the conclusion of Russian Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov's official visit to Washington, by White House press secretary Ari Fleisher. The date is yet to be decided, but is expected to be either Saturday 16 June or Sunday 17 June.
The meeting will take place as Putin is returning from the Asian-Pacific Economic Summit in Shanghai, and will be the last stop of Bush's first European tour. The Slovene press took pride this week in the fact that this will be the American President's most important meeting abroad thus far in his term.
The US-Russia Summit's agenda will focus on three major points: the controversial American national missile defense system, the Middle East peace process, and less important Russo-American affairs such as the case of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, accused of selling US secrets to Moscow. But Ljubljana's agenda is something else entirely.
Slovenia is not Slovakia
The attention the world will pay to the summit should go a long way to dispelling the many persistent myths about Slovenia—that it is, in fact, Slovakia.
Even Bush himself has committed the cardinal sin of confusing the two. During last year's presidential campaign, a journalist from Slovakia asked Bush what he knew of the country. Bush answered that he learnt of Slovakia firsthand from its foreign minister. However, the foreign minister in question was from Slovenia, not Slovakia. The faux pas made headlines in both countries.
Even Moscow has not paid much attention to its tiny Slavic cousin. Slovene Ambassador to Russia Adam Purg told Finance that "Moscow is a special case, completely separate, a sort of Russian Far East, where Slovenia is not known. The news that President Putin is coming here will spark interest in Slovenia and especially in its economy."
At long last, a national strategy for self-promotion
With talks of a second round of NATO expansion and a first round of EU expansion on the horizon, the public relations opportunity afforded by the summit could not have come at a more opportune time. The timing is all the better given that a long-delayed national strategy for promoting the country abroad is expected to go before parliament in the near future.
In preparation for over two years, the strategy aims to unite the promotional efforts of the various ministries and institutions which represent Slovenia abroad, such as embassies, consulates and cultural organizations.
For the initial period of 2001 to 2004, theoretically the period immediately prior to accession to the EU, the strategy aims to concentrate its efforts on improving awareness of the country in six key countries: the United Kingdom, France and Germany as the largest countries in the Union, and Sweden, Belgium and Spain, countries which will hold the Union's rotating presidency in the next 18 months. Expanding its reach to cover the United States would do much to help the NATO bid as well.
As The Washington Post pointed out this weekend, the summit would be an excellent venue for Bush to formally invite Slovenia to join NATO. However, Prime Minister Drnovšek shied away from discussing the NATO bid in connection with the summit in a statement he made early this week, given Russia's lack of enthusiasm for the alliance's expansion.
The international press is reporting that Ljubljana is to be the venue, but the Slovene press tells a different story: there are actually several candidates jockeying for the honor.