The President of Slovenia Borut Pahor is considered as a great advocate of the integration of the Western Balkans in the European Union (EU). In order to bolster the cooperation between the countries of the region and help them on their road to the EU, ten years ago he initiated the Brdo-Brionian Islands Process. Recently, he had planned to welcome the leaders from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Kosovo at the Brdo Castle near Kranj on the tenth anniversary of that initiative. However, due the unfavourable situation brough about by the coronavirus pandemic, this meeting – which, as they say in Slovenia, would be historic - has been temporarily postponed.
How important for the region is the Brdo-Brionian Islands Process really, is there an enlargement fatigue in the EU, and how he manages to maintain good relations with both the European Union and Russia are some of the topics Pahor discusses an in exclusive interview for Kurir. He also talks about his contacts with the First Lady of the USA Melania Trump, who is originally from Slovenia, as well as his friendship with the famous basketball player Luka Dončić.
Ten years ago, as the prime minister of Slovenia at the time, you started the Brdo-Brionian Islands Process in order to strengthen the ties between the countries of the Western Balkans and increase their support for each other on the road to the EU. How happy are you with what has been achieved?
After ten years, we can see that the Brdo-Brionian Islands Process has really opened up the space for dialogue, solidified mutual trust, and contributed to the consolidation of democracy, peace, security, and cooperation between the member states. Over the ten years that it has been around, it has had a major contribution to the mutual understanding and trust between the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans. What I can say is that it has strengthened the trust in the European prospects of these states, and provided an important incentive to the reform processes, the consolidation of democracy, reconciliation, security, and cooperation. I think it is great and important that Serbia is an active partner in this initiative. Before, there had not been a similar platform in the region within which the state leaders would be able to speak frankly about the open questions and the solutions, as well as the key regional strategic goals. There are not many international initiatives which have persisted for such a long period of time, and ours has even spawned others, e.g. the Berlin Process and WB6.
What is your view on the Mini Schengen Zone, an initiative launched by Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia with the aim of facilitating the flow of goods and people between states?
In November last year, I spoke to President Vučić and President Pendarovski about this during our meeting in Novi Sad. The idea is something new and gives hope to the region that none of these states would be losing the time needed to form ties in Europe, the slow enlargement notwithstanding. I made a point of stressing at the time that this was not an alternative to joining the EU, but that the idea complemented the European vision of the region. The initiative to form a Mini Schengen Zone is also precious because it is based on cooperation and strengthening trust, which the states need in order to implement reforms faster and successfully resolve the open bilateral questions between them. The more the states in the region cooperate with each other, the more economically developed and democratic they are, the more interesting they will be to the EU.
How would you assess the current situation in the EU? Is the Union in crisis?
My considerably critically intoned assessment is that the EU’s response to the pandemic of the new coronavirus disease was belated and not decisive enough, which forced the states within it to respond to the pandemic individually, when they could have had a collective response. The situation was similar to the case of illegal migration, when Brussels failed to find a common solution, acceptable to all, and the consequences are still felt today. On the other hand, it is good that the EU has been resolute in its search for a solution to the problem of efficient handling of the pandemic consequences, above all the economic crisis. I welcome the efforts of the European institutions and EU member states to find common solutions. The EU is a family of sovereign members states with different historical experiences, political traditions, and very diverse cultural and linguistic identities. This enriches us as a community, but it is also a great challenge in seeking unity and efficient responses to the common issues.
Certain member states are opposed to further enlargement?
I think that the dominant feeling in the EU at the moment is the enlargement fatigue. In many member states there is no more enthusiasm over continued enlargement, and open reservations are noticeable in some of them. I have pointed out many times that the question of expansion towards the Western Balkans is in fact an opportunity. The strategy used so far is not good, and this is why we need alternatives. If we do not find them, we will witness great delays in the accession of the Western Balkans to the EU. This might have serious consequences for peace and security in the region. In my assessment, the accession to the EU of the Western Balkan countries is a paramount geopolitical and strategic issue from the standpoint of a stable, safe, and successful future of the EU. The region should be viewed as a whole, while proper attention should be paid to the reforms in each state individually. Delaying the EU enlargement process can cause instability in the region. Moreover, I think that a distinction should be made between the candidacies of the Ukraine and Turkey on the one hand, and the countries of the Western Balkans on the other. The EU is simply not whole, or complete, without the countries in the latter region.
How do you comment on the predictions that the EU will have Yugoslavia’s fate – that it will break up?
Personally, I am one of those politicians who sincerely believe in the European Union and its even tighter integration. I am worried by the signs of discord among the member states, but I do believe that the Union will emerge stronger from this crisis, and that it will have a more prominent role in global politics.
How do you see Yugoslavia today, thirty years after you left the common state?
Yugoslavia was one of the historical experiences of the Slovenian people. At this time, Slovenes remember the watershed events of over three decades ago, which paved the way for the first democratic elections and the decision on Slovenia’s independence. It was not a decision against Yugoslavia, but in favour of an independent Slovenia. For the Slovenian people, these are important and emotionally charged memories. When they made the historical decision in favour of an independent state, Slovenes carried out an act of reconciliation par excellence and proved that as a nation they were mature enough to make and implement such an important decision.
How do you manage to have good relations with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin without many objections from the EU?
The relations between Slovenia and Russia are traditionally good and friendly, and the economic cooperation is vibrant. Having said that, one should also bear in mind the fact that Slovenia as a member state articulates and implements the common EU policy. Despite the current international situation, the relations between the two nations, and between myself and President Putin, remain good. Personally, I am committed to improving the relations between the EU and Russia. That requires a lot of effort, persistence, and patience on both sides, as well as understanding. When President Putin visited Slovenia on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Chapel on the Vršič Pass, the European leaders understood that the visit was an act of piety, although at the same time it was an opportunity to have a dialogue and an exchange of views. The dialogue continued after several months, in early 2017, when I spent a few days on an official visit to Berlin, Moscow, and Kiev. Those are small but important steps, which help a thaw in the relations between Brussels and Moscow. In terms of foreign policy, Slovenia is not, nor does it want to find itself, between Brussels and Moscow. Rather, it is firmly in the family of the EU member states and the NATO alliance, and that will not change. As I have already said once, the normalization of the relations between Russia and the EU would be useful for the Western Balkan states too, as a certain ambivalence can be detected – this goes for Serbia as well – in some of them, with the foreign policy looking to Brussels, and the security policy to Moscow. In my opinion, that would be easier to accept.
In your relations with the USA, is it somewhat helpful that Melania Trump, the wife of President Donald Trump, is originally from Slovenia?
Slovenia has great, diverse, and friendly relations with the United States. We cooperate at the bilateral and multilateral level, as well as within the NATO alliance. We are allies. We in Slovenia are proud that the First Lady of the United States is our kin. Incidentally, her origin does not change the official relations between the US and Slovenia; rather, it can be seen as one of the points of contact which further strengthens the friendly relations between states. I can say openly that Mrs Trump is very nice and pleasant and that she shows signs of a friendly disposition. Barron, President Trump and the First Lady’s son, also speaks Slovenian, which is fascinating.
Have you met her?
Yes, we have met personally, and had telephone conversations a few times. I remember that after his election victory, I sent a written note to congratulate President Trump, and he then called me. I was at the time on an official visit to Teheran. At the end of the conversation, I spoke to Mrs Trump as well, which was a pleasant surprise. We met in New York later, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, at a traditional reception organized by the US presidential couple. Meeting President Trump and the First Lady was very authentic and took place in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. I remember that I found myself in a slightly awkward situation when Mrs Trump started to talk to me in Slovenian and her husband in English. I am not sure if she wanted to tease her husband a bit, but at one point I did not know who to accommodate. I tried to accommodate both.
They call you an authentic and modern president. What must a 21st century politician have?
Different people have different expectations from politicians. Some appreciate the more traditional approaches, others more modern ones. Honesty, respect, and acceptance of diversity, as well as dialogue and inclusivity are the characteristics that we need to cherish and strengthen, regardless of the time.
You said once, ‘It seems to me that the years ahead hold great and unpredictable changes.’ Does that frighten you?
Of course there is going to be a degree of uncertainty, but above all, I have a powerful sense of responsibility towards the future generations, in the sense of doing whatever is in our power to leave the world a better place, despite the many changes. That is what we have to strive for.
COOPERATION WITH THE PRESIDENT OF SERBIA
‘I disagree with Vučić on some issues’
What is your cooperation with the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić like?
I maintain friendly relations with President Vučić. Our views are different on some issues, but Slovenia is a close ally of Serbia on its road to the EU. The Serbian and Slovenian nations are friendly peoples who share a common history. There are no major open issues between us, and good collaboration has been established in virtually all areas. During my most recent official visit to Belgrade, President Vučić and myself spoke in support of a continuing and expanding cooperation. I remember it was not always the case. Friendly relations and the goodwill of President Vučić are certainly two very precious factors in the bilateral relations.
ON THE FAMOUS SPORTSMAN
‘Luka inspires us, we learn from him.’
Do you know Luka Dončić, the famous Slovenian basketball player? What is he like privately, and how much has he contributed to Slovenia’s image in the world?
All of us in Slovenia are very proud of his stellar successes. He has a very well-formed and pleasant personality, which he inspires and delights us with. Luka is living his dream with a seriousness and commitment of an experienced sportsman, and with a cocky smile and the carefree vitality of a young man. Such a combination of personal traits is rare, and this is why he charms and connects people the way he does. We can learn much more from him, as we already have.
(Kurir.rs / Boban Karović / Foto:URKS)