Debutante Slovenia steps into EU spotlight

LJUBLJANA Wed Dec 26, 2007 5:36am GMT

Children hang over the gate at the border between Slovenia and Italy at Robic December 21, 2007. Slovenia's clean and prosperous countryside, becoming attractive to tourists, looks more like Switzerland than communist Yugoslavia, which it quit in 1991 after a brief war with the Serb-dominated federal army. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

Children hang over the gate at the border between Slovenia and Italy at Robic December 21, 2007. Slovenia's clean and prosperous countryside, becoming attractive to tourists, looks more like Switzerland than communist Yugoslavia, which it quit in 1991 after a brief war with the Serb-dominated federal army.

Credit: Reuters/Srdjan Zivulovic

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LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - In 1999, Texas governor George W. Bush publicly confused Slovenia with Slovakia at a time when both belonged to a group of ex-communist east European states striving to join the European Union.

Since then, Bush has become president of the United States, while Slovenia has joined the EU and NATO, adopted the euro currency and entered Europe's passport-free zone.

In January, the Alpine republic of two million people, tucked below Austria on the eastern shoulder of Italy, takes over the EU's six-month presidency.

But to the outside world it remains largely unknown.

"Slovenia's been somehow isolated, like a continental island in Europe, for centuries, and some of its politicians seem content to keep it that way," said an EU diplomat with a vast knowledge of the region.

"But the EU presidency will raise its profile on the global political market."

Slovenia's clean and prosperous countryside -- becoming attractive to tourists -- looks more like Switzerland than communist Yugoslavia, which it quit in 1991 after a brief war with the Serb-dominated federal army.

Slovenes saw themselves as hard-working, prosperous and Western-oriented. The Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims of Yugoslavia thought of them as haughty and uptight, without the relaxed charm of other Balkan Slavs.

Cynics called Slovenia 'the poor man's Austria'.

Despite Slovenia's economic and political successes -- it is the wealthiest east European state with GDP per capita close to EU levels at 14,800 euros (10,800 pounds) -- critics were quick to point out that its model image was not so perfect.

"Slovenia's last real success was the smooth introduction of the euro last January," said Zagreb-based political analyst Davor Gjenero, who writes for Croat and Slovenian newspapers.

CRACKS IN THE GLOSS

"After that, we saw the incompetence of its administration in fighting inflation, shameful conflicts with the president and central bank governor, attempts to control the media, slow privatization," Gjenero said.

Generous welfare, a rigid labour market, a high level of protectionism and state control of business helped push headline inflation to 5.8 percent in November, the highest in the euro zone.

"The latest figures, particularly inflation, show that Slovenia is losing some of the advantage it had over other EU newcomers," said political analyst Meta Roglic at daily Dnevnik.

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