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Analysis: Will Slovenia's New Government Fare Better With Its Neighbors?

By Donald F. Reindl Croatian President Stipe Mesic (file photo) The Slovenian elections on 3 October resulted in a surprise victory by the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) over the ruling Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 October 2004). However, warning signs that the LDS and its center-left coalition partners were in trouble appeared much earlier.

Throughout 2004, polls indicated that half the electorate was dissatisfied with the work of the government and the parliament. In addition, there has been a steady erosion of public support for the LDS since December 2002, when Anton Rop replaced the current president, Janez Drnovsek, as party head and prime minister.

The first strike against the party's prestige came in April, with a referendum on a bill granting retroactive residency rights to non-Slovenes who had failed to apply in time for citizenship. The opposition resisted the blanket restoration of such rights and pressed for a referendum. The result was a humiliating 95 percent rejection of the government-backed bill. The LDS dismissed this setback as a result of low turnout, in part due to a call by former President Milan Kucan for a boycott of the vote.
Croatian President Stipe Mesic dismissed any worries over "a boat sailing normally in Croatian territorial waters."

Strike two came on 13 June, when the LDS and its coalition allies failed to win a majority of the seven seats in elections to the European Parliament. The big winners were the opposition SDS and the New Slovenia (NSi) party, with two seats apiece. Analysts shrugged off the result as a combination of populism, especially in the results for the NSi's Lojze Peterle, and another low turnout due to "voter immaturity."

Rop -- who many say lacks the managerial skills of Drnovsek -- found it increasingly difficult to maintain consensus within his four-party coalition. The result was a series of purges, beginning with the expulsion from the coalition of the unruly Slovenian People's Party (SLS) in April, the replacement of five government ministers in the same month, and finally the dismissal of the controversial but charismatic foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel in July. Each move was officially characterized as helping refocus the government's energies, but the net effect was to shift the coalition's political orientation increasingly leftwards, abandoning the political center to opposition parties.

Strike three -- the 3 October national elections -- was a clear defeat for the LDS that could not be described as anything else. The SDS won a clear victory over the LDS, even though putting together a majority in the new parliament is not proving to be an easy task. Together with his center-right allies -- the NSi and the SLS -- SDS head Janez Jansa controls only 45 of the 90 seats in the National Assembly. Speculation as to how he will finally secure a majority ranges across the political spectrum, from a possible alliance with the reformed communist United List of Social Democrats (ZLSD), to a deal with the far-right Slovenian National Party (SNS).

In addition to the standard domestic issues, Jansa's new government will have to formulate effective policies for dealing with Slovenia's former Yugoslav neighbors, especially Croatia. Tensions with Croatia are simmering because of disputes over land and sea borders and other issues stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 August and 17 September 2004). In September, Croatia expressed concerns to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly that Slovenia -- which will chair the OSCE in 2005 -- may not deal fairly with its southern neighbor. Threats by Slovenia to block Croatia's EU accession only made matters worse (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 October 2004). Despite the political feuding, relations between Slovenia and Croatia generally remain good. Croatia is one of Slovenia's top export markets. A recent poll in Rijeka's "Novi list" found that 60 percent of Croats consider Slovenia a friendly country. However, this number drops as one moves away from the Slovenian border, to southern Dalmatia or eastern Slavonia.

Croatia has cautiously welcomed Slovenia's change of government. The SDS and Croatia's ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), are members of the European People's Party (EPP) bloc in the European Parliament, which may help promote dialogue. Nonetheless, Croatia is unlikely to back down from demands regarding the location of the border and related rights in the Bay of Piran and is expected to press for international arbitration on the issue, "Novi list" reported on 10 October.

Recent events suggest that Croatia is prepared to take a hard line, just as Jansa did during the Slovenian election campaign. On 7 October, the Croatian gunboat "Solta" made an unannounced appearance just outside the disputed Bay of Piran. Slovenia reacted with concern to the alleged incident, but at a 9 October press conference, Croatian President Stipe Mesic dismissed any worries over "a boat sailing normally in Croatian territorial waters."

Meanwhile, relations with Serbia have quietly been improving, especially in trade and Slovenian investment in Serbia. However, nationalist fears are not far below the surface. A "Dnevnik" article of 8 October reported on an offer by Slovenia's Mercator supermarket chain to buy up shares in Serbia's C-Market chain. Already on 21 September, about 200 C-Market employees protested in Belgrade against the possible deal, carrying signs reading: "Our fallen soldiers are watching!," "We won't learn Slovenian!," and "Protect our own!" ( Strengthening political and economic ties with the other former Yugoslav republics, while assuaging fears regarding alleged Slovenian heavy-handedness and neocolonialism, will be both a priority and challenge for the Jansa government.