Many of Slovenia's leaders earned their political credentials in the death throes of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The current prime minister, Janez Jansa, in those days was a freelance journalist, and in 1988 spent six months in a military prison. Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel was a prominent pro-democracy campaigner.
Rupel and Jansa's unique blend of experience and insight lends weight to Slovenia's bid to serve as the EU's "Balkan specialist." But Slovenia's leaders may be a little too involved in the struggles of the past for their own good. Balkan politics remain steeped in history; history is often deeply personal; and personal stakes can cloud vision.
Entertaining a group of Brussels-based journalists this week, Slovenian leaders occasionally appeared to be on less than solid diplomatic ground.
Slovenia's stated aim is to be an "honest broker" in the fraught process of Kosovo's divorce from Serbia. But this is easier said than done.
There is a lot of empathy in Ljubljana for Kosovo. Slovenia was the first republic to break out of Yugoslavia in 1991. Foreign Minister Rupel argues it would be "incomprehensible" if Kosovo -- equally a "nation," in his words -- could not follow Slovenia on that path. Old Neighbors
Slovenia's analysis of Serbia, on the other hand, remains equally colored by the past. Prime Minister Jansa notes that Slobodan Milosevic took Serbia away from "the European path" and sunk it into wars and "total propaganda," poisoning attitudes on Kosovo for a long time.
"After 15 years, you have generations living in Serbia which know only one side," Jansa said, adding that it is impossible for Serbs to change their thinking on Kosovo -- which was made the "guideline of life, the guideline of the nation" -- overnight.
Yet, moments later, Jansa says positions change fast and he sees "a quite different situation" emerging in a year's time, "maybe not in the political elites, but among the ordinary people."
He notes that "strong words" -- in this instance Belgrade's threat to make another break with Europe if the EU backs Kosovo's independence -- are a Balkan speciality.
Both Jansa and Rupel permit themselves repeated swipes at the current leadership in Belgrade. Jansa wryly gives Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica credit for having once published Yugoslavia's first-ever manual on democracy, but clearly blames him for Serbia's intransigence.
Rupel, who has a reputation for gaffes among local journalists, responds to a question about what the EU expects from Serbia's elections by simply saying, "change" -- an answer that might come as a surprise to the pro-European incumbent, Boris Tadic. Rupel then quickly tries to make amends: "Rather, not change, but continuity -- and that the democratic forces win."
Slovenia's leaders are clear that they want to see both Kosovo and Serbia in the EU. They say Kosovo's status will be resolved before July and want Serbia to be given EU candidate status by the same time. They are not clear, however, on how they plan to get there.
Asked repeatedly about Slovenia's precise plans for Kosovo, which is shortly expected to formally declare independence from Serbia, Foreign Minister Rupel at one point promises a "clearer" response -- and then proceeds to provide anything but.
"We have to see the challenge of this problem" on Kosovo's status, he says. "It's a huge challenge, and we shall move not slowly, but carefully. What I'm saying is not that we are rejecting any plans. I'm just saying that we are applying, that we are implementing our decisions in a rational and, I would say, considerate manner." The Russia Factor
The reputations of EU presidencies stand and fall by their successes -- or lack thereof. The stakes for Slovenia are higher than is usual, both because of its background and the gravity of the situation surrounding Kosovo. Looking to hedge its bets, Ljubljana is playing up hopes of a breakthrough in the EU's relations with Russia. Keeping Russia sweet could also help Slovenia manage Serbia.
Whatever the motives, Slovenia is unusually keen to make conciliatory noises vis-a-vis Moscow. Rupel goes so far as to warmly endorse a continued pivotal role for Vladimir Putin, saying Slovenia "would love" to have him participating in the EU-Russia summit in June -- even though the latter will have to step down as president following March elections, and his future functions remain unclear, even in Russia.
Slovenia hopes the EU can finally sign a new strategic partnership treaty with Moscow at the June summit, to be held in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiisk. In fact, such a deal would prove a major coup for Slovenia.
Perhaps it was the thought of such future glories that prevented either Rupel or Jansa from raising the question of Russia's human rights record. Instead, Rupel limited his comments on Russia to hailing as a "fresh idea" a planned joint art exhibition in Brussels. The theme? "Slavic cooperation."