Janez Drnovsek – New Age and independence in Slovenia
Janez Drnovsek. Photo: Borut Peterlin

Janez Drnovsek. Photo: Borut Peterlin

“I think that I should do a little more to help the others.”

Central European politicians who embraced a reform agenda in the post-communist era often paid a high price for it at the polls. Only a handful were re-elected. And certainly none managed to stay in power for almost the whole period of 1992-2007 – except Slovenia’s Janez Drnovsek. The distinction is in itself enough to mark out Drnovsek as one of the leading figures of European unification and the post-communist transformation era.

No other politician has shaped Slovenia’s post-communist politics as much as Janez Drnovsek. The last Slovenian representative in the Yugoslav presidency (1989-1991), he played a leading role in negotiating the peaceful withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army from Slovenian territory, going on to become prime minister (serving almost uninterruptedly from 1992-2002) and president (2002-2007).

Drnovsek oversaw both Slovenia’s economic reform surge and its integration process into the EU and NATO. As party president he led the “Liberal Democracy of Slovenia” to victory in parliamentary elections in 1992, 1996 and 2000. In 2002 he won the presidential elections in a run off with 56.5 percent of the vote. At the end of his term he enjoyed high popularity and his book “Thoughts on Live and Awareness” topped the Slovenian bestseller lists for some time. Drnovsek did not run for re-election in 2007 and retired from his post as president in December 2007. Two months later, on 23 February 2008, aged only 57, he lost his ten-year battle against cancer.

Born in 1950 in the Slovenian town of Celje, Drnovsek completed an economics degree before finding a job at a construction company and, subsequently, at the Yugoslav Embassy in Cairo (as an economic advisor). In 1986 he became a communist party deputy to the Slovenian assembly. Thanks to his expertise in monetary and credit policy, he also became a member of the Slovenian delegation to the Yugoslav federal parliament. In 1989 he was asked – along with many others – if he wanted to run for the post of Slovenian representative to the Yugoslav Presidency. The Slovenian leadership, responding to popular pressure for democratisation but confident of victory, had decided to select its representative by universal suffrage in competitive elections scheduled for April 1989. In what came as a major surprise to everyone, including himself, the unknown Drnovsek beat Marco Bulc, the official candidate of the League of Communists.

Soon after the April 1989 elections, and just as Serbian nationalism began to reach its pre-war crescendo, Slovenia – in other words, Drnovsek – took over the rotating Yugoslav presidency. Yugoslavia’s break up was not inevitable, Drnovsek believed at the time, holding out hope for a reformed loose Yugoslav confederation anchored to the rest of Europe.

As Yugoslav president, Drnovsek tried to ease tensions in Kosovo, then the most volatile part of socialist Yugoslavia. He won a presidency vote to free Albanian political prisoners and tried to bring Serbs and Albanians to the negotiation table, but with no results. In an article written in 2000, he recalled:

“Because of my efforts to establish a dialogue leading to a solution of the Kosovo problem, I was often accused in Serbia’s controlled media of being a traitor to federal Yugoslavia and to Serbia. But in fact this was the last real effort to help the country avoid disaster. I once said to Milosevic: “Your policy is like riding a tiger. While you ride it you probably feel very powerful. But sooner or later you’ll have to come down and the tiger will eat you.” Alas, I did not succeed in changing his politics or his behavior.

During this whole process – in a procedure which would later become familiar to a long succession of diplomatic emissaries to Belgrade – I tried to charm the Serbs. I advocated tolerance, compromise, discussion. I attempted to inject a tone of reasonableness, and I tried not to be only a Slovene in the presidency but to improve the climate for everybody. I introduced the intention of joining the Council of Europe and later the European Community; I did so not only to the presidency of Yugoslavia but also to European leaders. When I met with the latter, I explained that a race was going on between a wild nationalism and a more rational, tolerant and democratic concept.

Unfortunately, as history has recorded, the process of destruction was faster than the process of democratic consolidation. Sometimes I wonder if the democratic option really had a chance at all. It would have demanded tolerant and responsible politicians in all the Yugoslav republics – but particularly in Serbia and Croatia. (People in Bosnia and Herzegovina were afraid of the nationalistic pressures coming from Serbia and Croatia. They felt premonitions of disaster.) Still, it must be said that during my one year term as president I had a lot of public support. People felt that this would be the right way to go. For a short time it even looked as though I might succeed. But this was only an illusion – the calm before the storm.”

Familiar with all the key players in Belgrade, Drnovsek played a leading role in negotiating the end of the 10-day conflict that followed Slovenia’s declaration of independence on 25 June 1991, as well as the Yugoslav Army’s subsequent withdrawal.

Independence also meant that Drnovsek had lost his seat on the federal presidency. Within a few months, however, he was back at the top of the Slovenian political scene. After his centre-left party won the 1992 elections Drnovsek became prime minister, a position he was to hold for ten years (except for a few months in 2000 when one of his coalition partners left the government).

It was under Drnovsek’s leadership that Slovenia emerged as a front-runner in the EU enlargement process. In retrospect, Slovenia seems to have sailed through the accession process with ease. But the process was never that simple.

Matjaz Nachtigal, who served as Drnovsek’s chief of staff between 1999 and 2002, recalls that at one stage it was unclear whether or not Slovenia would join the first enlargement wave. There was concern that – if it did not – membership could be delayed for years to come.

“It was very difficult in the mid 90s because we were falling behind other European countries that got candidate status ahead of us. There was an open fear that we would not be accepted in the first wave. We were behind the Visegrad group of countries, and it was very unclear at the time what enlargement would look like. It was very open. It was very important that Slovenia be present in the first line of countries joining the EU. Slovenia needed to say it was the best prepared candidate.”

Simultaneously Drnovsek had to manage a series of coalition parties in government. According to Nachtigal, “his party members wanted to drag him into the daily bickering with colleagues or the opposition.” Drnovsek also had to resist calls to adopt a more nationalist tone in disputes with neighbouring Italy and Austria – this, in order to counter or pre-empt pressure from conservative and right wing opposition parties. (Subsequent administrations have been consumed by such disputes.)

“He had clearly had this distinction between strategic goals and other open issues like the treatment of the [Slovenian] minority in Austria. He always maintained his strategic perspective,” said Nachtigal.

One of the most important of these strategic goals was EU membership. Janez Potocnik, the leader of Slovenia’s EU negotiation team, could always count on Drnovsek’s full support, Nachtigal recalled. Drnovsek had a kind of quiet authority and intellectual capacity that proved highly effective.

Drnovsek’s quiet approach to government was matched by a gradualist approach to economic reform. The richest of the former Yugoslav republics, neighbouring Italy and Austria, Slovenia was well placed to access European markets. Drnovsek, along with a few leading Slovenian economists, decided to forsake the shock therapy policies implemented in the poorer states of the Eastern bloc in favour of a gentler pace of free market reforms and privatisation.

By the time Drnovsek stepped down as prime minister in 2002 (to be elected President), Slovenia’s membership of the EU was a near certainty.

The diagnosis of cancer in 1999 brought about a change of life style, prompting Drnovsek to adopt vegetarianism and, later, to reject conventional medicine. In 2007 he told The Times:

“When you are confronted with the perception of the end of your life, it’s an opportunity to look at things from a different point of view, to change priorities and establish a distance to this daily existence and all these material developments that you are taught are so important.”

“I think that I should do a little more to help the others,” he told the New York Times. Drnovsek visited Jerusalem, trying to convince the Israeli leadership to talk to the newly elected Hamas representatives; he tried to meet Tamil Tiger leaders in Sri Lanka; and he defied the Chinese authorities by visiting Tibet. His most ambitious initiative was to try to put an end to the conflict in Darfur. Drnovsek initiated steps for a peace conference in Ljubljana, but no one accepted his invitation. His own peace envoy, Slovenian human rights activist Tomo Kriznar, was arrested by the Sudanese authorities for entering Sudan without a visa and was sentenced to two years in jail. His early release was brokered by the EU.

The attempt to resolve the crisis in Dafur was criticised as naïve, and the conservative Slovenian government subsequently refused to cover the increasing costs of running the President’s office.

Meanwhile, President Drnovsek began to engage with everyday Slovenians, writing his own blog, publishing an advice column in the women’s magazine Jana, and corresponding with private citizens about their personal problems. Between 2006 and 2007 he also published three books on spiritual issues. This earned him some ridicule among political commentators. “He talks like a New Age mystic of his quest for ‘higher consciousness’ and ‘inner balance’, and communicates with the Slovenian people through books on spirituality,” wrote The Times.

But it also made him widely popular among the Slovenian population. “I think that after this personal struggle, people saw that he was someone like them, and because he can share things with them,” Jana editor Tina Horvat told the New York Times. “If presidents of other countries would be like him, it would make the world a better place.”

Disagreements might persist as to how to judge Drnovsek’s last years as president, but no one can dispute the fact that it was thanks to his tenure as prime minister that Slovenia was able to secure EU membership. Without Drnovsek at the helm Slovenia might well have been distracted and absorbed by regional and internal squabbles. No other Slovenian politician has yet been able to match the authority and sense of purpose that Drnovsek displayed throughout his years as prime minister. Even when illness brought about a new outlook on life, the President’s views still reflected the sense of commitment to justice and stability which Drnovsek made the hallmark of his political career.

16 September 2009