Dimitrij Rupel – controversial foreign policy in Slovenia
Dimitrij Rupel. Photo: Borut Peterlin

Dimitrij Rupel. Photo: Borut Peterlin

“You know, if we manage to put everyone in the same package and everyone became a member at the same time, it would be much easier.”

As Slovenia prepared to take over the presidency of the European Union in 2008, The Economist raised a note of concern: How would Dimitrij Rupel, Slovenia’s foreign minister, handle any potential crises the job might throw at him? “For a man with two decades of foreign policy experience,” said the weekly, Rupel was “oddly abrasive.”

To the minds of many Slovenes, Rupel got off lightly. At home, this onetime academic turned politician is routinely described as “gaffe prone” and “a maverick.” Worse still, he is accused of having contributed to some major foreign policy mistakes – among them Slovenia’s support for the war in Iraq, as well as its increasingly antagonistic approach to neighbouring Croatia.

Despite what his critics say, most political analysts recognise that Rupel has played a significant role in shaping current day Slovenia.

Rupel has spent a total of 11 years as foreign minister (1990-1993, 2000-2004 and 2004-2008). He was in office in the crucial period leading up to Slovenia’s independence and also during the years leading up to Slovenia’s EU accession. He has spent more time on the job than all of the other incumbents put together, managing to put in stints as ambassador to Washington (1997 to 2000) and mayor of Ljubljana in the process.

At first glance, he fits the mould of a senior statesman. He is tall (as well as slightly overweight), affable, outspoken and, given his experience in diplomacy, extremely well connected. His manner of dress, however, half moon reading glasses, a closely trimmed grey beard, and a scarf, is a telltale sign of his past as a dissident and writer.

Rupel rose to national prominence in the mid 1980s as the editor of the Nova Revija academic journal (He was, at the time, a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Ljubljana University). In 1987, Rupel co-authored a manifesto calling for a sovereign Slovene state, a step that caused consternation in Yugoslavia and cost Rupel his editing job. In 1990, a year before his goal was to come true, Rupel helped form the DEMOS coalition that won Slovenia’s first free elections. His feisty character, as well foreign language skills, earned Rupel the job of Slovenia’s de facto foreign minister in Alojz Peterle’s government. When Slovenia declared independence in June 1991, he formally became foreign minister, winning widespread respect for fighting to secure his tiny country’s international recognition, often in the face of Western states opposed to Yugoslavia’s disintegration.

“In 1991 there were not a lot of diplomats with ‘guts’ and with knowledge of foreign languages to defend Slovenia’s path to independence,” said Igor Mekina, politicial editor of Mladina, the Slovene magazine at the forefront of Slovenia’s independence movement, in a recent interview. Rupel’s bravado and feisty spirit, said Mekina, was exactly what was needed at a difficult time.

In an interview with ESI in early 2009, Rupel recalls the big European states’ opposition towards Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence. “Wherever I went at that time, autumn ’91, I remember people telling us: ‘You should forget about independence,” he says. “There were a couple of situations where we were offered European money, European processes, if we stayed together and preserved Yugoslavia. It was almost like a bribe!”

Though it eventually moved rapidly towards EU membership, completing its negotiations in 2002, Slovenia had to fight hard to become a candidate country in the 1990s. There were a few difficult hurdles on the way, says Rupel. Relations with immediate neighbours Italy and Austria proved most sensitive as both threatened to thwart Slovenia’s EU ambitions.

In the early 1990s Rupel did his best to promote conciliatory relations with Italy, emphasizing that Slovenia was open to discussing any and all contentious bilateral issues. In doing so, he may have unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box, as Italy subsequently pushed hard to gain compensation for property lost by Italians in Slovenia during the Second World War and then – between 1994 to 1996 – blocked Ljubljana’s association agreement with the EU. Ultimately, Silvio Berlusconi’s electoral defeat allowed room for a compromise, brokered by the Spanish EU Presidency in late 1995.

Tensions with Austria revolved around the closure of Slovenian duty free shops, which Austria saw as undermining its businesses, and the Slovene speaking minority in Carinthia. When Rupel returned to office in 2000 as foreign minister, establishing good relations with Austria was a key priority.

“I remember that some from the old guard would insist on pressing Austria. ‘They are fascists, [they would say], they have not reformed, they are making our minority in Austria miserable,’ which in a way was true … They [Jorg Haider and his supporters] were nagging, they kept saying all kind of stupid things … I remember that our policy, and [Slovenian Prime Minister] Drnovsek’s policy was to be as easy as possible with the Austrians and establish some kind of trustful relationship.”

A close partnership with Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner helped smooth over tensions that were evident in the press and in both countries’ parliaments.

“The relations with the foreign ministry in Vienna were excellent. We said that we would establish some kind of historic commission that would look into the problems of the past. So we invented all kinds of mechanism to alleviate those problems.”

Though Rupel’s outspoken nature seems by and large to have served him well in his early political career, it has come under criticism in recent years. Rupel committed Slovenia to the “Vilnius statement” made by former Eastern bloc states in support of the United States’ war in Iraq, a move that proved deeply unpopular in Slovenia. In the 2008 parliamentary election campaign he wrongly accused President Danilo Turk of working against Slovenia during its struggle for independence when Turk was a diplomat in Geneva.

Rupel has recently become a vociferous critic of Croatia in the two ex-Yugoslav republics’ border dispute – it was over this issue that Slovenia blocked Croatia’s EU negotiations in December 2008. Writing in Delo in May 2009, Rupel suggested that the EU should back Slovenia’s refusal to let Croatia join unless it met Ljubljana’s demands.

“Slovenia is a member of the EU and the EU should automatically be on Slovenia’s side. Instead of [Enlargement Commissioner] Oli Rehn trying to come up with solutions, [his] suggestion[s] should be written in Slovenia and Rehn should grant them EU authority.”

Speaking to ESI, Rupel went further, suggesting that Croatia might act as an impediment to future enlargement.

“I think Croatia would really prevent Serbia from joining. I am almost sure if they join before Serbia they would prevent Serbia from joining. And it is not so difficult to imagine what the reasoning should be, and why some people are afraid of this happening.

You know, if we manage to put everyone in the same package and everyone became a member at the same time, it would be much easier.”

While Slovenia’s tough stance has pleased nationalists, many worry that it caused long-term damage to its reputation. Rupel admitted as much in his article in Delo. “We have let it happen, within a few months Slovenia has turned from being excellent to a bad student, an irrational and incomprehensible and misunderstood, capricious, egocentric state, with which it is hard to reach any sort of agreement.” But still he advocated that Slovenia stick to it guns. “Slovenia has time on its side,” he wrote.

Igor Mekina draws damning conclusions from Rupel’s recent policy moves. “In the beginning, his determination that independence was the right path for Slovenia helped the whole country,” he says. “But later international relations became too complicated for his capacity to deeply understand this world.”

Still, throughout his career Rupel has shown an incredible ability to remain in high office no matter which party is in government. Even after losing office in Slovenia’s parliamentary elections in 2008, he was picked by Slovenia’s new Prime Minister Borut Pahor to be his special envoy on foreign affairs. While Rupel was removed from this position in the spring of 2009, he is likely to remain in the limelight.

As far as Rupel’s recent role in the Balkans is concerned, an important footnote needs to be added. Despite his tough stance on Croatia, Rupel should be remembered as the man who – during the Slovene EU presidency in the first half of 2008 – managed to convince sceptical EU member states to start a serious visa liberalisation process for the Balkan states. By 2009 the process has begun to deliver real change for the region. Historians might yet see this, as opposed to his row with the Croats, as Rupel’s most important legacy for the Balkans – yet another triumph of his stubbornness and determination.

16 September 2009