Letter from Slovenia

I am glad to report, from Ljubljana, that there are still places in the world where the biggest thing people worry about is NOT whether Alexander’s – The Great – father was some pervert, as was the case at an international historical symposium in Thessaloniki where some plain citizens interfered, maintaining that this illustrious homosexuality was an empty rumor. Had he accepted the gossip put forth by the Roman historian Suetonius, the Slovenian composer and librettist Danilo Svara (1902-1981) could have eventually taken the stand that also Caesar was the catamite of Nicomedes, king of Bithynia. Fortunately he did not do so, and hence in his opera «Kleopatra» Caesar (Robert Vrcon) succumbs convincingly to the queen’s (sang admiringly by Ana Pusar Jeric) charms. I saw the opera last week in Ljubljana, a charming baroque capital kept young by the 20,000-plus students who attend the local University Slovenia, a country of just under 2 million inhabitants. Being dead for more than 20 years now, the composer of this serious opera, which was first performed in 1940, could hardly be upset to hear that his beautiful music is to be associated with some vulgar harlequinade of a roving Greek correspondent. Perhaps his son Igor, who directed the performance I saw, would mind. Anyway, I am no music critic and I was in Slovenia – a country that can be held up as a model in its region – on an assignment by ET3 TV to realize, in collaboration with Pandelis Savidis, a dozen documentaries on the countries to be joining the EU. Now, you might ask where does the legendary queen of ancient Egypt enter here? Well, she does first because this very Westernized little country, where English is the preferred language of the young, has a towering cultural level in general and in opera in particular, and then because Slovenia’s attitude seems to be rather close to Kleopatra’s, who believed that the only way to maintain Egyptian independence was to accede to foreign – that is, to the Roman Empire’s – demands. After all, doesn’t history tells us that it is impossible to override entrenched interests without external pressure? It surely does! (Note: I am deliberately spelling the queen’s name, as the Slovenes so rightly do, Kleopatra – literally, glory of the father – to link her to her Macedonian Greek heritage, since I would not dare to risk any further angry reactions from some of my super-nationalist fellow-Thessalonians.) For smaller countries getting ready for membership to the European Union, at all times wary of losing influence and their national identity in a mammoth EU expansion can be a daunting affair. During my stay in Ljubljana I have been often reminded that since WWII, many Slovenian folk traditions have been lost. After several decades behind the Iron Curtain as part of Yugoslavia, Slovenes started worrying when Serbia started to make moves in the late 1980s to assert its cultural and economic leadership among the Yugoslav republics. They split from Yugoslavia in the spring of 1990. «Apart of being in the heart of Europe we are also a Mediterranean country,» Janez Potocnik, the young and energetic vice minister for European affairs, said meaningfully to us (that is the ET3 TV channel) in a lengthy interview. «We insist on having Slovene as an official language,» local journalist Mihela Zupancic, EU affairs editor of the Slovenian Press Agency, told me, while Vesna Copic, state undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture, spoke of an «enlargement of minds.» Moreover, I was told that Slovene is grammatically complex with lots of cases, genders and tenses (Is that the reason why no Greeks study there, as in other ex-socialist countries?). Characteristically, it is a rare south Slavic language written in the Roman alphabet. The statue of Slovenia’s most beloved writer, the Romantic poet France Preseren (1800-49), whose lyric poems set new standards for Slovenian literature and helped raise national consciousness, reigns in the very center of the city. Myths abound about these backward-seeming eastern countries. Not just the Irish assumed that these are poor, agricultural economies with corrupt public sectors and judiciaries. Often such views describe non-existent problems which are frequently exaggerated and based on old data. In terms of income levels, Slovenia is very near Greece. Also in some way connected to Greece is Slovenia’s short Adriatic coast, which hosts the cities of Koper (Capo d’Istria) and Piran. Koper is known for its large international port, and it was the capital of Istria under the Venetian Republic in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is the place where the forefathers of the first Greek governor, Ioannis Capodistria, came after our liberation from the Ottomans. Slovenia has long been among the six countries – including also Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Cyprus – which were in the very late phases of negotiations. Happily, the Irish referendum last weekend, which proved that the EU remains committed to enlargement, turned out positive for the new entrants. Originally Irish voters had rejected the Nice treaty, which was designed to help the EU accommodate the addition of new members in the next decade. At present, a delay to join the Union would have a devastating effect on the rest of Europe surrounding the EU, mainly for those still struggling to overcome the legacies of past enmities. Take, for example, the case of Greece and Turkey. Greece’s Foreign Minister George Papandreou supports the Turkish demand for EU membership – no doubt a big-bang enlargement – with good reason. The question put by The Prague Post to a Turkish pundit, Mr Yilmal Akyuz, the director of the division of globalization and development for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, last Saturday in Prague (where we arrived from Ljubljana after a delightful eight-hour drive ), was: «Do you want Turkey to join the EU?» To which Akyuz replied: «Depends on the terms. I think Turkey can join and there can be benefits, but it could also be destabilizing. I think it depends on the EU’s ability to allow for diversity of institutional and cultural diversity, and I don’t think they are that open.» If one takes the EU member Thessalonian, homophobic «common citizens’» reactions to Alexander’s father as described at the beginning of this column, then, yes, I don’t think that they are that open either.