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Slovenia – the happy country that should be even happier

Slovenia is a small country on the sunny side of the Alps, once part of communist Yugoslavia. The streets are clean, crime is low and education good. But birth rates are falling and people are not as cheerful as one might expect.

There is a happy land, not so far away: the EU’s least-known country, a place fit to be twinned with Nirvana and Shangri-La. When I said I was going to Slovenia, most people either stared blankly or swooned. The swooners were right. It is charming.

How do I love thee, Slovenia? Let me count the ways. It is small, varied and pretty: a place of high Alps, but dominated by small, wooded hills. It has four proper, distinct seasons, as they do in New England and in story books. The food is good and the wine excellent. “On the sunny side of the Alps,” says one tourist slogan. Even the winds blow softly (usually).

There is a wonderful little sliver of Adriatic coast, somehow carved out in the post-1945 settlement as though by a child desperate to get a sight of the parade between the sprawling hulks of Croatia and Italy. And Ljubljana, the capital, is liveable, walkable, in places delightful, and surely the calmest capital in Europe. Even the motorists are unhurried, without malice: I never heard a horn. Safe? Karl Wilkinson, principal of the British International School, told me that he once found a wallet and took it to the police.

“What do you want us to do with it?”

“Well, I tried to take it to the address inside but there was no one in and nowhere to put it.”

“Just leave it on the doorstep,” said the bewildered copper. “No one’s going to steal it, are they?”

I heard several similar stories; and have myself never felt less late-night nervous walking home in any city except perhaps St Davids, Pembrokeshire. Even the US and Russian embassies nuzzle up to each other, in neighbouring villas.

There is a 1930s building known to everyone as Neboticnik – “the skyscraper” – with a cherished 12th-floor terrace cafe. It is no longer quite the highest building in town. But imagine if London could remember having just one skyscraper. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Slovenia is just so sweet. It is even naive enough to allow its national news agency website to have the address sta.si.

But this is far from a stupid country. Ordinary Slovenians are not just bilingual but often tri-, quadri- and whatever comes after that. Their education system is rated highly by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), though reputedly less keen on independent thought than it might be. The healthcare is good. The economy is growing fast, yet Ljubljana has been named the greenest capital in Europe; almost every street corner has six separate bins for different types of rubbish.

All of the above is true, except perhaps my first sentence. Slovenians just don’t seem to be happy: more than anything they seem short of confidence – in their own abilities and the future. In 2017, Save the Children ranked Slovenia alongside Norway as the best country in the world in which to raise kids, a senior official told me proudly, before adding: “Unfortunately, we lack kids.” The birth rate, short of 1 per cent, is the lowest in the EU, below even those notorious bambino-evaders next door in Italy. A high birth rate is sometimes taken as an indicator of optimism, which seems far-fetched to me. But somehow this enviable little country does seem beset by a certain lack of relish.

***

Imagine if, in the era when Europe was half red, you were sentenced to live in a communist country but invited to choose your destination. The obvious answer would have been Slovenia. It then occupied the north-western corner of Yugoslavia, with only a 12th of the republic’s area and population but delivering nearly a third of the exports. Slovenia was and is both fertile and industrially productive. Having settled all the postwar scores – seeing off Stalin above all – the Yugoslav dictator, Tito, relaxed into being a ruthless autocrat but not a monster. And here the idealism that had originally propelled socialism did not wholly wither. “My grandfather was a policeman and he regularly went on holiday with the CEO of a big company and the janitor from the primary school and all the kids would hang out together,” recalled a young policy advisor, Andrej Lavtar. “Even though on the Gini coefficient Slovenia is very egalitarian, this isn’t happening today.”

Work was compulsory but not arduous, so practically everyone mucked in on their family farms or built their neighbours’ houses in their plentiful spare time. Private property still existed. Travel was not difficult: in the Iron Curtain countries exit visas were usually restricted to trusties; behind Tito’s flimsier fabric, you got a passport unless you were actively distrusted.

Slovenia had the least worst of it. Tito’s Yugoslavia had two props: the Slovenian economy and American largesse; he knew better than to alienate either. He had a soft spot for the place anyway: his mother was a Slovene and he spent summers by the limpid waters of Lake Bled. Geography meant visiting the West was not just an aspiration or occasional treat for Slovenians, as it might have been for the distant Serbs. It was an almost routine occurrence: Italy and Austria were just up the road.

With occasional wobbles, Slovenia’s regime was also more liberal – under Tito’s quite genuine federalism – than those elsewhere in Yugoslavia. “There were writers locked up for a while because they were hostile to important political figures,” said the much-admired poet and playwright  Evald Flisar, “but nobody was tortured, nobody was ill-treated, nobody suffered.”

We met over a carafe of fine local vintage  in the evocative red-walled restaurant at the top of the Writers’ Building, where in the old days the intellectuals would drink and debate until deep into the night. Now it is quiet in the evenings and its glory days are gone. For a writer, life on the edge can be exhilarating, especially in retrospect, as long as the edge is not too precipitous.

As in Wales (and Slovenia really is the size of Wales, but with two million people not three), there was no history of independence as a nation state, and apparently no overwhelming yearning for it. What mattered most was the unique language  (they understand their neighbours all right but vice versa is harder) and its attendant culture. “We don’t have statues of generals,” said Flisar. “We have poets. There is only one statue of a general, Rudolf Maister, and even he was also a poet.”

After Tito’s death the economy – and the quasi-western douceur de vie – deteriorated. Yugoslavia’s dominant Serbs started  to morph into raucous nationalists who wanted to subvert the federal system and take total control. Slovenian independence was a defensive measure, secured by overwhelming support in a referendum and a brief and, by Balkan standards, almost bloodless war (about 75 dead) fought over ten summer days in 1991. The Serb-led army – faced by cunning and implacable opponents, desertion, and global opposition – showed uncharacteristic wisdom and gave up. Uniquely in this region, Slovenia did not have a substantial ethnic minority who could be represented by others as under threat.

***

Slovenia’s arrival in the comity of nations did not quite take the world by storm. It found itself constantly confused with Slovakia, which is not even nearby, by such expert geographers as George W Bush and Silvio Berlusconi as well as by a lot of befuddled postal staff. At a diplomatic culinary event, Slovenia entered a nutcake, which they were convinced could not be confused with anyone else’s: the Slovaks came up with the exact same recipe.

Once the banking crisis began ten years ago, Yugo-nostalgia began to kick in with a vengeance. A 2014 Gallup poll had a small majority of Slovenian respondents saying that the break-up had done more harm than good. I am less surprised by that now than I would have been before I got here.

Ljubljana’s Museum of Modern Art has a nice picture entitled Dreams of a Slovenian Alpinist, painted by Jernej Vilfan in 1982. It shows a range of stylised peaks, each with a flag on top. But the flag is not Slovenia’s; it is the emblem of now-defunct Yugoslavia. I accept that painting Slovene flags, had they existed, might have been a bit risky in 1982, but can one imagine a similarly titled picture incorporating the Union Jack or Spanish flag in a gallery in Glasgow or Barcelona? There is something curiously passion-free about Slovenian nationhood: they don’t even much like the flag they now have.

Yet Yugoslavia never really worked. It is impolite to mention the B-word – Balkans – in Ljubljana; the Slovenes have always considered themselves a cut above their raucous neighbours: we’re central European, you know, not (ugh!) Balkan; Austro-Hungarian, taking our culture from Vienna with Venetian sidenotes. They are the Ned Flanders of Europe, raising their eyes to the heavens at the latest outrage from the unruly Simpsons next door.

In return, they have always been considered both up themselves (“You’re Slovene, you probably think this song is about you”) and workaholic dull dogs. Flisar was once reading proofs of his latest book on a Croatian beach. “Look at him,” said a passing Croat. “Even on holiday. Slovene!” A young career woman told me she thought it more important to work than to have children. She did not sound as though she were making a personal choice, more stating an immutable truth. 

The former Labour MP Derek Wyatt came here from the UK on a parliamentary trip a few years back and disliked the place on sight: “A tight little country, controlled by about four people.” I put this comment to an editor in Ljubljana. “Four?” came the reply. “That sounds about right.”

The writer Joji Sakurai, who has settled in the coastal town of Piran, notes the strange layers of trust and distrust that exist in Slovenia. “One of the paradoxes is that they have all these high indicators on so many of these global rankings, yet also show very low levels of trust in both government and corporate governance.” It seems to be understood that you cannot bribe a traffic cop, nor any official in the notoriously sclerotic bureaucracy. A senior minister? That might just be different.

The mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Jankovic, is acknowledged to have got things done, but even his Wikipedia page throws around allegations such as “abuse of power”, “nepotism” and “backhanders”, never mind what’s said in private. In the final round of the presidential election in November, the turnout was 41 per cent. In a recently empowered country, full of conscientious, earnest, educated people, that’s hardly a vote of confidence in democracy.

Still, the government seems to have a touching belief in the perfectibility of human nature. Its environmental record has been achieved at the cost of intimidating laws on what rubbish goes where. It has tried to ban people from helping friends build their houses – a time-honoured custom – for fear of money changing hands beneath the tax authorities’ radar. It has stern rules about shops giving receipts, for the same reason; to reinforce this it has instituted a lottery whereby you can send in receipts to be entered in a quarterly prize draw. One expat thinks this kind of stuff is having an effect: “The downside of them being so health, fitness and environment-conscious is that they’ve become hypochondriacs. Obsessional. The kettle has to be cleaned every day or terrible things will happen.”

The ultimate paradox is this: Slovenia’s low birth-rate means that immigrants are now needed; the obvious source is from the more benighted parts of the Balkans. Thus, the language-based solidarity that enabled them to fight so heroically and bound free may in time be lost.

***

And yet the country is amazing. I went up to Lake Bled, Slovenia’s number one resort, on All Saints’ Day, a national holiday. It was sunny, and quite warm by lunchtime. The place was far from empty and yet it was soothing and serene. The Alps had just had their first white dusting; early and late there were patches of mist wafting languorously through the foothills. I arrived back in Ljubljana to chestnuts roasting in the old town. It was hard to remember I was meant to be working.

Tourists are cottoning on, not all of them discerning. One lot of visitors have discovered delicious little Piran because it features in a Korean TV series. American tourism has jumped 15 per cent because Melania Trump was born in Slovenia. 

The country is still capable of great things. In September the national team won the European championships in basketball, a sport traditionally preferred to football, beating France, Germany and Spain. They were welcomed home in the rain by a crowd of 20,000 in a display of joyful patriotism.  “We’re not really a small country,” said the retired journalist Mitja Mersol. “More like a big family.” Mersol grew up under Tito and sometimes despairs of what he calls Slovenia’s “puberty politics” but has little truck with Yugo-nostalgia: “When I look at the young people and their start-ups, they are so innovative. It gives me quite a lot of optimism.”

Christmas is the time of year when belief in the normal laws of conception is traditionally suspended. So perhaps one of those young people will invent a more efficient way of manufacturing new generations for this very likeable family-nation. They need to stop the family shrinking.

For the next article in our series “The Lost Continent” Matthew Engel will visit Croatia

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special