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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

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 first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20

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