While President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Slovenia has been officially described as a memorial visit, it’s hard not to notice the political implications of the Russian leader’s visit to an EU and NATO member country.

From right: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with Slovenia's Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

On July 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to arrive in Slovenia for a high-profile visit to mark the 100th anniversary of a relatively minor First World War episode, which stands nonetheless as the symbolic focal point of Russian–Slovenian relations.

In March 1916 more than 100 Russian prisoner of wars (POW) – part of more than 10,000 deployed to Slovenia by the Austro-Hungarian command to build a mountain road – died in an avalanche. Their comrades built a Russian Orthodox chapel dedicated to St. Vladimir next to their graves. This memorial was preserved despite changing borders and political regimes over the coming decades.

With the emergence of independent Slovenia and Russia in the early 1990s, annual commemorations at the end of July, around the day of St. Vladimir, became a focal point around which not only the humanitarian, but also the political and economic relationship between the two countries developed.

Political dimensions of the visit

Putin’s one-day trip to EU and NATO member Slovenia this year acquires an even greater significance in the context of strained relations and confrontational rhetoric between Russia and the West. It also showcases a Slavic Central European nation of just over 2 million people which, unlike some other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, strives to balance its foreign policy between loyal membership in the Western alliances and friendly relations with Russia.

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“There is a question of course whether this is a memorial visit or a political visit,” the editor-in-chief at Slovenian National Radio, Andrej Stopar, said in an interview with Russia Direct in Ljubljana last week. “If you ask me, I’d say it is a memorial visit, of course, because there is the centennial of Vrsic [where the memorial was built]. But it cannot be seen without a political context simply because President Putin rarely visits Western countries these days. And if he comes to an EU country, it certainly has a political significance,” he continued.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec said last month in an interview with Kommersant that he had to give explanations to the U.S. ambassador as well as to the Baltic States about the invitation that Slovenian President Borut Pahor extended to Putin. He also announced the visit in March in Brussels when the EU discussed relations with Russia and “heard no criticism.”

“We are a Slavic nation and, of course, we have historical ties to Russia. The visit is a tribute to these ties,” the newspaper quoted the foreign minister as saying.

The recent historical context

The relatively new tradition of Vrsic commemorations, which only started after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has always compensated for the failures in other aspects of the Russian-Slovenian relationship. This was especially true when the South Stream gas project fell through. From an economic point of view, Russia no longer has any real interest in Slovenia, and only a handful of Slovenian businesses export their goods to Russia.

And yet, in 2014, when the West attempted to isolate Russia after the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, Slovenia was the only EU country to hold a regular intergovernmental commission meeting with Russia. In 2015, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came to participate in the Vrsic ceremony.

During his visit, Putin will not only visit Vrsic. He will also open another Russian memorial in Slovenia – a monument to Russian and Soviet servicemen at Ljubljana’s central cemetery, Zale. This cemetery already has prominent memorials to Austrian and Italian soldiers killed in the two World Wars, as well as to Slovene victims of the Nazi occupation. And now the cemetery will have a new dedication: “To the sons of Russia and Soviet Union who died in the land of Slovenia during the First and Second World Wars.”

No bad blood

Experts in Ljubljana have pointed out that the invitation of President Putin has caused an internal discussion in Slovenia and criticism from the right-wing opposition parties. But the criticism was mild and did not go beyond what would be expected of an opposition party.

“The government is trying to portray this visit as a memorial event and downplay the political aspect of the visit. On the other hand, there is an opposition that is quite critical to the Russian policy in general,” said Klemen Groselj, an international analyst who also works as a researcher with Slovenia’s economics ministry.

“It’s a normal visit. To a certain extent the government is afraid that President Putin will use this opportunity to send some politically sensitive message which they will not know how to respond to,” says Groselj. “We are still a young state, our diplomacy is also very young.”

Anton Bebler, a professor of Social Sciences at Ljubljana University, said that the right-wing opposition parties expressed doubt, “taking into account the position of the EU and NATO leadership and possible outside criticism of Slovenia inviting President Putin.”

Meanwhile, others insisted that the visit should be strictly humanitarian and not include business talks, he said. The Slovenian press has suggested that the resumption of South Stream – a project in which Slovenia has a strong interest – may be raised during the visit. “As far as the public opinion is concerned, it views the visit positively,” Bebler said.

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Interestingly enough, Professor Bebler chairs Slovenia’s Euro-Atlantic Society which promotes relations with fellow NATO and EU countries and is also member of the board of the Slovenia-Russia Society – a situation unlikely to be seen in other Central European Countries.

According to Bebler, Slovenia’s Russia-friendly attitude rests on a three-fold foundation: absence of historical bad blood, cultural affinity and economic interests. Slovenia, which was first part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then of Yugoslavia, was never dominated by either the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.

“Unlike other Slavic nations, first of all, unlike the Poles, we have no bad memories of Russia. We have nothing in our past that would collectively spoil the attitude to Russians and Russia. Usually, you can have friendly relations between the nations that are not immediate neighbors,” Bebler said. The second aspect is that many Slovenes, particularly intellectuals, are traditionally very fond of Russian literature and music. Economic cooperation – Slovenian producers working in Russia and Russian raw materials supplies to Slovenia – is the third aspect.

“What contains the development of our relations is that we are part of EU and NATO. But even within these organizations we speak for the improvement of their relations with Russia. Unlike the Balts or Poles, we do not speak as adversaries of Russia. We speak for the resolution of the conflict situations,” said Bebler.

Anti-Americanism on the rise

Stopar points out that traditional Slovenian friendliness to Russia is now reinforced by anti-Americanism that is growing in some segments of the society.

“Anti-Americanism proceeds from a disappointment not as much with America per se, but with Slovenia and the EU. Especially after the 2008 crisis, this disappointment has become very evident,” Stopar said.

“We had put forward some goals – sovereignty, independence, membership in the EU, to a lesser extent NATO membership, but that was interconnected," he added. "Then the crisis came, living standards dropped, and people generally tend to shift the blame outside, not hold themselves responsible. At the same time, not very positive internal processes began within the EU and, since the EU is a close ally of the U.S. and many people disagree with U.S. and NATO policies in the world, this anti-Americanism is growing.”

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“They start blaming capitalism and Western liberalism, and it pushes them to look for another idol,” emphasizes Stopar. “And many find it in Russia – a great country with a rich history and large influence in the world, which is one way or the other opposed to the West, and that is perceived as automatically good,” Stopar said.

At the same time, he stressed that Slovenia fits into all the frameworks of the EU and NATO, which are “broad enough to be able to find nuances where another opinion can be demonstrated.”

Slovenia’s role as mediator in doubt

Can Slovenia carve for itself a special role as a mediator between Russia on the one hand and the EU and NATO on the other? Experts agree it could be worth a try, but the small country is still struggling to play any type of major diplomatic role.

“Realistically speaking, the weight is of course not proportional. What is good about the EU and NATO is that they have a big table, and they all sit around the big table and talk. Yes, not all opinions would be taken into account. But the opinions are heard, and one can lobby.  Of course there is a vast difference, however, between something that Germany does and something that Slovenia does,” said Stopar.

According to Groselj, Slovenia is in search of its international mission after having fulfilled the initial goal of joining the EU and NATO, then trying to become active in the Balkans and retreating inwardly after the 2008 economic crisis painfully hit the country’s economic growth.

“If you want to be a channel, a player that is collaborating with Russia and is an EU and NATO member and is a small country with limited diplomatic reach, which doesn’t have explicit global interests – you can play a role, but I am not sure we are yet mature for such an activity. We can do a lot by providing our partners with a better understanding of the Russian position. But at the moment, we are not up to the task,” he said.