Slovenia’s bailout, with a side of Schadenfreude

It’s not exactly front page news here, but Slovenia is on the edge of the financial cliff and may need an EU bailout due to its debt burdens. The New York Times has reported, in a measured fashion, that hard times lie ahead for the little Alpine republic, which has hardly been in the Western media since its brief, successful, and almost bloodless war for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

In contrast, coverage of Slovenia’s financial debacle in the countries of the former Yugoslavia has ranged between passive-aggressive reporting to outright gloating. Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina deep down resent that Slovenia escaped Yugoslavia at such a low cost in life and treasure, unlike themselves, while all of ex-Yugoslavia dislikes Slovene smugness about being the most prosperous and “Central European” of all the states to emerge from the Titoist wreckage.

Until recently, Slovenia had plenty to be moderately smug about, compared to its neighbors to the south: real economic growth, orderly politics, no armed militias, plus an impressive lack of mafia shootings. Not to mention that Slovenia joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, and the Eurozone in 2007: Ljubljana enjoyed all the perks of being a respectable European country. Its wealth and worldview were not too far off Austria, the neighboring country which Slovenia compares itself to. It was also the only former Yugoslav republic to have a standard of living above what it was under Communism; Croatia’s per capita GDP is about where it was in 1990, while the rest of the former Yugoslavia languishes in poverty and near-desperation with lifestyles well below what was enjoyed under Communism. Slovenia’s neighbors for years had whispered that things were not quite as neat and tidy in Ljubljana as the Slovenes presented things, amid hushed whispers of back-room deals, financial shenanigans, and political corruption. The Slovenes put on the Mitteleuropean act well, went the story, but they are more Balkan than they let on.

It seems there was something to this, as it turns out that there was plenty of dirty dealing going on in Ljubljana, where the lack of real de-Communization (as in all of the former Yugoslavia) has kept cadres in power, especially those close to Tito’s secret police, long after they should have been purged from public life. Moreover, Slovenia’s privatization was less clean than it was presented, and the political elite of a small, insular country of two million citizens turns out to be just as murky and incestuous as one would expect, and just as prone to dumb financial ideas as so much of Europe.

While Slovenia will probably muddle through the current crisis, in the manner they learned well from several centuries of Habsburg rule, with some liquidity provided by the EU, this represents a major blow to the country’s self-image. The financial fall of the most prosperous of Europe’s formerly Communist countries is a news item, and not a happy one. You can practically feel the Schadenfreude wafting up from the Balkans, and more than a few Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats are savoring watching Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa – who a generation ago was publicly instrumental in the break-up of Yugoslavia – having to deal with this humbling mess.

No doubt this will give rise to awkward questions about how immaculate Slovenia’s rejoining Europe has really been; a rise in affection for Tito’s Yugoslavia seems likely. Fond remembrance of the multinational Communist state has been derided in the Balkans as “Yugonostalgia” and not without justice: for Tito’s state, while a good deal more prosperous than the Soviet bloc and in some ways freer, nevertheless had an awful human rights record. Yet even among the Slovenes some Yugonostalgia has been detectable, not for material reasons per se, but because life for average citizens was in some ways easier under Communism-Lite than in today’s freer market economy. Titoism was easy for relatively lazy average people, who didn’t care about politics and didn’t want to work too hard. Not to mention that life in independent Slovenia is, well, a tad boring.

As a form of nostalgia, affection for Yugoslavia has no program and isn’t going anywhere in political terms. Yet it’s unlikely to disappear soon either. As Slovenia muddles through its debt debacle it seems a good opportunity to come to terms with the legacies of Titoism, positive and negative. It would be a good example for the rest of Tito’s former empire too.



2 comments on “Slovenia’s bailout, with a side of Schadenfreude”
  1. Being Serbian, I naturally loved the article. I would disagree however that socialist yugoslavia pampered the lazy and they are suffering now as a result in a “freer” economy. Neoliberalism is not freer, just worse. What people miss is the sense of community that used to exist in ex-Yugo, and that does not have a price.

    1. 20committee says:

      Suffice to say that I have a lot of doubts about how neoliberal policies have worked out in the former Yugoslavia. For most people in the former Yugoslavia, real standards of living are far below where there were in 1990 (and let’s not forget what a mess the SFRJ economy was in 1990!).

      I fully agree that the sense of community, which was fostered widely and deeply in Yugoslavia, is sorely absent today. Corruption, at all levels, now infects everything and is vastly worse than it was under Communism – something which friends of mine who did hard time for their opposition to the Titoist system will now admit.

      The case of Slovenia today, the alleged politico-economic success story out of Yugoslavia, ought to raise a lot of questions about what has actually happened in Southeastern Europe since the 1980s.

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