Skip to main content

DR BORIS FRLEC

A contribution to the creation of Slovenian diplomacy

Dr Boris Frlec, retired diplomat and member of the Club of Former Slovenian Ambassadors

 

Introductory note

 

The following text is a contribution aimed at portraying the situation surrounding the gradual recognition of Slovenia as an independent state and the establishment of Slovenian embassies. It is a highly personal and fragmentary account given by an ambassador who neither intends to, nor could paint the complete picture. Its incompleteness is due to the fact that during those times it was strictly forbidden for a diplomat of the SFRY to keep a journal. This contribution is thus based on calendar entries of meetings without any notes and on memories of the events that took place more than 22 years ago. It is a well-established fact that the memory is biased and fading.

 

Entering diplomacy (1989)

 

On 3 April 1989, I was sent to the Federal Secretariat for Foreign Affairs in Belgrade to undergo training, which usually lasted a year, but my programme was cut short and intensified. At that time, Peter Toš, who was later appointed Ambassador to Tanzania, also participated in the training. On 16 October, after numerous tests, including an appearance before the Foreign Policy Committee at the Federal Assembly, my wife and I arrived in Bonn. I presented my credentials to the President Weiszaecker on 15 November. Despite all that training, I was very inexperienced and had poor diplomatic skills. The Embassy staff comprised some 20 members, among who were one Slovenian, Branko Zupanc who was responsible for the press, one Croatian, Ivica Zbašnik, who was an economic counsellor, and a driver from Bosnia. The remaining staff was from Serbia. My deputy was Drago Trbojević, former head of the office of Federal Secretary Lončar, a Slavonian Serb. He was experienced and level-headed, and we got along well.

 

The Embassy was located in Mehlem, Bad Godesberg near Bonn. The Embassy building was fairly new, guarded like a fortress and well-protected from the Rhine’s spring floods. The residence was located on the hill above Bad Godesberg, at Am Stadtwald 16. It was rented and furnished in the 1950s by the first ambassador in Bonn, Rudi Čačinovič. The furniture was poorly kept. In agreement with the owner, Dr Gruenberg, who saw me as a good tenant, I was able to make some improvements.

 

Beginning of the end (1990)

 

An event that significantly contributed to the creation of Slovenian diplomacy was the meeting between Slovenian politicians and diplomats in the Federal Secretariat for Foreign Affairs held on 23 October 1990. I was there by pure coincidence; I had come to Belgrade to report. In the Slovenian House at Dedinje, I met Bučar, Pučnik, Peterle and Rupel to talk about the transition to purely Slovenian diplomacy and its materialisation abroad at the representative offices of the bank Ljubljanska Banka. All present expressed their undoubted support to the actions to Slovenia’s benefit. There is no need to discuss the patriotism of the Slovenians working at the Federal Secretariat for Foreign Affairs at that time. It was genuine.

 

German politicians and the diplomatic corps took great interest in what was happening in Yugoslavia. Apart from the numerous meetings, I made many formal appearances and lectured on the developments in Yugoslavia in Muenden, Muenster, Duesseldorf, Friedrichshafen and Marburg. Moreover, I was constantly in touch with the local politicians in Bonn, e.g. Staercken, Wischnewski, Genscher, Brandt, Hoeynck, Koschnik, Repnik, Hartman, and von Studnitz. The end of the year saw the establishment of various societies of dubious origin. One of these was the Yugoslav Patriotic Association established in Stuttgart on 8 December 1990, which provocatively requested me as the ambassador to explain why Slovenia was leaving the federation. Its connection with the Military Counter-Intelligence Service was amateurishly covered up. Our staff assigned abroad did not understand what was happening in Yugoslavia, as their image of the homeland was frozen in time, notably in the late 1950s when they departed to live abroad, and gradually idealised. Needless to say, they formed ties according to their national origins.

 

A Turbulent 1991

 

The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (later renamed OSCE) was held in Berlin on 19 and 20 June. Minister Rupel attended the conference as a guest of the Austrian delegation. I kept him posted about the developments at the Conference and helped him organise political meetings.

 

On the morning of 27 June, I found a newspaper under the door of my hotel room in Kiel, where I was attending the Kiel Week with the diplomatic corps. The first page featured a photograph of tanks in Slovenia. I immediately returned to Bonn. On 29 June, Kučan arrived in Bonn (Rolandseck). The following day, we met Minister Genscher and the State Secretary at the German Foreign Ministry, Kastrup. On 1 July, the then President of the Presidency of Yugoslavia, Kiro Gligorov, came rushing to Bonn. The situation was critical.


Slovenians in Germany organised, on Saturday, 6 July, a large protest in Bonn, expressing support to the attacked Slovenia. In secret, Zupanc and I assisted them in the logistics (loudspeakers and the stage). Contrary to the practice of the then Yugoslav diplomacy, which carefully avoided any contact with the protesters  who spoke against the Yugoslav authority (typically Albanians), I received the delegation of protesters and their petition in accordance with the constitutional right of the citizens of the SFRY to present petitions. This was allegedly the first time this happened in practice. Without my knowledge, the meeting was recorded by a person authorised by the counter-intelligence service, a consul at the Embassy, who was present during the discussion and appeared scared to death.

 

In an action conducted by Colonel Radaković (counter-intelligence), a military attaché at the Embassy, I started to receive death threats. Phone calls came every hour at night, starting at 1 a.m. Absurdly, I was most at risk at the Embassy, surrounded by twenty Serbs. For appearance sake, I remained unaffected and energetic, although the situation was anything but pleasant. I discretely notified the German side of this, and the police increased protection measures with frequent night patrols. I remained in permanent contact with President Kučan and kept him posted about the situation with the help of the then correspondent of Delo in Bonn, Sedmak. The Slovenian political leadership ordered me to stay in Germany as long as possible and, of course, act to the benefit of Slovenia. I received numerous visits at the residence. At my request, security experts from Slovenia came to examine the situation and gave me some good advice. Rupel came up with the idea that the representative offices of Ljubljanska Banka should assume the activities of Slovenian temporary diplomatic missions. Also, they were to assist the active Slovenian diplomats. The office of Ljubljanska Banka in Frankfurt knew nothing of this; nevertheless, the director, Srečko Jamnišek, kindly came to my help. If I were not to call him every hour in the days when the pressure was most intense, he would know something was wrong. What Jamnišek would do had they come after me, was, needless to say, unclear.


On Saturday, 24 August, at 10 a.m., Foreign Minister Genscher officially invited me to his home in the village of Pech and read to me a strong formal German protest addressed to the Yugoslav Government condemning the aggression of the Yugoslav Army. At the outset, he informed me that the conversation was equivalent with the one we should have had at the Foreign Ministry; notably one of the most severe diplomatic measures of the receiving country’s government when the foreign minister formally invites the ambassador to the ministry and presents him with a démarche. Finally, he said: ‘This concludes the formal part of this meeting. I’m sorry you had to hear this shit (scheisse), because you are a decent and good man, and, all the more, underpaid – we know it!’ I communicated the protest to Minister Lončar in Belgrade, where they’ve been expecting it.

 

On 19 September, Kiro Gligorov came to Bonn. Contacts with Stercken were truly intense those days. On 3 October, on the occasion of a German national holiday, a coup took place in the Presidency in Belgrade. On 5 October, Minister Genscher again presented me with a démarche for Belgrade. On 8 October, Kučan and Rupel briefly met with Chancellor Kohl. The situation was becoming unbearable; as a result, the Secretariat for Foreign Affairs and I agreed to terminate my employment, effective as of 1 November. October saw intense discussions. I made no formal farewell arrangements; those were not the times of celebrations, but intense work. On 31 October, I made a farewell phone call to my direct contact at the German Foreign Ministry, Dr Von Studnitz, and returned to Ljubljana on 4 November.

 

On 24 November, I returned to Bonn as President Kučan’s personal envoy with written documents of appointment. Given the contacts I had established with German politicians and the diplomatic corps, I was most valuable, despite not having a formal status. I stayed at a cheap hotel (the Dahl in Niederbachem) and drove an old, weathered Volkswagen, which I had borrowed from a Croatian entrepreneur.

On 3 December, Chancellor Kohl met with Kučan and Rupel in Bonn. Zupanc and I organised the meeting. He had also been sent to Bonn and it was at his house I wrote the reports for Ljubljana. Upon departure, Kohl said to us: ‘President Kučan, go back home to Slovenia, and tell your people you’re bringing a beautiful Christmas present – German recognition of independent Slovenia.’

 

Up until Christmas, Slovenian representatives took turns in Bonn: Gaspari, Ocvirk and Puhar, who were responsible for the financial, employment and economic aspects of the young country. Apart from organising those meetings, I continued to intensely lobby for the recognition of Slovenia and gave press statements. I urged my friend, Icelandic Ambassador Hjalmar Hanesson, to propose that Iceland, a small country, becomes one of the first countries to recognise Slovenia. It would find itself in the focus of attention. Two days later, Iceland recognised Slovenia.

 

There are many reasons behind the early German recognition and later, the strong support within the EU. There were the reasons of pure principle; not long ago, the two Germanies has been merged into one country, thereby unifying a nation. Germany could therefore not deny the fundamental right of a nation to decide independently on its destiny. The protesters from Leipzig, East Germany, called out: We are the people! (Wir sind das Volk!) In those times, self-determination was a rule, particularly in the context of the growing violence in the disintegrating Yugoslavia. Moreover, numerous Slovenian lobbies were active in Germany. Apart from the Slovenian political leadership, other strong lobbies included scientists, writers, artists, Slovenian migrants, the Slovenian Catholic Church, and businessmen. Slovenia had also established varied contacts with Germany, particularly in Bavaria. To them, we were trustworthy people. The role of the Slovenian Ambassador played an important part. I had direct access to the top tiers of the German politics. Genscher said to me at that time: ‘Ambassador, there are no instructions in any diplomatic handbook for what you’ve been doing here. We knew very well for whom you have done it. You did your work with utmost professionalism and dignity. For that, you deserve full recognition.’ His words still mean the world to me.

 

I came back to Ljubljana just before Christmas 1991 to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hoping to return to Bonn, this time as a Slovenian Ambassador.

 

Recognition of Slovenia (1992)

 

My wife Darja and I moved into the Dahl Hotel. A notepad and a pencil was all the equipment I had back then. The skilled Zupanc was already active in Melhem, Bad Godesberg near Bonn. He had found the premises for the Embassy along the Rhine; we soon found a house into which my wife and I moved on 26 February, as staying in the hotel room was becoming insufferable and most impractical for diplomatic activity. The house in Niederbachem was not ideal in many ways, but the most burning issue was the owner’s apartment in the same house. We purchased the office equipment and gradually established an operating embassy. Ljubljana started to send furniture for the residence, which was partly equipped with locally purchased furniture. We did most of the physical work ourselves and my craftsmanship came in handy. We worked enthusiastically and with drive. It was a pioneering time. All along, the intense work of the Embassy had to be carried out in parallel. Alongside permanent contacts with German politicians and colleagues in the diplomatic corps, I appeared in the media on many occasions, held lectures in different associations and maintained close contact with our migrants. I often had to travel to different parts of Germany and even to Frankfurt, 135 kilometres away, to welcome or bid farewell to Slovenian politicians.

 

In mid-April, we received the paintings lent to us by the Ljubljana City Art Gallery. Its head, my close acquaintance, Aleksander Bassin, made a selection of works of modern Slovenian art and physically assisted in setting up the exhibition at the Embassy. We were pleased it would enliven the reception marking the opening. Ambitiously, but tactlessly, we announced the opening for 28 April. Minister Rupel, who was travelling regularly at that time, was rather upset by this, because he wanted to attend the reception. However, it was too late to postpone the date. On that day, the Slovenian flag fluttered in front of the Embassy, the reception was a success and the work in the new facilities commenced.

 

In late January, after eagerly awaiting the appointment, I indeed returned to Bonn as an Ambassador of the Republic of Slovenia, a country recognised by the EU on 15 January. Upon the presentation of my credentials, President Richard von Weiszaecker said to me that, for the first time in his career, he was receiving credentials from the same person for two different countries. I replied we lived in a time of unusual historical trials. Just years earlier, it would have been impossible to predict that the East and West Germany would merge and form one single country. Minister Genscher said, grinning characteristically: ‘I knew you’d come back!’ I was received with affinity, my colleagues in the diplomatic corps helped me to establish a diplomatic mission, find the facilities for the Embassy and the residence, furnish them and, all the while, continue normal diplomatic activity.After the Slovenian referendum, the developments in Yugoslavia and the Federal Republic of Germany sparked particular interest. The politicians closely followed the course of events. The Foreign Policy Committee of the Bundestag, headed by Dr Stercken (CDU), was particularly active in this respect. Every time I had a meeting, I had to report on the situation at hand. Every time we met, Foreign Minister Genscher used to say in his distinctive style, ‘Ambassador, have a seat, speak!’ Following the example of Milošević’s ‘people’, the Alliance of Yugoslavs was founded in Germany and demanded regular explanations of the events that took place. It was later revealed that the Alliance was in fact lead by the military counter-intelligence; its representative was a man named Žilić, who was allegedly employed at Ford in Cologne. After two meetings with the Alliance at the Embassy, I decided not to meet with them again.In 1990, I was performing my usual tasks pertaining to an ambassador of a country which was faced with a serious crisis. I gave many appearances to the German public involved in diplomacy, and became a sought after person in the diplomatic corps.

 

Slovenia had close ties with the Federal Republic of Germany in the economic—we had a Slovenian bank in Frankfurt (LHB)—cultural and academic spheres. The Embassy in Bonn and the Ambassador’s residence in particular were frequented by Slovenians, who were always welcome.Yugoslav diplomacy followed the basic recruitment policies, allowing young graduates from bodies of the republics to come to Belgrade, where they gained experience in the Federal Secretariat for Foreign Affairs and gradually pursued their diplomatic careers, climbing to the most demanding ambassadorial positions. However, there were some cases where individuals from the political sphere would join diplomatic service. At the end of 1980s, Slovenia’s fairly disproportionate participation in federal diplomatic service was becoming an issue, as Slovenians, accounting for ten per cent of the Yugoslav population had only five per cent of diplomats, who were appointed to less significant posts and locations. Slovenia’s political leadership increased its pressure on the federal authorities. As the Vice President of the Republican Executive Council responsible for non-economic issues and relations with accredited foreign diplomats, in 1988 I was nominated as the Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany. My nomination was demanded by Slovenian politicians; after Rudi Čačinovič—who opened the Yugoslav Embassy in Bonn in 1950s—Slovenians had not occupied any positions in the Federal Republic of Germany despite our close economic ties. Slovenia even concluded an agreement on regional cooperation with Bavaria in the context of the Alp-Adriatic region.