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Beginning in Washington

If I remember correctly, my family and I arrived in Washington on the last day of September 1991. The Brioni moratorium was still in force, and Slovenia’s recognition by the most influential countries was still a distant possibility. I was sent to Washington because the key to our recognition lay there, but, unfortunately, so did certain reservations. Before my departure, I attended a hearing before the Parliamentary Foreign Policy Committee. This was the first such hearing of future ambassadors – an initiation for me and the deputies.


As Slovenia and the United States had not yet established diplomatic relations, I travelled to Washington with neither diplomatic status nor a diplomatic passport. Only Yugoslav passports were valid. Moreover, due to the internal crisis, no credit cards were valid, and no monetary transactions were possible. I arrived in Washington as the first Slovenian ambassador there ever appointed by the Slovenian president. However, the United States welcomed me as an individual holding the right to represent Slovenia’s interest on the basis of a special arrangement. Formally, I was accorded the status of a representative of a foreign political entity similar to that granted to the Taiwanese representative. This caused a number of problems for my staff and family when we tried to open bank accounts, to lease premises for the embassy and apartments, and to purchase vehicles and office equipment. Looking back, I wonder how I managed to avoid a heart attack. Now, I would never agree to such an arrangement. However, at that time, I believed I was doing some kind of missionary work for our new and independent Slovenia, for my Slovenia. Therefore, nothing was too difficult for me or my family. Initially, Slovenia had only two representatives: me and Gregor Zore, an experienced diplomat who had arrived in Washington a few weeks before me from the Yugoslav diplomatic service in New York. As I later observed our numerous young ambassadors, their whims and immodest requests, I was shocked to see the enthusiasm and patriotism of the early days evaporate so easily only to be replaced by egotism and a desire for commodities.


The situation in Slovenia was interesting. The emerging country was swamped with different lobbyists offering their support – in return for a sizable reward, of course. Having no prior experience, the Slovenian political leadership paid these ‘assistants’ handsome sums for nothing; and getting rid of them proved to be quite difficult later on. Let me just add that the decision as to whom to send to Washington to represent Slovenia was not easy. I was first nominated by the Jožef Školč youth party. In the end, the decision to choose me over the other two candidates was the result of a compromise, mainly because Demos knew that sending a former senior party functionary, a communist, to Washington, which had already voiced scepticism over Slovenia’s independence, would be unreasonable, despite the fact that this was advocated by a few of our senior leaders.


Upon my arrival in Washington, my main task – along with the resolution of urgent logistical issues to enable the mission to operate – was to present Slovenia’s views and aspirations to American government circles and the general public in order to obtain their understanding and recognition. The fact that I was already known in Washington, particularly in the State Department, thanks to my active cooperation with American Ambassador W. Clark during the Gulf War, when I was the Yugoslav ambassador in India, was very helpful. At that time, Ambassador Clark and I established friendly ties and a close working relationship. As the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia played a highly important role in New Delhi. As a matter of fact, it had more influence in India than the United States had. India was not very keen on the military action in Iraq, and its relations with the United States were somewhat strained. Clark’s reports from New Delhi were vital for Washington, which, despite my formally ‘non-diplomatic’ status, paved my way to the State Department. Washington also kept its doors open because they had very little knowledge or understanding of what was happening in the former Yugoslavia. I was eagerly sought after in top government circles, including by Deputy State Secretary L. Eagleburger. I came to realise just how important a knowledge of international relations, international law, history, politics, and economics was for someone to become known as an interesting and respected interlocutor.


The United States were rather reserved about the events in Yugoslavia. They lacked a decisive approach. The events in Yugoslavia and East Europe had caught them unprepared. They were particularly worried about the potential consequences of the ‘uncontrolled disintegration of the country’ in an extremely sensitive region. Aware of the gravity of contradictions and enmities in the different parts of the former Yugoslavia, they expected the outbreak of a serious armed conflict. Nevertheless, they were not willing to take a more decisive approach in the region; they were not even entirely sure which direction the situation might take. The Vietnam syndrome was still well present in their minds, and their interests were too insignificant for military action.
The Americans, therefore, endeavoured to slow down the progress of events, hoping for a peaceful and coordinated solution to the regulation of the increasingly heightened tensions between the former republics of the SFRY as well as within them. They simply did not comprehend the gravity of the contradictions within that artificial state.


The United States was also worried by the impeding disintegration of the Soviet Union, particularly by the nuclear weapons deployed across the vast territories of the country which might, in the event of the uncontrolled disintegration of the Union, fall into unauthorised hands. The Americans were burdened by the changes and turmoil across the whole of East Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In this wider sense, their approach to Slovenia – according to my first hand observations – was to halt the uncontrolled disintegration of Yugoslavia and find a comprehensive settlement. My task in Washington was thus highly demanding: I was to argue and prove that Slovenia’s leaving Yugoslavia did not in itself create a conflict and that the recognition of Slovenia (and Croatia), including other republics that had declared independence, would contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in the former Yugoslavia, not the opposite. Yugoslav diplomats, with their numerous supporters and lobbies, including individuals from the ranks of certain European diplomatic services, were present and very active in Washington in trying to convince the Americans of the opposite.


We encountered similar problems in our contacts with the media and the promotion of our views among the general public. Many had difficulty understanding why Slovenia and Croatia wanted to ‘secede’. They were most satisfied with the explanation that this was not a true secession, but a confrontation between a democracy-oriented Slovenia (and Croatia) and Milošević’s communist and totalitarian Serbia, i.e. the rump Yugoslavia. Due to their nineteenth-century secessionist war, they were highly alarmed by the mere idea of secession. It was therefore often difficult to respond to the propaganda from Belgrade claiming that Slovenia’s (and Croatia's) independence was secessionist selfishness which would result in a war. Having a poor understanding of international relations, certain inexperienced visitors from Ljubljana added fuel to the fire by insisting that the diligent Slovenians wanted to secede because they were being exploited by others in Yugoslavia. This did not find favour with the Americans. Quite the opposite – it added to the views that Slovenia was being selfish, and Croatia under Tuđman's leadership, highly nationalistic.


Dialogue on Slovenia and Croatia’s recognition by the United States escalated in late autumn 1991, when it became clear that West Europe, with Germany at the forefront, would recognise the two new countries. Convinced that this would lead to armed conflict, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Washington deemed it logical to also recognise Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. I recall Ralph Johnson justifying their reservations. This was the very same diplomat who, three months later, in April 1992, brought to Ljubljana the letter from President Bush recognising Slovenia. However, the United States did this only when the EU had recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina (Macedonia was not recognised due to Greek opposition). In early 1992, the United States and the EU finally reached an agreement, which resulted in the United States recognising Slovenia on 7 April. This paved the way to our accession to the United Nations in May 1992, which only confirmed our independence. Slovenia thus joined the club of independent UN Member States as a sovereign country.


It is impossible to talk about individual events of that time. A lot of effort went into establishing contacts with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund, particularly because Yugoslavia was formally still a member of both. Various practical issues needed to be dealt with: the Yugoslav debt to Exim, the provision of fuel for the Krško Nuclear Power Plant, and the exploration of export opportunities to the United States. The complexity of these questions required constant explanations and interventions, as there was no mutual recognition between the two countries. Until its recognition in April 1992, Slovenia had been considered part of the SFRY as regards various practical matters. Due to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for some other reasons, it took Slovenia and the United States until mid-August 1992 to formally establish diplomatic relations, which allowed the Slovenian mission in Washington to be granted the status of an embassy and begin its regular operations.


At first, many Americans, including some members of Congress, did not understand that Slovenia was not involved in the Yugoslav war. In their eyes, Slovenia was part of the crisis and part of the problem. It was not until autumn 1992 – after the meeting of the foreign ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia with senior representatives of the American government, namely the president, the vice-president, the secretary of state, the national security advisor and others – that the United States realised that Slovenia was not part of the problem in the Western Balkans, but an important partner in the pursuit of a solution. Our relations with the United States at all levels were thus normalised. I still take great pride in the fact that our foreign minister participated in that meeting and talks, despite the pressure and displeasure on the part of Croatia. It was Slovenia’s, and my personal, diplomatic victory.
The American Slovenians with their support for the new Slovenian country played a major role in our efforts. Although American foreign policy was based on reasoning, and not on the number of telephone calls from American Slovenians to the White House or the number of their postcards requesting the State Department to recognise Slovenia, it felt like we were not alone. However, I do recall that the White House was rather uncomfortable with the constant Slovenian and Croatian calls occupying its telephone lines. But it was nevertheless good to know that our expatriates were supporting us.


My most fond memory is our accession to the United Nations on 22 May 1992. The Slovenian delegation comprised President Milan Kučan, Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, Ignac Golob and me, because at that time Slovenia had no official representation at the United Nations. The most memorable moments were when we took our seats in the General Assembly hall at a desk bearing the sign ‘SLOVENIA’ and hoisted our tricolour with our coat of arms with the waves of the Adriatic Sea, the silhouette of Mt. Triglav, and the six-pointed stars borrowed from the counts of Celje. All our efforts and problems were forgotten, and we were proud to be part of the generation that realised the dream of a Slovenian state. It became clear that Slovenians finally had their own country, which is here to stay, I hope.

Prof Dr Ernest Petrič