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Friday, 15 June, 2001, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Slovenia: the summit's quiet host
Brdo Castle
President Tito's former home, Brdo Castle, is the summit venue
By Timothy Steyskal in Ljubljana

The historic first meeting between American President George W Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin has become the focus of the world's media attention - but the summit's host country remains unknown to many.

Slovenia is a tiny republic in south-eastern Europe that boasts mountains, forests, rolling hills and beaches.

Slovenia
Population : 2 million
Capital city: Ljubljana (265,000)
Official language: Slovene
Currency: Slovenian tolar (SIT)
Per capita GDP: $9,105
Unemployment (1999): 7.5%
Yet its potential as a holiday destination has gone largely unrealised, due mainly to troubles in the wider Balkan region.

So the country's tourist industry is as delighted as its elected leaders to see Slovenia back on the map again.

Among ordinary Slovenes, however, the presidential summit has created scarcely any interest.

Like any other weekend, this one finds most people far away from their homes and TVs.

Neither public ceremonies nor major protests have been announced, mainly because the two leaders are meeting in a secluded castle with an airtight security seal.

But most people here agree that the summit is "good for Slovenia", mainly in terms of higher visibility.

Headline-shy

This prestigious East-West meeting comes within weeks of the 10th anniversary of Slovenia's last hour in the international limelight.

On 25 June 1991, the country declared its independence from socialist Yugoslavia.

Bush-Putin poster
Slovenes are not paying much attention to the big event
Fighting between the Yugoslav Federal Army and Slovenian forces lasted just 10 days, with minimal casualties.

Since then, Slovenia has distinguished itself mainly as the only former Yugoslav republic that avoids the headlines.

The last decade has seen unspectacular yet steady economic growth, enough to make Slovenia one of the hottest candidates for the first wave of EU accession.

And while Slovenia's failure to be included in Nato's expansion in 1998 was a disappointment for some, the country may well owe its chance to hold the Russian-American summit to this very fact.

Why Slovenia?

When the news broke that Slovenia would host the meeting between Mr Bush and Mr Putin, many people, including Slovenes themselves, had to wonder why this country was chosen.

Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov's blunt remark that he and Mr Bush had simply spun the globe and pointed a finger only added fuel to the envious indignation of newspaper editors in neighbouring Austria.

Drnovsek
Drnovsek: Prime Minister of Slovenia... or Slovakia according to President Bush
Slovenia's leaders, on the other hand, regard the summit as a sign of recognition for its rapid progress and excellent relations with both superpowers.

Ordinary citizens seem less convinced, wryly recalling how, during his presidential campaign, Mr Bush greeted Slovenia's Prime Minister, Janez Drnovsek, on a visit to the US as the leader of Slovakia.

Neutral ground

But the real reasons that made Slovenia the point of intersection for the two touring presidents are most likely to be strategic ones.

Slovenia is practically the only country in Europe which is neither a Nato member nor the next-door neighbour of a former Soviet republic or Balkans hotspot.

It thus represents the same sort of neutral ground that Geneva or Helsinki did in the days of the Cold War, yet without any such unwelcome historical associations.

With the American missile shield proposal and Nato expansion heavy on the summit agenda, Slovenian diplomats were able to sell this sunny, unproblematic little country to the superpowers much as the national tourist board would.

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See also:

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Kyoto: Why did the US pull out?
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04 Apr 01 | Americas
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