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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 April, 2004, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
Slovenia's surge of nationalism

By Oana Lungescu
BBC correspondent in Ljubljana

Five of the 10 countries set to join the EU on 1 May did not appear on the map 15 years ago.

Anti-referendum protest
The referendum on residence rights sparked angry protests
Among them was Slovenia - a former Yugoslav republic sandwiched between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, with a century-long history of foreign domination.

Its two million people can count themselves lucky.

They emerged practically unscathed from the bloody wars that tore up Yugoslavia - and now enjoy the highest living standard of all the EU newcomers.

But in a controversial referendum earlier this month, Slovenians voted overwhelmingly to deny residence rights to thousands of people from other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

These people are known as the "erased" because they were removed from population records after Slovenia declared its independence in 1991.

'The erased'

The Grand Union cafe in the capital Ljubljana is - like most of Slovenia - stylish and comfortable.

It feels much more like central Europe than the Balkans.

But under the crystal chandeliers, Alexander Todorovic, a bearded ethnic Serb, has a story that sounds very much like the Balkans.

Mr Todorovic settled here 20 years ago after marrying a Slovenian.

Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana
Parts of Slovenia's capital feel more like central Europe than the Balkans

But in 1993, when he went to register the birth of their daughter, he was told he did not exist.

He had failed to apply for residence after Slovenia became independent, so his name had been erased from the records.

Mr Todorovic was told illegal foreigners could not be parents to children born in Slovenia - so he could not be registered as the baby's father.

He watched a Slovenian official punch his ID card and his driving licence to make them invalid.

Mr Todorovic now heads the Association of the Erased, fighting for the rights of some 18,000 people from the former Yugoslavia.

They all face expulsion after losing their jobs, pensions and health insurance.

In Slovenia's recently refurbished parliament, there is concern that "the erased" could claim huge damages - some say as much as the country's annual budget.

But for the right-wing opposition - which pushed for the referendum on "the erased" and scored a major political victory ahead of this autumn's general elections - the debate is less about money than loyalty to an independent Slovenia.

Barbara Medved Spiletic - who is running for the European Parliament for the Slovenian Democratic Party - insists some of "the erased", like Mr Todorovic, should never get residence rights because they basically want the old Yugoslavia back.

She says Mr Todorovic was an aggressor to Slovenia because he was among those who opposed Slovenian independence.

She admits he may not have killed anyone, but he should still be defined as an "aggressor."

Awkward neighbours

This emotional argument about the past may seem strange just when Slovenia should be looking to its future inside Nato and the EU.

But that is exactly why nationalism seems to be on the rise, says Ali Zerdin, deputy editor of Slovenia's best-selling weekly, Mladina.

Damian Kozole
We are claustrophobic because... we've had very little to do with people from different backgrounds
Damian Kozole

He says because the negotiations with the EU are over, people do not feel that they are somehow monitored by the EU - and they believe they may speak whatever they want.

Safe inside the big Western clubs, small countries like Slovenia are starting to deal more confidently with their history and their awkward neighbours.

In the past, Slovenia has had troubled relations with both Italy and Austria, but Croatia remains its most difficult neighbour.

Over a decade after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the two countries still have a raft of border and financial issues to settle.

I went to the border on Slovenia's Adriatic coast to meet Josko Joras.

He is a Slovenian citizen who says he lives in Slovenia.

But the Croat authorities claim his house and land are actually on their side of the border.

In 2002, Mr Joras even spent a couple of weeks in a Croatian jail for bringing home a dishwasher without paying customs dues.

Josko Joras
We Slovenians are a small nation with a long history
Josko Joras

But now the Croatian border guards standing outside his gate simply watch as Mr Joras drives through.

Once home, he shows me the Slovenian and the EU flags, which he puts up on special days. The flags will come out again when Slovenia joins the EU on 1 May.

"We Slovenians are a small nation with a long history," he said.

"If my ancestors had given in, we wouldn't have lived to see Slovenia become independent and join Europe as an independent country."

Another EU hopeful

Croatia also wants to join the EU and it knows it could find its bid blocked by Slovenia.

So in the last week, the two countries have decided to put historic rivalries aside and seek international arbitration on their disputed border.

We should really try to help everybody who is interested to come with us
Dimitrij Rupel

Slovenia's foreign minister, Dimitrij Rupel, says his country would open the way for Croatia and the other nations of the former Yugoslavia.

Mr Rupel describes his government as a factor that pushes Slovenia towards the west, but drags the rest of south-east Europe along into the EU, and possibly Nato.

"We should really try to help everybody who is interested to come with us," Mr Rupel said.

But Mr Rupel knows that it is easier to take a country out of the Balkans, than to take the Balkans out of a country.

Young Slovenian film director Damian Kozole also hopes that his country will open up as it joins the EU - rather than become more nationalistic.

"We are claustrophobic because we've lived quite a safe and prosperous life until now, and we've had very little to do with people from different backgrounds," he said.

Visions of Europe

His most recent film, Spare Parts, told the uncomfortable story of a Slovenian people smuggler.

Mr Kozole went back to the Slovenian-Croatian border for his latest film - a wry contribution to a series of short films called Visions of Europe.

The films - co-ordinated by the director, Lars von Trier, with contributions from acclaimed directors such as Aki Kaurismaki and Peter Greenaway - will be aired on 1 May.

Mr Kozole got the idea after the Slovenian football team was defeated by the Croats in the qualifiers for the Euro 2004 championships, he said.

Border chat

His film shows two Slovenian workers putting up new EU signs along the border.

From the other side, a Croatian farmer is watching with some alarm.

"Friends, you are going into Europe," he shouted.

"And you're going to the European championships - so each of us gets something,"one of the Slovenians replied.

"But where would you rather go?" the Croat asked.

"To the football championships. And you?" the Slovene asked.

"To the EU," the Croat said.


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