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TUE, 29 MAY 2001 01:15:12 GMT

U.S.-Russian Relations

Bush and Putin in Ljubljana?

The Slovenian Foreign Ministry has officially confirmed that U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet for the first time on June 16 or June 17 -- in Ljubljana

AIM Ljubljana, May 19, 2001

A report released several days ago by Reuters has been officially confirmed by the Slovenian Foreign Ministry. "President Bush will visit Ljubljana, Slovenia, at the end of his European tour in June. In Ljubljana he will meet with Russian President Putin and with Slovenian leaders. The U.S. and Slovenia have excellent relations and will discuss the inclusion of Slovenia in European and Trans-Atlantic institutions. The president is looking forward to the possibility of cooperation between the U.S. and the Russian Federation in pursuing common goals," said an official statement by the U.S. Embassy in Ljubljana.

All Slovenian officials, as well as Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek, have already expressed their exaltation over the decision to hold the summit in Ljubljana. In a statement Prime Minister Drnovsek stressed his "great pleasure that Presidents Bush and Putin have decided to hold their first meeting in Slovenia. The selection of Slovenia is proof of the excellent relations our country has with both the U.S. and the Russian Federation."

Slovenian diplomatic sources said that the decision to select Ljubljana for the meeting was made during a recent encounter between the Russian foreign minister and the U.S. president. Bush, who unlike his predecessor Clinton does not like long journeys, will before Slovenia visit Spain, Belgium, Poland and Sweden. His tour will begin on June 12, and he is returning to the U.S. on June 16 or June 17. In addition to the fact that it will be the first meeting between the two presidents -- and in a region quite close to that part of the Balkans where until two years ago U.S. and Russian interests strongly clashed -- the event is even more important because Bush and Putin will talk about the U.S. plans to create an anti-ballistic missile system. Ljubljana is also a symbolically appropriate site for the meeting because it is among the rare cities where the U.S. and the Russian embassies are located next to each other. In other countries, where diplomatic relations (and embassies) were built in colder times this was rarely the case.

The meeting of the presidents of the two super powers in Ljubljana is in any case one of the greatest diplomatic successes of Slovenia, a country that will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its independence in slightly over one month. A political event of similar importance occurred in June 1999, when then U.S. president Bill Clinton visited Slovenia shortly after NATO's intervention in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia ended.

It is another matter to what extent the good relations existing between official Ljubljana and Moscow and Washington influenced officials to select Ljubljana, and what is owed to fortunate circumstances. The Drnovsek statement suggests there is a certain equidistance between Ljubljana and Moscow and Washington. This, of course, is wrong: Slovenia is an associate member of the EU and a member of the Partnership for Peace. As early as Dec. 25, 1995, Slovenia had signed an agreement on the transit of SFOR troops through its territory, and in October, 1998, it was the first country to open its air space for NATO aircraft that were to bomb Yugoslavia. Although in 1999 Slovenia did not join NATO (like Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary), it has remained a serious candidate for NATO membership.

A Declaration on Slovenian Foreign Policy and a number of other documents stress just how much Slovenia considers the U.S. and the EU important. The same document mentions relations with Russia in only a sentence and a half: "It is the interest of Slovenia to develop good relations with the Russian Federation, especially in the sector of economy. Slovenia is interested in the economic and political stabilization of the situation in the Russian Federation in the long run." Relations between Slovenia and Russia, especially from the viewpoint of trade, are -- generally speaking -- good. Some 40 Slovenian companies have offices in Russia, and a large portion of Slovenian exports involves the export of medicine, furniture, appliances and tools and the operation of Slovenian construction companies in that country. As far as imports are concerned, Slovenia purchases from Russia mostly natural gas and oil (a part of a future pipeline between Russia and Italy is supposed to pass through Slovenia) and vehicles, but it does not import arms.

It is known that there are several unresolved problems between Moscow and Ljubljana (the payment of debt dating from the former Yugoslav period), and that Russian and Slovenian diplomats have had fierce exchanges in the past several years on what policy should be pursued in regard to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, NATO's expansion and similar issues. Despite this, officials in Ljubljana believe that Slovenia is perceived in Russia as the westernmost "Slavic" country and consequently more suitable for the two presidents' meeting than any of the other countries Bush plans to visit in June.

In other words, Russia, in fact, did not have much choice. Except for Sweden, Slovenia was the only option. Ultimately, they agreed to select a country where Russian tourists in restaurants in Bovec, Portoroz and Piran (their favorite destinations) can still order a drink or a meal in their own language and stand a good chance of being understood by the waiter. In relations with the U.S., the language barrier is bigger but there are fewer political differences.

"I personally am convinced, and I believe that many in Slovenia share my view, that the U.S. are an expansion of European institutions and values. Or, if you wish, it is the other way around. In many respects we can view Europe as an expansion of U.S. institutions and values," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said in his recent address at Harvard University in Cambridge. This is why Slovenia's positions of the last decade were almost identical to those of the U.S., and were quite frequently formed in accordance with the desires of official Washington -- which was clearly demonstrated by Slovenia's initial acceptance and subsequent withdrawal from a U.N. resolution on a world without nuclear weapons. The latest step in that direction was the benevolent attitude of the Slovenian Foreign Ministry towards reports that the U.S. embassy in Ljubljana was instructing Slovenian MPs how to behave in Cuba. This happened during a recent congress of the Interparliamentary Union in Havana.

Three Slovenian MPs, otherwise members of the Italian minority, who were thus instructed ultimately did not meet with Cuban dissidents. This was partly owed to the fact that they were not certain that these "human rights activists," as they were portrayed in a letter by the U.S. embassy were truly only that, and partly because of the arrest of two Czech parliamentarians (Ivan Pilip and Jan Bubenik) during a similar attempt, organized by Freedom House several months ago. Instead of launching a protest (for instance, because of violations of the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations), the Slovenian Foreign Ministry suspended the already announced encounter of Slovenian diplomats with the Cuban minister of the economy, during which Cuban debts and Slovenian investment in Cuba were supposed to be discussed. The suspension of the meeting came shortly before Bush's arrival in Slovenia was confirmed.

Although due to the unequal importance of these events it is unlikely that some kind of political bargaining went on, there could still be a cause and effect relationship between them. Be it as it may, at the end of June this year Ljubljana will be the location of a diplomatic encounter that it has not witnessed for 180 years. Namely, Back in 1821, when Ljubljana was known as Leibach and belonged to Austria-Hungary, another major international diplomatic event the Congress of the Holy Alliance -- went down in history as being held there.

Igor Mekina