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Slovenia between the USA, Russia and Iran

President of Slovenia Borut Pahor At a meeting with Vladimir Putin | Kremlin

Small, relatively weak nations always have to walk a tightrope when it comes to how they conduct themselves in international relations and particularly with powerful nations.

Slovenia, far from being an exception to that rule, is actually a textbook example of it. From the moment that it declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 , it has sought to ingratiate itself with and fully integrate into, the loosely defined amorphous entity that we commonly refer to as "the West," meaning Western Europe, North America and the more far-flung countries of the Anglosphere.

The countries that it has attempted to attach itself to the most, with good reason, from its own perspective, are the US and Germany.

Therefore when one hears that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Slovenia to have a talk with its Foreign Minister, Miro Cerar, and that among the topics of discussion were NATO defense spending, "foreign investment," Iran's missile program, North Korea and "the importance of maintaining sanctions on Russia," one shouldn't see this as equal partners with a friendship based on mutual respect and understanding coming to the table and agreeing to a set of goals, beliefs and actions that will benefit them both in the long term.

No.

This is a set of demands handed down by an imperial power to one of its least powerful vassal states in a region of Europe where the imperial power feels itself it be in competition with Russia for power and influence.

Whenever the imperial power, "the sea power", feels that it's vassal has gone astray, it can always reverse course on "Western integration."

At the same time however, being something far from an independent country, resource-wise, finance-wise and any other kind of wise, Slovenia has to play a game with the imperial power by appeasing it up to a point, but also not shutting out or hurting its relations with other important world and regional powers, including Iran and Russia.

So, while Solvenia's Foreign Minister will say all the "right" things when Pompeo comes for a visit, Slovenia's ambassador to Iran will sing a slightly different tune:

She noted that after gaining its independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991, Slovenia opened an embassy in Tehran, and in 2011, Iran decided to open its embassy in Ljubljana.

Radej said the two countries’ relations have become extremely intensive, especially following Slovenia’s independence.

She added there are various areas in which the two sides’ cooperation is strong including holding regular political consultations and meetings between the two countries’ ministers on different topics and a bilateral basis during multilateral events.

“Our economic cooperation has always been traditionally good,” she said, adding Slovenian products are sent to the Iranian market.

Radej said Iran is one of the most important business partners of Slovenia in the Middle East.

And Slovenia's president will also chart a way through the narrow path between the desires of the imperial power on the one hand and the nation's own interests on the other:

During the meeting, Borut Pahor referred to the trajectory of developments in Iran-Slovenia relations and described the current level of ties as perfect and exemplary.

Pahor then reiterated his country’s support for the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action AKA the Iran nuclear deal which was signed by Iran and Sextet on July 14, 2015). He then voiced hope to see the Vienna accord continue as it is a guarantee for security and peace.

The Slovenian president then vowed his country’s resolute determination to keep in place the good ties with Iran.

Moreover, despite Pompeo's tough talk about sanctions targeting Russia, Slovenia's relations with the West's new/old favored boogeyman are actually quite good:

Russia's warm relationship with Slovenia, as evidenced by President Vladimir Putin's latest visit to the small Alpine nation, might come as a surprise to some considering that the latter is a member of NATO and the European Union. But Ljubljana, unlike some former Soviet states, wants to foster cooperation with Moscow.

"Slovenia has always remained Russia's loyal economic and political partner," Nadezhda Pilko, a senior researcher at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences told Gazeta.ru.

True, both countries have maintained close ties despite the fact that the European Union imposed sanctions on Moscow following the outbreak of the Ukrainian civil war and Crimea's democratic reunification with Russia. Common cultural and ethnic heritage is one of the reasons behind this friendship.

"For Slovenia, a very disciplined member of the EU and NATO, the notion of cultural Slavic closeness is extremely important," Georgy Engelgart of the Institute of Slavic Studies observed. "Apart from this, Slovenia doesn't really have reservations about Russia, unlike, say, Poland. And Ljubljana is trying to capitalize on this."

[...]

Putin praised the Slovenian people for their "caring attitude towards our shared history," adding that the country has always extended "a very warm welcome" to Russian guests. For his part, Slovenian President Borut Pahor said that "we are doing our best to preserve Russian-Slovenian friendship" and thanked Putin for the opportunity to discuss "new ways of developing the bilateral relations."

On July 30, the Russian leader took part in the centenary commemoration of a Russian chapel built near the Vršič Pass and the unveiling of a monument to Russian and Soviet soldiers who fell in Slovenia during both world wars.

"Keep in mind that many European countries are trying to remove monuments to Soviet soldiers. Slovenia on the other hand has recently unveiled a similar landmark. This is a bold step," Pilko observed.

Russian Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Alexei Pushkov echoed these sentiments, saying that "not every Eastern European nation has been infected with the virus of Russophobia. Monuments to Russian soldiers have been destroyed in Poland. Slovenia has just erected one."

And Slovenia has made its position on sanctions levied against Russia by the West clear for a long time now:

Slovenia is eager to maintain energy-focused economic ties with Russia. Moreover, the country supports lifting the sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Slovenian politicians stress “mutual respect for different opinions” in relations with Russia.

Russia is Slovenian 7th largest trade partner and the 6th biggest investor in the country. Despite the fall in trade after 2014, Slovenia still has a trade surplus with Russia. Within the EU, Slovenia has always asserted strengthen cooperation with Russia. Slovene-Russian Business Club actively promotes business ties under the banner ‘Fostering the Slavic Bonds’. Therefore, it favours of lifting the anti-Russian sanctions stressing their negative impact on the economies. Economic cooperation is high on the agenda during regular visits of Slovenian president Borut Pahor in Moscow and vice versa. Imports consist mainly of energy, while exports are dominated by pharmaceuticals, nuclear reactors, machines and mechanical devices. Slovenia is also a popular tourist destination among Russians.

Slovenia depends on Russian energy imports. Approximately 42% of gas imports supplied from Russia and 35% from Austria. Current agreement on gas from Gazprom runs through 2018.

According to the latest Eurobarometer, 45% of Slovenians have a positive view of Russia.

Warm relations with Moscow have continued even as Slovenia joined EU sanctions. The close co-operation between the countries is manifested in annual meetings of their presidents or PMs. Slovenian politicians perceive their country as a bridge between the East and the West.

Slovenia puts its business interest above political goals and oppose actions which might irritate Moscow.

And just this year, the economic, political and cultural ties between the two countries have been strengthened even further:

The ministers shared the view that economic cooperation has been growing in recent years: trade is on the increase, as are direct investments and the number of tourists.

Erjavec and Nikiforov believe that the countries' intergovernmental commission should no longer focus only on the economy, but start supporting projects in science and research as well.

The moral of the story is that if you're a statesman of a small, not very powerful country, it would behoove you not to put all your eggs in one basket, especially the basket that's belligerent and always making passive aggressive threats against you to keep you in line. Wise statesmanship when it comes to countries like Slovenia means never keeping the door closed on any other nation.

Navid Nasr

Navid Nasr is an independent writer, journalist and analyst based out of Maryland. If you value his work, consider becoming a supporter via his Patreon page.