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Three Seas Talks – Žiga Ciglarič, UN youth delegate and Vice-president of Slovenian Youth council

Stefan: Hi, welcome everyone. I’m Stefan Tompson and I’m the host of this podcast series for the Institute of New Europe about the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). And I’m speaking with experts from every single one of the 12 Member States of the 3SI. And today I’ve got a Slovenian guest Žiga Ciglarič. Žiga, really nice to meet you. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about yourself, a little bit of what you’re doing, what you’re studying, what you’re specializing in? That would be a nice way to start.

Žiga: Hey, my name is ŽigaI’m 22 years old, I study law and I’m specializing in criminal law. Additionally, I’m the vice president of Slovenian Youth Council for International Relations and the current UN Youth delegate of the Republic of Slovenia. Recently I’ve been elected as the youngest municipality council member in my hometown of Kidričevo. My free time is divided between studying criminal law and fighting for better position of the youth.

Stefan: That’s really impressive. Congratulations. You can say it’s really quite the CV at such a young age. Today we’re going to be speaking about the Three Seas Initiative – about the region, the existing and prospective cooperation between Central and Eastern European countries. Maybe you could give me, from your Slovenian perspective, a brief overview of how you see the 3SI. Is it something that is a well-known topic or is this something that is just the domain of experts, journalists, geopoliticians? Is there any mainstream awareness of the initiative in the Slovenian civil society?

Žiga: Well, the initiative has been getting more and more popular since 2016. It is getting quite a lot of media attention, especially because Slovenians feel really close to the region. After all, we shared a common history under the Habsburg Empire for more than 700 years. Each 3SI summit is really well covered by the media.

People are feeling proud of it because they always feel that although we are part of the European Union, we are also the northern part of the Western Balkans that was affected by communism so we need to connect with countries that shared the same fate, we need to stick together, trade together, so that we can be much more stronger. And that our voice, we are one of the smallest countries in the European Union, can be better heard if we are part of the Initiative.

Stefan: So, in terms of your international relations, what are the countries [are the most important]? have travelled the region, been around Balkans. They’re very beautiful countries, really beautiful coastline as well. You’ve mentioned being part of the Habsburg Empire, but also common history within Yugoslavia, of being together with Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. So, I’m assuming that the closest relations you have with your immediate neighbors – Austria on one hand, but also former Yugoslav states. Would that be correct?

Žiga: Yeah, it is. Some of our biggest trade partners are Austria, Croatia and Hungary, but also Serbia. But I think that one of the largest trading partner for us is Germany. We are really connected with them. Unfortunately we also do business with the Russian Federation, despite what is happening in Ukraine. We have a really big pharmacy industry and our two largest pharmaceutical companies have their biggest markets in the Russian Federation.

Stefan: So that large trade balance with the Russian Federation is due to a specialized niche, of the Slovenian economy that’s very focused on these pharmaceuticals? Is that the only base for your relations or is there a broader, more extensive partnership?

Žiga: It’s a more extensive partnership. This is because we have a pro-Russian politics. Our former Minister of Foreign Affair, Karl Erjavec, invited Putin to visit Slovenia. I believe that we were the first EU or NATO country that was visited by Putin after the Crimea annexation. That is also a lot of propaganda favorable to Russia, about the size of the Russian markets, wealth of Russians, need for  their gas… There are multiple reasons for that pro-Russian stance. For once, we didn’t have a true transition from the communist times. We are probably one of the few countries that still have a government that is directly connected to ex-communist party. I think that in 30 years of our independence only for eight years there wasn’t a government with ties to ex-communist party.

Even at the moment we have a left-wing coalition and the candidate for president from that party, called the left or levica, stated that his idol is Josip Broz Tito. So you know, there is still a nostalgia for communist times. Which is really sad. That’s why for quite some time in the history of an independent Slovenia, politicians wanted to rely on the Russian Federation or countries with similar governments, including China.

Stefan: Could you perhaps expand on some of the energy trade with Russia? Is Slovenia very dependent on raw materials from Russia?

Žiga: The thing is that with raw materials we are really self-sufficient. We have a really, really good hydro-energy. We are actually one of the greenest countries in terms of energy production and we are also pro-nuclear country. We have our nuclear plant, and we intend to build more nuclear blocks. So in terms of energy, we are not [that dependent on Russia].

Stefan: When was this [energy policy] implemented?

Žiga: One of the good things that we inherited from communists Yugoslavia was the nuclear plant,  which was built right before our independence. Most of the hydro plants were built in the period of the economic transition and at the moment we are considering building two more hydro plants. We have really big problems with some of the environment activists. They’re saying that while the green transition is important and hydro-energy is a clean way to produce energy, we must also take care of the fish and birds. As for gas, I think that’s we depend in 25% on gas in our electricity production, which makes us a bit dependent on the Russian Federation, but not as much as you’d think.

Stefan: Coming from the Polish perspective… What are the relations like between Poland and Slovenia? Is Poland a country that is kind of well-known and that a lot of Slovenians have traveled to?

To give you an idea from the other side. There is a filmmaker, a Slovenian filmmaker, Mitja Okorn, who’s made a number of movie hits, mostly romantic comedies. He’s very famous here in Poland. So there is that and also a lot of Poles have traveled to Slovenia. It was a very popular tourist destination during communism, obviously former Yugoslav countries remain very popular tourist destinations. So, I know for sure that that Poles know about Slovenia at least when it comes to tourism. What does it look like from the other side?

Žiga: To be honest, if I may joke, Polish girls are well known in Slovenia. I think that the Polish Eurovision song in 2014 or 2015, is still quite a hit, especially the show they put up.

Stefan: I think it was a girl called Cleo. It was something about Slavic girls. Yeah, I see. OK. I’m not sure that’s the best advert for Poland there is. At least someone’s made an impact.

Žiga: But otherwise, our politics is really divided [in relation to Poland]. In terms of politics conservative parties, central to central-right, they’re really pro Polish. For example, our ex-Prime Minister, Janez Janša, had an excellent friendship with Morawiecki and Morawiecki even visited Slovenia. When I met Morawiecki last year, I was really stunned with his knowledge about my country so it was really plus for me. But the media are controlled by the left, so there are saying that Poland is much too conservative, almost like the Nazis. And that Poland is not a [key state] in Europe and Slovenia needs to aim for participation in Europe’s center, meaning Germany and France, so we should follow these countries lead.

Otherwise, from the perspective of the local population, Poland is getting popular day by day. We consider you a really good tourist destination, you were really known for your hospitality and your awesome food. You are known for good and cheap drinks, like vodka of course. And we have a lot in common culturally. We have quite similar culture, dances, folklore and a lot of folklore groups go to Poland to perform. So Poland is getting popular.

Nonetheless, if we look at what is media showing us about Poland, about situation in Poland, it is totally different from what the normal people are feeling. A lot of Slovenians thankful for everything Poland does for Ukraine, especially after seeing what Germans did. We are thankful for your hospitality and military power. You are the new superpower of the European Union.

Stefan: Obviously at one hand we have the tragedy of the Russian aggression and full scale invasion of Ukraine. But a few of the people that I’ve spoken with in these interviews mentioned that this tragedy also, in a sense, brought about the sense of momentum and this belief that actually Central and Eastern Europe has a weight, that it can be a leader. I’m not talking just about Poland. I’m really talking about the majority of the countries in the region, which are leading the way with their humanitarian and military aid, at least as percentage of their GDP or as of their defense budget. The Baltics handed out military aid amounting to double digits percentage of their defense budget. The region is leading the way with sanctions and kind of taking the lead in the European Union.

I think in Poland at least there’s a sense that we’re behind, we’re catching up all the time. We’ve been slowed down by 123 years of partitions, then by the German Nazi invasion, the destruction brought upon us by the Second World War, and then 45 years of Moscow imposed communism. For the last three decades we feel like we are only catching up, because we’re so far behind. Finally we have a moment where our region [matters]. I feel that other countries of the region share this sentiment, they were dominated by Habsburgs, experienced the destruction of World War II and the economic havoc for decades. Now suddenly we get the sense that we actually reached a point where our voices mean something. We have been warning the West for decades. We we’ve been talking about these risks [and they finally materialized]. Is that something that you feel as well?

Žiga: Absolutely. When Russia attacked Ukraine, I think that the Eastern Europe got so much more connected. Our voice was finally heard. We warned Germany not to build a pipeline. We warned France: “look what will happen”. I think it was Kaczyński that said when Russian invaded Georgia “ Now it’s Georgia, next is Ukraine ,then there are the Baltics, and then maybe it’s my country, Poland”. This is what’s happening now, he was right.

I think that the Russian aggression showed what Eastern Europe is capable of, how Eastern Europe can be strong. In the economic terms Poland is prospering under the European Union. You have free market, really capable politicians, so you are becoming a new superpower. Same is Czechia.

From Slovenian perspective, Habsburg times for majority of Slovenians were really good times. Railroads will build. We had our first companies founded. When we declared independence and joined Serbia, we figured out how much we were missing [the empire]. Our economy shattered, and after the Communists came, although we were developed, but no longer [prospered]. I dare to say that we had the same level of political power in the Habsburg empire as we did in Yugoslavia.

In the European Union, as a two-million country, we have only eight MP’s. Yeah, they can be loud, but others look down on us. We are not Germany. We don’t have German economy, we don’t have French military. We don’t have Swedish values or some other impact.

Our democracy differ from [Western] Europe; we are quite similar to the  Eastern Europe. When Russia invaded Ukraine, I think that every country with communist experience, saw that as a threat of history repeating itself. I think that this was the turning point for the Eastern Europe, especially Eastern European countries within the European Union, who previously warned that this would happen. Now it is our time to speak.

Stefan: Going back to regional cooperation, which is obviously the crux of the matter here. We’ve got twelve countries, [which are rather small economies]. Perhaps with the exception of Poland, which by virtue of its geographical size and its population, is a little bit of an outlier in some ways. And obviously also Austria, which saw the soviet leaving in 1955, so they did not really share our communist experience, the experience of ending up behind the Iron Curtain, including under in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

We’re a collection of fairly small countries with fairly small economies, in comparison to Western countries. So this Three Seas Initiative is an idea of essentially uniting the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas and ensuring that rather than being transit zone between East and West we can become a united and integrated block, through common infrastructure. Obviously a block within the European Union, since all twelve Three Seas countries are members of the European Union.

From Slovenia’s perspective, which is geographically much smaller than Poland and much less populous – What are the main hopes and ambitions of Slovenia in in this Initiative?

Žiga: We are really small country, but a transit country. We are in the middle, on the crossroads between the North and the South, East and the West. We hope that our ports, like Koper, will get even larger with even more trading points. From the economic perspective I believe that our economy is quite good. We are lucky to have a really good industry, although it is mostly state-owned.

In the 3SI we see a platform for connecting with other companies, a place where our companies, the state and everyone can connect to companies from countries that share our communist experience. But the biggest opportunity for us from the political point of view, is getting our voice heard. In the Three Seas it is easier to find partners that understand us, because we share similar history. It is much easier to connect with Three Seas countries, than with [Western] European ones, which don’t want to listen to us. So, I think, that the biggest advantages for Slovenia from being in the Initiative is, apart from new economic opportunities, the chance to voice our political views and being heard.

Stefan: And what do you think the role of Slovenia could be, should be within the Three Seas Initiative? I mean when you look at a country like Estonia, which also has a similar size of population, they are the leader of all things digital and a startup hub of our region. They have produced all these unicorns. You have all sorts of players that specialize in that one niche and have that one element to focus on. What could that be for Slovenia? I mean you kind of started insinuating and hinting at an answer by saying you are a transport hub, a bridge. But maybe you could expand on that and try indicating where Slovenia could be within this Initiative, or where you would hope to be?

Žiga: As I stated before, we are one of the greenest countries. We had a really good green transition. We are, I think that we are third country in Europe with the most forest cover. On the other hand, we are a transit country with a good highways. In the recent years we upgraded almost every highway there is, and at the moment there are plans to build two new highways. We’ve upgraded almost our entire railroad system and it is now connected to the port of Koper. So a lot of cargo  is now going there by rail.

On the other hand, we have a really good pharma industry. As I mentioned, one of the largest markets for our pharma industry is the Russian Federation. I think that with what is happening there and how they are violating human rights, the Three Seas Initiative countries could replace Russia as our trading partner.

Otherwise, we are really known for being stubborn. We are really stubborn when it comes to our politics. We are really loud, and we can take advantage of being a small country ensuring that we are heard. [3SI could help us] promote our common values.

Stefan: And from the perspective of a young person… What is your gut feeling? Are you optimistic about the future? Are you hopeful about the future of Slovenia and the future of our region, of the Three Seas Initiative?

Žiga: If I were optimistic, I wouldn’t have joined a political party and I wouldn’t have run for my municipal council. So, no. Taking into account, what is happening at the moment in the European Union and in Slovenia, I’m quite pessimistic. I think that in our country the same people that we were running the communist party are still running the country now, and our voice is not being heard.

In European Union, we only see the propaganda. We only see the quasi environmental policies. I don’t think that they deliver enough to the ordinary people, to the local population, especially to the population that suffered under the communist era. Our country, our countries are talked over, our voice is not heard.

So I’m very optimistic about the Three Seas Initiative. I think that we must stick together and we must make sure that our voice is being heard. And to be pro-American, to be pro-Western in some terms, but to follow our common values and our tradition, making sure that the story of our ancestors is preserved, just like they kept it for hundreds of years.

Stefan: Thank you so much for your time and for your perspective. It was really interesting to chat with you, to talk to you and learn from you. This was one of our Three Seas Initiative podcasts for the Institute of New Europe with Žiga Ciglarič from Slovenia. Thank you.