Sunday, April 18, 2010

Slovenia and Balkan Rivalry

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
A record store employee in Graz, Austria asked me how long I was staying in his country.

"This is just a day trip," I said. "I'm staying in Maribor, Slovenia."

"Slovenia? Isn't that where stuff from the movie Hostel happens?"

"Hahahaha. Actually, Slovenia is gorgeous. And Hostel was set in Slovakia, incidentally. Have you ever been to Slovenia?"

"I've driven across the border to get cheaper gas," he told me.

The trip by train from Maribor, Slovenia to Graz takes only an hour, but I had found one Austrian who had no interest in his neighbors to the immediate south of him. As it turns out, Austrians and Slovenians, at least according to the people I chatted with, are not particularly chummy. It is true that Slovenians love to shop in Austria (there are many, many more stores in Graz than in Maribor). This might explain why Slovenians, I am told, are more likely to vacation in Vienna than Viennese are to vacation in Slovenia.

Like Graz, Maribor enjoys "second biggest" status in its country. But Graz's population is about three times larger than Maribor's. Slovenia is a country of only 2 million, so it is of little surprise that the number of Maribor residents lies in the neighborhood of 120,000. One can walk up and down every street there in half a day.

Maribor has a single hostel, the naughty-sounding "Lollipop Hostel," which in fact is an excellently-run place managed by a British woman named June who is appealingly always up for a beer. June told me that there is an intense political rivalry between Ljubljana and Maribor. She said the two cities "hate" one another, due to the funneling of Maribor money into Ljubljana (naturally, Maribor wants to keep more for itself).

As one would expect, there is also a large sports rivalry between the two cities. Emir, a bartender at the Metelkova club complex, bragged about how fans of the Olimpija Ljubljana football team showed up for a match in Maribor and proceeded not only to cheer the out-of-towners to victory against the home team, but to tear the Maribor stadium to pieces in the aftermath.

In terms of contrasts between Maribor and Ljubljana, I was told by a gay student that Maribor has a bigger—or at least more open—gay and lesbian community than does Ljubljana (in this sense Maribor reminded me of a tiny variation of my own city, Atlanta). In Maribor I was also introduced to a form of toasting that was met with puzzlement in Ljubljana (crying, "OHHHHHH-PA!!!!!!" while raising glasses, clinking them, bringing them down to the table with a clunk, then raising them to the lips).

There is a fierce rivalry between Slovenia's two flagship beers, Lasko and Union. Both beers recently updated their logos; ironically they seem designed to perfectly compliment one another, one boasting a burgundy-colored sticker on its bottles and the other featuring a tasteful forest-green sticker. A table full of Lasko and Union bottles is quite photogenic.

Distrust of one's neighbors is a common affliction in the Balkans, even between countries that did not wage war against one another. Slovenians and Croatians are wary of one another, a cultural divide due in part to a language barrier (Slovenians all learned Serbo-Croatian in school, but Croatians did not study Slovenian, which has led to such situations as the popularity of Croatian music in Slovenia without reciprocated appreciation of Slovenian music in Croatia).

Some Slovenians think that Croatians understand Slovenian but pretend not to (like snooty French pretending not to know English when confronted by tourists), but most people I spoke with seemed to feel that the incomprehension was due to honest ignorance.

Slovenia has a more overt hippie culture than Croatia. In Ljubljana I saw lots of dreads, one guy walking down the street in bare feet, and numerous instances of hippie-ish dress; I saw none of this in Croatia. Croatians, on the other hand, struck me as more fashionable, with more women in sleek, tight clothes and men in sunglasses. I might say that Croatia seemed more "hip" whereas Slovenia seemed more "cool."

Finally, for a long time Croatian and Slovenia have been embroiled in a border dispute, with both sides claiming historic precedence for their territorial claims, the result being that EU member Slovenia has used its vote to block Croatia's own accession into the EU (EU membership must be met with unanimous approval by the member-states).

All the Slovenians I spoke with who had an opinion about Serbia said that Serbians were friendlier than Croatians.

As an American, I find the rivalry between Croatia and Slovenia absurd, as both are Catholic countries who fought former Yugoslavia for their independence (if not together, at least soon after one another, reflecting a shared distaste for the government in Belgrade). Croatia boasts a beautiful coastline any Slovenian would enjoy; Slovenia has gorgeous Alpine mountains worthy of exploration by adventurous Croatians, and the people in both countries were extremely friendly to this outsider.

But the rivalries inside of Slovenia, a country where any city is a day trip from any other city, strike me as being even more amusing—perhaps even troubling. It seems that even a country of two million people needs to find ways to divide itself into rival camps. It suggests that conflict is a deep-seated human attribute.

But perhaps it is also a virtue. After all, innovation is spurred by rivalry.

ADDENDUM (added 23 May 2010):

Tension between Croatia and Slovenia was exacerbated during the Balkan Wars. This quote from a 1991 piece by Slavenka Drakulić, which was reprinted in her collection of essays The Balkan Express, captures that tension well:
"When I told [the Ljubljana professor] I was from Croatia his tone of voice changed instantly. 'I've read in the newspapers that you refugees are getting more money per month from the state than we retired people do, and I worked hard for forty years as a university professor for my pension. Aren't we Slovenes nice to you?' The irony in his voice was already triggering a sense of anger in me. I felt an almost physical need to explain my position to him, that I am not 'we' and the 'we' are not getting money anyway."

and from the same collection of essays:
"Slovenia has put real border posts along the border with Croatia and has a different currency. This lends another tint to the Slovenian hills, the colour of sadness. Or bitterness. Or anger. If we three [sharing the train compartment] strike up a conversation about the green woods passing us by, someone might sigh and say, 'Only yesterday this was my country too.' Perhaps then the other two would start in about independence and how the Slovenes were clever while the Croats were not, while the Serbs, those bastards..."


  1. Slovenians got off lucky because there was minimal Serbian interest there. If there was an interest, the Yugoslav army could have bombed Slovenia like they did the Eastern part of Croatia( Vukovar).They could have attached them full force by land, air, and sea. That is what they did in Croatia. Believe me if this happened to them, they would be awaiting EU entry along with Croatia. There would also be none of this blackmailing that is going on today. Our economies would be virtually the same. Croatia has made great strides within the last 10 years and is catching up with our Northern neighbors. This is also why they are trying to slow us down. There are Croatian companies poised to enter the Slovenian market and buy out some of their companies. They are not allowing this at the moment. There are major projects in the works within Croatia at the moment. Some of these projects are so big that Slovenians would be speechless. Look up Croatian Dream!! There are some major developments happening along our coast. The new highways have created many new industrial zones and have completely transformed Croatia. I will laugh so hard within 8-10 years when Croatia passes Slovenia economically. It is also worth mentioning that many Slovenes work in Austria. It is a short drive and they earn more money. Slovenia should thank Croatia for being such a good buffer zone.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous, a lot of good points, here. For those wondering about Croatian Dream, the official website is here: