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MON, 30 JUL 2001 01:18:03 GMT

Political Advertising

The United States of Slovenia

Official Ljubljana and Skopje, despite their differences, have one thing in common: both are having a hard time with their official names

AIM Ljubljana, July 19, 2001

True, the reasons why these two countries are having problems with their official names are not at all similar. Most people probably know that the reason for Macedonia's troubles lies outside its borders -- neighboring Greece does not like it. Slovenia's problem, however, has not receive as much media coverage and is more subtle, but that does not make it any less serious, although its origins lie within Slovenia's borders.

A decade has passed since Slovenia declared its independence, and a growing number of voices can be heard calling for changes to its state flag, coat of arms, and even its name. It is interesting to note that all this coincides with Slovenia's plans to join the European Union, which is supposed to lead to the elimination of frontiers between countries from within. It seems that certain members of the political elite have a problem with this issue, especially in its part pertaining to ethnic particularities and identity. "Our key problem is our unrecognizability. The EU public frequently confuses us with Slovakia. And when you start explaining them that we are not the country which until recently was part of Czechoslovakia, but part of the former Balkan state, they suddenly start looking down at you," explains Janez Potocnik, head of the Slovenian delegation negotiating full EU membership. It is no surprise, therefore, that this "poor experience" has prompted even some members of the ruling LDS to start pondering alternations. For starters, these should include the official flag, coat of arms, and even the country's name, if need be. The most frequently given reason is "the unrecognizability" of Slovenian state symbols. Advocates of the idea of changing the state symbols stress the "advertising" advantages of unique national emblems. They say the appearance should also be changed as soon as possible, to improve the "media Image" of the country, which, in turn, is "an important mechanism in promoting it." "In order to sell Slovenian products and attract tourists," say reformers, "Slovenia should do something to make it different from other monotonous offers on the global market." And this, they say, will not happen with the present set of obsolete symbols.

It all began with the coat of arms. Shaped as a shield, it has in its middle the three peaks of Mt. Triglav, with three stars (borrowed) from the coat of arms of the Celje counts above it. Below the mountain is a section of a wavy sea, about as much of it as Slovenia has. The flag consists of three horizontal sections -- white, blue and red -- with the coat of arms displayed in the uppermost area. Since it was created, at the beginning of the 1990s, the coat of arms had an equal number of supporters and critics. It was most frequently criticized for looking like "a logo of a mountaineering association," whereas the flag was criticized, "because even little children know how much it looks like Slovakia's." Slovakia's flag also has three sections with the same succession of colors, and even a coat of arms on the same spot, although it looks a little different. Both the names of the states and their flags are similar, and this lethal combination is to blame, the critics say, for such frequent confusion of Slovenia and Slovakia. And this, in turn, is a source of constant frustration.

Many have not forgotten that George W. Bush, then Texas governor, boasted of having received "Slovak Prime Minister Drnovsek." Not to mention numerous stories, reports and articles sent from "Ljubljana, the capital of Slovakia." Many view sports as an effective means of national promotion as well. "A recent tie in Luznici was obviously insufficient to help the Russians remember Slovenia better. This is why in September in Ljubljana we will have to defeat them convincingly, like we did the Ukrainians. There is not a single Ukrainian left in Kiev who does not know where Slovenia is after we beat them," said the Ljubljana-based Delo paper in mid-May, 2001.

An official initiative for changing the national symbols was launched by a Slovenian MP and official of the ruling LDS, Jozef Skolje. Skolje believes that the confusion surrounding the national symbols occurred at the beginning of the 1900s, when politicians and heraldry experts could not reach an agreement on the new symbols. They all agreed that the star (the communist symbol of the former Yugoslavia) had to be removed from the flag, but they were not certain what was to replace it. There was only several months between the emergence of the idea and the declaration of the new country, and the new symbols had to be swiftly adopted. This is why Skolje proposes to use the next change of the Constitution to provide the country with "recognizable symbols" composed of "elements that would not be reminiscent of any other states." There are many who agree with Skolje. The leftist parties and their coalition partners are in favor of innovations. The rightists are somewhat suspicious, and oppose the change, saying that "people died for these symbols." Still, a senior opposition official, Milan Zver (from Jansa's SDS), believes that changing Slovenia's symbols would not be detrimental because Slovenia "has many original symbols," and the current ones are too similar to those used by countries "with which we used to be in a brotherly alliance." Jelincic's SNS is also against the status quo; he has been warning for quite some time that the white-blue-red flag is an inverted Russian flag, adopted by Slovenians in 1948. The major flaw is that about at the same time the same was done by the Slovaks and the Czechs, and a similar flag was adopted by the Serbs, the Montenegrins, and the Croats...

To convince the public this is not a whim, the adherents of change quote the results of a survey conducted by the Evrobarometar polling agency on the popularity of certain candidates for EU membership in EU countries. These results shocked the Slovenian public. Slovenia may be among the first on the list of potential candidates, maybe even the first. But the poll said it was one of the least popular countries. Last year, it was next to last (the least popular was Turkey), and this year its rating has somewhat improved -- it is ranked 12th, ahead of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. But Slovenians were shocked to learn who was against their EU membership, and very strongly at that. Thus, for example 60 percent of the French are against admitting Slovenia to the EU, and only 22 percent are in favor. Slovenia is mostly supported by the Greeks (54 percent), the Swedes (52 percent), the Danes (48 percent), the Italians (47 percent) and the Spaniards (45 percent). In addition to the French, on the other hand, staunch opponents of Slovenia's joining the EU are inhabitants of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Austria.

Advertising experts offer numerous miracle cures for "a quick change of the current state of affairs." Miro Kline from Kline&Kline says the government has to improve its PR, and Jure Apih, editor in chief of Marketing Magazin, believes that the name of the country should be more distinct and says: "We have to change the name of our country, and there is a good reason for that. We should initiate a serious debate on that. The next opportunity for that will be when we are admitted to the EU. We should not forget that Slovakia is also waiting to be admitted, and it is doing great in promoting itself. In Slovakia they think we are lacking both in money and events that could help us reach the focus of international attention. There is a saying that you shouldn't let anybody who is not famous into your house," says Apih.

Slovenia might resolve its identity crisis in a much simpler way. As opposed to other countries which have remained loyal to their obsolete and unimpressive symbols for centuries, officials in Ljubljana could call a permanent tender for the country's name and symbols, which would make it the first in the world to be constantly "in." In that event it would not need a name; everybody would know it as "the country that constantly changes its image." To those who consider a country's name and other national symbols nothing more than fad and whim, and to those who are ready, because of Balkanophobia, to get rid of their own past, even if it includes the traditional colors of their own people -- this would be a practical solution. It is another question whether Europe will have understanding for this belated debate on national symbols. It appears that right now it is unclear who will joint the EU in the next three years. In the fashion world there are no rules; new ideas are constantly replacing bsolete ones. Slovenia, United States of Slovenia, United Counties of Slovenia, Greater Carinthia -- which will it be?

Igor Mekina

(AIM Ljubljana)