Interview Date: 8th December 2009
Interview Medium: Telephone
This interview with Slovenian President Danilo Türk was the first Worldleaderathon interview that we were lucky enough to carry out, back in December 2009.
President Türk has been President of Slovenia since December 2007 and has previously worked as a lawyer, academic and diplomat. Notably, he has worked extensively in human rights, including work with Amnesty International reporting human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia. He has also worked a lot within the United Nations, as Slovenia's permanent representative from 1992 to 1998, twice serving as the President of the United Nations Security Council and also, from 2000 to 2005, as the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. Immediately prior to becoming President, Dr Türk was working as a professor and dean in the law department at the University of Ljubljana.
For the 15 minute interview we had been granted, we decided to ask about growing up in Tito's Yugoslavia, the President's work for Amnesty International, his interest in Human Rights and how this affects his work as President, why he decided to run for President, the international recognition of Kosovo, the (then) upcoming FIFA 2010 World Cup for which Slovenia had just qualified, Slovenia's Presidency of the EU in early 2008 and finally, as with all our interviews, what President Türk thinks that the future holds for Slovenia.
For this interview our sincerest thanks go to President Türk and his Press Secretary Vlasta Krušnik.
How do you think growing up in Tito’s Yugoslavia has affected your political standpoint?
I believe that this happened in two ways. First, you need to understand that Yugoslavia at that time was fairly open to international travel and communication and finds itself very much part of global society, being one of the leaders of the non-aligned movement. So that was one influence. The other influence was a relative insensitivity to human rights issues; human rights were not directly denied but they were seen as something unimportant and that created social insensitivity to human rights violations. Later on, after Tito, this obviously became fatal and contributed to the chaos and eventual collapse of the country. Now, this understanding continues to be with me and it has indirectly helped me in focussing on human rights and understanding that Slovenia is one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia and needs to be open to the whole world.
Was it difficult to work with Amnesty International in the 1980s, reporting on human rights issues, when Yugoslavia was still effectively a Communist state?
Not really because you have to understand Yugoslavia was in a state of, um, probably slow disintegration already. It may have been a Communist state nominally, but it was not effectively controlled by the Communist party or by any system. It was a strange place. It was a country where, um, human rights violations occurred and there was a discussion on human rights violations and a lot of diversity of political views on these issues. But this was not dangerous; this was not seen as something that creates, creates big dangers except in Kosovo, obviously that was a particular place, and to some extent in Bosnia. So, for me I have lived in Slovenia, and Slovenia has been very liberal and the discussions were constant. There we didn’t feel that much of the pressure of the fact that nominally Yugoslavia was still a Communist state.
As we’ve already mentioned, you’ve always taken an interest in human rights and you’ve kind of mentioned this a bit, but how do you think this affects your work as President?
Now obviously my main responsibilities are within Slovenia itself. We have some human rights problems, and I have to address them, which I do, often. We have a problem of the status of various individuals; quite a number of individuals, quite a number of individuals, who did not obtain Slovenian citizenship following the disintegration of Yugoslavia; they are what is colloquially called ‘erased’ from the register of permanent residence of Slovenia and we have to remedy this situation. This is a human rights problem, a serious one; the current government is working on it. When I started my work as President, I went to the Parliament and I pleaded very strongly for remedying that situation. That’s one example. And we have a variety of experience with asylum seekers and people who come into Slovenia illegally. Their human rights are sometimes also affected. So I have to deal with these kind of questions in a manner appropriate to my position. Obviously I can not replace the courts of law or the administrative bodies of our government, but I do speak publicly and I go to the Parliament and do things of this nature. On the international scene, I am less active right now and I see that human rights do not command the kind of attention that these issues should; the 1980s were different in that regard. Now, people have other problems on their mind internationally and that’s not good; I believe that international attention to human rights should grow.
Following your distinguished academic, humanitarian, diplomatic career, why did you decide to run for President in 2007?
Well, it was a strange coincidence of circumstances; not really strange, but unusual. The Social Democrats were looking for a candidate after their chairman of the party decided not to run for President which was expected, which had been expected by them, and they were needing a candidate very quickly, so they came to me. That was at the end of the academic year in June 2007; I’d just finished a book on international law; the manuscript was delivered. I didn’t have all that much work over the Summer, which was the time of the campaign and I thought that, in fact, I could contribute something to Slovenia given my previous experience as a diplomat, as also a UN official; I was Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations dealing with Political Affairs back in the years 2000 to 2005 so I thought that this kind of experience can be helpful to the country and since I was asked, I said ‘Yes’ and then I ran a campaign.
We talked about Kosovo a bit earlier, but as one of the diplomats who worked for the international recognition of Slovenia in 1991, how do you rate the chances of Kosovo gaining widespread international recognition?
I believe that Kosovo has achieved and already has quite good recognition. It is recognised by I believe 65 or 70 countries right now and that includes most of those countries with which Kosovo cooperates in the Northern hemisphere, and quite a few others. But I believe that one has to understand the specific features of this situation of Kosovo. I believe that there are essentially three things one has to keep in mind. First that the process of recognition will be gradual; it’s not going to happen in one go like in most other cases. Secondly that Kosovo will have to develop proper internal structure of the state, statehood, which it didn’t have and public administration and other structures will have to be established completely. And thirdly, that Kosovo will need to use the spirit of recognition for strengthening of regional ties, finding new ways of developing ties with Serbia; that will be very difficult, but it’s part of the same process now. Since Slovenia has recognised Kosovo; we have full diplomatic relations with Kosovo and we consider Kosovo as a sovereign state, but we also know that in the Europe of today, sovereign states have to cooperate very closely and we would hope that during the period of recognition, Kosovo and Serbia will establish closer ties.
As Slovenia has just qualified for the 2010 World Cup (and is in England’s group) how important would you say this is for your country?
Oh, this is extremely important. I am surprised myself that football is so important for people in Slovenia because we are not a traditionally strong football nation, but we have a good team right now; we have a good team spirit within the team and within the society. I went to the football match between Russia and Slovenia in Maribor a couple of weeks ago and I must say that the atmosphere there was something very special; I haven’t experienced anything like that in Slovenia before. So I believe that this has now become a very strong popular sentiment, even a popular movement; people will go in large numbers to South Africa next year and we are very optimistic right now; I see that many people are saying that we are even capable of defeating England, which I’m not so sure about. But I must inform, I must report to your listeners that in Slovenia, we are taking this championship very seriously and that many people believe, perhaps the majority believes, that we are capable of defeating England as a very strong and traditional football nation.
How successful would you say that Slovenia’s Presidency of the EU in early 2008 was?
I think it was very successful and in a way we were lucky because that was a time when Europe did not face any of the crises which proved to be difficult to manage in the complex order of European Union. As you know, the European Union has 27 member states, it has a number of bodies, set of bureaucracies, which do not always complaint (?) amongst themselves. So it’s not an easy place to manage, especially in times of crisis when one has to be very quick and determined and one has to have good support in the European Union. Now, we didn’t have any of those types of situations except for Kosovo, but Kosovo was predictable and that was manageable for that reason. Otherwise we were able to concentrate on some of the more fundamental issues, like global warming and Slovenia has done a pretty good job in organising the process which eventually led the European Union to adopt very good policies on global warming, so European Union can today, as we speak, be a strong player at the Copenhagen Conference. We are quite happy with the role that our government played, and we believe that that set a good example to other new member states of European Union who will preside. Slovenia was first among the new member states to preside and that was a positive experience.
What do you think the future holds for Slovenia?
Well, I hope the future holds good and prosperous life. Slovenia already has good quality of life. Now at present we are facing a serious recession and economic crisis which we have to overcome and the way to do it is again to connect with the globalised world much more strongly, find new partners, new markets, new products and this we’ll have to do in a situation where we’ll also have to change our pension system, our health system and other basic systems in out society. I believe that the future holds good and prosperous life for Slovenia but we have very much work to do and that will have to be done in the years 2010 to 2012.