Slovenian ambassador likens Syria to former Yugoslavia, hopes Annan plan will work

Milan Jazbec (Photo: Today's Zaman)

May 28, 2012, Monday/ 16:49:00

When he told a journalist friend while drinking coffee at a cafe in Ljubljana that he had been appointed to Ankara as ambassador, the friend said, “It’s a dream job.”

He agreed. It was August 2010. In the first week of September of that year Dr. Milan Jazbec arrived in Ankara, right before the quarterfinal was played between Turkey and Slovenia in the World Basketball Championship.

Jazbec felt excited about the new post he would take over in Ankara. Not only was he to assume the responsibility of being an ambassador for the first time, but also the country he was appointed to, Turkey, was an emerging market which had drawn the world’s attention in a time of global economic crisis. Plus, Turkey was going through a transformation, a process of restructuring. And last but not least, the region surrounding Turkey was the playground of major world powers. As ambassador, Jazbec was also to be responsible for Azerbaijan, Lebanon and Syria, with Iraq to be added on the list in some near future.

So, there was much reason to feel excited. Noting the ongoing process of change in Turkey and the surrounding region, the ambassador commented in an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman: “This is a tremendous challenge, the biggest and most complex challenge in the world at the moment. It’s a privilege to be here and to be part of the process, and to witness it.” And to top it all, just months after his appointment, the Arab Spring demonstrations broke out. Jazbec was now in a position to feel the pulse of the Middle East. He wants to be optimistic about what’s happening in the Arab world, and considers the push for change in the region “a huge manifestation of the people’s will to live in dignity, in prosperity, and to have what everybody deserves.”

Similarities between former Yugoslaiva and Syria

But he also has some misgivings. Noting that Slovenia shares the European Union’s approach to the Syrian issue, the ambassador drew attention to the similarities between the former Yugoslavia, the memory of which is still fresh, and Syria. “Syria reminds me, to a large extent, of the former Yugoslavia in terms of heterogeneity; it is similar in ethnic and religious diversity,” he stated, adding that the diversity is and should be a precious value, but at the same time, it is volatile like gunpowder. “We know from our own experience, when Yugoslavia collapsed into a brutal war, how ethnic and religious hatred seized people. People from different ethnic origins living in the same apartment block started to hate each other.” Jazbec hopes the Annan plan and the United Nations observer mission will be able to put an end to the violence in Syria.

He’s afraid Arabs might turn bitter out of frustration if their expectations for change are not met. “The experience of the end of the Cold War teaches us that when there are huge expectations, there are also a lot of illusions,” he stated, referring to the situation in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Calling on everyone to be careful that these huge expectations don’t turn into disillusionment, Jazbec cautioned: “You can witness this in some of the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe in certain periods. Grand illusions turned into disillusionment, enabling the forces of the old regime to come back and prevent a smooth process of normalization and democratization.” He urges the international community to do its best to support the democratic aspirations of the people in Syria and elsewhere in order for casualties not to increase.

Turkey and Slovenia are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Slovenia after it declared its independence from Yugoslavia in February 1992. “This was highly important for us at the time. And we are using this recognition as a framework for expanding and deepening our relations,” the ambassador remarked.

In recent years, the frequency of top-level visits between the two countries has been impressive. In 2010 President Abdullah Gül visited Slovenia; in September of the same year, Slovenian President Danilo Türk came to Turkey on an unofficial visit to watch a basketball game between Turkey and Slovenia. In March 2011 former Slovenian Prime Minister Borut Pahor paid an official visit to Turkey and delivered a speech at the opening ceremony of the Turkey-Slovenia Business Forum in İstanbul. And Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, together with seven ministers, was in Slovenia at the beginning of the month to strengthen ties and get the award -- offered by the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) -- of “World Personality of the Decade” for his constructive policies in the Middle East and the Balkans.

The two countries made their political relations more strategic last year. The ambassador described the bilateral political relations as “excellent.” But, he said, the economic relations are not at the desired level yet. The trade volume between Turkey and Slovenia, although doubled in the last five years or so, stands at a modest 450 million euros for 2011. But Jazbec believes the two countries will carry the figure to 1 billion euros in the near future.

To this end, in the fall of this year, businesspeople from both countries will get together for a brainstorming session in İstanbul, and a joint economic ministerial commission is expected to be organized in Ljubljana in the near future. The Slovenian minister of defense will also pay a visit to Turkey this fall. During Erdoğan’s recent visit, the conversations between the ministers were mostly at an informal level. But in the next ministerial meeting concrete issues are to be discussed to deepen cooperation at various levels.

Cooperation in the construction industry

One of the potential areas of cooperation is the construction industry. “The construction industry in Slovenia, although quite small comparatively, has considerable know-how to share with Turkish construction companies,” the ambassador said. The geographic position of the country may also be of interest for the Turkish transport and logistics sector. Situated on the route between Turkey and Germany, with an important port city, Koper, on the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia offers an attractive alternative for transporters. Connections between Koper and Turkish ports -- especially İzmir, Mersin, Antalya and İskenderun -- may prove profitable for Turkish exporters. “This route, which passes through the heart of Europe, is the shortest, fastest one for Turkish transporters,” noted the ambassador. Tourism is another area where the two countries can further cooperation. The Slovenian interest in Turkey seems to have increased considerably, particularly after the World Basketball Championship. Around 40,000 tourists from Slovenia visit Turkey each year. Turkish Airlines flies five times a week to Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital. But, Jazbec believes, the number of tourists would rise if the number of flights were to be increased. He also suggests that charter flights between Antalya and Maribor, one of Slovenia’s major destinations, in the summer season might help increase the traffic.

Slovenia is an attractive holiday spot with spa centers where health problems can be treated and farm tourism in which visitors can participate in farming activities as well as enjoy excellent food and beautiful nature. “These places are especially attractive for people living in big cities, for business people and for the political elite,” commented the ambassador.

The ambassador has also been trying to weave closer ties between the two countries through honorary consuls general. Slovenia has five honorary consulates in Turkey: in İstanbul, İzmir, Antalya, Hatay and Gaziantep. But Jazbec hopes to increase the number to more than 10 next year. The ambassador sees the presence of honorary consuls, who are most often respected businesspeople, as a medium for significantly furthering bilateral relations on the economic and cultural fronts.

Slovenia and Turkey share common views on many political issues. Slovenia supports Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union, and both countries have geographical positions in the Balkans. To strengthen bilateral relations, cooperation between the national airlines and steps to promote trade have also been discussed recently, among other strategies. A Slovenian firm may take part in the FATİH project, in which all elementary and high schools in Turkey are to be provided with laptops and Internet.


Teaching a course at Bilkent University

Dr. Milan Jazbec, who has served as the Slovenian ambassador to Turkey since September 2010, is also a professor of diplomatic studies. He taught a course this past semester on 20th-century diplomatic history to graduate students in international relations at Bilkent University. The ambassador said he was quite satisfied to have such an opportunity in Turkey. The course, which he said was focused on revolutions in the last 200 years or so, urged students to draw lessons for today. Yet his comments are somewhat demoralizing: “In some areas humans have made enormous progress, but in some others the same thing happens again and again from the days of the French Revolution.”

The ambassador has been in the diplomatic service since the days of the former Yugoslavia. From November 2004 to September 2006, he was minister plenipotentiary in the Department for Security Policy and also a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairmanship Task Force within the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before coming to Turkey, he served from September 2006 onwards as director of the ministry’s department of policy planning and research.

Ambassador’s novel promotes Slovenian literature

Ambassador Jazbec is making great efforts to weave closer ties between Slovenia and Turkey not only on the political and business fronts but also in the field of culture. The first substantial fruit of this effort is a book titled “The Rainbow Behind the Soul” (Ruhun ötesindeki gökkuşağı), authored by the ambassador himself and recently translated into Turkish. More than 2,000 copies of the book, which is a novel about diplomacy and the first installment in a planned trilogy, have been distributed to members of Parliament, politicians, leading businesspeople and mayors throughout Turkey. Pleased with the contacts the book provided him with, he told Today’s Zaman, “I’ve been receiving thank-you messages from all over Turkey, from people I don’t know.”

The book is part of a new translation project, which also receives considerable financial support from Turkish businesspeople, and within its framework two other books will be translated from Slovenian. The second book, currently in the process of being translated, is the diary of a Slovene poet and traveler who stayed in İstanbul for two weeks in 1893. The book is expected to be published in the fall. The ambassador, who is also on the advisory board of the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, also envisions establishing a Slovenian cultural center in İstanbul in the future.

At home in Turkey

The ambassador finds Turks hardworking like Slovenians, whose attitude toward work seems to have been influenced considerably by the Protestant work ethic described by Max Weber. “I feel comfortable in Turkey,” he told Today’s Zaman. In view of various assertions regarding his surname, Jazbec might even be somewhat connected in heritage to the broader region surrounding Turkey. People have told him his family name is of Turkish origin. Others have claimed it may have Arabic origins, given that one of the important families in Lebanon has the same family name. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan told Jazbec his surname might have an Azerbaijani origin, because there is a similar word in Azerbaijani meaning “lord of time.” And some have said the surname has a Caucasian origin. Considering all these claims, “Obviously, I came home,” the ambassador said, smiling.

Common words…

Jazbec likes the relaxed, open attitude of people in Turkey. “There are emotions in the air. This is what I miss in the communication elsewhere, including Europe,” he said. Slovene and Turkish have quite a few common words such as “çay,” “kahve” and “yoğurt,” which is most probably a trace of their Ottoman heritage. The ambassador also noted there are Turkish words of Slovene origin such as “poğaça” and “torba.” And there are efforts to further strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. Turkey’s İskenderun and Slovenia’s Koper, both port cities, are considering becoming sister cities.

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