“Most of the years I have spent abroad are connected to Hungary,” the Slovenian Ambassador in Budapest, H. E. Ksenija ©krilec tells Diplomacy & Trade in a comprehensive interview as part of the newspaper's special focus on Slovenian-Hungarian relations.
“Having spent many years in Hungary, I have a much wider focus that allows me to dig deeper and make much greater effort. It is a precondition to truly lively cohabitation, as are knowing and understanding each other well. Slovenia has a good image in Hungary, but press reports usually only scratch the surface. Thus, a lot of work has to be done in both of these respects,” Ambassador©krilec explains.
She came into contact with Hungarians and the Hungarian language as a child since she was born to a Hungarian mother in Lendava near the border, in an area with a substantial Hungarian population, where she attended a Hungarian-Slovene bilingual elementary school. Later, she became a university student of Hungarian and German philology in Budapest.
“It was then that I became interested in bilateral cooperation, especially in education. Since then, I have dealt with basically all aspects of bilateral relations during my career. The fact that I know a lot about Hungary can make my job here easier – but, in some respects, more difficult, as well,” she says.
"My primary work here is to make Slovenia better known and appreciated in Hungary, but conversely, the further development of bilateral relations also depends on the image of Hungary perceived in Slovenia,” she adds.
After university, Ksenija ©krilec joined a PR company, which paved the way to international relations “as the job included government relations.” She got involved in diplomacy in Budapest in the years when Slovenia gained independence and started to build its diplomatic and consular representation network. "Since then, besides Hungarian affairs, I have also dealt with bilateral relations with Austria, economic diplomacy and global issues. To date, I capitalize on these in my perception of the broader picture and the interdependence of human actions and reactions around the world.
While based in Budapest, Ksenija ©krilec also represents her country in Bulgaria. “Naturally, I’m trying to deal with issues in depth. It is not an easy task to deal with Slovenian-Bulgarian relations from another capital, but either myself or my colleagues pay regular visits and try to ensure as much presence in Sofia as possible, as there is a lot of potential in our cooperation with Bulgaria,” she points out. "Bulgaria, Slovenia and their people have traditionally been on very good terms. My main focus is on the strengthening of economic and cultural ties."
She took up the ambassadorial post in Budapest in the fall of 2013. “If you compare the neighborly relations of Hungary and Slovenia with other states, you can see that the ties between our countries are excellent. Nevertheless, for historical reasons, the two nations had not really had strong bonds in the past, so we need to take both quantitative and qualitative steps – even jumps! – to move things forward,” she says. She quotes recently appointed Hungarian Foreign Minister Tibor Navracsics, who during his first foreign visit that was to Slovenia said “…we are like two suburban neighbors who greet each other in the morning, but do not really know each other.” Therefore, Ambassador ©krilec wishes to divert her work in the direction that “our countries become neighbors who even barbecue together.”
The two countries have similar positions on most international issues, she explains, and there are some fields of tighter cooperation within the framework of the EU, NATO and also the UN. Excellent work is going on in agriculture, security policy, air policing and within different regional cooperation frameworks. “Slovenian cooperation with the V4 countries is a good example of the Central European aspect of Slovenian foreign policy, which just switched into a higher gear. This is important as Slovenia is at the crossroads of multiple regions as demonstrated by its diverse geography as well as its many identities and varied culture. In this endeavor, Hungary continues to give us strong, constant and valuable support,” she stresses.
Economic relations and tourism as a great potential
The volume of Slovenia’s bilateral trade had been constantly improving until the world economic crisis. The Ambassador notes that, “now, we have not only equaled the pre-crisis level but even surpassed it, with a turnover of EUR 1.7 billion in 2013.” Major commodities include vehicles, their parts and accessories, mineral fuels and oils, electrical machinery and equipment, audiovisual devices, and pharmaceutical products.
Tourism is of particular importance. “It has a lot of flavors and possibilities for attracting people. It is an easy tool to work with. Slovenia is a fortunate country, rich in attractions for all four seasons: from slopes and caves to the seashore, it has a lot to offer. Some people say it is a miracle or fairytale of natural diversity. Hungarians like to go there primarily for skiing and rafting, but they enjoy the seaside very much, too” the Ambassador points out. "It is also great fun for companies to hold teambuilding weekends in this environment with many sporting challenges and outstanding facilities."
With the geographical diversity comes an equally diverse cuisine, for example Slovenia’s quality ham, different soups with vegetables and desserts like the pehtranova potica (tarragon cake), the gibanica (special layered cake) and the ’krémes’ of Bled. The famous Hungarian goulash, a stew-like vineyard dish, is known to Slovenians by a different name: bograè. It has its own festival in the ‘World capital of bograè’, Lendava, at the end of August each year. Naturally, Ksenija ©krilec is very familiar with Hungarian culinary delights, as well. “If I have guests from Slovenia and I want to cook some Hungarian specialty, I usually decide for chicken paprika.”
Hungarians also like to visit spas in Slovenia irrespective of the fact that Hungary is rich in thermal waters. Each spa in Slovenia has its special healing characteristic and they are an integral part of health tourism. All this is accompanied by the beautiful Slovenian scenery and the fact that this country has, proportionately, the largest forest cover in Europe (60% of the country’s territory), she notes.
Bled: beauty, history and business management
The Ambassador highlights that one of the iconic symbols of her country, Bled, is a favorite destination also for Hungarians. “Bled is in the vicinity of the Isonzo valley, a part of history for many Hungarian families, since many of their loved ones were injured or lost their lives in battle there during World War I. Commemorations of the centenary of WWI events started earlier this year and this is another connecting element in our common fate.”
At the end of August, the town hosted the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF). “The Forum is organized in a very beautiful environment of Bled, where, at the end of summer each year, leaders from the region and from around the globe, gather to discuss burning international issues. The leading element of this year’s event is the concept of trust: how to re-build trust with credible communication. This forum is becoming more and more well-known in the international community and it is widening its scope. At the beginning, it was a meeting of politicians, but lately, it also includes a business leaders’ forum and a young leaders’ forum. I am very happy that Hungarian presence at BSF is constantly growing and convinced that Minister Navracsics's participation this year added validity and vigor to the debate within the Central Europe panel,” she explains. “Speaking of business leaders and Bled, we have to mention the Bled School of Management, which has had several Hungarian leaders attend its courses,” she concludes.
As for the flow of foreign direct investment, according to 2012 data from the Bank of Slovenia, Hungarian investment to Slovenia amounted to EUR 72.2 million, while Slovenian investments to Hungary were EUR 15.3 million. As for volume, the biggest Slovenian investment in Hungary is a logistics center in Törökbálint with several other Slovenian companies headquartered there. Regarding the major Slovenian players on the Hungarian market, the Ambassador says “the first to mention is the Port of Koper, as it is the most important exit seaport for Hungarian goods in the North Adriatic, while Hungary is the entry point for the Port of Koper’s Central European operations. Then comes Gorenje, which rings bells in Hungarians´ minds in connection with the shopping frenzy during the political transition period. Their affordable yet quality household appliances were purchased and brought en masse into Hungary from Austria when Hungarians came to experience the freedom of travel and private imports after their exit visas were scrapped in 1988. Nowadays, these products are available to all, right here. Krka, whose pharmaceutical products can be found in many Hungarian households, is a Slovenian aid to Hungarian health. But there is a Hidria factory in Gyöngyös and there are many other high quality Slovenian products on the Hungarian market, too. Nonetheless, we strive for much more.”
"Slovenian companies have established themselves here and know the economic environment and their way around", she adds. For potential new players on the Hungarian market, it is important to get to know the possibilities better. For this reason, the two countries’ chambers of commerce will organize a business forum in Budapest this September.
Minorities as bonds
“Ethnic minorities are strong connecting elements in Slovenian-Hungarian relations, forming a solid bridge between our nations and cultures. As you may know, Slovenia has an exceptional minority policy. Also, in the Rábavidék region in SW Hungary, there is an autonomous Slovenian minority living in seven villages near the Austrian-Slovenian-Hungarian border with the center in Szentgotthárd-Mono¹ter. Over the decades of the Iron Curtain, life was hard for them in this corner of borders. Thus, they need a lot of support from Hungary and Slovenia alike to have a chance to develop. In recent years, there have been steps forward. For instance, in the new Hungarian Parliament, there will be spokespersons for the different national minorities, including the ethnic Slovenians of Rábavidék, which will give them a chance to better represent their interests. A prime ministerial meeting was held in the region this January, which included opening a new road between two villages enabling the development not only of the immediate but also the wider region. This has also been a symbolic and practical sign of facilitating contacts between Slovenia and Hungary.”
According to the latest census, 2,800 people belong to this Slovenian minority but their actual number is estimated to be around 5,000. On the Slovenian side of the border, 6,000 people are registered as Hungarians, but they are thought to be about 8,000. “The Slovenian community is also very proud of its compatriot Antal Rogán, one of Hungary's most successful politicians, the mayor of Budapest's fifth district and leader of Fidesz's parliamentary caucus,” the Ambassador adds.
“We have several cultural projects ongoing but the institutionalized framework has yet to be established. There are talks about a Hungarian cultural center in Ljubljana and a Slovene house in Budapest. I believe we need more translated books of Slovene literature, more dictionaries, most of all a big bilingual dictionary, as well as more travel guides. One of my plans is to publish children’s books of Slovenian authors and illustrators in Hungarian. After World War II, the publishing of these kinds of books was a great success in our country. In their themes and illustrations, they represent not only Slovenian culture but also follow Central European cultural traditions. I would like to promote Slovenia through these publications. I think this could be a vice-versa project possibly within the V4+ framework,” she says. "It is also interesting to note that both the authors and illustrators of these storybooks are women and how women in general are increasingly valued in contemporary Slovenian society. Even our previous prime minister was a lady," the Ambassador points out.
Slovenia has renowned choreographers and modern dance companies. The Slovenian avant-garde music group Laibach recently had a successful concert here. An important goal is to make cooperation between our educational institutions more lively, have an exchange of not only students but professors, as well, and make students interested in the other country. One good example is that of the music academies of the two capitals that began developing ties a few years ago.
As the Ambassador notes, “we are preparing a big exhibition of contemporary Slovenian painters in Budapest’s Mûcsarnok (Art Hall) and I also have plans to bring a big exhibition of Slovenian impressionists here. In addition, we would like our academies of science and arts to work closer together. We also find it important that people, regions and cities connect. I try not to sit here in Budapest, but visit different regions. So far, I have visited Vas and Zala counties that are the strongest bridge for cooperation between Hungary and Slovenia, and also the vibrant town of Veszprém, which cultivates a diverse cooperation with Celje, ranging from sports, through education, to other areas. At the Budapest Design Week this October, we presented modern Slovenian design. I’m sure Hungarians are not aware of the exceptional level of Slovenian design in architecture, product design, and the achievements of Slovenian artists in this field – nor of those of Slovenian scientists. One of my favorite science projects I was involved with was the GreenLight WorldFlight project, where a Slovene biologist, photographer and pilot, Matev¾ Lenarèiè flew a Slovene-developed ultra-light airplane over the Arctic, measuring the concentration of black carbon there with a Slovenian patented instrument,” she adds. “I see a huge space for cooperation in innovation, the development of new, eco-friendly, green technologies, and essentially all things that point toward the future and can be sustained,” she concludes.