Vote ZA! Another Slovenian perspective

A guest post by Donald Urquhart


In May 1991 I was painting in my studio in Glasgow when there was a knock at the door. It was Andrew Nairn of the Third Eye Centre (later the CCA) with an invitation to an opportunity he was the UK selector for. Would I go to Yugoslavia in October for four weeks to join a colony of international artists making art on the Adriatic, all expenses paid?

Not the toughest decision to make, so before long I was put in contact with the organiser, Matjaz Gruden. I found out the area I was going to was the northwest bit of Yugoslavia called Slovenia. I fully admit to having had only a basic knowledge of Yugoslavia at the time; Tito, Dynamo Zagreb, and that was about it.

In a bit of basic research I found out a wee bit more about Slovenia, through which I saw some parallels to Scotland emerge …

They were 2 million of 22 million.

Whilst historically a nation, Slovenia was considered a region of Yugoslavia

The distance from them to the capital of Yugolslavia, Belgrade, was about 500 miles.

They contributed more to the overall economy than they got back.

They had preserved their own language and had a very strong sense of self, expressed through a dynamic cultural scene.

They wanted their independence.

They were not very good at football.

I began to look forward to my forthcoming visit in the knowledge that it seemed the sort of place I could fit in. In fact it seemed to have something of the familiar to it.

Now, for reasons known to herself and not directly pertinent to this narrative, a friend’s girlfriend broke up with him. This sad event happened on the 25th June 1991. My friend called me the next morning wondering if he could call round, as I’d not left for my studio … Well what are friends for?

And so it came to pass that I spent the 26th of June in my flat with my morose friend. I despatched whisky and sage advice (.. there’s plenty more wrinkles on the prune etc. etc. ) in repeat doses. Five hours of counselling later I was running out of both cliches and whisky. “To the bar,” I announced, “… problems are smaller in bars.”

It was late when I got home, I vaguely remember bouncing off the wall on my way home, as I congratulated myself on sending my friend home, marginally less suicidal than he had been earlier in the day.

It was then I got the fax from Matjaz in Slovenia…

“Friends, this is the darkest day in the history of Slovenia” it read, “We are a peace loving country and are under attack from the Yugoslav army. Support us in your hearts and minds. We are at war.”

The next morning, I woke up extremely hungover and with a vague recollection that I’d done something stupid the night before. The something stupid turned out to be a seventeen page reply faxed to Matjaz.

I will spare you the details, but my reply was not short of emotion, being as it was like a cross between the Gettysburg address and Braveheart, the movie. Burns was in there, as was the Declaration of Arbroath, even a reference to St Johnstone.

More troubling were the lines, “I will come to Slovenia, no matter the situation. Even if I have to, I’ll make art under fire. The invitation to a Scot by a Slovene has nothing to do with Belgrade. I will join you in your struggle.”

At once I understood the role of strong drink in engendering a false sense of bravery. As my ‘whisky fuelled’ fax was arriving with Matjaz, the other artists were contacting him to decline their acceptance to visit Slovenia, but I was not to know that until later.

The war in Slovenia was short, and mercifully not too horrendous, lasting only twelve days. Since then Slovenia has been an independent state within the European Union.

It was, therefore, almost three months after the war that I arrived at Brnick Airport in Ljubljana. I noticed the small reception committee as I exited customs and assumed a minor Slovene celebrity had been on the flight. It turned out to be for me. A band struck up, handshakes and a guy in a suit pinned a medal on my lapel. Drink was offered by a lady in national costume. I’d been awarded the Badge of Honour for Services to Slovenian Independence. It sits, to this day, on my mantelpiece.

You see, my fax had struck a chord. When most Slovenes had thought nobody in Europe had heard of them or cared for their struggle, my fax was read on the radio. I was told, “You seemed to understand our need for freedom.” I decided at this point not to confess to the utter lack of sobriety at the time of writing.

I stayed in Slovenia for six weeks in the beautiful coastal town of Piran. It was a fascinating time, the post independence euphoria co-existing with despair at the ongoing situation and war in neighbouring Croatia.

At the end of my stay my work was exhibited in Gallerija Ars in Ljubljana. As we walked towards the gallery for the opening I thought I heard bagpipes away in the distance. The closer we got to the gallery the clearer and louder the pipes appeared. Matjaz had organized a piper, David Grant. I never found out if David got a Badge of Honour for Services to Slovenian Independence but he certainly deserved one.

In early 1991 David set off with his family from Orkney to be the first to circumnavigate the globe by horse drawn caravan.

They got to the north of Slovenia where their horse contracted Hepatitis C, and had to recuperate for a few months in a horse clinic near Maribor. On the outbreak of war on the 26th June David took his family over the border into Austria, but returned to Maribor with his pipes. During some of the clashes with military planes overhead, David played his pipes to keep morale up. He was interviewed on Slovene TV, making similar points to my fax, only more succinctly and soberly.

After the war David and his family were given teaching work and housing by the Council in Maribor until their horse recovered. It was through the police that he was contacted and asked to pipe at my opening.

Through this initial contact with Slovenia I met many friends who, today, are like a second family to me. I return regularly and have lost count of the number of times I’ve been there. I can assure you that the views purporting to come from Slovenia that reach you via the comments in certain newspapers are in no way typical. I have had many wishes of support for Scottish independence from Slovenia. The only question I get is why it’s taking us so long.

Whilst it has had its problems, most notably since the economic crisis, Slovenia is a model for a successful small country. It has flourished in the twenty three years since gaining its independence , with a high standard of living and an excellent and improving infrastructure. Life expectancy and literacy are higher there than in Scotland.

With a population and area about 40% of Scotland’s it seems to be doing just fine. Economically, in 2013, Die Welt ranked Slovenia among the three least vulnerable European countries topped only by Germany and Estonia.

I was last there at New Year. A plane, with propellers, flew overhead and my friend Gorazd asked rhetorically if I knew what it was. “That,” he said, “is one third of the Slovenian Air Force.”

Despite its history in 1991, contemporary Slovenia sees no need to spend vast amounts of its GDP on weaponry. It holds no capability to invade anywhere.

It is a shame that Slovenia cannot be held up to Scotland as a shining example. It was of course on the 26th of June 1991 that, simultaneously, Slovenia and Croatia began a process that became the Balkan Conflict. That horror over shadows everything that Slovenia has achieved and makes it a difficult exemplar.

I have never heard a single voice in Slovenia against democratic nation states determining their own destiny.


Donald Urquhart


31 comments on “Vote ZA! Another Slovenian perspective

  1. Normally, this blog is my first read in the morning, before my thermo nuclear tea is poured, as I have learned that I usually burst out with laughter and spray the keyboard.

    Today was different, I just felt a fuzzy warm feeling of success for Scotland and especially all offspring.


  2. scotsgeoff says:

    Wonderful post! That left a warm feeling in my heart.

  3. Bittie Glakit says:

    Perhaps a new Scottish film industry could use this brilliant story!

  4. Tris says:

    I’ve been to Slovenia a few times too and I love it. There’s a warm friendly peaceful and relatively affluent air about it, immediately noticeable when you cross the border from Croatia.

    I hope we can emulate them and their success.

  5. A.Hamilton says:

    Thank you, this post has filled my head with wonderful strange images and fired up my heart.

  6. macart763 says:

    Wonderful post Mr Urquhart.

  7. A wonderful example of ‘small is beautiful’. This is just the sort of example that all Scots should be made aware of. Only the venal and the intellectually stunted could see it as anything other than inspirational.

  8. Reblogged this on Wake Up Before It's Too Late and commented:
    Following on from my blog ‘A Tale of Two Countries’ – fantastic letter from Slovenia!

  9. mary vasey says:

    Heartwarming post David, thank you

  10. Nigel Mace says:

    Human, humane, real and relevant. A wonderful post and I only wish that it could be much, much more widely read. Thank you so much, David – and Paul for hosting this.

  11. setondene says:

    I’ve been to Slovenia many times over the past 35 years and was hurt and confused by the postings of oor Roza. She seemed in no way typical of the many Slovenes I have become friends with and her opposition to Scottish independence made me wonder if she was a Slovene at all. Maybe a Serb living in Slovenia. The Slovenes are very proud of their independence and of the ferocious battle their Defence Forces put up against the Yugoslav National Army – the largest army in Europe west of the USSR at the time. If ever there was an example of a civilized and successful small country that Scotland should emulate it is Slovenia.

    It puzzles my anti-independence brother when I say I support the Slovenian football team rather than England because I know Slovenia better than I know England. I believe that David Grant the piper stayed in Dravograd, near the Slovene/Austrian border for a time in the early 90s.

    • weegingerdug says:

      That’s what I was saying to Donald when asking if I could publish the above (which he’d sent to me privately) – it really pisses me off no end that in the minds of many Scottish independence supporters, Slovenia is forever associated with the bizarrely literal minded rants of JR. Slovenia is a fantastic country, and it was a Slovene who told me what I think is one of the best reasons for someone from any small nation to want independence – “I love my country because it is small and harmless, and it needs people to look after it.”

  12. setondene says:

    I forgot to say that Slovenia, a nation of 2 million, has numerous TV channels all of its own. They represent communities of every size from the nation to the smallest locality. An example to us when we get rid of the English BBC.

  13. Donald, to think, how lucky are we, all we have to do is put a cross in the right box.

    • They put a cross in the right box too… There was a referendum in Slovenia in 1990, which produced the mandate to implement the declaration of independence in 1991. The transition from Yugoslavia to Slovenia ( changing flags, border signs, new currency overnight etc ) was largely organised by the Slovenian Police!

      The highest mountain in Slovenia is Triglav, at almost 9,000 feet. At midnight on the 25th June 1991, they even had folks on the summit to lower the Yugoslav flag and run up the new Slovenian one.

      In the referendum, that preceded these events, the question read ” “Should the Republic of Slovenia become an independent and sovereign state?” (Ali naj Republika Slovenija postane samostojna in neodvisna država?).

      The result……. 88.5% voted YES, 4% voted NO

  14. Helena Brown says:

    Thank you David, I read this post twice in case I missed something the first time. I have not been to Slovenia and it looks like that has been a mistake because I believe it is a very beautiful country. We were in the Croatian part of Yugoslavia way back in 1981, in a place called Cervar Porat near Porec, We went late in the season and found that our resort was closed so spent much of our time in the bigger city of Porec or travelling. We should really go back and see the place and see the difference because under Tito it was not that happy a place. Another case of not better together.

    • M.K. Hajdin says:

      You don’t know what you’re talking about, honestly. Many people were quite happy under Tito. Westerners have such an anti-communist bias, it would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

      Also, Slovenia is not so happy since it became capitalist / a member of the EU. There’s a lot of unemployment, student protests, etc

  15. A fine inspirational start to the day.. nice thoughts ahead.

  16. Devereux says:

    Years ago I drove cross-country through central Croatia and got lost looking for a motorway on the map (that hadn’t been built yet). We passed many villages horribly pot-marked with bullet holes. How lucky we are to have a remarkable opportunity of peaceful change. If just one decent newspaper in Scotland would print articles such as this it would not just be an opportunity but a reality. Thank you, David.

    • weegingerdug says:

      Everyone keeps calling him David. The guy who wrote the piece is called Donald Urquhart, he mentions another person called David in the article. But I’m delighted you enjoyed his contribution.

  17. yerkitbreeks says:

    I found myself quite emotional on behalf of Slovenians at that awful time.

  18. JGedd says:

    This was a very informative and optimistic story of how a small country, even in the cockpit of the Balkans, could achieve its independence and quietly and successfully get on with life, with no threat to its neighbours..

    The history of the Balkans is a fraught and bloody one with atrocity and counter-atrocity through centuries caused by rule of outside interests, the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire for instance. WW2 added to that violent history as well as to the history of atrocity. There were terrible things done by the Croatian Ustashe on the side of the Nazis and people mainly on the Serb side had been alive at the time or the family memory was still kept fresh of cruel killing carried out by the Ustashe.

    I’m restricted by time and space and anyway you can’t do a potted history of the Balkans. Suffice it to say the recent Balkan war was not as presented by our TV ( which is in itself a great simplification on my part. Sorry.) NATO got involved and was then in charge of the narrative so the audience here was not given any real understanding of the history. As Chomsky has pointed out you can make a whole society a basket case in the same way you would an individual by virtue of the extraordinary pressures you exert on it.

    What I’m really getting at, and taking a long time about it, I know, is that when Bildt made his infamous remark about the Balkanization of the British Isles he was not only being ignorant but deeply insulting, not only to Scots but to the English, too. I know he was probably using a prepared script but it is grossly insulting to suggest that having lived together peacefully for several centuries, independence in Scotland would set off, with our neighbours, the kind of internecine violence seen in a region with an entirely different recent history.

    Scandinavian countries had different experiences of WW2 and despite the occasional snide reference to Swedish neutrality from Norwegians, their relationships with one another emerged unscathed. If the Scandinavians can manage friendly relations and the Slovenes can, too. I don’t see why those on the Unionist side have to visit on us nightmares from a different dimension.

  19. setondene says:

    The Slovenes also suffered very badly during WW1 when they fought on the Austro-Hungarian side at the (12 battles of) the Isonzo. They’re still digging bodies and machine guns etc out of the Alpine ice in the Triglav National Park. However, it has to be said that one of the most murderous communists of Tito’s Yugoslavia was a Slovene – Edvard Kardelj. They are not pacifists as some might believe. They will fight very hard to maintain their independence.

    I agree that we should look forward to a good productive relationship with our English neighbours, but we should not forget that their policy towards Scotland for our entire history has been to subjugate us. It will need to be an armed and vigilant friendship IMHO.

  20. YESGUY says:

    Thank you Donald

    What a moving and warm tale. It’s a reminder that we are never really alone

    That Slovenia is at peace and thriving , after being attacked is a relief . We heard so many horror stories during the war in the Balkans .

    We in Scotland will win our independence without bullets and bombs and can look to Slovenia as an example of how a small country can thrive .

    Thanks Donald . Not for the first time ,since coming to this site , I am moved.

  21. What a great story. Just shows where you can end up after a wee drink and a lengthy fax.

  22. lanarkist says:

    Thanks Donald, that made me laugh, your writing is excellent. Still getting into cultural high jinx and booze fuelled shenanigans! Just like the old days of ECA.
    Scotland will flourish, especially with all the goodwill it has banked around the world through grounded human adventures like your one and a decent sense of humour at the absurdities of the world.
    Keep on keeping on!
    Many thanks.

    Colin Veitch.

  23. Beautiful article! I want to visit Slovenia now. But I have to pedantically point out, the Slovenian Air Force has about forty aircraft. But none of them are combat aircraft, except possibly the PC-9 trainer, which is marginally capable of light ground attack.

    • setondene says:

      They had what appeared to be captured MiGs on display at Brnik Airport for a while after their War of Independence.

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