September-October 2021 Articles

Slovenia H.E.
Tone Kajzer

New Ambassador in Washington
Marks Thirty Years of His Country's National Independence
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

This interview was conducted before the current situation in Afghanistan.

Being a diplomat, much less his country’s Ambassador to the United States of America, was nowhere on Tone Kajzer’s (pronounced Tony Kaiser) list of boyhood ambitions. Instead, he recalls writing a school essay about his dream job as a heavy truck driver in the United States.  Teachers immediately called his father to the school where the 14-year old was disabused of his vision of being a trucker and received parental guidance that pointed him toward geodesy (the science of accurately measuring and understanding the Earth’s geometric shape, orientation in space, gravity field and other geodynamic phenomena like tides, polar variance and the motion of the earth’s crust) and surveying or forestry. These were good practical skills for a young man to acquire in a country that is heavily wooded and in whose economy forest industries play a major role.

Ironically, service in the Yugoslav Army made the boy’s dream of driving a heavy truck come true and more.  Tone Kajzer became a trainer of military truckers and bus drivers.  To this day he maintains his license as a heavy truck driver even as diplomacy has become his career.  He fulfilled his father’s vision as well by completing a degree in geodesy and engineering at the University of Ljubljana and briefly going to work for a mining company.  But, his own vision took him yet another direction, a direction that would become his career.

Kajzer enrolled at the University of Maribor where he completed parallel programs in economics and international relations.  He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1995, initially serving in the Diplomatic Protocol Office.  His first foreign posting took him to the Slovenian Embassy in Egypt as Second Secretary for Economic Affairs (1996-2000).  Returning “home” to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kajzer helped to implement the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, a program initiated by the EU in an effort to encourage peace and economic growth in the region. In 2004 he was named Deputy National Coordinator for Slovenia’s Development Cooperation Program (ODA).  There he was tasked to draft the Law on Slovenia’s ODA, which was then adopted by the Slovenian Parliament.

Subsequently, Kajzer joined the Foreign Minister’s Cabinet as personal adviser to the Foreign Minister on border delimitation issues between Slovenia and neighboring Croatia.  From that work he assumed the position of Director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for European Union Enlargement.

In 2008 Kajzer was named Slovenia’s Ambassador to the Republic of Finland and the Republic of Estonia.  That posting, the Ambassador notes, “Allowed me to put in front of decision makers the model of Estonia, a nation which had been kept hostage for more than sixty years by the Russians.  Newly independent Estonia, however, developed very quickly.  They had almost nothing but human capital, people. Today they are very advanced in digital technology.  The message of Estonia was that it is possible to create a modern, proud, progressive, technically advanced nation out of ruins.”

The experiences of both Finland and Estonia offered useful models for Slovenia’s economic development and its foreign policy stances, and Ambassador Kajzer promoted high level visits by Slovenian leaders to both countries.  Throughout his time in Helsinki, Kajzer promoted a hybrid model of diplomacy that blended policy issues with components of economic growth, trade promotion, sporting and cultural events to catalyze and promote deepened contacts between countries.

Returning from Finland in 2012, Ambassador Kajzer was named State Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister where he advised on foreign policy and foreign economic issues.  The “field” quickly called, however, and Kajzer was named Ambassador to Denmark (2013-2018) with a portfolio that included the entire Nordic region – Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland – plus for a time Estonia and Lithuania.  Though resident in Copenhagen, he was effectively Ambassador to the Baltic Rim and Scandinavia.  Given that broad mandate, Ambassador Kajzer took the initiative to substantially expand Slovenia’s network of Honorary Consuls across the region in order to extend the embassy’s outreach capability.

Upon completion of his tenure in Copenhagen, Kajzer returned to the Foreign Ministry to assume an ambassadorial position as Coordinator for Digital Policy overseeing the continuing implementation of the digital revolution as it impacts all social and economic levels and leading in digital policy development, Internet governance.  Ambassador Kajzer was named Slovenia’s Ambassador to the United States in December 2020 when his predecessor, Ambassador Stanislav Vidovic, was reassigned as Ambassador to Ireland following the reopening of Slovenia’s embassy in Dublin.

Ambassador Kajzer was kind enough to make time in his schedule and circumvent pandemic limitations for an early extended conversation with “Diplomatic Connections.”

Diplomatic Connections:  Welcome to Washington!  This year, 2021, represents the 30th anniversary of Slovenia’s independence.  How have those thirty years of independence impacted your country?  What are the lessons of those three decades?

Ambassador Kajzer: It is a beautiful story, despite the fact that democracy is a very fragile structure. You have to nurture it.  You have to be kind with it. You have to be responsible. You have to constantly reexamine and rethink it as conditions change.

In thirty years Slovenia has achieved a great deal.  We have entered the European Union and the NATO alliance.  We have joined the United Nations (1992) and have served as a member of the United Nations Security Council (1998-99). We joined the OSCE (1992) and became a member of the European Union (2004).  Slovenia has joined the club of the most developed countries (OECD) and proved to the world and to ourselves that we are capable of running our own affairs.

Diplomatic Connections: It is often said in international relations that geography is destiny.  Geography places Slovenia at the heart of Europe, literally sandwiched between Western Europe and Russia, between the European Union and Putin’s increasingly assertive Russia.  How does Slovenia balance the pull of Europe against the proximity of Russia?

Ambassador Kajzer:  Geography is a fact that cannot be denied.  Slovenia is at the crossroads between East and West and between Northern and Southern Europe, but we are undoubtedly part of Western Civilization.  It is remarkable that Slovenia has managed to survive as such a small nation.  We are only two million people.

Certainly in the aftermath of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and Slovenia “landed” in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, Russia has been perceived as our friend and a country of which we should not be afraid.  However, the Russian/Bolshevik model for society and the Soviet system of government never had direct impact on us, unlike the way events unfolded in Hungary (1956) or Czechoslovakia (1968). Slovenians perceive Russia in a positive connotation, which can sometimes be misleading.

Diplomatic Connections:  How does that point of view translate into Slovenia’s foreign policy?

Ambassador Kajzer:  Slovenia decided for democracy, for freedom, for a market economy and for all the building blocks that make democracy strong.  We decided at independence that we are part of Western society and of the community of democracies.

The message from our side underscores the importance of the trans-Atlantic partnership.  We are happy that the United States has come back to Europe.  Of course, the United States never really left Europe, but there was the impression that the United States was taking a more nationalist, more selfish “America First” approach and retreating from the world.

For us, the key word is trustworthy partnership.  Relations with Russia are good.  Right now, however, things are quite tense because of what is going on in eastern Ukraine and in other areas near the Black Sea, including recent events involving Belarus.  It is imperative that the alliance of democracies, of which Slovenia is a part, works together. We have to pursue strategic stability.
Russia is always a very important partner for Slovenia, but we shall never forget that we are members of NATO and that our main ally is the United States. Neither can we forget that Slovenia is a member of the European Union where Slovenia holds the Presidency for the second half of 2021.  It is that sort of strategic stability that allows Slovenia political and diplomatic space to contribute to building a more sustainable, just and peaceful world.

Diplomatic Connections:  You were named Ambassador to the United States in December 2020 and arrived in Washington, D.C. early this year.  What do you see as the most important issues between Slovenia and the United States?

Ambassador Kajzer:  This appointment is a privilege and a great responsibility for me.  I was in the delegation with my Foreign Minister last December (2020) when he came here to Washington for the initial session of what will be an on-going strategic dialogue between Slovenia and the United States. This upgraded and institutionalized dialogue reflects not only improved relations between our countries but also a commitment to hold regular consultations on critical bilateral and international issues.

That opening dialogue centered on three immediate sets of issues.  The primary focus was on the status of the Western Balkans and the vital role of close cooperation between the EU and the United States designed to encourage countries in the region to undertake needed reforms, and continue progress toward both greater EU and Euro-Atlantic integration.  Deep discussions were held on the issue of disinformation campaigns aimed at spreading fake news and disrupting otherwise stable societies and the ways in which such disinformation campaigns might be countered.  Additional items considered included the fight against terrorism, cybersecurity, energy security, new opportunities in infrastructure development and logistics as well as related cooperation in the Three Seas Initiative (Baltic, Adriatic and the Black Sea) and the Partnership for Transatlantic Energy Cooperation.

The Biden Administration is putting Trans-Atlantic relations, partnerships and alliances, at the top of their agenda.  Things are really moving ahead at this point.  My goal is to deepen and broaden Slovenia’s cooperation with the United States.  The first priority is to further advance my country’s economic situation by expanding our economic cooperation, our technological and digital cooperation, and our trade cooperation, not only at the federal level but also with each and every U.S. state.

Diplomatic Connections:  Given your goal of building the Slovene economy and expanding its export oriented industries, what are the projected growth areas for Slovenia’s economy and for its participation in the global economy?

Ambassador Kajzer:  We are a small economy, but we have worked very hard to grow our economic base.  More than 90% of all of our production is exported.  There are many areas for growth.  New and creative technologies as well as the modernization of our more traditional industrial base will sustain and grow Slovenia’s economy.

Slovenia understands that it is in a fierce, competitive race at the global level because technology evolves very quickly and in multiple directions at once.  We are proud of the technological advances Slovenia has made, especially in digitalization and artificial intelligence, but we recognize that we cannot rest on our laurels.

Diplomatic Connections:  Would you share Slovenia’s leadership role in the development and application of artificial intelligence (AI)?

Ambassador Kajzer:  Slovenia is particularly proud that, with the approval of the General Conference of UNESCO, we have just established an International Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (IRCAI) at the Jozef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana.  The Center will work with UNESCO to leverage the power of AI for all of UNESCO’s programs, especially the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  More broadly, the Center will help develop AI-related applications and associated technological innovations.  Beyond the technical side IRCAI will also focus on the legal, ethical and social implications of AI to promote a human centered and human rights based approach to the development and implementation of AI.
We are also a founding member of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence together with Canada, France and the United States.

Diplomatic Connections:  Could you offer other specific examples of growth areas in Slovenia’s economy?

Ambassador Kajzer:  Despite the economic downturns of 2008 and the 2020 pandemic reversals Slovenia has hovered very close to the average growth rates in the EU.  We were on a steady growth path in per capita GDP and productivity before the pandemic, and we are striving to further increase our added value per employee.  To accomplish the desired economic growth we must develop globally and not concentrate just on one market.  For example, we have a company - Pipistrel - that builds and develops ultralight aircraft.  It is working very successfully with NASA on space technologies and remote observation applications. It is also working with India and other countries on the development of ultralights powered by electric engines.

Slovenia is the third most forested country in Europe, after Finland and Sweden, with more than 60% of our territory covered in woodlands.  As a consequence lumbering and wood processing, including wood processing machinery, a variety of construction products and pre-fabricated wooden houses, furniture and traditional Slovenian wood crafts and basketry are all a part of our output.  At the same time, we recognize the important role that forests play in maintaining the environment.  We are proud of the forest management techniques we deploy and the forestry professionals who supervise our industry.

Pharmaceuticals and chemicals are also among our leading industries.  Two Slovenian companies – Krka and Lek - are leading manufacturers of generic drugs.  Krka is one of Slovenia’s largest exporters and its most important corporate tax payer.  Lek is a key member of the Novartis pharmaceutical family.  Our chemical industries produce everything from basic chemicals to pesticides and from plastics to tires.  Most of their output is exported to Central Europe and Russia.  Our Sava Tire company is now part of the Goodyear-Dunlop global conglomerate.

Slovenia is also working to develop our North Adriatic port of Koper, our primary port of entry and our transport link to Italy as a logistics hub.  We have undertaken a “second track” project to expand and improve the rail link from Koper to Hungary and Austria, and the port is becoming a major entry point for goods from Asia that are destined for Central Europe.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the importance to Slovenia of being a full member of NATO?  Where is the balance between protecting the territorial integrity of states and triggering Russian security concerns?

Ambassador Kajzer:  Back in 1999 when the first wave of NATO enlargement came the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary joined.  Slovenia was not in that first wave of enlargement, but we did join in the second wave in 2004 that included Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.  For Slovenia, NATO is much more than just an alliance.  It is a group of countries sharing the same values of democracy, of freedom, of market economies, of human rights.
Slovenia was one of the rare countries where we took this question to referendum.  The Slovene people actually democratically decided that they wanted to be a part of the NATO alliance.  More than that, we wanted to be a credible and trustworthy partner.

The current government of Slovenia has very clear priorities.  We are increasing spending for our own security because being a NATO member means that you have to be credible.  You have to take care of your own security, but, of course, you have to maintain solidarity and partnership with allies within NATO.  In practice, we see NATO as a work in progress trying to respond to emerging realities in Europe and across the globe.

Diplomatic Connections:  In July 2021 Slovenia assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Even before that, as the prospective President of the Council, Slovenia served in what is called the “presidency trio.”  Could you explain the concept of the “Trio Presidency?”

Ambassador Kajzer:  Yes, that is right.  We congratulate Portugal for its recently completed term in the presidency, and France will follow us in the presidency.  Slovenia was one of the first “newcomers” to the European Union to hold the presidency in the first half of 2008.  That was before the Lisbon Treaty (2009), which introduced the concept of the “Trio Presidency,” meaning that the country holding the presidency had a somewhat larger administrative task to fulfill.

The “Trio Presidency” comprises three Member States that assume the presidency of the Council of the EU in succession. To keep work and leadership as smooth as possible during this 18-month period and to pursue common EU policy objectives, “the trio,” in cooperation with other EU institutions, sets long-term goals and draws up a joint 18-month work program and priorities. On the basis of this program, each of the three countries prepares its own more detailed six-month program.

[NOTE:  EU Member States hold the presidency of the Council of the EU according to a six month rotation system. Slovenia holds the presidency in the second half of 2021 (July 1-December 31, 2021) following Portugal’s presidency (January 1- June 30, 2021). In turn, France will follow Slovenia in the presidency.  The presidency must ensure compliance with legislative procedures and impartially direct harmonization among the Member States. It is expected to act as an honest and neutral broker that does not emphasize its own national interests but strives for common solutions.]

Diplomatic Connections:  What will be the core of Slovenia’s agenda as it assumes the Presidency of the EU Council?

Ambassador Kajzer:  This presidency is very important for Slovenia.  The main priority will be a continued and expanded effort to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences in Europe. If I borrow the words of President Biden, our goal must be to “build back better” in order to make the European Union even more resilient.

What we have witnessed, as our Prime Minister said last year when the new government took power in March 2020, were empty warehouses, a shortage of badly needed personal protective equipment (PPE) for our health workers, and inadequate resources for meeting the twin challenges of quarantines and economic slowdown.  Like the rest of the world, we discovered that too much of the production of necessary equipment was concentrated in one place – China.  In other words, the restructuring and rearranging of supply chains is very important.

Beyond the COVID pandemic and its broader consequences, Slovenia’s agenda will seek to strengthen the European Union’s overall resilience in the face of systemic challenges to its development.  The EU economy must explore in detail the ways in which it will respond to the digital and green transitions as well as to persistent public health challenges.  Other goals include strengthening the rule of law, preserving the European way of life, and stabilizing a safe EU that is a reliable and robust partner for all of Europe and states across the world.

Diplomatic Connections:  How will your role as Ambassador to the United States tie into Slovenia’s Presidency of the EU Council?

Ambassador Kajzer:  We have had very good discussions between the EU member states and also with our American friends in order to promote enhanced cooperation across borders for critical industries and critical infrastructure.  A strong transatlantic relationship is certainly among my highest priorities for my time here in Washington. And, within that of course, our bilateral relations with the United States are extremely important.

From my base in Washington, I will work with the EU’s Ambassador to the United States, former Greek Foreign Minister – Stavros Lambrinidis, to help steer Slovenia’s presidency of the Council.  In terms of public diplomacy, the embassy will try to organize a visit for a group of EU ambassadors to Cleveland, Ohio, where we have our only consulate, in order to introduce them to the Slovenian contribution to the United States.  During our presidency I will try to take advantage of the international exposure to raise Slovenia’s profile here in the United States.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the status of the COVID-19 pandemic in Slovenia?  Has distribution of the vaccines begun?

Ambassador Kajzer:  In Europe what we have to do now is to learn from the example of the United States in terms of its vaccination programs.  The United States has done well in reaching large numbers of people with the vaccine, but we also know that there are difficult to reach areas and that there is a measure of vaccine reluctance to be overcome.

Europe has lagged behind a bit in vaccine distribution. The EU has 27 member states as well as its own central institutions. Our systems are very different from the federal structure of the United States, and that has created a certain degree of bureaucratic inertia that has slowed things down somewhat.  There have been many hurdles between production of the vaccines, necessary approvals, and “shots in the arm” as you say in the United States.

The process is going well in Slovenia, and has improved with experience and vaccine availability.  We had around 40% of our people vaccinated by early summer.  That is good performance, and Slovenia is in the top one-third of EU countries in terms of vaccine distribution.  New shipments of vaccine are coming in, and our goal is to have 70% of the population vaccinated by the fall.

But, the crucial test for Slovenia as for everyone else will be opening up the economy.  If we cannot get the economy up and running at near full speed soon, there is a real possibility that public discontent may spread. We are also seeing the emergence of new and more virulent variants of the COVID virus that may complicate global efforts to control the spread of infection and play havoc with efforts to restart economies.

Diplomatic Connections: Over the course of your diplomatic career, how has diplomacy changed?  What has been and what will be the impact of the digital revolution on diplomacy?

Ambassador Kajzer:  People-to-people relations still matter in diplomacy.  We cannot compete with journalists who send quick burst reports as events unfold.  Diplomats are in place not just to report what happened but to try to understand and contextualize what is happening.  There are advantages to speed of communication, but there are some drawbacks as well.

Of course, over the past year COVID has affected diplomacy very much.  We diplomats have adapted to virtual diplomacy, but there are gains and losses to that as well.  Using the technology has made it possible for diplomatic contacts to be sustained and even expanded, but there are all kinds of intangibles that get lost when you do not have face-to-face contact, when you do not see and feel the situation on the ground firsthand.

Diplomatic Connections:  Imagine that you have been asked to address the incoming class, the entering class of new Slovene diplomats.  What have you learned about diplomacy that you would want to pass on to them?

Ambassador Kajzer:  My late father always taught me, he said: “Tony, never shut the door so tight that you are not able to open it again.”  He thought that people should be humble.  They should be aware of changing circumstance around them, alert to the future.  That is especially true for diplomats; they should be sensitive to change.  Diplomats need to recognize the virtue of understanding the other side’s position, their rationale.  Sometimes that is difficult.  Often it is frustrating because the other side’s position seems impossibly different.  That, it should be noted, is true for all sides of any question.

Slovenia has a diplomatic academy.  And, when I was serving as State Secretary, my message to the youngsters was always, “Be democratic. Be human.”  We have many good experts and highly trained international lawyers.  But, they do not have the ability to listen to others.  And, that ability does not come naturally.  It needs to be nurtured in training and honed with experience.

Direct, physical contacts are very important. And, sometimes a diplomat has to sacrifice a bit of efficiency for a bit of humanity.  Diplomats must be adaptable and able to work under all sorts of conditions, some of them challenging and quite uncomfortable.  Artificial intelligence may takeover administrative tasks, but it won’t takeover us diplomats.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you, Ambassador Kajzer, for a fascinating and wide ranging conversation and for enhancing our readers’ understanding of your country.  We wish Slovenia well as you celebrate thirty years of independence and as you undertake the Presidency of the European Union Council.

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