Published: July 31 2007 03:00-Financial Times.
Slovenia will try to persuade Serbia to give Kosovo independence in exchange for a chance to join the European Union.
Officials in Ljubljana hope to use Slovenia's presidency of the EU next year to break the logjam over the United Nations-administered breakaway province, in exchange for EU candidate status for Serbia. After the failure of talks between Belgrade and separatist Kosovo Albanian leaders this year, Martti Ahtisaari, the UN mediator, urged the UN Security Council to impose independence, with EU-led supervision to protect Serbs and other minorities in the province of 2m people.
But Russia, Serbia's veto-holding ally on the Security Council, has blocked three pro-independence draft resolutions put forward by the US and EU countries.
Nevertheless Dimitrij Ru-pel, Slovenia's foreign minister, is optimistic. "I have never felt as confident as I feel now dealing with my colleagues from Serbia."
As the only ex-Yugoslav republic in the 27-nation bloc, Slovenia hopes it can broker closer ties with other former Yugoslav countries.
Eight years after the end of the last Balkan war, efforts to solidify the region's peace badly need a jump-start. The EU is struggling to overcome the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina, inter-ethnic political deadlock in Macedonia and the status of Kosovo.
Although the EU endorsed the Ahtisaari plan, many EU members have resisted pushing Serbia too hard over Kosovo, fearing a resurgence of extreme Serb nationalism and a return to economic isolation for the largest ex-Yugoslav republic.
Slovenia's chief advantage in approaching each of these is its intimate familiarity with the region. Slovenes share a similar language and culture with most former Yugoslavs, especially Croats and Serbs. Yugoslav-era political connections remain as well.
Unlike Croatia or Bosnia, Slovenia won its independence almost without bloodshed. No deep scars of war prevented it from re-establishing relatively good relations with its former Yugoslav partners.
Ljubljana is motivated by growing commercial interests across the region.Slovenian investments in the western Balkans ac-counted for nearly two-thirds of the country's out-going foreign direct investment in 2006. "Slovenia has a similar interest in a region in the way Portugal has an interest in Africa," said Janez Jansa, prime minister.
Slovenia's understanding of the region, however, guarantees very little. Its plans for Serbia and Macedonia could be overly ambitious. Even shepherding Croatia closer to EU membership may prove problematic. Despite generally good relations, Ljubljana and Zagreb have been in dispute over their borders. Croatia has accused Slovenia of obstructing Croatia's EU accession talks to gain the upper hand in a maritime dispute, which Ljubljana denies.
Plucky nation of 2m ready to take on the might of union's giants
Europe's political game of musical chairs has entered an intriguing new phase. The next time the music stops, Slovenia - an Alpine country of 2m people - will be in the hot seat, running the presidency of the EU, a bloc of almost 500m people.
For the former communist country, the first of the EU's 2004 intake of new members to assume the rotating presidency, it is a sign and a test of Slovenia's growing maturity.
Other countries have run a mile from taking on the cost and commitment of running the EU. Estonia, for example, has managed to avoid the fateful moment until 2018; Poland will not have its go until 2011.
One can see why. Slovenia has pencilled in €62m ($85m, £42m) as the cost of running the six-month presidency starting on January 1, while Janez Jansa, prime minister, reckons at least 70 per cent of his time will be devoted to European issues.
It is the diplomatic equivalent of hosting the Olympics. A brand new conference facility is taking shape at the lakeside venue of Brdo in the shadow of the Alps.
Slovenes expect to chair 3,000-4,000 meetings and are taking courses in how to conduct them, as well as crash courses in French; scores of officials are being dispatched to Brussels.
There was near unanimous parliamentary support in 2004 for Slovenia taking on the presidency, and the main parties have agreed to suspend hostilities on European issues while Mr Jansa is in the chair.