Slovenia: Touch of Balkan or Little Austria?

Where does Slovenia belong? With the Balkans or with (Central) Europe? Joris Zantvoort looks at history, music, slang and food to find out. 

It is an understatement to say that Austrians do not have a reputation for being fun in Slovenia. Austrians are seen as the epitome of boredom, coldness, and soullessness. There is a veritable fear amongst several young and not-so-young Slovenian friends of mine that Slovenia is turning into a little Austria, a sort of double derivative of Germany, a sentiment which seems to be quite widespread.

On the other hand, there are those who are afraid of becoming more Balkan and of being grouped together with the other countries of former Yugoslavia. From the 1980s up to the present, the main bone of contention amongst public opinion makers and intellectuals has been the question of where Slovenia belongs: with the Balkans or with (Central) Europe.

It seems as though the ‘Europe-argument’ has won: Slovenia has been a member of the European Union since 2004. I argue here, however, that the opposition between Europe and the Balkans is false, and that Slovenia is a little Austrian and has a touch of Balkan about it at the same time. Accordingly, there is no argument to be won.

It is the cultural monotheism and cultural imperialism so popular amongst nationalists – but not only amongst them – that underlies the claim that was repeated ad nauseam by many proponents of an independent Slovenia from the mid-1980s onwards: that the essence of Slovenian culture is European; that a break from barbaric Yugoslavia would allow Slovenia to rejoin the group of ‘civilized’ countries of Europe to which it historically belonged; that the 70-year association of Slovenia with its Balkan neighbours to the southeast had been a dreadful mistake; that Yugoslavia was a ‘prison of the nations’ that was bound to disintegrate.

First of all, this line of reasoning is rather ironic, as Slovenian nationalists were amongst the most enthusiastic proponents of the creation of a union of South Slavs after the First World War. And they had good reason to be. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Slovenian people were of minor significance. They thus expected to fare better within a smaller state that constituted a union with peoples who spoke a similar language to themselves and with whom they felt culturally connected. Indeed, the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself was often described as a ‘prison of nations’ by nationalists before the First World War, and the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was meant to protect the Slovenian nation, not jeopardize it.

It is unlikely that the Slovenians expected to obtain material gains from the union, as the majority of the soon-to-be Yugoslav lands operated under a semi-feudal economy. Moreover, the war had completely destroyed Serbia and decimated its population. The fact that the leading Slovenian politicians of the early 20th century willingly entered the union with their Yugoslav neighbours clearly shows that, at that time, it was thought that Slovenians had more in common with Serbs and Croats than with Austrians.

Get your burek in Ljubljana. Photo credit:
Get your burek in Ljubljana. Photo credit:

Of course, such things can change, as indeed they did. In the 1980s, Slovenian nationalists championed the termination of the marriage with the other South Slavs, who were now seen to be lazy, barbaric, backward, and bellicose: in short, un-European. Slovenia, on the other hand, was supposed to be hard-working, civilized, developed, and peace-loving: European.

Seventy years earlier, the Habsburg Empire had been regarded as oppressive for the Slovenian nation. Now, however, Slovenia’s essential European character was seen to derive from its centuries-long inclusion in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the European Union was deemed the cultural successor of that multicultural Central European empire.

However the Habsburg legacy is interpreted, it is undeniable that the Habsburg period left its mark on culture in the Slovenian lands. At the same time, however, those that emphasize the importance of the Habsburg heritage often conveniently skip over the reality of the Yugoslav period.

That is nothing short of hypocritical. Clearly, seventy years of Yugoslavia must have changed Slovenia, just like its time in Austria-Hungary did. At the same time, this does not mean that the Habsburg influence is no longer relevant. If anything, one would expect Slovenian culture to be a combination of Habsburg and Balkan elements.

From this it is already clear that the debate between those who claim Slovenia is essentially Balkan, and those who claim it is essentially European, is a moot one. However, the situation is more complex even than this.

Balkans, why have ye forsaken us?

As demonstrated by Balkan-scholars such as Maria Todorova and Milica Bakić-Hayden in the 1990s, the idea of a Balkan cultural essence of laziness, backwardness, brutality, etc., has been constructed largely through the writings of western European journalists, government officials, and travellers.

Broadly speaking, the dominant view of the Balkans in western Europe is, and has been for a long time, that at the same time it is and is not a part of Europe.

On the one hand, it is undeniable that it is geographically part of the continent Europe. Moreover, Western civilization is seen to have been founded in the Balkans, more specifically in the Hellenistic world. Later, the Balkans became part of the Roman Empire, generally regarded as having a European character. Perhaps most importantly, the majority of people in the Balkans have for a long time adhered to some variant of the Christian faith.

However, the waters became muddier under the Byzantine empire, especially after the Great Schism of the 11th century, which created a rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. According to most observers, the final break from Europeanness came with the Ottoman conquest of the peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. This made Islam into the dominant religion, if not numerically, then certainly politically. During the Ottoman period, the Balkans could not develop along the same lines as ‘free’ Europe, so the story goes.

This is where the origin of the perceived split personality of Yugoslavia lies. Until the First World War, the Slovenian lands, most of what is now Croatia, and Vojvodina, now northern Serbia, were part of the Habsburg Empire. On the other hand, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia south of the Danube, Macedonia, and Kosovo were under Ottoman suzerainty. (Montenegro was a special case, always semi-independent. That does not mean that Montenegrins were or are regarded by western observers as any more civilized than those that lived under direct Ottoman rule.)

I will not go into the complicated question of what types of problems this generated in the first and the second Yugoslavia, and how serious those problems were. What is certain, however, is that local politicians as well as outside observers, members of the murky ‘international community’, used the supposed incompatible cultural essences of the different parts of Yugoslavia to both create and explain the nationalist fever in the 1980s and 1990s. In that way, also Slovenian politicians and opinion makers pitched imagined Europe against imagined Balkans.

However, it must be clear to any observer of EU politics in our own time that there is no consensus on what Europe is, just as there is no definition of Balkanness. There is an excellent and simple reason for this: both Europe and the Balkans, like any region, area, or country, are constructions that are in some sense real, but which change continuously and are unfixable.

Europe is a geographical continent, but cultural cross-fertilization and the movement of people does not stop at the Strait of Gibraltar, the Urals, or the Bosphorus. In addition, many empires have straddled two or three of the Asian, African, and European continents. Moreover, many cultural values that are nowadays proclaimed to be typically ‘European’ were developed much earlier in non-Christian parts of the world. A fitting illustration for our case is freedom of religion in the Ottoman Empire, which ensured that tens of thousands of Jews settled there after they were expelled from Spain in 1492, to name but one example.

The conclusion of all this must be that Balkan and European culture are not clearly delineated or definable realities, and as such they cannot be seen as simple opposites either. Hence, Slovenia cannot be simply European or simply Balkan. This is supported by an examination of popular culture in Slovenia.

How to be Balkan and (not) know it

čevapčiči. Photo credit:
čevapčiči. Photo credit:

Even before Slovenia became independent, a phenomenon referred to as the Balkan Scene (Balkanska scena) made its appearance, especially in Ljubljana.  The core of this scene was the Balkan Party (Balkanski žur), which originated on university campuses and consequently evolved into a highly popular form of entertainment. The essence of these parties was a celebration of the shared culture of the Yugoslav people, in the shape of listening and dancing to different types of music from different eras and places of Yugoslavia.

The phenomenon of Balkan parties persists to this day, even when Slovenia is widely regarded as one of the most successful transition countries and is part of the EU, thus officially recognized as a member of the European club. It is especially popular to celebrate the two most important Yugoslav state holidays, the Day of Youth (25 May) and the Day of the Republic (29 November).

This is explicit engagement with the Yugoslav/Balkan legacy, and might therefore simply confirm the view that Slovenian society is split between those who identify and long for Yugoslavia and those who feel that Slovenia belongs to Europe.

However, that view is compromised by a second and more important indication that Slovenian culture is a mix of different elements, and not purely ‘European’ or ‘Balkan’. Practically all Slovenians, often unconsciously, affirm the influence of Balkan culture on a near-daily basis.

This affirmation can be found in the fact that many cultural elements that would generally be considered Balkan have found a strong foothold in Slovenia. Three prime examples of this are music, language, and food.

Firstly, one of the most popular music genres in Slovenia, as in the rest of former Yugoslavia, is turbofolk. Apart from being wildly popular amongst the sizeable group of former Yugoslav immigrants in the bigger towns, a Slovenian-language variant of turbofolk has come into existence in the last decade, starting with the band Atomik Harmonik in 2004. On the more alternative scene, Yugoslav-style rock remains popular, with Yugonostalgic bands such as Zaklonišče Prepeva. Moreover, music from the other countries of former Yugoslavia continues to be very popular in Slovenia.

Secondly, Slovenian slang is rife with Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian words, resulting in a hybrid called srboslovenščina (Serbo-Slovenian). The most obvious are swearwords, as the Slovenian language is infamous for not having any serious swearwords, while B/C/S is famous for creative swear-constructions. But there are many other examples.

Just one is the word džabe, which means ‘free of charge, gratis’. A neologism derived from this word could be seen on the streets of Slovenia in an ad-campaign by the largest Slovenian telecom provider, Telekom Slovenije, in the spring of 2013. Telekom Slovenije called its new mobile phone package for young people ‘Džabest’, implying that it provides the best service at no (significant) cost.

The fact that even a state-owned Slovenian telecom giant uses B/C/S slang to market their products surely says something about the normalcy the use of such words has acquired. Their use is not questioned; to the contrary, it is encouraged.

Telekom Slovenije: "Džabest" (Photo credit:
Telekom Slovenije: “Džabest” (Photo credit:

Thirdly, even the most conservative Slovenian nationalist can eat ultra-Balkan dishes such as čevapčiči/ćevapčići and burek and drink Turkish coffee without feeling guilty: these are amongst the most popular foods in Slovenia. Indeed, many people probably never even consider the fact that these dishes are ‘Balkan’ in the first place, which underlines the point that Slovenian culture has absorbed many Balkan elements and is a hybrid of diverse elements.

In the final event, it is meaningless to speak of Slovenian culture as being fundamentally distinct from Balkan culture. Slovenian culture is a product of its history; not just one part of it, but all of it. Every culture is always in a state of flux, especially a small one that is positioned at the intersection between larger cultural blocks. Those who try to deny certain legacies that exist within Slovenian culture, if only for simplification, are merely engaged in wishful thinking. The reality is that Slovenia is a little bit Balkan and a little bit European, and that ‘Balkan’ and ‘European’ themselves are complex, problematic, and changing categories that should not be referred to as simple absolutes.


Cover photo credit:

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Joris Zantvoort

Joris Zantvoort is Features Editor at Balkanist. He did his MA in History of Central and Eastern Europe at SSEES, University College London. He was Managing Editor of SSEES’ postgraduate journal. He is interested in the production and manifestations of cultural, social, and political entities and identifications.