“last year, we celebrated 25 years of diplomatic relations with Japan”

A labour of love

Slovenian Ambassador to Japan Simona Leskovar

 


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Michael Holmes


In 1991, Slovenia became an independent country. Simona Leskovar, who is ambassador to Japan today, was part of the first generation of independent Slovenians attending university. After graduating from the international relations programme at the University of Ljubljana, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — the first step to fulfilling her childhood dream of representing Slovenia around the world. For the past 21 years, she has served her country in places such as Washington, DC, and New York, and was posted to Japan as ambassador in October 2015. Ambassador Leskovar spoke with Eurobiz Japan about Slovenia being declared the first green country in the world, the nation’s role in initiating World Bee Day, and how a Slovenian pastry has generated interest in the country.

 

Could you tell me about Slovenia’s recent history?

Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia. We held a referendum in 1990 and voted overwhelmingly for an independent country. On the 25th of June 1991, we declared an independent Slovenia. It was rather peaceful for us.

Slovenia was the most developed republic of the former country. Also, because we were geographically situated farthest to the west — we border Italy and Austria — we have always been able to penetrate to these markets. After gaining independence, Slovenia became a member of the United Nations in 1992, and joined the EU and NATO in 2004. We adopted the Euro in 2007, and also became a member of the Schengen zone. Our development was rather quick and successful.

Last year, our GDP growth was 3.2%. Unemployment is just over 6%, below the EU average. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index puts Slovenia at a very high sixth place. These are quite some achievements in our development.

Our motto is ‘I feel Slovenia’. I say it here all the time to everybody, that Slovenia is the only country in the world that has the word “love” in its name.

What is potica, and why was it in the news last year?

Potica [pronounced po-TEE-tsa] is a traditional Slovenian pastry for holidays — but these days, we eat it all the time. It became world famous because of President [Donald] Trump’s visit to the Vatican. Pope Francis asked the First Lady, Melania Trump, “What are you feeding him? Potica?”

It surprised us that he asked Melania about it. And she was surprised. Suddenly, potica was on the top of everyone’s list, and it got Slovenia some attention.

Pope Francis is from Argentina; and we have the biggest Slovenian community outside Slovenia in Argentina. He was friends with Slovenians where he was a priest, so he would have been introduced to it at that time.

How are relations between Slovenia and Japan?

Prime Minister Cerar visited Japan in October 2016. He opened the STS [Science and Technology in Society] forum in Kyoto together with Prime Minister Abe. We have felt the consequences of that visit through 2017, especially with the increase in exchange, and some very important Japanese investments in Slovenia.

We also signed a convention to eliminate double taxation the day before our prime minster visited, so that has helped boost business and the economy.

And last year, we celebrated 25 years of diplomatic relations with Japan. The leaders exchanged letters to commemorate this.

Can you tell me about some of Japan’s recent investments in Slovenia?

Yaskawa Electric decided to build their first flagship plant for industrial robots — outside Japan and China — in Slovenia. Production will start this year. And they hope that in 2019 it will be producing 4,000 industrial robots a year. What is most important is it will give around 200 new jobs to Slovenians — and these are jobs for highly educated people.

Another investment was by Sumitomo Rubber Industries. It also decided to build a factory in Slovenia through its Swiss affiliate, and will produce elastomers for medical equipment. Again, it will create some 200 jobs in Slovenia.

A third was by Kansai Paint, one of the world’s top ten paint manufacturers. It acquired Slovenia’s Helios Coating Group and is turning it into the firm’s European centre for R&D, innovation and business development.

Japanese are deciding to invest in Slovenia in these high-tech industries because they see us as very competitive in the world market. They say that our working habits and cultures are very similar to theirs. And we are highly educated, plus there’s our geostrategic position in the heart of Europe.

Soon after our prime minister’s visit, the Keidanren [Japan Business Federation] decided to visit Slovenia. I had been working hard since my first day here to get them to go to Slovenia. There were some 20 companies, including ANA, JAL, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings and Hitachi. And I hope that it will bring some results in the future.

What are some of your exports?

Vehicle parts, pharmaceuticals and packaged medicaments, as well as wine. One of the things we export to Japan is skis. We have a company called Elan that produces sporting goods, and it’s known for its skis.

Slovenia is a big producer of honey since beekeeping is one of the oldest activities in Slovenia. We believe in self-sustainability in agriculture and want to emphasise how important it is to produce healthy food. But it’s also about the life of bees as pollinators. So, Slovenia has endeavoured, within the United Nations, to proclaim World Bee Day. A resolution was adopted just last month at the United Nations General Assembly. From this year on, every May 20th, we will commemorate World Bee Day. We want to educate the young about how important the bee population is.

In what ways is Slovenia a sustainable tourist destination?

The Slovenian Tourist Board was aware 10 years ago that we needed to promote our country in a different way. So, they started domestic promotion of green and sustainable tourism, and developed the Slovenia Green brand. It attracted international attention, and in 2016 we were declared the first green country in the world by the organisation Green Destinations. When the decision was announced, they said that Slovenia’s compliance with their 100 criteria was 96%. Ljubljana was given the European Commission’s title of European Green Capital 2016 because of its sustainable development; in the centre of the capital, for example, we have only pedestrian zones. Then last year, we got National Geographic’s prestigious World Legacy Award in Destination Leadership.

All of Slovenian tourism — the hotels, providers, parks, travel agencies — is focusing on green development. And this is not only how we are promoting tourism. We are promoting healthy lifestyles, and, today, we’re all going back to nature; we all want to live healthy. 

“in 2016 we were declared the first green country in the world”

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