By: Samo Vidovič
We talked with a famous Slovenian Vladimir Smrtnik from Carinthia about music, the position of the Slovenian national community in Carinthia Austria, and current events in Slovenia.
DEMOKRACIJA: Mr. Smrtnik, the Slovenian public knows you best as a singer in the famous Quintet of the Smrtnik brothers. You have been a guest on state TV several times, also as Modrijan’s guests.
SMRTNIK: Yes, that is true. Singing has a long tradition in the Smrtnik family. Already after the war, our aunts sang in a girl’s sextet. They were the first vocal group to record some songs for Slovenian radio in Klagenfurt. And the Smrtnik brothers started singing in the quartet in 1985, as part of family singing at “Cingelc na Trati” near Borovelj. In 36 years of operation, there have been many performances at home and around the world, including touring in Argentina in 1996. Of course, we have also been guests in various radio and television shows in Austria and Slovenia countless times, and we have made friends with many singing and music groups, from Avsenik Brothers Ensemble to Modrijani, to name just the two most famous.
DEMOKRACIJA: The first time you appeared on a Slovenian national television as a teenager it was with Mito Trefalt in the show Košnikova gostilna. What are your memories of this show?
SMRTNIK: Those are unforgettable memories. We were guests in one of the most watched TV shows of that period. The show was hosted by the unforgettable Mito Trefalt, also a man who was closely connected with Slovenes living abroad and liked to include contributions from these places in his shows. It is also interesting that Avsenik Ensemble, with whom we performed together in this show, had one of their first performances outside the borders of the former Yugoslavia in Korte, in the inn “Pri Francelnu” sometime in 1955. At that time, genuine friendly ties between the two families were formed, which still hold to this day.
DEMOKRACIJA: Which songs do you like to sing the most, how many CDs have you already recorded?
SMRTNIK: Well, of course we like to sing Slovenian folk and national songs the most. I can also mention that we were the first vocal group to sing Avsenik’s pieces a cappella. This was then imitated by many other vocal groups.
The main purpose of our singing activities is, above all, to try to connect people with singing in a predominantly German environment and to preserve the local song and the Slovene word. We also like to sing songs of other nations and more modern arrangements created for us by dr. Bertha Logar. We issued 6 independent sound documents (cd or cassettes) and two DVDs, and we also participated in some joint projects with other groups.
DEMOKRACIJA: You are a lawyer by profession, you are employed by the provincial government in Klagenfurt?
SMRTNIK: That is right. I have been employed by the Carinthian Provincial Government since 1995. I have been leading the subdivision for the field of mountain guard, nature protection, and water law.
DEMOKRACIJA: During the period of the provincial governor Jörg Haider, you were also the head of the provincial protocol for some time. So did you work with him on business as well? How would you describe him?
SMRTNIK: First of all, I would say that as a Carinthian Slovene and a party-independent candidate under the governments of the Social Democrats, he would never have reached such a high position in public administration. The SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) is known in our country for being able to advance professionally under their leadership only if you have a party card and support their policy. This was the case during the infamous Wagner period (note: known for his negative attitude towards the Slovene national community, he was the provincial head in the tense 1970s) and today under Kaiser it is not significantly different.
Haider appointed me to such a high-ranking official position probably because he wanted to send a signal to the general public not to oppose the minority when the coalition between the People’s Party and the Liberals first took place in Austria at the federal level (year 1999). I personally did not see Haider and later his successor Dörfler as some fiery opponents of the Slovene national community, rather I saw them as populists who were trying to pursue a policy that, in their opinion, was liked by the majority of voters. This has often polarised the public to the detriment of the national minority. As far as the policy towards the Slovene national community is concerned, in general, Haider was no worse and, of course, no better than his predecessors from the SPÖ or ÖVP.
As far as general politics is concerned, today the Haider era is mainly dealt with by the courts. That says it all.
DEMOKRACIJA: Local elections were held in Carinthia Austria, last month. How satisfied are you with the results?
SMRTNIK: Look, we are in a completely subordinate position under the auspices of the Unified List. The majority parties, the parties represented in Carinthia in the Provincial Assembly, receive high financial support for party activity. Because it has no representation in the Provincial Assembly, the Unified List does not receive a single cent. Conversely, the leading party in the country, the party of the Social Democrats of the provincial governor Kaiser, is offensively against the Unified List and the independent municipal lists, trying everything in its power to weaken our movement or completely oust it from the political race. It is very painful for me that my brother Franc Jožef was ousted from the position of mayor in my hometown of Železna Kapla. They staged a media campaign because the municipality had to take on debt due to three major natural disasters in recent years, as roads, watercourses, and safety fences had to be built. They also had to renovate a large part of the infrastructure, and the municipality itself, of course, was not able to do all this. The Social Democrats, however, made an orchestrated campaign against my brother out of this. Unfortunately, they managed to beat him, which is a great pity.
Nevertheless, it is gratifying that Bernard Sadovnik, who works really well as mayor, managed to win again, with an absolute majority, in Globasnica. Our other lists in the South Carinthian municipalities also turned out with solid results. We have a total of 59 seats in 21 municipal councils.
DEMOKRACIJA: You lead the REgi movement. How would you describe it briefly?
SMRTNIK: In my current home municipality of Bistrica nad Pliberkom, where I have been living with my family since 1996, I founded a movement in 2015 that is something new in the political landscape in our country in southern Carinthia. The REgi movement (Regional list Bistrica) is the only independent list that tries to unite German and Slovene-speaking people on an equal basis, and also connects people from various political camps for a common goal – to strengthen the region under Peca and work towards a good policy for the hometown under the slogan: “Gemeinsam – common”. Clearly, the new idea has yet to be embraced among voters. This takes time. Sooner or later we will be the second strongest faction in the municipality and we have the position of deputy mayor. Of course, we hoped for an even better result in the last elections, but obviously the time for greater success was not yet meant to be. Nonetheless, I am glad that we managed to attract new migrants to our movement in our municipality, mostly from Slovenia, who are settling here because of the Mahle filter system, which employs around 1,700 people.
DEMOKRACIJA: What is the position of Carinthian Slovenes in Austria today?
SMRTNIK: Judging from a social or economic point of view, it is quite solid. Many Carinthian Slovenes have good jobs and, thanks to the Slovene grammar school and our educational institutions, they are also well qualified. However, these predominantly young and well-educated compatriots go all over Austria and Europe for their own benefit. Here in southern Carinthia, however, the Slovene dialect is increasingly waning. There is an increasing lack of awareness, and there is also a lack of natural connection with Slovenia and with institutions in Slovenia. In my opinion, assimilation in an age when there are no more national tensions, is not stopped, sometimes it seems to progress very quietly, but so very fast. We are withering away! I fear that only some elite of the better educated and a few more conscious peasant families will remain, who will bear the burden of the whole community. In any case, the position of the national community from the point of view of language use is worrying.
DEMOKRACIJA: Many in Carinthia speak Slovene, but do not declare themselves as Carinthian Slovenes. Why?
SMRTNIK: This is an inferiority complex; they do not want to be considered Slovenes. When some election is just around the corner, it is even more pronounced. Some, who still know Slovene but do not consider themselves Slovenes, are most zealous in their efforts against a misled Slovene, for example, achieving the position of mayor or even some better result. It is still often said: We do not want to have a “Yugo”. The negative connotation towards the former Yugoslavia is certainly felt. Also the fear of communism and that someone would count someone among the Slovenes. It will be necessary to work even harder on the fact that being Slovene will no longer be a criterion of inferiority, but an added value that is useful for every individual and for the home region.
DEMOKRACIJA: I find it interesting that my close neighbour, who works in a shop in Pliberk, speaks strictly German with me, however, she speaks Slovene with her colleague. Why is this happening?
SMRTNIK: Obviously she does not want you to know that she knows Slovene at all. It has already happened to me that I did not know for many years that a good acquaintance spoke Slovene, but when we went across the border for lunch, I was completely surprised that he spoke good Slovene with the waitress. This phenomenon was once well described by psychiatrist Erwin Ringel in an interesting book when he wrote about the so-called “Carinthian soul”. We also know the true story of a mayor near Klagenfurt who locked his grandmother in the basement when he was visited by some important delegations because he did not want to be noticed that his grandmother did not know German.
DEMOKRACIJA: Without the votes of Carinthian Slovenes in the plebiscite a hundred years ago, Carinthia would not have remained in Austria. Why did your ancestors make that decision then? What did the Carinthian Slovenes gain and what did they lose?
SMRTNIK: This is certainly a difficult question. However, some of our ancestors were already in favour of “regionalism” and against “nationalism”. They did not vote according to language, but rather according to economic and regional criteria. It is also interesting that e.g. the counts and landowners, namely the real Germans, all in turn voted for the SHS at the time. Today, from a national or linguistic point of view, we know that we have lost a lot by keeping the border where it is. The assimilation was brutal. However, we gained economically and were spared the period of communism.
DEMOKRACIJA: The position of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria is completely different than in Slovenia. In public institutions such as schools, kindergartens, hospitals, a cross hangs on the walls. Religious education is taught in schools. For larger holidays such as Christmas and Easter, teachers go to church with the children. This is unimaginable in Slovenia. Is this part of a centuries-old tradition, part of the culture in Austria?
SMRTNIK: It is part of the Christian tradition of Austria and Europe. In addition, Austria has an international agreement with the Vatican and through this regulates the role of the Church in society. For us, this is something that goes without saying and we are grateful that it is so. The role of the Church is accepted in Austria benevolently and positively, a huge number of charitable institutions are run by the Church and it also has a strong role in education. For me personally, this almost pathological attitude of the left in Slovenia towards everything close to the Church is completely incomprehensible.
DEMOKRACIJA: You are known to be a supporter of the SDS-led government. How would you assess the work of the current Slovenian government or the measures it took during this crisis, if you compare them with the measures of the Austrian government?
SMRTNIK: I have known Janez Janša and many party leaders of the Slovenian spring since the time when Slovenia became independent. For us Slovenes abroad, the process of Slovenia’s independence was of great importance. After that, our southern border was no longer a communist dictatorship, but a democratic state, a partner in the European Union. This has unleashed many political and emotional passions on our side. There is no doubt that Janša is one of the heroes of independence and thus has indirectly great merits for us, Slovenes living abroad. We must be grateful that this process has been successfully brought to an end. I still have many friends in the ranks of spring parties and I know that they are anything but “fascists”, extremists or extreme right wingers, as they like to be insulted mainly in various forums in the Slovenian media. I feel a certain sympathy for the parties that emerged in a democratic Slovenia and are based on work for the nation and the state, rather than on the pursuit of communist ideology and old privileges from the former Yugoslavia.
I can also say that Janša was the only Prime Minister who received me and my colleague Terpin from the Slovenian Community in Trieste between 2004 and 2008 at two official meetings and also invited me to the Council for Slovenes Abroad at the Prime Minister’s Office. In doing so, he showed that for him both parties of Slovenes living abroad are democratically legitimised representatives of the regions in which they operate, and Slovene minorities, as their representatives are publicly elected by the people, and so-called representative organisations are organised only on a social basis.
The current government is doing well in the circumstances. They are working very hard and I am sure that the majority of the population feels the same way. Putting a spanner in the works of the government and almost childish interpellations against individual ministers and the Prime Minister are just a sign of the impotence and incompetence of the opposition. I wish the parties that make up the current Government of the Republic of Slovenia to successfully deal with the epidemic and to be successful in the upcoming elections.
DEMOKRACIJA: How do you comment on the anti-government protests, in which some who sit in the Slovenian parliament also take part?
SMRTNIK: Unacceptable. Clearly, the struggle for power is more important to them than the health of citizens.
DEMOKRACIJA: These people are trying to present Slovenia abroad as a country ruled by a dictatorship. How do you, as a democrat and an experienced politician from Austria, view this situation?
SMRTNIK: This is pure absurdity for me. It is rather the opposite. They are attacking the government by all permissible and also prohibited means. I do not know a country in Europe where the government would experience more opposition from the media landscape than in Slovenia. I also do not know a left-leaning journalist who would be beaten or otherwise threatened because of his work. However, we already had a journalist in Slovenia who was almost killed, but his journalist colleagues did not write petitions to the Council of Europe at the time about how endangered they were, nor was there any strong media solidarity, obviously because this journalist was not left wing.
I am appalled that this slandering of our own country abroad is possible without louder opposition from the Slovenian domestic political public.
DEMOKRACIJA: You have three children, a son and an older daughter are already studying hard, the youngest daughter goes to high school in Klagenfurt. Wife Betina is a teacher in Šmihel. What does family mean to you?
SMRTNIK: I am really proud of my family. They are wonderful, each in their own field, and very hardworking, and as much as time allows, they also always support my work and stand by my side. Nothing is more important than understanding each other in the family and having a shelter where you can draw energy.
Samo, thank you very much for this pleasant chat and for many years of friendship. In addition to family, really good friends are also extremely important!
Vladimir Smrtnik was born in 1967 in Korte near Železna Kapla. He comes from a well-known Smrtnik family. He was educated as a lawyer, he is employed as the head of a subdivision in the office of the Carinthian Provincial Government, he is responsible for water law, nature protection, and mountain guard. Between 1999 and 2001 he was the head of the protocol of the provincial government, and between 2001 and 2005 he was the head of the office for the Slovene national community at the Carinthian Provincial Government.
He is also known for his political functions in the organisations of the Slovene national community in Carinthia. Between 1996 and 2000 he was the vice-president of the NSKS, and between 2003 and 2014 he was the president of the Unified List, the collective party of Carinthian Slovenes. He has been the deputy mayor of the home municipality of Bistrica nad Pliberkom since 2015.