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Monday, December 5, 2022

(INTERVIEW) Dr Dejan Valentinčič: “There is interest in returning to Slovenia, many who remain abroad want to work professionally with Slovenia”

By: Lucija Kavčič

Caring for Slovenians outside our borders is one of the most important and not the easiest tasks of the state of Slovenia. We spoke with the former State Secretary at the Office of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia for Slovenes Abroad and around the world, Dr Dejan Valentinčič, who emphasised that the office must be a partner of all ministries in the government in the formulation of measures and policies.

DEMOKRACIJA: What words would you use to describe your past term as State Secretary at USZS?

Valentinčič: It was an interesting experience that also enriched me personally. The topic of foreign countries and emigration was already very close to me, I researched the field, I was often on the ground in foreign countries, and at the same time, as a teenager, I set a special goal to visit at least all the major Slovenian communities in the country of emigration, which I succeeded in doing, even before I was appointed Secretary of State. I received a lot of kindness from my compatriots, so I felt that this appointment was an opportunity to repay them at least a little by doing good work and improving Slovenia’s relationship with Slovenes outside its borders. Therefore, I did not feel the function of State Secretary as just a job, but also as a mission.

DEMOKRACIJA: What would you say has been your biggest personal contribution this term?

Valentinčič: I would highlight two things in particular. Years ago, I wrote about it in several articles and spoke in various interviews, but now I was finally able to contribute to the movement in this area. The first thing that has always seemed very important to me is that the topic of living abroad and emigration should be more present in the Slovenian media and in school content. Knowledge of this topic is relatively poor in Slovenia. We worked very hard on this and made progress. There is still a lot of room for improvement, but I think things have improved a bit.

DEMOKRACIJA: Living abroad and emigration is a rather broad topic…

Valentinčič: It is true, so the other thing I have always argued is that the office is too small to successfully manage all content areas – that would actually mean the ghettoization of diaspora and emigration – but the office needs to be a partner of all ministries in government in formulation of measures, policies. So that all ministries have this mentality that foreign exchange and emigration is an integral part of the policies of their fields – economy, culture, agriculture, infrastructure, European cohesion, etc. That is why we tried very hard to include the topic in their regulations, strategic documents, etc.

Of course, I cannot take all the credit for that. These changes would not have occurred if the head of the office had not also identified with these ideas and actively worked on them, she certainly knew how to carry out some things better than I could. The lion’s share, especially with regard to the placement of the topic in wider documents, was mainly borne by the employees of the office. They had to invest a lot of effort and time in reviewing and reading all the documents that were in the process of being accepted by the government or in the National Assembly during our mandate, and where we tried to re-position the living abroad and emigration.

DEMOKRACIJA: How did the covid period affect Slovenians around the world and Slovenians abroad? How did the epidemic affect their communities?

Valentinčič: Covid turned things upside down. The closures presented two major challenges. First of all, how and to what extent it will be possible to restore activities after the pandemic. At the same time, it was also a problem that, especially among expatriates, many Slovenian associations and homes rent out their infrastructure to external users during the week, which enables them to survive economically. Covid, however, interrupted that as well. We actively tackled both challenges. Now life is normalising, and we can say that life is coming back to societies; fortunately, the dark predictions of some that there would be no more interest in the activities did not come true. Although some clubs around the world are also closing and homes are being sold in recent years, in no case has there been an economic collapse due to covid.

DEMOKRACIJA: But it was probably not all bad at that time. Has the office ever found itself in a bind?

Valentinčič: Yes, the time of the pandemic also showed how much the internet can be used for good things. Many activities have moved online. Since our compatriots live scattered in many countries, this made it possible to participate even more. For work meetings, sessions and preparations for events, online meeting will be maintained even after the pandemic.

In living abroad, an additional challenge was the reality of closed borders. At the time, they criticised the government a lot for not opening the border, but they completely ignored the fact that these are truly extraordinary times, where health must come first. Thus, for a moment, values ​​such as open borders, which we all support, have to step aside for a moment. I could say that our office was, on the one hand, the lawyer of the foreign country in front of other departments, we pointed out how much life at the border is intertwined, but at the same time we had to warn the people living abroad of the epidemiological reality. If we opened the border then, all of Europe would look at us strangely. Thus, the European Commission set Slovenia as an example in terms of border management. If we opened the border with Italy, while the border for them was closed even between the provinces, this would not only violate legal rules, but also common sense. It was not only a bilateral relationship, but we have broader, European rules. However, we arranged regimes as friendly as possible and tried to open the borders as soon as possible, and I can say that we were also successful in this.

Dr Dejan Valentinčič (Photo: Veronika Savnik)

DEMOKRACIJA: You also asked our compatriots to help Slovenia because of covid…

Valentinčič: During the first wave, the minister and I sent a motivational letter to all emigrants wishing them well, and with the note that if they had any knowledge that would help Slovenia, they should inform us about it. The response was amazing! Several hundred responses came in within a few days! An infectious disease doctor in Texas, a microbiologist professor from Oxford, a Doctor of Chemistry from the Netherlands, an entrepreneur from Norway with business ties in China, and a Doctor of Psychology from Great Britain, who, among other things, warned us about the problems that could arise after the end of the pandemic, and many more others… So many different profiles and help offers. The compatriots showed a willingness to help. Reading those responses, I got the feeling that the story from the time of the plebiscite and the independence of Slovenia, when compatriots were extremely committed to helping Slovenia, was repeating itself.

DEMOKRACIJA: Both years we witnessed brutal attacks on the government of Janez Janša. Was this something to be felt at USZS as well?

Valentinčič: Of course, working in such a social climate is not pleasant. (But that was also the intention of the protesters, the media, activists, and their directors behind the scenes, right?) Unfortunately, we are not yet so far from Slovenia being a country where it will be taken for granted that different political options alternate in power. The establishment of an open, free, and plural society, where different views, ideas and visions will have the same right to their homeland and an equal opportunity for tolerant public confrontation, is just ahead of us. Getting there is not an event, but a process. As it turns out, this is unfortunately a very lengthy process.

DEMOKRACIJA: As I read, the minorities in Austrian Carinthia and Porabje are in the process of rapid assimilation, because most of the young people no longer know Slovene. Can you cheer me up and tell me I am wrong?

Valentinčič: Linguistic assimilation has unfortunately been a phenomenon in Porabje for quite some time. Although the situation is very worrying, in recent years a lot of effort has been invested in attempts to improve the learning of Slovenian in schools, as well as in initiatives to make parents more aware of the importance of preserving the Slovenian language. With numerous economic initiatives, attempts are also being made to strengthen the economic importance of knowledge of the Slovenian language. In recent years, the most important Slovenian organisations in Porabje have had new managements that are very engaged, and we hope that time will bring results.

DEMOKRACIJA: Is it similar in Carinthia?

Valentinčič: No, in Carinthia the situation is by no means so critical, but there are big differences between individual areas. Unfortunately, we also note that the Slovenian language classes at many schools are by no means at an appropriate level. Unfortunately, the leadership of the region of Carinthia does not have much of an ear for this, and Slovenian politics will have to work hard for this. However, there is still a very strong and active Slovenian core in Carinthia, which is why Sloveninness is still very much alive, and the community still has a lot of strength within it.

DEMOKRACIJA: What about the issue of representation of Slovenes in Italy, is it really so critical? There is a great possibility that Rojc will be elected to the Senate again, because she is first on the list…

Valentinčič: Since 1963, one Slovene has been present as an MP or senator in Rome. But this is by no means a guaranteed parliamentary mandate, as is the case with Italians in Slovenia, but the Italian left parties placed one Slovene high enough on the electoral list that he was elected. However, since these parties were in the opposition most of the time, the political power of these MPs was not very great either. The election, however, has been increasingly hanging in the balance for the last few elections. Before this election, even more so, because the electoral reform reduced the number of MPs and senators. In the end, Tatjana Rojc was placed in the first place of the Democratic Party in the entire region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which means the most likely election. But even if she is elected, she will be the only senator of this party from the region, which means that she will not be able to devote herself to majority Slovenian issues. So, the situation is far from great.

DEMOKRACIJA: So how to proceed?

Valentinčič: What we should want and strive for is guaranteed or at least facilitated representation, like the Italians and Hungarians have in Slovenia. I can say that for the first time in recent years there have been certain signs that the Italian authorities are also ready for this. But the problem is that Slovenians in Italy are not united about the model. And it is not two different models. The right-wing part of the minority, which gathers around the Slovenian community party, has a clear solution on how to fix this. The left part of the minority, which is involved in various Italian left-wing parties, has not offered its solution so far, they only emphasise that they do not like the solution proposed by the other part of the minority.

DEMOKRACIJA: Do you have any information on how many Slovenians have emigrated from Slovenia in recent years, especially in the last two years, and where?

Valentinčič: Slovenia experienced the worst emigration between 2012 and 2018, when between 8,000 and 10,000 citizens emigrated each year, which represented approximately half of the birth generation. Then, fortunately, there was a slight decline, and in the last two years about 5,000 citizens have been emigrating annually. Most Slovenians emigrate to Austria, followed by Germany, and Switzerland.

DEMOKRACIJA: You are also involved in research in this area. Can you tell us more about it?

Valentinčič: That is right, in 2019 I took over the management of a targeted research project on how to turn brain drain into brain circulation. So how to attract young, educated people to return to Slovenia, or at least to cooperate with Slovenia from abroad. Since it was a two-year project that was ongoing when I took up the position of State Secretary, I kept it as a supplementary job. It would be ideal, of course, if the results were already known at the start of the mandate. Nevertheless, during our time at the office, we introduced quite a few measures that were specifically aimed at modern emigrants, as their needs and expectations are quite different from traditional Slovenian emigrant communities. Now the research project has also been completed, we have conducted a very large survey, numerous interviews and also analysed in detail what eight other countries are doing in this field. The results show that there is definitely an interest in returning to Slovenia, and many who remain abroad want to work professionally in Slovenia. The task of the state is to adopt new measures that will facilitate and encourage this. Why always new because society is constantly changing. The current post-Covid period is ideal for major changes in this area.

DEMOKRACIJA: Since you are no longer the Secretary of State, you have also been advising abroad on how to modernise and improve diaspora policies. Can you tell us more about it?

Valentinčič: True, apparently the combination of academic references on the subject and practical experience is a desirable combination, and some consider my knowledge as welcome for their improvement. Of particular interest in the application in practice is my concept of “individualisation” of emigration policies. Other countries, like Slovenia, base their traditional approach primarily on the relationship to the community. Today, however, we live in an individualised society, where many people still feel a sense of belonging to their former homeland or the homeland of their ancestors but are not interested in social action. This is often the case even with very successful individuals, whose work rhythm does not allow them to enter into ethnic structures, but it is definitely in the interest of the state to have contact with them. At the same time, we live in a highly mobile world, where many people move outside areas with larger ethnic communities and settle in places where such collective ethnic ties do not even exist for jobs or partners. Therefore, the modern challenge for all countries is how to maintain direct, individual contact with them. Some are interested in these new approaches of mine. The post-Covid era has prompted many countries to update their immigration policies.

DEMOKRACIJA: Is the current Slovenian government also interested in your knowledge? In addition to abroad, do you advise the current management at the Office of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia for Slovenians Abroad and around the world?

Valentinčič: No, I am not advising the current government. Everyone, of course, chooses the advisers they think will be most useful in their work.

DEMOKRACIJA: In your opinion, how do the successors (Matej Arčon, Vesna Humar) continue to work in the office? I hope they do not tear down what you have built there – like they do in other areas.

Valentinčič:  In some departments, we can really see a very destructive approach, but fortunately, I can say that this is not the case in the office. I think that the new management has handled things well and is trying in the right direction for now. I think that it can be seen here that both the minister and the secretary of state know and feel about the topic from before. This is all the more important to point out because it was never like that in the past. Due to its small size, the office was often a kind of personnel dump. Such a superior did not even know the difference between living abroad and emigrating when he took office.

Biography

Dr Dejan Valentinčič graduated with honours from the Faculty of European Law and received his doctorate from the Faculty of Applied Social Studies under the mentorship of world-renowned sociologist Dr Nikolai Genova, professor emeritus of the Freie universität Berlin, and with the co-mentorship of the lawyer Dr Jernej Letnar Černič. He is qualified as an assistant professor in the field of constitutional law and human rights at the New University, and as an assistant professor in the field of political science at the Faculty of Applied Social Studies. In addition, he is also the head of the Centre for Social Science Research at the American-Slovenian Educational Foundation ASEF. Between March 2020 and June 2022, during the third Janša government, he was the state secretary at the Office of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia for Slovenians abroad and around the world. He has already done a lot of research on Slovenians abroad and around the world. He is the author of three books, two scientific books “Slovenes in Resia? Legal status and actual life of the Slovenian linguistic minority” (which was also published in English under the title “Resia: A Valley and its People between Slovenian, Italian and its own Identity: The Legal Status and Actual State”) and “Interethnic integration in the local environment – the case of Nova Gorica and Gorica”, ​​and the book about the age of Slovenian independence to Ivan Oman “For our dear kinship and home. A conversation with a fighter for Slovenian independence, statehood, and democracy”.

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