The tuberous crop was not new to the peasants but they had resisted it, not least due to superstition. The strict imperial decree under the threat of penalties overturned this reluctance. The growth of the crop did not only end frequent and devastating famines. It also saw potatoes become a cherished part of Slovenian life. Farmers whose plants yielded big potatoes were considered fortunate. Even today, saying “to have a potato” means being lucky.
By the end of twentieth century the time had come for Slovenes to shake off the last bit of foreign overrule and start on our own; to be in complete control of our soil – and what we plant. This year we are reviewing more than two decades of intense work to meet historical goals: democracy, independence, EU, Nato, Eurozone, Schengen zone and so on. Politically a dream come true, economically a story of success. For constant growth on the wings of a gradual transition, emerging markets, new technologies, expanding financial balloons, Slovenes were proclaimed the undisputed winner of the former socialist world. The overwhelming impression of progress was omnipresent; everyone was entitled to a dessert, if not at home then at the colourful shopping malls which grew at the same rate as the residential blocks back in the gray seventies.
In the crucial moments of recent history, many things seem to have passed relatively smoothly. Was it because we had guts, brains, or just “a potato”? And how much of each?
Strangely enough, when the nation of mountaineers concluded the ultimate hike and found itself atop mount Triglav, the view turned to be less idyllic than the one in our dreams. What we see are the side-effects of democracy and a market economy: the promise of political pluralism instead of one-party rule lost to inefficiency and senseless competition of parties; capitalism turned into an opportunity for white-collar criminals rather than for bold innovators and entrepreneurs. The hard evidence for this is the list of our millionaires. But all the anomalies we now see so clearly have in fact always been present. It was just that the steady growth along with European success made an efficient smokescreen. Now the end of big stories and the economic crisis has brought about an eye-opening revelation.
Who to blame? No doubt there’s abundance of scapegoats available – Slovenes have always been good at that. Unfortunately we still tend to label them by dated concepts from the 20th century, such communism, fascism etc. These political differences keep us so busy that we are incapable of seeing how banal they are from a distance. And it doesn’t take a big distance to see a small nation. The only question is whether we will be able to make it?
The glory of independence from 20 years ago shines on, but much uncertainty has taken root where once there was optimism and enthusiasm. Beside, the world has changed and a new generation has grown up in a different world. The babies of democracy are now of a legal age. They vote and attend referendums, and maybe wonder why some of their elders grow nostalgia for the enlightened absolutists (from Joseph II of Habsburgs to Joseph Broz Tito). Maybe it is for the potato, since one thing seems pretty sure: if a law for mandatory potato planting would be to be adopted today, we would most likely call a referendum, vote it down and remain hungry. That might have sounded a bit anachronistic, but certain economists have already made the point: if the voted-down pension reform, along with other neglected proposals for sustainability of our public finances, takes the state to its knees, it will be the measures by our wise emperors in Brussels that will save us from starvation. Definitely not a good prospect for the twentieth anniversary of our independence.