Slovenia’s President is a recluse. Told he had cancer, Janez Drnovsek moved alone to the woods and embraced his inner spirituality. His Government despises him but he is a hero to his people
It is not often that you ask a European head of state whether he has gone loopy, but in the case of Janez Drnovsek, Slovenia’s reclusive President, the question seems almost unavoidable.
Bald, monkish and skeletally thin, Drnovsek has abandoned his capital for a mountain retreat. He no longer speaks to his Government. He boycotts state occasions, and disappears for weeks at a time. He has turned vegan, talks like a New Age mystic of his quest for “higher consciousness” and “inner balance”, and communicates with the Slovenian people through books on spirituality. He set out to tackle the problems of the world from a country smaller than Wales, and has become a champion of progressive causes.
It is an astonishing transformation for a man who, as Slovenia’s Prime Minister from 1992 until he was elected President in 2002, was regarded as a dull, grey technocrat. It was triggered by the prospect of imminent death. In 1999 he found that he had kidney cancer and, in 2001, that the cancer had spread to his liver and lungs. His doctors said his condition was incurable.
Any serious illness comes as a shock, but “the shock can be beneficial because one is caught in patterns of behaviour and somehow you do them mechanically and without really thinking about them. You do like others do,” Drnovsek explained in the course of a two-hour interview with The Times– the first he has given in months. “When you are confronted with the perception of the end of your life, it’s an opportunity to look at things from a different point of view, to change priorities and establish a distance to this daily existence and all these material developments that you are taught are so important,” he said as he sipped black tea in his office.
He accepted that some people thought that he had gone crazy, but was not perturbed. They do not understand, he said in soft, heavily accented English. “Why should I worry what people of this level of consciousness should say or think about me? This is so irrelevant.” He used a Chinese philosopher’s tale to illustrate his point: “The frog in its well was convinced that this well was the whole world. And then came a turtle from the sea. The turtle told this frog that there was a big ocean and the well was nothing. The frog said: ‘OK. This turtle is crazy’.”
In fact, most Slovenians have grown very fond of their singular President. Despite – or perhaps because of – his eccentricities he will complete his term of office next month as one of the most popular figures in his country.
Drnovsek is an erstwhile banker who won his nation’s respect – if not its affection – by helping to negotiate its peaceful secession from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and then steering it from communism to democracy and membership of the European Union and Nato. As late as 2000 – one year after he had a cancerous kidney removed – The Economistdescribed him as a “singularly uncharismatic . . . poker-faced trimmer” whose preoccupations were growth and stability. It quoted him saying, glumly: “People demanded vision. I hate vision. The cemetery of history is full of visionaries.”
Drnovsek says that his conversion from conventional politician into “Slovenia’s Gandhi” – as one commentator has dubbed him – was gradual, and he adopted a low profile as he fought his illness. He abandoned conventional medicine because his doctors told him that they could not cure him. He dabbled with Indian and Chinese healers. He gave up meat, dairy products and alcohol in favour of organic vegetables and home-baked bread. He fasted for days at a time. He also sought to nourish his soul, leaving Ljubljana for a remote home set in beautiful beech forests south of the Slovenian capital. He lives there alone, reading and writing, without so much as a television for company since his dog died. He says modern man has lost contact with nature, but it is “very beneficial for health, for body but also for soul . . . Somehow we can purify ourselves of all negativities that are concentrated in towns and urban centres where there is all this activity and stress.”
The new Drnovsek began to reappear on the public stage in late 2005, but more in the guise of national guru than president. He cut his staff. He quit his centre-left political party and launched the Movement for Justice and Development that was open to “all people who wish to change the world for the better”. He became a champion of the environment, animal rights and the oppressed, and afierce critic of a political class that is, he says, concerned only about power and image. “If only we had a candidate like Drnovsek, or even a shadow of him, the world would quickly become less intolerable,” gushed Brigitte Bardot in the midst of the French presidential election.
Drnovsek travelled around the country. He was photographed wearing a crown of leaves. He published books entitled Thoughts on Life and Awareness and The Essence of the World that are found in the spirituality – not politics – sections of Slovenia’s bookshops. He wrote a monthly advice column in a popular women’s magazine, and a blog in the name of “Janez D”, whose subjects ranged from diatribes against pesticides to apocalyptic warnings about climate change – he says that humanity has perhaps 20 years left to save itself.
Drnovsek also began to intervene in international affairs in a way that infuriated Slovenia’s new conservative Government. He upset nearby Serbia by supporting independence for Kosovo. He visited Jerusalem, where he urged the Israelis to talk to the newly elected militants of Hamas, and Sri Lanka, where he tried to meet Tamil Tiger leaders. In China he defied the authorities by visiting Tibet. He went to India for a conference on spirituality, and to Bolivia for Evo Morales’s inauguration as that country’s first indigenous president “after 500 years of colonialism and neo-colonialism”.
His most ambitious undertaking, however, was a one-man drive to resolve the Darfur conflict that ended with the detention of his envoy and the nonappearance of Sudanese and rebel leaders at a Ljubljana peace conference. It was an embarrassing episode, and he admits that he was probably naive, but says that he felt morally obliged to try to stop the suffering. While international diplomats were living in luxury hotels, earning fat salaries and indulging in endless talks, people were dying, he says. “I thought somebody had to do something to wake up everybody.”
By the summer of 2006 Drnovsek had exhausted his official budget, and the Government seized the chance to ground him by refusing further funds for his “exotic activities”. He was forced to cancel a state visit to Spain and an appearance at the UN in New York, and grew ever more scathing in his denunciations of the Government.
Drnovsek has described Janez Jansa, the Prime Minister, as the “Prince of Darkness”. He disagrees with nearly all of what the Government does, and accuses it of moving towards a “kind of totalitarian system” by curbing the independence of the media. He stops only marginally short of saying that it was unfit to assume the EU’s rotating six-month presidency on January 1. “I will say nothing. I’m still President of this country,” he replied when pressed.
Drnovsek has now abandoned his conflict-resolution efforts. He tried his best, but was dismissed as “this crazy Slovenian President”, he says. “I came to the conclusion that the only way to change the world is to change the consciousness of as many individual people as possible, and then the pressure on politicians will increase to act differently.”
He has once again become an absentee President. He spurns official receptions. He boycotted Slovenia’s National Day celebrations in June. “ At a certain level of spirituality . . . it becomes more difficult to do these things of this material life,” he says. “You feel the ephemerality of everything, and if you know your activity will have no real effect, you become more selective about what you do and what not. I still have activities, but practically I stopped all unnecessary political activities – those involved with other politicians.”
He vanished entirely from June until mid-September, and failed to greet Romano Prodi, the Prime Minister of Italy, when he visited Slovenia in August. Drnovsek said that he spent some of that time visiting monasteries in France, tapping into the “positive energy” that monks had built up through centuries of prayer.
Drnovsek has infuriated the Government, but his people have warmed to his evident humanity. His books are bestsellers, and while a few of the Slovenes I approached in Ljubljana’s central market said that they found his conduct embarrassing, many more expressed support and affection for their unusual President.
“He’s a good and wise man,” said Katja Berlinc, a 21-year-old theology student. “He’s great. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. He’s not afraid of anything,” said Asim Begtasevic, who runs a flower stall. “He stands for basic moral values,” said Sasho Adamich, a young TV assistant. When a former lover revealed that Drnovsek had a 19-year-old daughter, it only boosted his popularity.
All this infuriates his critics inside and outside the Government. “Nobody dares to question Drnovsek’s conduct or his travels because of his illness, and because he was some sort of hero of the transition to democracy,” says Janez Markes, the editor of the newspaper Delo.
Drnovsek’s colourful and controversial presidency is drawing to an end. He is not seeking reelection, and the charming old streets beneath Ljubljana’s castle are awash with posters of the more conventional politicians fighting to replace him. He is not planning any great farewell when he steps down. He is not concerned about his legacy or image. He accepts that a certain amount of ridicule is the price to be paid for stepping outside the political system, and he certainly will not mind the anonymity. “I don’t have worries. I don’t have fears. I don’t have wishes. I’m very calm.”
Drnovsek also has one incontrovertible riposte to those who say he went loopy. Against all odds, and in defiance of every medical prediction, he has not died in office. Indeed, he now claims to be cancer-free: “I am completely healed. I am cured of everything. I can’t prove it beyond being alive. I don’t need confirmation from a doctor. I just know.”