From championing the fight against global warming to lacing up and pounding the pavements, Slovenian president Borut Pahor is taking his ideas to the streets, as well as the EU.
Slovenia is gearing up for a double celebration in 2021. The 30th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Yugoslavia falls just a week before it takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union. And given its track record of promoting sustainability – Ljubljana was European Green Capital in 2016 – it comes as no surprise that Slovenia lists “Green EU” as its top priority for the six months it holds the chair.
This offers an opportunity for one of Europe’s most media-savvy leaders to work his charm on a wider-than-usual audience. Since taking over as president in 2012, Borut Pahor has consistently pushed green issues to the fore. He will set the mood for Slovenia’s six months at the EU rudder by hosting a climate consultation at Ljubljana’s Presidential Palace at the end of June. Evidence, he says, of his country’s maturity. “Thirty years ago, we were facing a wall, not knowing what our decision to become independent would mean,” he tells monocle. “But we succeeded – and I’m very proud.”
Pahor is a pillar of stability in the turbulent politics of Slovenia, where parties blink in and out of existence with exhausting frequency. There have been five different governments during Pahor’s eight years and three months as president – only one of them lasted more than 18 months.
In March 2020 the country swapped a centre-left coalition fronted by a former comedian, Marjan Šarec, for an administration led by right-wing veteran, Janez Janša. His abrasive style – and support for Donald Trump – has raised eyebrows abroad and prompted protests at home. Pahor could hardly be more different. Relieved to escape the zero-sum game of party politics, he views the EU presidency as a tool for positivity. “One of my big issues is reconciliation,” he says. “We were split in the Second World War, so I’m trying to heal these wounds.”
The president’s affable personality and accessible image explain his status as Slovenia’s most popular politician. As a figurehead for the Green EU project, Pahor is a public-relations dream – he doesn’t just walk it as he talks it, but laces up his running shoes and takes the sustainability message to the streets. “I used to compete as an amateur in triathlons and half marathons,” he says. Becoming president has only fed that enthusiasm, with state visits offering opportunities to pound the pavements and explore the parks of foreign capitals. “Every time I go to another city, I run,” he says. “The secret services everywhere know that and they’re prepared. We have done it more than 100 times around the globe, from Tokyo to Buenos Aires.”
Pahor’s social-media following tracks his athletic adventures, which in 2019 included a 1,000km walk around Slovenia with his son, Luka. His embrace of digital communication is the source of his nickname: The Instagram President. But Pahor’s appeal isn’t about online antics. “Social media is not to be underestimated – but it’s not to be overestimated either,” he says. “As president, the most important thing is giving people my hand, physically – embracing them, hearing their secrets and troubles. That’s my job.”
Borut Pahor’s CV
Born in Postojna, Slovenia
Elected a member of parliament
Becomes prime minister
Voted in as Slovenia’s youngest ever president