The Day I stumbled Into Power

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Ljubljana, December 22, 1991 :Milan Kučan, then president of Slovenia, Gianni De Michelis, the interpreter.

Few weeks have passed since my last Yonder arrived in your mailbox. I apologize. The reason for my absence is a combination of factors that have kept me away from yondering. No, I did not write a book. Not yet, at least. I needed to take care of personal matters but also wanted to take a break from the brutal political reality we inhale every day. Has my break changed anything? Not really, except that the energy to do better and more is now increasing, in hopes that this publication will continue to grow. So, welcome back.

“Scemo, scemo,” echoed the crowd of ten thousand in the Pala Eur, the sports arena in the south of Rome. It was January 31 in the year of Orwell. I was living in Paris, Brussels, Rome, and Ljubljana. Fresh from Asia and deep into my Chinese studies, I had little or no clue about European politics, nor much of the Italian language. So when I heard the wave of “scemo” calls, I looked on the stage as we anxiously waited for Sting to start the concert. It was not a chant for the famous rocker, though; the crowd was calling to dimwit Gianni De Michelis, then the Italian labor minister, who entered the VIP balcony with a couple of pretty women and was noticed by the crowd. I mused about the eccentric and passionate way the young Italians expressed their political opinion. My knowledge about contemporary Italy was nonexistent back then, and I have no recollection why De Michelis was booed by the audience. Did he do something politically wrong, or was he ridiculed because of his age (he was 43 years old then) in attending Sting’s concert? Was it in spite of his long curly hair? Or just because he was wearing one of his Hermes neckties? Who knew.

This was, however, my first and distant encounter with Gianni De Michelis, who at the age of 78 passed away in a hospital in Venice, his home town. I read the news as I got off the plane in Ljubljana last week. I haven’t thought of De Michelis for a long time. I first met him at the height of his career. He was Italian foreign minister and deeply involved in the process of untangling the Yugoslav crisis that had, unfortunately, devolved into bloody civil war.

As a member of European troika that negotiated with the federal Yugoslav government and all the republics involved in the conflict, De Michelis was also catapulted into the Bilderberg group, the exclusive and secretive gathering of power brokers that met annually to discuss strategies and foster dialogue between Europe and North America. Soon after, in 1992, De Michelis crashed headfirst into a massive corruption scandal. He never recovered from it. One could occasionally meet him during conferences and meetings, and he also was a regular guest at Chinese and American embassy receptions in Rome. But he was effectively done. It was the end of his special perks: jets, media, frontline appearances and the hard pursuit of his political ideas. De Michelis was one of the rare geopolitical thinkers in Italy; he knew what Americans wanted, he firmly believed in the European project and was the engine behind the Maastricht Treaty of European Union, signed by member states in February 1992.  

It was bizarre then that on the flight from Washington to Munich I was reading George Parker’s book on Richard Holbrooke, published the day before my departure to Europe. Holbrooke, who died from complication of the torn aorta in 2010, was a former U.S. ambassador to the UN, and President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But he made his name known when he served as the chief negotiator in the Balkans, and the person who in 1995 forced all the warring countries to sign the peace treaty in Dayton. Holbrooke, who was the same age as De Michelis, essentially took over the things the disgraced Italian minister and the Europeans left unresolved in Bosnia. In the end, he also decided to no longer tolerate the bluffs and lies by Slobodan Milošević, the dictator who instigated Serbian nationalism and provoked the war in multiethnic Yugoslavia. The last act of the dirty and painful war was the NATO bombìng of Serbia that was intended to stop the Serbian invasion of Kosovo. It was executed, in all its irony, as the enforcement of the Dayton peace treaty.

There was another thing De Michelis and Holbrooke had in common. They were both extremely talented diplomats, but also strong, extravagant and nonconformist in their behavior. The latter prevented them from achieving more than they actually could. They both enjoyed power, using it as an intellectual exercise and challenge. De Michelis got to the national political stage and moved to Rome after he helped Bettino Craxi take control of the Italian Socialist Party, which was at odds with the reformist Communist Party of Enrico Berlinguer. It planned its surge on power by competing against the hegemony of the Italian Christian Democrats, a staunch ally, and the U.S. backed partner in the Cold War.

Until the fall of the Berlin wall, the Christian Democrats functioned as the fortress protecting western democracies from the invasion of the Soviet barbarians, as was the thinking then. Craxi Socialists started slowly cracking this wall, supporting, for instance, the Palestinians, and being part of Socialist International, which before the war in Yugoslavia ran the majority of European governments.

It was because of the socialist majority that Europe, on the eve of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, gave credit to Milošević, whom they saw as the only leader enough to be able to keep Yugoslavia united. During the secret meeting in Vienna, in 1991, the socialist European leaders elaborated a plan, suggesting that Milošević change the name of the Communist Alliance of Yugoslavia (Zveza Komunistov Jugoslavije) into some kind of socialist party that would be able to keep the country united with the prospect of joining the EU. In order to convince the Yugoslav leadership to straighten out the crisis, Jacques Delors, then head of the EU commission, traveled to Belgrade and gave the Federal Yugoslav Army (JLA) a billion dollar check. Brussels, like the rest of the world, completely ignored the situation on the ground. They simply wrote a check hoping to please the only force of Yugoslavia that could potentially, but not without force, keep the country in one piece. They gave the JLA enough money for their toy, a new fighter jet. It was like feeding the beast.

De Michelis, too, was living somewhere else. His mind was in Risorgimento with Giuseppe Mazzini, the mid-19th-century thinker, and politician who first started as a member of a secret society (the Carboneria), and later on as the founder of Risorgimento movement, which resulted in Italian unification. De Michelis believed that the Serbs in 1991 were in the right spot to oppose the German expansion in Europe–similar to Serbian nationalists who at end of the 19th century emulated Piedmont’s leading role in the Risorgimento of Italy–by claiming that Serbia intended to be a South Slavic Piedmont that would unite all South Slavs in one state known as Yugoslavia. Serbian nationalists supported a centralized Yugoslav state that guaranteed the unity of the Serbs while resisting efforts to decentralize the state.

But neither Delor, or De Michelis, or other Europeans realized how strong the various nationalisms eroded the integrity of the country. So when Slovenia, joined at the last moment by Croatia, declared independence on June 25 in 1991, the tension exploded. The rest is history.  

I knew De Michelis was hesitant and resistant to the idea of the secession of Yugoslavia. This was the reason that I was seeking an interview with him. By that time, I knew about his flamboyant style of life. But I also knew that he was a rising political star. He had enough power to waste the federal budget with partying, using government jets to transport his friends and ladies to lavish parties. Bringing in the Venetian socialist troops in support of Bettino Craxi in 1976, he was secured and pampered by his boss, acting as an l’enfant prodige. Now in power, divorced, and in Rome, moving from one government position to the other, he was also able to compensate for the good time he missed in the sixties when he was all books and studies. But as a minister, De Michelis was hard-working, too. He was a knowledgeable and fast thinker, capable of absorbing tons of reading material in record time. But he could hardly be said to easily comply.

Same with Holbrooke. His disordered behavior, also manifest in eating (he ate everything and fast) – was especially because of his brilliant mind, writes Packer. He was not able to achieve what he always wanted to: becoming Secretary of State. In the U.S., if you want to seize real power, you have to blend in completely, drop any kind of identity, Packer writes. No matter where you come from, you have to drop your worldly ideas and embrace American exceptionalism. Holbrooke tried hard to do this, espousing the idea of a great America, the country that could do anything. He failed because he never conformed to its standards, and could therefore not contain his crazy genius, and consequently never achieved a position of power from where he could alter everything. This, in spite of his capacity to outmaneuver everyone, always the fastest in the room, always a step ahead.

December 22, 1991, was an incredibly warm weekend in Rome. In the late morning, I was playing tennis with a friend when my wife at the time came to tell me that De Michelis’ office called and invited me Ljubljana with him. I had no time to think. I dropped everything, went home, showered and ran to the appointment at the Hotel Plaza in downtown Rome that De Michelis had transformed into his headquarters. I did try to reach the minister through official channels several times, but since De Michelis spent hardly any time in the Farnesina, the Foreign ministry staff ignored him whenever they could. De Michelis disliked the bureaucracy back; he only relied on his own people and hated the ministry building that was original, in 1935, designed as the headquarters of Italy’s National Fascist Party. So when my messages finally got through, it was the receptionist of Hotel Plaza who acted as the De Michelis back channel and called me.

Once I arrived at the hotel in Via Del Corso, just across the street from headquarters of the Socialist Party, my hair was still wet, and I was told that I did not need a passport. The entourage of the minister looked at me with curiosity, asking how the hell did I get to the minister, outmatching them. It was their failure; they were trying to keep control over Gianni, as they called him. I did not tell them how I met with young a female member of Frescobaldi’s, the bygone Roman aristocratic clan that hosted the photographic exhibition of the destruction of Vukovar, the Croatian town that was grounded by the Serbs shelling a couple of weeks before. She told me the channel, and she’d arranged the call.

So here I was, sitting in an official car, in a motorcade speeding through Rome to Ciampino airport, waiting in the VIP room for the Minister to arrive and board first. I remember I was asked to sign the paper and pay 10.000 liras (equivalent to $6) for the insurance in case something happened on the way.

When I boarded the Falcon, Gianni De Michelis was sitting in the salon of the plane waiting for me. He looked at me judgmentally, and I was overwhelmed that I was supposed to sit alone with the minister while the other Italian journalists were stranded in the back of the plane. I was invited to sit at the other side of the table; they took my coat and as I approached the table, I stepped on the minister’s foot. He had his long legs stretched underneath, and when I trampled him, he did not blink. I must have blushed. As we got in the air, white jacket personnel served us a meal. It was a vitel tonne, I remember, and a lousy Santa Margherita pinot grigio. I don’t remember touching any of the food. I may have had a sip of wine, but my recorder was running, and I knew that the flight was short.

By the time we landed in Trieste, another motorcade was waiting at the plane. I thought we were done with the interview, but they sat me in the car behind De Michelis’ limo. We were at the border in no time; the cars stopped when Giovanni Castellaneta, the minister’s press person, came to my car to ask me if I could arrange with the Slovenian authorities to let the van with the Italian journalists behind us into Slovenia without formalities. I got out and recognized Zoran Thaler, the Slovenian deputy foreign minister, and asked him for a favor. I am sure he did not expect me there and I had fun watching his and other Slovenian politician’s reaction, especially when I found myself in the negotiation room together with two ministers. I just walked into the room saying I was with the Italian minister, which I was.

The long afternoon ended after three meetings. I could not participate in all of them since they discovered my game. But I did travel back to Rome on the plane with de Michelis and ambassador Alessandro Grafini, who joined us from Zagreb where he was on a similar mission as De Michelis in Ljubljana. We all–I still cannot believe how–sat in the little salon of the Falcon, discussing the last favors De Michelis was trying to obtain before the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia; this was the only reason for De Michelis’ hastily arranged visit in Ljubljana. He wanted to tell the Slovenian authorities in person that their long-awaited recognition was coming.

It would happen on January 15, thanks to De Michelis’ push in Brussels where he achieved a consensus on the collective recognition of Slovenia by the EU. But besides his triumphal camaleone speech in Ljubljana, the Italian minister continued to request favors for the Italian minority now divided between Slovenia and Croatia. I did not pay much attention to this game. I knew better than that. In the battle for the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, the Italian socialist foreign minister lost to the Christian Democrats, who together with the Vatican accused him of having betrayed Italian national interest by not supporting Catholic and independent Slovenia from the very beginning.

De Michelis was intelligent enough to see what was coming. He made a fast turn and went ahead with the promotion of Slovenia. The battle of Slovenia was a bigger priority than his fear of the Germans reaching the Mediterranean. Meeting him later, briefly, on several occasions, I always took away the impression that he would still prefer a united Yugoslavia under the iron fist of Milošević, or whoever. I teased him about being antiquated, as were my Roman friends who needed years to digest the end of Tito Yugoslavia. I was often told that we Slovenians should sacrifice for the unity of Yugoslavia. With every version of this argument, I sharpened my ideas that separating from the socialist regime of Yugoslavia–run by Serbian nationalists–and joining Europe, was the right decision. Day after the blitz in Ljubljana, my long interview with De Michelis was published by the weekly Mladina. It was incredible since none of the daily papers had much to report on the event. We landed in Rome the same evening, after dropping De Michelis in Rimini where he went dancing in his favorite disco club. He ordered the Falcon to be back at Rimini, to pick him up next morning at seven o’clock.

This was De Michelis. If I was still in Italy, I would definitely have tried to find him in November 2016 and interrogate him about what he was thinking of Donald Trump. It would be interesting to know how he processed all the disruptive changes that came from the man who stole the stage from the professionals of politics. Was he aware of it? No matter what one may think of him, one thing is certain: in the view of the events during the last few years, De Michelis was one of the last politicians with a broad political vision. He must’ve known that the politicking of today would be just like any other gig job.    

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