Slovenia is one of only three EU member-states visited by the Russian president Vladimir Putin this year. The visit was strictly informal, yet for Slovenia, Russia is the most important market outside EU. Moreover, due to the long friendship between the largest and the most western Slavic nations Slovenia often plays a role of bridge between Russia and the West.
100 years ago a deadly avalanche buried over a hundred Russian prisoners of war building an Austrian military road over Vršič pass in the Julian Alps during WW I. In memory of the victims Slovenians built a commemorative chapel and cared for the monument for decades. Over the years the Russian memorial chapel (located just a stone's throw away from the Alpine tourist resort Kranjska Gora) evolved into a symbol of Slovenian – Russian friendship: the largest and one of the smallest (and most Western) Slavic nations have never harmed each other. Slovenia was not a member of the Warzsaw Pact and is one of the very few Slavic countries which has never been occupied or attacked by Russia.
The centennial ceremony in memory of the Russian victims held in July was attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin. It is only Putin's third visit to a European country his year as Russia is under sanctions for its involvement in the Ukrainan conflict. The visit was strictly informal. Still, Putin was accompanied by a delegation with five ministers, including the minister of the economy, and represnetatives of many Russian companies. Even though Slovenian president Pahor stressed the »differences in the two countries’ relations over their positions on certain pressing issues«, the visit put strong emphasis “on bilateral issues and business ties.”
It is hardly surprising. For Slovenia, Russia is the key economic partner and the largest non-EU export market. Slovenia's exports to Russia exceeded 1 billion euros in 2013 before the economic sanctions. After 2014 those fell, yet still reached almost 800 million in 2015. The import numbers are much lower: around 230 million euros in 2015.
Pharmaceuticals are the number one Slovenian product being exported into Russia: in 2015 pharmaceuticals represent 37 percent of the total trade with Russia. Other exports include machinery, electronics and various chemical products. Unsurprisingly, what Slovenia imports from Russia are mostly fossil fuels including gas (70 percent).
The halted Blue Stream project bringing gas from the Caspian area to Southern Europe would have been by far the largest Russian investment in Slovenia. The Russian economic delegation accompanying Putin this summer also talked about potential “big economic projects” which Russian investors would bring to Slovenia. Yet so far Russian investments in Slovenia have been scarce. Russians invest mostly in hotels and spas – unsurprisingly, as Slovenia is quite popular among Russian middle class tourists. One notable exception is SIJ: Slovenian Steel Group. Owned by the Russian Koks corporation, SIJ is one of the largest producers of stainless and special steels in Europe and the world’s tenth largest industrial knife manufacturer.
On the other hand, the value of Slovenian investment to Russia is over 300 million euros – almost 6 percent of all Slovenian investments abroad and six times over the value of Russian investments in Slovenia. Slovenian businesspeople know the Russian market with all its idiosyncrasies well – in fact Slovenia often describes itself as the best bridge between Russia and the West. A role which Slovenians have often played since Sigismund von Herberstein from the small Slovenian town of Vipava was sent to Russia as an ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor in the early fifteenth century.