When Slovenia became a nation in 1991, it was already clear that the new country’s path toward future prosperity would go through the European Union, Samuel Zbogar, Slovenia’s ambassador to the U.S., told GlobalAtlanta.

Slovenia, a small, central European nation bordering Italy and Austria, was the first of many countries to declare independence from communist Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

In a nationwide referendum before the declaration, almost 100 percent of voters favored the secession, showing that the nation had its eye on tapping into the economic prosperity of Western Europe’s open economies.

“We came out of Yugoslavia declaring independence saying we want to join the European Union,” Mr. Zbogar said in a video interview during a recent trip to Atlanta. “It was a very strong drive because that was for us a sign of prosperity, a sign of democracy, of rule of law. That was the country we wanted to become.”

It took more than a decade of negotiations before formal inclusion in 2004, and two developments since then have made it clear in the minds of the Slovenes that they are now part of a greater whole.

The adoption of the euro as the national currency in 2006 was the first tangible, psychological proof for the people, Mr. Zbogar said. While that agreement eliminated monetary borders, inclusion in the Schengen agreement in December took down long-imposed border checkpoints between Slovenia and its neighbors to the north and west.

Slovenia’s preparations for the European Union and its formal entry have paid dividends for the country, which has a population of about 2 million.

From 1991 to 2007, Slovenia’s annual per capita gross domestic product rose from $4,000 to nearly $32,000. The growth has lessened the need for E.U. subsidies, and now the country is both a contributor and beneficiary from the E.U. budget, Mr. Zbogar said.

Paul Steinfeld, Slovenia’s honorary consul in Atlanta, has watched the country’s economic ascension firsthand. For nearly 30 years, Mr. Steinfeld worked with companies that imported furniture from former Yugoslavia to the U.S.

When former Yugoslav states started taking into account real labor costs ignored by the preceding communist government, the manufacturing industry, including furniture factories, suffered tremendously, he said.

But Slovenia’s ability to establish relationships with its western neighbors helped it establish services to compensate for the loss of low-cost manufacturing.

“(Slovenia has) always looked west. Being so close to Austria and Italy, their major trading partners have been to the west,” Mr. Steinfeld said.

Mr. Zbogar, in a lecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said that Slovenia was the “best in class” of the countries that shook off Yugoslav rule.

As the first of those countries to join or lead the E.U., Slovenia’s achievements back up that reputation.

While greater powers treated Slovenia’s initial knocks at the E.U.’s door with wariness, the nation is now relishing a moment in the international spotlight.

“In 1991 we declared independence and we were discussed by E.U. foreign ministers as an issue and as a problem, and then 17 years later we are the one who is putting forward the agenda of the E.U. foreign ministers,” Mr. Zbogar said.

As of Jan. 1, 2008, Slovenia is serving a six-month term as the president of the Council of the European Union, a designation that gives Slovenia the responsibility of representing the 27-country bloc to the world and the opportunity to boost its own profile.

“This is the one great time for Slovenia to really show itself to the world,” Mr. Steinfeld said.

But Slovenia has also used its newfound influence to help its neighbors, some of them former Yugoslavia states that haven’t entered the E.U.

An advocate of E.U. enlargement, Slovenia is assisting these western Balkan countries in their preparations for entry into the E.U., which Mr. Zbogar said would enhance stability and economic interaction in the region.

Looking farther abroad, Slovenia also is improving incentives to make it more attractive to investors from the U.S. and other countries.

Mr. Zbogar said Slovenian companies would like to establish partnerships with small- to medium-sized companies in the U.S.

He added that Slovenia has seen a boom in tourism since it became a member of the E.U., pleasantly surprising many visitors with its wines, pristine natural scenery and relatively low cost.

During his visit, Mr. Zbogar participated in a variety of engagements around Atlanta.

He spoke at a consular corps luncheon and met with representatives from Delta Air Lines Inc. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also met state officials, including Gov. Sonny Perdue and Ken Stewart, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...