Panther pandemonium polarizes Slovenia ahead of EU presidency

Big-cat cufflinks cause kerfuffle in country's culture wars.

Panther pandemonium polarizes Slovenia ahead of EU presidency

A mysterious panther is causing a commotion as Slovenia prepares to take over the EU’s rotating presidency.

The trouble blew up over reports that Prime Minister Janez Janša’s government plans to give cufflinks featuring a panther as a gift to senior European officials during its presidency of the Council of the EU.

Janša, a right-wing populist who polarizes domestic opinion, sees the panther as a symbol of Slovenia. He likes panthers so much he once wrote a novel set in 203 BC called “The White Panther.” 

But there’s a hitch. 

Historians say the “Carantanian panther” promoted by Janša is fake — a symbol that some began attributing to the small southeast European nation in the 1980s in an effort to create a glorious past. 

What’s more, the panther has been adopted by extreme-right groups in Slovenia — and some Slovenians now associate it with far-right nationalist ideology. 

“During the 7th century, a political unit, called Carantania in contemporary sources, emerged as the first Slavic principality of the wider area of Eastern Alps/North Adriatic,” said Miha Kosi, a historian and senior research fellow at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. 

“It never included the area of present day Slovenia, only a tiny bit in the northeast,” he said.  

But the idea of Carantania as a precursor to today’s Slovenian state has a romantic appeal for some. An “enthusiastic Slovenian” invented a coat of arms for Carantanians just four decades ago, according to Kosi. 

“He even single-handedly sketched it — and that is the controversial animal we are talking about today,” the historian said, noting that coats of arms were not even used in Europe when Carantania existed.

Even panther opponents accept the animal was used as a symbol in later centuries in some parts of the region, and acknowledge that it is already utilized by the headquarters of the Slovenian army — although generally not on uniforms.

But the prospect of panther-themed cufflinks for European bigwigs during the Council presidency, which begins on July 1, prompted multiple Slovenian historians to speak out.

Most Slovene people “don’t identify themselves with this symbol and find it grotesque, amusing and unacceptable,” Kosi said. 

“With it, the government and nationalistic right-wing associations are only trying to promote a fictional old ‘glorious past’ of the nation, which under this banner never existed,” he added.   

Peter Štih, a professor of medieval history at the University of Ljubljana who is also the president of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, called the panther “a modern Slovenian historical myth and nothing more.”

“As a historian I regret that it is used for official purposes,” he said in an email.

Opposition politicians have also pounced on the panther plan.

“Slovenia has many symbols that unite our nation, engraved in our heritage and in our identity — Triglav mountain, the linden tree leaf, the colours of our flag — that embrace the European values of brotherhood, freedom and human rights,” MEP Tanja Fajon, leader of Slovenia’s Social Democrats, said in an email.

“Sadly [the] Slovenian government is again attempting to reinvent our national symbols in far-right fashion of mystic historical heraldry. The black panther is a fairly recent invention which has been … a symbol adopted by extreme nationalists, Janša fanatics, anti-immigrant and paramilitary guards and neo-Nazis.”

But Janša has defended the symbol and accused critics of overreacting, pointing out that the panther played a role during the country’s previous stint at the helm of the Council, when he was also prime minister. “The Carantanian panther was already on the pins of the Slovenian presidency of the EU in 2008,” he tweetedPhotos from 2008 presidency events show that some European leaders wore panther-themed pins at the time.

In another tweet, the prime minister — who has been fiercely critical of some journalists and media outlets — posted a video of a black panther and tagged an independent television station.

Slovenia’s diplomatic mission to the EU declined to confirm whether the country plans to give out panther-themed cufflinks as part of its presidency.

“The procurement procedures regarding the gifts of the Slovenian Council Presidency are still ongoing,” a spokesperson said. “The gifts selected will be presented to the public in the beginning of June.”