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Instagramming president offers new hope for world peace

Ljubljana, 18. 3. 2017 | interview

Bruno Waterfield, The Times

Op. It was Red Bull.

Borut Pahor is known as President Barbie for his posing on social media.

Known to two million Slovenes as “President Barbie” for his poses on social media, Borut Pahor wants to use his rapport with both President Trump and President Putin to heal the rifts between the West and Russia.

Slovenia’s president was on a state visit to Iran in November when the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was Mr Trump. It was two days after the president had spoken to Theresa May and two months before he picked up the telephone to either Angela Merkel or François Hollande.

Mr Pahor has advantages that the French and German leaders lack: like the US president he has embraced the world of social media; and Melania Trump, America’s first lady, is a former model from Slovenia.

Sipping a beer in his office, Mr Pahor, 53, a politician with 25 years’ experience including time as his country’s Social Democrat prime minister, told The Times that he and Mr Trump had hit it off “maybe partly because the first lady comes from Slovenia”.

“We had a long, nice, very pleasant conversation,” he said. “The American president could have been one or two minutes with me, that would’ve been politically correct, but no, he took his time. He then very kindly handed me over on the phone to the first lady. We had a chat in Slovenian.”

It was not just small talk. Mr Pahor, who has a close personal relationship with Mr Putin, invited Mr Trump to Ljubljana for a summit to discuss Russia’s relationship with the West.

The invitation was well received and follows the precedent set by a 2001 summit hosted by Slovenia, when George W Bush met Mr Putin, saying afterwards: “I found him very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Mr Pahor has met Mr Putin five times and last month played a key role in shuttle diplomacy between Berlin, Moscow and Kiev trying to broker an agreement on the terms of the Minsk II agreement between Russia, the West and Ukraine.

Pro-American and a fervent supporter of the EU, he is unusual as a European leader because though strongly against Russian policy on Ukraine and interference in the western Balkans, he will not bad-mouth Mr Putin. “He has never betrayed me,” he said. “I know no reason to describe him as a bad guy.

“It would be totally unfair for me to say anything bad just because I want a good image in the West. No, my personal experience has been a good one. I do recognise this not the experience of others.”

With his new-found rapport with Mr Trump and an established “personal confidence” with the Russian leader, who informally visited him in Slovenia last July despite the sanctions between the European Union and Russia, Mr Pahor is confident he could be a deal-breaker.

He has other qualities which could make him ideally qualified to bring the American and Russian leaders together. Like Mr Putin, Mr Pahor has posed topless for photographs. He also shares with Mr Trump not just the national link with his wife, but a fondness for the kind of exposure on social media that would terrify most heads of state.

Mr Pahor is renowned as the world’s first Instagram president, posting captioned photographs that are revealing not only of his torso and dolphin tattoo but also his private emotions.

The idea was his son’s, Lukas, 19, and the hashtag #Boruting has become popular among Slovenes emulating or parodying, usually gently, his photographs. “It seems people like it. They like to see when I am weak or strong in the picture. They like to see me as a human being,” he said.

“Every communication is better than nothing, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, press, TV, radio but nothing, nothing is the same as shaking hands or talking eye to eye with people. Nothing can replace that.”

As one of the EU’s last politicians who declares support for a “United States of Europe”, Mr Pahor is horrified at Brexit. A friend of former British prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, he feels that Mrs May is intensely uncomfortable.

“Sometimes I see in [her] eyes that she is doing her best but, Jesus, she would like to be doing different,” he said. “I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes. She didn’t vote for a No and now she is in a position of trying to her best. It must be so difficult.”