After her husband Donald’s shock victory in the US presidential election on November 8, Melania Trump is about to become the first non-US born first lady in two centuries.
Born Melanija Knavs in 1970 in Slovenia, she was just one of thousands of ex-Yugoslavian citizens who left their home countries looking for better opportunities abroad – a move not that different from the many millions of Latin American immigrants now terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency.
Melania grew up in the final decades of communist Yugoslavia, in the small town of Sevnice on the left bank of the Sava river in central Slovenia. Her mother made children’s clothing and her father was a seller of auto-parts, a far cry from the glitzy world she entered in the US first as a model and later as the wife of property billionaire Donald Trump.
Her modelling career began when she was spotted by fashion photographer State Jerko at the age of 17 in 1988, and her first job was for the Yugoslavian textiles company Vezenine Bled. A year later, she signed up with a modelling agency in Milan and spent the next few years in Milan and Paris before moving to the US in 1996. Two years later she met Trump, who was then married to his second wife Marla Maples, at a Fashion Week party in New York. Melania and Donald Trump were married in 2005.
Ironically, given that illegal immigration has been the central tenet of Donald Trump’s campaign, Melania was recently revealed to have worked in the US illegally, doing her first modelling jobs before she obtained a work visa. The Democratic Coalition Against Trump said on November 6 that it had reported Melania Trump to the US customs and border protection agency. But the discovery of yet another scandal in the Trump camp was not enough to sink his campaign.
When Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination, Slovenian expectations were high, especially in Sevnice, where the main city park was renamed Melanija’s Park earlier this year. There were hopes that Sevnice and the rest of Slovenia would become more interesting for tourists by association. The tourism sector has already gone from strength to strength recently, achieving record numbers in 2015 and early 2016, though relatively few visitors are from the US.
However, the love affair between the Slovenian girl and the Slovenian media ended in August when an article in local celebrity magazine Suzy implied that Melania Trump had worked as an escort, an allegation she denies. Trump sued both Suzy and the British Daily Mail, which had made similar claims more explicitly, but the allegations were still damaging in conservative Roman Catholic Slovenia.
With the exception of Sevnice residents, in the run-up to the election many Slovenians seemed underwhelmed by their famous emigrant. Like pretty much everywhere else in the world (except Russia), a substantial majority of Slovenians would have preferred to see Hillary Clinton in the White House, a WIN/Gallup International Association poll showed in August. Admittedly, Slovenia was among the countries where Clinton had the smallest edge over Trump, but Slovenians still backed the Democratic candidate by a margin of 30%.
As it became apparent that Donald Trump was going to achieve a shock victory, many Slovenians still took to the internet to express their pride, happiness and hope that the new administration would bring them some benefits. In fact, similar sentiments were expressed in several former Yugoslavian countries, now united in the reflected glory of the local girl done good.
Having said that, it is mostly those on the far right who actually like Donald Trump and his policies. As in the US, immigration is an issue in Slovenia, which lies on the main Western Balkans route for migrants making their way to Germany and other north European countries until it was shut in March. Anti-immigration demonstrators shouted Trump’s name at a small rally in Ljubljana in February. Slovenia even has its own version of Trump’s notorious planned wall on the Mexican border; it is building fences along the border with Croatia with the aim of blocking illegal migrants.
By contrast, in nearby Serbia the Trump victory has been widely welcomed, as the Clintons are detested for their role in helping Kosovo achieve independence. Back in August, members of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, led by ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj, protested against US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Belgrade wearing Trump t-shirts and holding “Vote Trump” placards.
Having left her home country two decades ago, Melania Trump has few ties to Slovenia, and only 8% of the 1,000 Slovenians polled in July and August thought the outcome of the US presidential election would have a big impact on their country.
An EU member state since 2004, Slovenia’s main economic links are with other countries in the bloc, which account for around 80% of inward investment. Ljubljana has recently been trying to drum up support from major US technology companies with a delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Boris Koprivnikar visiting IBM, Cisco, Facebook, Google and the Nasa space agency in September. However, despite attractions like Slovenia’s skilled workforce and favourable geographic position, foreign investors and the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovenia (AmCham) say they face numerous informal barriers to investment, according to the US State Department.
It’s not clear what the economic consequences of a Trump presidency will be for Slovenia. The Slovenian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GZS) forecast the day before the US election that economic nationalism would win out irrespective of the outcome. However, it singled out the potential negative consequences of a Trump presidency for Slovenia’s export-oriented economy. “The weakness of Trump’s programme is that it can substantially increase the US deficit if it does not produce rapid economic growth. This could mean a weak US dollar in the mid-term, which would limit European exports to the US and lead to more US products on the home market,” GZS said in a statement to Slovenian news agency STA.
Nonetheless, AmCham Slovenia was quick to welcome the election result, posting on its website that “AmCham sLOVEnia is Proud of First Lady”.
Trump’s policies are alarming enough to cause a massive slump in global financial markets, but they are also very hazy. It’s not clear what his intentions are towards Southeast Europe (though his apparent coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin has alarmed many in the region), and he does not appear to have any specific policy towards his wife’s home country.
A special effort to boost trade and investment with Slovenia is therefore not expected, though Melania Trump’s presence in the White House from January 2017 will most likely be favourable to Slovenian politicians and businesspeople seeking to boost ties with the US.
Having said that, Melania Trump has kept a fairly low profile during the campaign and does not appear especially engaged politically, unlike Democratic “super surrogate” spouses Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama. Instead, Trump has mostly been seen standing behind her husband, applauding politely as he rants at Mexicans, Muslims, “Crooked Hillary”, the media, the pollsters or whoever happened to be the target of his ire on that particular day.
This was probably a wise choice by the Trump campaign given the disaster of her only two high-profile speeches. Parts of her address to the Republican convention in July was immediately found to be almost identical to the speech previously given by Michelle Obama. Her surprising choice to speak out on cyber-bullying shortly before the election was also greeted with widespread mockery, as observers pointed to her husband’s 3am Twitter rant against former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
Like the rest of the world, Slovenia and other Western Balkans nations will be watching closely to find out what the first steps of the new Trump presidency will be. Hopes of benefits from the link to the new first lady will be balanced against the turmoil his victory has already had on global markets and the spike in political uncertainty.