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December 14, 2023

Interview: Charleston Post and Courier, June 2023

Sunday, June 18, 2023 BY ALEXANDER THOMPSON athompson@postandcourier.com

COLUMBIA — Jamie Lindler Harpootlian stepped off the plane in Slovenia on Feb. 14, 2022.

 

The newly minted U.S. ambassador to the small European country of 2.1 million, Harpootlian assumed her work would focus on building business ties and fostering cultural exchanges.

But 10 days after the high-profile South Carolina attorney-turned-diplomat arrived, Russian tanks rolled over the border into Ukraine, triggering the most serious geopolitical crisis in Europe in decades.

It also dramatically changed Harpootlian’s mission.

“The thing that has taken the most attention is helping support Slovenia in its defense of Ukraine,” Harpootlian told The Post and Courier in a June interview during a brief visit back home in Columbia.

“That became my priority the moment I landed and still is today,” she said.

 

Though Slovenia has perhaps been best known in the U.S. recently as the birthplace of former first lady Melania Trump, the nation’s relationship with the U.S. goes much deeper.

The country, nestled between its stretch of the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, was the northernmost Yugoslav republic before breaking away from the now-defunct Communist state in 1991.

Since then, it’s become the economic dynamo of the Western Balkans and a stable and democratic U.S. ally, joining the NATO military alliance and European Union in 2004.

Even though Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana is 800 miles from Kyiv, President Joe Biden, who nominated Harpootlian in July 2021, made clear he wanted all the nations in Europe, even the smallest, united behind Ukraine.

“We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come,” Biden said in address in Warsaw a month after the invasion began.

Harpootlian went to the Ukrainian embassy in Slovenia on the day of the invasion and linked arms with the senior diplomat there as a symbolic show of solidarity.

In the days after, the new ambassador quickly found Slovenia needed no convincing.

“They were completely in lockstep with our viewpoints about supporting Ukraine,” and, she said, “they were vocal about it.”

In mid-March 2022, then-Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša was among the first world leaders to visit Kyiv while it was still under assault by Russian troops.

It’s “absolutely” important to Slovenia for the U.S., and its diplomats like Harpootlian, to take a strong stand in support of Ukraine, Ana Bojinović Fenko, a leading foreign policy expert at the University of Ljubljana’s Centre of International Relations, told The Post and Courier.

“If there is no political stance from the U.S., that is very damaging for the entire world,” Bojinović said. Slovenian “political leadership is very keen on being on the side of the U.S. and agreeing with the U.S. stance,” she said.

Slovenia’s support for Ukraine and affinity for the U.S. comes in part from their own long struggle for independence and identity at the crossroads of Europe’s empires and cultures.

“We are very fond of any people in the world that fights for their own statehood through history and is multicultural,” Bojinović said.

Yet, those ideals also mean Slovenia places a high value on multilateralism and wants to see the U.S. work in concert with European allies on Ukraine, not a with-us-or-against-us approach, Bojinović said.

Harpootlian said her work focuses on supporting and encouraging Slovenia’s own efforts.

She’s visited Ukrainian refugees hosted by Slovenia; she praised Slovenia’s considerable humanitarian aid efforts in the country and said the U.S. has worked with the Slovenian Ministry of Defense on weapons purchases for the Ukrainian military.

The invasion wasn’t the only challenge she faced on arrival. Janša, Slovenia’s then-prime minister, was a right-wing populist who tweeted that President Donald Trump had won the 2020 election before all the votes were counted.

Despite their differing political backgrounds, Harpootlian said the two got along well and shared concerns about Chinese influence.

In April 2022 elections, a center-left businessman swept Janša from power. Harpootlian called the new prime minister, Robert Golob, “brilliant” and passionate about renewable energy.

Another major task for Harpootlian has been encouraging the country to build a second reactor at the nuclear power plant that supplies about a third of the country’s power and continue using American Westinghouse technology to do it.

She’s been fostering connections between Slovenia and her home state, too. Both, she notes, stretch from the mountains to the sea and have a taste for grilled meat. A Slovenian team from the country’s port toured the Port of Charleston earlier this year, and the U.S. Embassy brought a barbecue pitmaster over from Mount Pleasant for an event last summer.

 

Harpootlian is what’s known as a “political appointee” ambassador. In a practice that’s drawn substantial criticism, presidents from both parties often fill 30 to 40 percent of ambassadorships with donors and allies. Former President Donald Trump sent supporter Ed McMullen, a public relations guru from Charleston, to Switzerland as ambassador.

Harpootlian and her husband, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, were early Biden supporters and prolific fundraisers for the president. Harpootlian does not speak Slovenian and had never been to the country before her appointment.

“Political appointees bring a fresh look to the State Department — a much-needed fresh outlook,” Harpootlian said, adding that she’s had extensive federal government experience and is a quick study.

Many South Carolinians are familiar with the Harpootlian name due to her husband Dick’s work as defense counsel for disgraced Hampton attorney and convicted double murderer Alex Murdaugh.

During the six-week trial earlier this year, even people in Slovenia would tell Jamie Harpootlian they had seen her husband on TV or in a streaming service documentary.

“It was a stressful time for me because my concern was for my husband’s well-being, and it was hard because I wasn’t here,” she said. After work, Harpootlian stayed up late watching the livestream of the trial due to the time difference.

“I’m really, really proud of my husband for upholding the constitution and the right to representation,” she said.

Despite the stress, Harpootlian said she doesn’t regret a minute of her service in Slovenia, which she calls a “not-even-once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, and intends to stay as long as Biden wants her there.

“I cannot imagine a world without diplomacy,” she said. “And the best kind of diplomacy is the person-to-person kind.”