Slovenia: prosperous Yugoslav region pushes `radical' ideas. Regional industry adds fuel to national economic reform effort

In 10 years, the big Iskra electronics - and now computer - group here, one of Yugoslavia's four biggest enterprises, has: Almost quadrupled into 21 production divisions and more than doubled its factory units to 109.

Expanded its work force to 35,000, of whom one in three is a fully qualified engineer or technician.

Trebled its exports to $240 million annually, two-thirds of them competitively marketed in the West.

Iskra's headquarters are in Ljubljana, the capital of the prosperous Yugoslav republic of Slovenia - home of some of the best models for Yugoslavia's ``market oriented'' policies.

Iskra's management fully supports national efforts to reform Yugoslavia's worker self-management system to allow the Yugoslav economy to be more responsive to market conditions.

The chief argument of the reformers is that workers councils should concentrate - through more, not less, voice - on their direct concerns over working conditions, pay, and use of profits, and leave strategic production decisions to management.

For Yugoslavia, these are radical ideas. Whether all the republics will accept them will be evident after a forthcoming federal parliament debate over major constitutional changes.

Iskra's position is clear.

``Let the market decide,'' says management chairman Franz Sefkovic quite unequivocally in a talk in his 12th-floor boardroom overlooking mid-town Ljubljana.

Enterprises such as his, he says, are handicapped because they must reach a consensus in decisionmaking. The right of (often capricious) veto is at the nub of the present Yugoslav economic problems.

As such progress suggests, Slovenia is different from the rest of Yugoslavia. The differences are not only size (Slovenia is the smallest republic) and greater prosperity, but also Geographical position and history.

The region is the westernmost in Yugoslavia, an enclave of 2 million mountain people living next door to Austria, Italy, and Hungary. It belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918, which is the main reason it contrasts with the rest of the country.

This domination was very different from the four centuries of Ottoman occupation suffered by other regions. ``The Turks came here from time to time, but only to plunder, not to stay,'' says a Slovene writer. ``I suppose we were too far from Belgrade to bother about. We were lucky. Belgrade, in fact, is 330 miles to the east.''

Because of Slovenia's proximity to two technically advanced Western neighbors and its distance from central authority, the Slovenes can be pragmatically avante-garde. In essential approach and practice, they identify much more with the lives of their Austrian and Italian neighbors than with, say, the poverty of Kosovo, where earnings are at best a poor one-third of those here.

Albanian-populated Kosovo materially reflects the worst imbalance in contemporary Yugoslavia. Slovenia presents much of the best. Kosovo has 30 percent unemployment. Slovenia's is less than 2 percent.

Still, easier-going Serbs in Belgrade and elsewhere think the Slovenes ``work too hard'' and don't know how to enjoy life. That is certainly an exaggeration, but - despite Yugoslavia's current economic difficulties - their republic has a higher living standard and an improving quality of life evident in both the cities and countryside.

Although collectivization was scrapped long ago, farmers may not expand, however efficient they are.

For example, 40 year-old Peter Burger and his wife, Francka, tend 22 acres not far from here. They are one couple among some 30,000 private farmers that the authorities praise for ``modernizing'' agriculture, allowing them to specialize in high-quality stock-raising, etc.

The Burgers are mainly concerned with some 40 pedigree cattle bred and raised for milk and beef. They could expand and employ others if they were able to buy, or even rent, more land. As it is, they obviously live well, with a car, two tractors, and a new house. But they do everything themselves. In theory, they can have as much land as they like - but only in the highlands, not on the adjacent lowland where it's needed.

There are nearly 3 million private farmers in Yugoslavia. Average holdings are less than 10 acres. In Slovenia, the average is higher, but farmers like the Burgers want the legally permitted maximum raised from the present 25 acres to at least twice that.

Prime Minister Branko Mikulic apparently believes that such an increase is a pragmatic step urgently needed to stimulate lagging agricultural production. Communist Party dogmatists, however, oppose it as opening the door to a private farm lobby that could prove to be an uncomfortable new political force.

First of three articles. Next: young journalists in Slovenia.

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