LJUBLJANA, YUGOSLAVIA — SOME Slovenians talk openly of secession. ``But,'' says one official, ``that will be only a last resort.''
Whether this ``last resort'' is forced upon this most liberal and economically successful of Yugoslavia's six republics may be decided by an extraordinary congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party scheduled for December.
The congress is supposed to take up the country's economic and political crises. But behind these issues lies a deeper question: Is Yugoslavia to be a single-party state, dominated by Serbia, or is it to remain a federation of equals, headed toward greater democracy and a multiparty system?
The congress convenes under the highly nationalistic leadership of the country's largest republic, Serbia. The Serbians aim to swing Yugoslavia back to a strictly centralist state, in which Serbia would likely regain its prewar dominance. The Serbians, led by Slobodan Milosevic, want a ``one man, one vote'' affair. With delegates apportioned according to regional party membership, Serbia - with Macedonia (mostly Serb) and Montenegro (historically Serb) - would control well over half the 1,553 voting delegates.
The reform republics oppose this formula. ``Decisions so fateful to the future of Yugoslavia must be, as now, by consensus,'' say the anxious Slovenes and Croats.
Slovenia has been more bitterly critical than any other republic of Serbia's hard-line takeover in the predominantly ethnic-Albanian province of Kosovo.
Lying between Western culture and the Eastern Orthodox and Muslim worlds, Slovenia has nonetheless always felt part of the West. And increasingly it inclines toward Western Europe.
Economically, it is already ahead of the rest of Yugoslavia. For example, 2 million Slovenes - 8 per cent of all Yugoslavs - generate 25 percent of Yugoslav exports. Sixty percent of Slovene products go to European Community (EC) countries. Slovenes produce almost a third of all Yugoslav hard-currency exports.
The Slovene prescription for the country's economic crisis is the same one it deems key to its own progress. That is:
Lower employment and greater use of capital.
Restructuring of big industrial complexes.
Concentration on smaller enterprises and priorities for small-scale privatization.
Closer ties with the West through a free market and a multiparty political system.
``We want more professionalism instead of ideology,'' says the vice-president of the Slovene Socialist Alliance, Viktor Zakelj.
The federal and Serbian Communist Parties pay lip service to ``pluralism,'' invoking ``individual'' participation through existing (therefore communist) organizations, with no place for parties that challenge communist power.
``Slovenes were the first to say `yes' to Yugoslavia in 1918 [when it was first created] and again in 1941'' when longtime leader Josip Broz Tito mapped out a federation of equals, Mr. Zakelj recalls. ``We have to preserve a system in which we all are sovereign and responsible for our own development and for that of the country as a whole. We could not accept a federation that gives one republic a superior role.''
Mr. Milosevic's ultra-Serbism (and conservatism) may be proving counterproductive. Even Serb intellectuals vigorously protested the recently increased severity of the crackdown on ethnic unrest in Kosovo. And Serbs who enthusiastically supported his claims over Kosovo are dismayed by his rejection of the multiparty state.
The Slovenes, however, are taking no chances. They propose amending their own constitution to include an unprecedented ``right to secede.'' The Slovene Communist Party has already resolved to quit the December congress if the Serbs manage to rig the voting and to declare a new independent party.
``We don't want it,'' officials, editors, and the members of the mushrooming ``alternatives'' say firmly. The reformers clearly have anxieties about whether the Yugoslav Army - a highly political force - would allow secession in any case. They also wonder just how, in fact, they would ``go it alone.''