Slovenia, and the Living Is Easy

Imported cars fill streets, bistros draw crowds as former Yugoslav republic begins to prosper

AS Slovenia enters its third year of independence, life in this elegant Renaissance and Baroque capital looks typical of a Western city.

The city center is clogged with cars - plenty of German and Japanese makes among the ubiquitous Polish-made Fiats and Russian Ladas. Numerous new sidewalk bistros and restaurants - thus far the most visible evidence of free economies anywhere in the post-communist world - are always full. People look relaxed.

Some official figures also look good. Inflation, which reached 240 percent at independence in June 1991, is down to 1.4 percent. The new currency, the tolar, seems stable. Foreign trade is in surplus, and currency reserves are up.

But there are problems. Industry has yet to pick up from a major slump in 1991. Unemployment, now 14 percent, and costly closures are expected to continue for some time. Privatization is lagging.

There is "a widening gap between the new entrepreneurial `haves' and the majority `have nots,' " says Bostjan Zupancic, a sociologist at Ljubljana University.

But "one should not exaggerate," he adds. "Everyone in Ljubljana comes from the land for at least three generations. They still have land or links with land. They may lack money, but they manage."

Slovenia, the northernmost former Yugoslav republic, has always been politically and economically first: Its workers received the highest average wage; it was liberalized enough to see a government resign; and it was the first to cast off ideological limits on how much land a peasant farmer could own.

Slovenia today is the best off of all the new democracies in the one-time communist world. Its annual average income is between $5,000 and $6,000, quite a remarkable figure compared with the rest.

Nonetheless, the elected government of Milan Kucan, a former Communist who led the movement to liberalize Slovenia's economy, faces opposition from right-wing nationalists and others who have little parliamentary clout but look for political capital in attacking the government on lagging privatization and removal of old state controls.

These groups claim that the government is sheltering former bigwigs of the "old establishment" - a barb aimed directly at President Kucan.

Despite the criticism, Kucan is widely seen as a factor of stability, though some of his supporters believe he needs to take a more vigorous broom to the past.

"The old establishment has to go, " Professor Zupancic says, "or else it can find new ways for a buildup in society. It is not good enough if it has turned 180 degrees and now sees itself as `young capitalists' capable of guiding the transition."

As an issue, privatization is not much on the popular mind. Nor do the fragmented opposition groups have much impact. "Politics has changed much, but not yet society in any broad sociological sense, " Zupancic says.

But Slovenes, as one has observed over many years, are stoical folk. They take life, if not politics, very seriously. Some still speculate that independence was a hasty step and, for example, the economic loss of the Yugoslav market too high a price to pay.

Chat with people in the street, however, and the majority would seem to have no doubts about the merits of the new freedom, however difficult it may be to make ends meet in the new free market.

And the country's geographical position - neighbor to Italy and Austria, and not far from Germany - plus the prospect of union with the European Community by 2000 is compensation enough for a past that few Slovenes mourn.

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