Not too long ago, Mikhail Gorbachev visited Slovenia and praised the westernmost, liberal Yugoslav Republic as a model for communist reform. Now, that model is in danger. Two young dissident journalists specializing in hard-hitting investigations on the military were arrested last week, and the Socialist Youth Alliance has called a quarter-hour strike today in their support. The war of wills threatens to spread into a full-fledged confrontation between Slovenia and the central authorities in Belgrade.
``The Army is planning a coup,'' Ingrid Bakse, a Youth Alliance leader, told the Monitor two weeks ago. ``It wants to destroy us.''
Two recent trips to Slovenia revealed an island of affluence and freedom in a communist sea of poverty and repression. With per capita income running at twice the Yugoslav average, the republic's capital Ljubljana looks like a prosperous Austrian city, with elegant restaurants, overflowing department stores and supermarkets, and car dealerships offering BMWs and Mercedes Benzes.
Slovene politics enjoy a remarkable freewheeling diversity. In the past few months, official trade unions have led strikes while the lively press has questioned everything - from the Communist Party's ``leading role'' to the leadership of the once-sacred Army.
Mladina, the Youth Alliance's weekly, mounted a campaign against Defense Minister Mamulo Branko, denouncing him as ``the merchant of death'' for selling arms to Ethiopia. Then it published descriptions of the minister's villa on the Adriatic Coast which it said was built by conscripts. Mr. Branko resigned last month.
Military leaders are outraged. In late March, the commander of the Ljubljana military district charged that a ``special war'' was being waged with the aim of breaking up the Yugoslav federation. The statement was followed by last week's arrests of Mladina journalists Ivan Jansa and David Tasic, charged with handling confidential Army documents. They are being held incommunicado.
Many Slovenes interpret the arrests as the first part of a larger military intervention. In 1971, former President Josip Biroz Tito sacked liberal Slovenian communist leaders, and Slovenes fear the Army is planning a similar ``coup,'' carrying out a large number of political arrests and quelling any demonstrations with force.
This still seems unlikely. Although the Serbian-dominated Army is supported in its struggle against Slovenia by hardliners from Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, the other republics would be horrified by any radical change imposed on a republic by the center. And no one strongman has power to impose his will on the country.
The Slovenes will not give in easily, either. Mladina has kept on publishing and top-ranking Slovene communists continue to support its right to free expression.
``We need a competition of ideas, a pluralism of ideas,'' says Peter Bekes, Director of the Ljubljana's Institute of Marxism-Leninism. ``In our view, different views are a positive development.''
Given these unconventional opinions, Slovenes are skeptical about changes going on in the Soviet Union. When Mr. Gorbachev came to Ljubljana in March, he stopped off at Iskra Electronics Factory in Slovenia to deliver a peppery lecture about his reform plans.
His hosts were not impressed. Iskra's main markets are in Italy and Austria. The Soviet Union is not sufficiently sophisticated or rich to absorb its products. ``Gorbachev doesn't bring us any business,'' said one manager. ``We would have preferred a visit from Reagan.''