Slovenes set reform pace. In Yugoslavia, there is a group for nearly every cause as activists test limits of one-party state

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited this Alpine republic earlier this year, his hosts were not impressed. ``Perestroika and glasnost, that's old stuff here,'' said Mita Mersol, an editor of the daily Delo. ``We don't compare ourselves with Russia, we compare ourselves with the West.''

If the statement sounds a bit arrogant, well the Slovenes have a right to be a bit arrogant. More than anywhere else in the communist world, Slovenia has become a laboratory for democracy.

Slovene newspapers exhibit a Western-style diversity. Trade unions lead strikes. And the Socialist Alliance even sees itself as an ``opposition party within the party,'' with the role of representing alternative viewpoints.

Slovenes and other East Europeans credit their growing freedom to a process called ``Civil Society.'' In Mr. Gorbachev's Soviet Union or Deng Xiaoping's China, reform comes from above, and both leaders have a deep mistrust of anything not initiated or controlled by the Communist Party. In Slovenia, changes are coming from below.

``The idea of our Civil Society is to control the state's power by making sure the party no longer can dictate decisions to a passive public,'' said Tamas Mastnak, sociologist and spokesman for the independent Ljubljana Peace Group. ``People must be able to choose among several different points of view.''

This Slovene model took form in unique circumstances. Most of what is now Yugoslavia languished under Ottoman rule; the Roman Catholic Slovenes prospered under rule from Vienna. This heritage, Slovenes say, accounts for their Western orientation and work habits.

In 1948, Josip Broz Tito took Yugoslavia out of the Soviet orbit, opening its borders, injecting market forces into its economy, and decentralizing its political structure. Today, the ruling Communist Party in Belgrade can no longer control local leaderships in each of the six republics and two autonomous provinces.

With its 2 million inhabitants, only 8 percent of Yugoslavia's population, the republic generates nearly one-fifth of Yugoslavia's GNP and a quarter of its vital hard-currency exports. Per capita incomes run to twice the national average.

These material benefits long managed to limit dissent. But as Yugoslavia's economy fell into crisis at the end of the 1970s, Slovenians began to grumble. Strong man Tito's death in 1980 gave individual republics more room to complain.

Youth took advantage of the new leeway. Students began championing a long list of causes that have angered the federal authorities: conscientious objection to military service, a ban on nuclear power, and an end to celebrations of Tito's birthday. They took over the Socialist Youth Alliance, normally a party-controlled institution, and enlarged it to include associations for ecologists, feminists, pacifists, homosexuals.

``You name it, we have a group for it,'' boasts Socialist Youth Alliance coordinator Ingrid Bakse.

The groups pack a strong punch. In a 1986 referendum, the ecologists successfully organized a campaign to defeat a proposed increase in the environmental protection tax. The Greens argued that a different policy, not more money, was needed. A referendum was held.

The Greens won, and the authorities accepted the verdict. Slovene communists have discarded the old Marxist premise of communist infallibility, that the party represents all groups in society.

``We realize that we cannot represent everybody's interests,'' explains Peter Bekes, director of Ljubljana's Institute of Marxism-Leninism. ``These youth groups raise new ideas which must be taken into account.''

Hard-line military leaders are shocked by this liberalism. After Mladina, the Socialist Youth Alliance magazine, attacked Defense Minister Branko Mamula earlier this year for selling arms to hungry Ethiopia, the Army struck back. It arrested three of the magazine's journalists on charges of handling confidential documents.

The ensuing trial sparked widespread unrest. Youth Alliance leaders organized a protest rock concert attended by 30,000 people. When the journalists were sentenced last month to prison terms ranging from five months to four years, a crowd of 10,000 outside the courtroom hailed them as heros. Mladina has continued to publish, and top-ranking Slovene communists have complained that the military has no right to try civilians.

The war is not yet over. In the early 1970s, Tito dismissed a Slovenian leadership which he considered too liberal. And rumors floated this spring and summer that the Army is planning a similar coup.

Some Slovenians fear that pluralism cannot be guaranteed within the one-party system.

``New party leaders could come in and take away our freedoms overnight,'' worries sociologist Gregor Tomc. ``What we have is liberalism, not democracy which is institutionalized.''

But optimists argue that the ``Slovenian spring'' has reached a point of no return. Slovene journalists already have dropped from their union's statutes a clause prescribing allegiance to Marxism-Leninism. In this spring's elections for republic president, journalist Mojca Murko assembled a coalition that forced the party's candidate to withdraw.

``We are developing a nonparty system where interest groups, pressure groups, all compete on an equal footing,'' Murko says. ``The Communist Party has lost its monopoly over power and information - it must now compete on the strength of its ideas.''

Second in a three-part series. Next: Antidraft activists in East Europe

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