Yugoslavia: Nation Coming Apart?


The breakup of Yugoslavia no longer seems impossible. From the south in Kosovo to the north here in Slovenia, Yugoslavia is rocked by ethnic strife and conflicts among the federation's six republics and two semi-autonomous provinces.

Last month the federal Communist Party Congress broke up in disarray when the delegation from Slovenia, the richest and most Western of the republics, walked out in protest over the party's unwillingness to agree to sweeping democratic reforms. And last Sunday here in Ljubljana, the Slovenian Communist Party formally declared its independence.

``Even a year ago, I never believed that Yugoslavia would come apart, but now I have started to believe that is possible,'' says former veteran journalist Andrej Novak, who now works in a publishing company in the Slovenian capital.

Ever since World War II, when the Communist Party took power, the party has been considered, together with the Army, the unifying force in Yugoslavia. Now the federal party no longer exists, according to the Slovenes, who urge the stable transformation of Slovenia and Yugoslavia into a democratic European state.

Only by offering greater autonomy in a looser Yugoslav confederation can the country become stronger and remain unified, the Slovenes say.

``The threat of disintegration is a reality and should be taken seriously,'' says Slovenian Communist Party leader Ciril Ribicic, whose party last Sunday changed its name to the Party of Democratic Reforms, thereby starting the final preparations for the free elections in Slovenia in April.

For Mr. Ribicic, the federal party of today is ``unacceptable,'' and instead of reviving it, he sees, as more realistic, a split into a reformist and an orthodox party, led by Slovenia/Croatia and Serbia respectively.

In these spring like days in Ljubljana, with its baroque architecture and its people strolling along the tranquil Ljubljanica River, there is no feeling of a crisis. The Slovenes live well up here close to Austria and Italy, far away from the other Yugoslavia down on the Balkans.

The 2.1 million Slovenes, out of 23 million Yugoslavs, produce almost 20 percent of the gross national product and nearly 30 percent of its exports. In a recent poll, 80 percent - among them Ribicic himself - expressed the conviction that Slovenia could survive as an independent nation, if necessary.

``Yes, Slovenia can exist independently. Why not?'' asks Stanislav Valant, executive vice president of Ljubljanska Banka in his 12th-floor office overlooking the city. ``But independence is not an ultimate idea. However, we need a new type of federation.''

Nonetheless, there is a definite secessionist mood in Slovenia, especially after the announcement last November of an economic blockade by Serbia, Yugoslavia's largest republic. People here talk about their patience wearing thin, even about hatred.

The Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic wants to take over and create a greater Serbia ``on the ashes of Yugoslavia,'' says one Slovene.

``We are not ready for compromises anymore,'' says Joze Pucnik, the social democratic leader of Demos, the new opposition coalition in Slovenia.

The economic blockade has not had any drastic effects yet on the Slovenian economy, although some companies are having problems and have had to resort to temporary closings and reductions of shifts. For some companies it will be tough, says Mr. Valant at Ljubljanska Banka, the nation's second-largest bank. Serbia has stopped paying its bills, amounting to $200 million. And in the long run, Valant thinks, these companies will be reluctant to do business with Serbia. That means that Slovenia will turn Westward even more.

The blockade was introduced by Serbia after the Slovenes banned a Serbian rally in Ljubljana.

But the blockade had been planned for a long time, the Slovenes say.

``Our economic figures were just too good,'' says Stanislav Valant.

Attempts are now being made to eliminate the blockade, which according to official figures involve 230 companies in Serbia have broken off contact with 207 companies in Slovenia.

Real Western-style democracy is not far off in Slovenia. In April, the first free elections since the war will be held. An assortment of opposition parties are contesting the decades of Communist rule.

For the Slovenian Communist Party, under its new name of Party of Democratic Reforms and under the slogan ``Europe Now,'' the fight is about political survival. The party has lost members in recent years, and if it had not been ready to change, it would disappear from the political scene, according to Ribicic.

It is in this light that the Slovenes' defiance of the central authorities in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, should be seen. By demanding reforms at an early stage, Ribicic hopes the party can attain the voters' credibility. Still, few think it will get more than 25 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the opposition coalition, Demos, smells victory - between 55 and 65 percent of the vote, according to its leader Mr. Pucnik, who was in prison seven years for criticizing the Communists before leaving for West Germany. He returned to Slovenia last fall.

``There is a new political situation in Slovenia,'' Pucnik says. ``The fear has disappeared.''

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