Slovenians Plot Independence Bid

A majority in Yugoslavia's most prosperous republic hopes for breakup, despite high costs

IN Ljubljana's vibrant city center, street vendors hawk souvenir prototypes of Slovenian passports, their covers embossed with a linden leaf, the republic's national symbol. A few miles away, at a sprawling research and development complex on the outskirts of the Slovenian capital, government workers are designing a new, as yet unnamed, national currency.

Yugoslavia's volatile federation of 45 years is crumbling. And if Slovenians have their way, cartographers will soon have to redraw the map of Europe to include at least one new independent state.

Yet the future of Yugoslavia's most-prosperous republic is uncertain; fraught with political upheaval and the threat of intervention by communist-led troops loyal to the central government.

Call for independence

Nevertheless, in a plebiscite in December nearly 90 percent of Slovenia's voters said they wanted full sovereignty and supported a six-month timetable for independence. That timetable could be speeded by growing violence between Serbians and Croatians, the nation's two largest ethnic groups, and by rising anticommunist unrest in Belgrade, the federal and Serbian capital.

The leaders of Serbia and Croatia held a surprise meeting March 25 in an apparent effort to diffuse tensions. Tanjug news agency said Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman met for several hours at an undisclosed location.

Although the European Community and the United States have appealed for Yugoslavia to remain united, officials in Ljubljana say privately there are indications that Austria and Hungary would recognize Slovenia as a state. Slovenia, along with neighboring Croatia, have proposed that Yugoslavia's six republics and two provinces form a loose federation of sovereign states. Croatia has vowed to follow Slovenia if it secedes.

Serbia wants control

Communist-ruled Serbia, Yugoslavia's biggest republic, insists that it retain control, which the new center-right governments in Slovenia and Croatia have rejected. They remain at odds with the hard-line Mr. Milosevic, whose pro-Serbian policies have brought Yugoslavia to the brink of civil war several times and spurred protests in Belgrade.

"It is really unimaginable that Slovenia, a democratic country with a parliamentary system and respect for human rights, could stay on in a Communist country," says Vitodrag Pukl, deputy speaker of Slovenia's Parliament, who is helping to draft a new constitution. He insists that in legal terms, Slovenia became independent on Feb. 20, when it annulled the force of federal law on its territory.

Slovenia's leaders say they want the separation to be peaceful and orderly. But there are lingering worries about how the national Army, whose officer corps is dominated by Serbs and communists, will react. Slovenian President Milan Kucan warns of possible military intervention if there is a power struggle.

If a clash does erupt, it would more likely pit Serbia against Croatia, two longtime rivals. The large Serbian minority in Croatia has already declared itself autonomous from the Croat government in the capital of Zagreb, and vows to join Serbia if a breakup occurs.

Serbia has threatened to absorb territories from adjoining republics heavily populated by ethnic Serbs. There have already been several violent confrontations between Serbs and Croats.

Price of independence

But geography, ethnic makeup, and economic prowess could keep Slovenia out of any fighting. Slovenia's only internal Yugoslav border is with Croatia, and it has no sizable minority groups.

"We hope this will make it possible to pull out of Yugoslavia in peace," says Dusan Plut, a member of Slovenia's presidency.

Although Slovenia is Yugoslavia's most-developed republic, the transition could still be difficult. And while its production capacity is considerable, its economic survival is by no means assured.

Much of the mountainous republic's production, though better than most in the nation, is far below Western competitive standards. Several economists have predicted independence could cause a 50 percent reduction in Slovenia's gross national product - a drop that would bring at least temporary hardship to the republic's 2 million inhabitants.

Other economic experts warn that Slovenia could find itself dependent on Austria and Italy, its prosperous Western neighbors.

"Slovenia could end up being sold at bargain prices because of the ruin communist mismanagement has caused," says Alexander Bajt, a leading Slovenian economist. He adds that potential losses in the Yugoslav domestic market would also put pressure on the economy. Domestic trade accounts for about 30 percent of the republic's exports and 25 percent of its imports. Domestic trade will be hurt, he says, if bellicose relations between republics continue and exports increase to the West.

But Slovenian officials say they're confident that the economy will pick up speed once free-market reforms take hold and the republic is no longer required to help support Yugoslavia's other impoverished republics.

Josip Skoberne of Slovenia's Economic Chamber says about one-third of the republic's products are competitive on world markets and that reforms could make another third competitive within years. Foreign investment, at a trickle because of Yugoslavia's instability, will also increase after Slovenia becomes independent, government officials say. "This is critical if we are going to succeed," Mr. Skoberne says.

Squabbling over the debt

Meanwhile, Slovenia and Croatia seek an accounting of Yugoslavia's $17 billion foreign debt. They want an agreement to divide the nation's assets between the republics along with responsibility for the debt.

The talks will be tough. Slovenia says its share of the debt is $3 billion, including about $1.2 billion in interest costs. But poorer republics say Slovenia should take more of the debt because it benefited most from foreign credits.

Despite the bickering and brinkmanship, Slovenians say they will pursue an independent course. Says presidency member Plut: "Slovenians are prepared to suffer for their sovereignty."

Fear of a violent breakup has lent urgency to Solvenia's quest for autonomy. "We don't want to be caught up in a civil war between feuding Yugoslav nations," says Janez Kocijancic, a parliamentary deputy. "We want no blood in our streets."

But, he adds, "the Slovenian nation has came to the irrevocable conclusion that life in Yugoslavia as it is now no longer makes any sense."

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