Slovenia appeared on many Americans' mental map of the Balkans for the first time when President Bush and Russia's President Putin met there last month. In asking Slovenia to host the summit, both men acknowledged the unproblematical, stable normality of this very new country. It is a quiet success story, standing out against the tumult and destruction that marks its Yugoslav neighbors - although the beginning saw its share of trouble.
The climax came just 10 years ago. On June 25, 1991, Slovenia declared its independence from the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The central government in Belgrade at once sent the Yugoslav Army to man the posts on Slovenia's border with Austria and Italy. Customs police had already changed the markers to read "Slovenia" instead of "Yugoslavia." When the troops came, the young Slovene territorial defense force surrounded the occupied posts, cutting off their water, electricity, and food supply. Shots were exchanged for a week or more, with harassment and guerrilla raids. The territorial forces lost about 50 men. In the end, the Army withdrew in a face-saving retreat.
To Slobodan Milosevic, Slovenia was not worth a real war. The Serb leader had bigger fish to fry. He was already inciting skirmishes between Serb civilians and police in Croatia. Unlike Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia had large Serb minorities. Sizeable Yugoslav Army forces stationed there, with predominantly Serbian officers, were ordered to hold their ground and to break opposition.
Mr. Milosevic was a Serb jingoist, a recycled communist and opportunist, playing the nationalist card to stay at the top. He wanted to make the Serbs, by far the largest nationality in Yugoslavia, the hegemonic power.
Slovenia has always been different, considering itself part of Europe rather than the of Balkans. Lying in the south of the spectacularly beautiful Julian Alps, it was for 600 years part of the Hapsburg Empire, but kept its Slav language and traditions. Smaller than New Jersey, with 2 million people today, it was never an independent state. After World War I, Slovenia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes - later renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia - as part of the peace plan. In World War II, its nightmare came true: division and annexation by Italy, Germany, and Hungary.
When peace came, Slovenia was content to find security in Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslav federation. It certainly found economic fulfillment. A Western work ethic made Slovenia industrially the most advanced and prosperous of the six Yugoslav republics. Throughout Tito's time, Slovenian intellectuals asserted their demand for autonomy, but after his death in 1980, and especially with the rise of Milosevic, they strove increasingly for independence and self-defense. They watched with concern as Belgrade put Kosovo under martial law. They listened with horror in 1989 when Milosevic said he would ensure Serb superiority by force of arms and spoke of resurgent fascism in Slovenia.
The wind of freedom was blowing across Central Europe. Slovenians were speaking openly about the rule of law. Even their nominally communist leaders were outraged when the Yugoslav Army imprisoned three writers of the increasingly outspoken press laying bare the secret police network that was stifling civil society. In September 1989, the Slovene Assembly spoke of national sovereignty. Milosevic had speakers at rallies call for war with Slovenia.
Since 1991, Slovenia has had its ups and downs, building a democratic administration from scratch, untangling the remnants of the communist command economy, holding elections, and passing budgets. But the trend has been up. Slovenia has smoothed out its previously rocky relationship with Italy and Austria. It will be among the next six nations to be admitted to the European Union in 2004, and it is certain also to enter NATO. Slovenian officers already participate in SFOR, NATO's Stabilization Force in Bosnia, and KFOR in Kosovo.
The sad thing about the Slovenian success is this: It is a special case that holds few general lessons. Slovenia is ethnically homogeneous and intellectually liberal, proof against nationalist pyromaniacs. It is geographically, politically, and economically part of Europe. Too small to have any strategic weight, it does give the example of what - with a measure of good fortune - a small people can do when they are true to themselves.
And that is a lesson valid far beyond the Balkans.
Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor