When, in August 1988, the League of Communists of Serbia refused to accept the authority of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (which had instructed it to halt nationalist street demonstrations), it drew a line under a whole historical period that had started in 1945. In this multinational and traditionally polycentric state, the Yugoslav party had provided the fundamental bond of society precisely because it had posed as a transnational force. It offered a vision of socialism not tied to any particular national ideology, but which proclaimed national equality within and a Yugoslav sovereignty without the state’s boundaries. It was already clear by the late 1950s that the continued health of the socialist project was intimately bound up with the democratization of internal political life. By the end of the 1960s, however, this option had been decisively rejected in favour of the continued monopoly of a party that was increasingly coming to represent a minority interest within society. It was in the first half of the 1980s that the party largely lost its traditional underpinning, with workers leaving the party in ever increasing numbers and instead forming strike committees—Yugoslavia today is a country gripped by continuous and permanent working-class unrest. It is above all this divergence between party and class that is putting a question-mark over Yugoslavia’s very existence as a unified state. This is because the emerging political vacuum is being filled by the politics of national chauvinism, especially in Serbia and Macedonia, often systematically fanned by incumbent party and state functionaries.
The current economic crisis in Yugoslavia has revealed the two wasted decades during which local and Federal bureaucracies were stubbornly defending their power while all around them society and the economy were crumbling, and one revolutionary ideal after another was being jettisoned in favour of an increasingly naked struggle for survival. Today, two options are on public offer in Yugoslavia. The first, associated with the Slovene party leader Milan Kucan, offers a programme—so far only for Slovenia—of a reform from above, in the direction of greater political pluralism married to a ‘mixed economy’. The second, associated with the Serbian party leader Slobodan Milosevic, clamours for an authoritarian state and speaks the language of populist nationalism. This alternative has heavily relied on ‘enemies’—finding these in the Albanian population of Yugoslavia and on the editorial boards of the country’s student and youth journals. Bureaucratic reaction, not for the first time, has donned a ‘national mask’.
A new wave of strikes, expected this autumn, coupled with the collapse of the Federal party’s authority, could bring in its wake a third option: military rule. As the example of Poland has shown, such a move would only prolong the agony. The nature of ‘the Slovene road’, and hence its capacity to offer Yugoslavia a model of change that runs counter to that of intra-national strife, is therefore of particular interest to socialists both in Yugoslavia and abroad. It is explored below in an interview with Miha Kovač, a former editor of Mladina, the weekly journal of the Association of Socialist Youth of Slovenia.
Under Kucan, the Slovene party has been confronting a lively challenge from ‘alternative’ (ecological, peace, feminist, gay, etc.) movements—as well as more orthodox appeals to nationalism articulated by the traditional intelligentsia—with a policy of ‘counter-argument’ rather than repression, thus according them a de facto recognition. The main mediator between the old and new politics has been the asys and its journal. For example, it seemed perfectly natural that the youth branch of the recently formed (May 1988) Peasant Association—the country’s first autonomous peasant organization since World War II—should join this official youth body, and that the young farmers should be welcomed by it just as in the past it had welcomed and supported other social movements from below. Mladina has, in fact, become the chief (though by no means only) spokesman for such movements, its popularity attested to by the fact that, in a republic of 1.7 million inhabitants, it has reached the enviable print-run of 80,000 copies per week.
The political ferment in Slovenia—and particularly the official toleration of explicit opposition—has caused considerable consternation in the centres of power elsewhere in the country (with the partial exception of Croatia). Mladina’s critical forays have instilled real fear in all the conservative officials accustomed to stifling criticism by recourse to more traditional methods. In the cold war now raging within the country’s political leadership, attitudes to the developments in Slovenia have become a symbolic line of divide between liberals and conservatives.
This interview was conducted in the shadow of the trial of three Mladina journalists and a junior army officer by a military court for alleged possession of a secret military document—a charge that was used both to deny the defendants civilian lawyers and to exclude the public from the proceedings. The trial coincided with growing concern in Slovenia following the revelation that, in the previous March, the army had been planning widespread arrests of leading Slovene intellectuals, on the pretext that a ‘counter-revolution’ was taking place in the Republic, and had been dissuaded in the event only by an energetic intervention on the part of the Slovene leadership. The arrest of the four served to confirm the impression that it was democracy itself that was on trial. This brought about an unprecedented public mobilization in defence of the accused and the creation of a Committee for the Protection of Human Rights. In August of this year they were sentenced to between five months and four years in prison, with both sides being given leave to appeal. The imprisonment of Mladina’s editor and journalists, coupled with the rapid erosion of the federal party’s authority, could well introduce new trends in Slovene political life. Whether the process of democratization can continue in Slovenia without embracing the rest of Yugoslavia, and whether democracy can be achieved unless it is socialist in character, are the two most vital questions facing Slovene and Yugoslav political activists.