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Isolated Yugoslav Enclave Marches to Own Drummer

March 16, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

LJUBLJANA, Yugoslavia — It was carnival time in the capital of Slovenia, a maverick corner of Yugoslavia tucked away in the mountains where the East Bloc meets the West, and off-key singing echoed down the streets past faded mansions dating back to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

"The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. . . ," a group of teen-agers sang.

Firecrackers exploded in the chilly fog, and revelers in masks and silk hats roamed from party to party on the last weekend of the holiday season.

Six years after the death of Marshal Tito, who held this crazy-quilt country together by sheer force of will, the winds of change are blowing.

And nowhere do they blow harder than in Slovenia, one of the smallest but most prosperous of the six republics and two autonomous provinces that make up the country, where boundary lines on the map generally mask a hodgepodge of overlapping nationalities, religions, languages, even alphabets.

Slovenia is different. An isolated enclave inhabited by nearly 2 million Slavs who have never been independent but who have guarded their own language and culture for centuries, it is home to relatively few members of other nationalities and is often looked at askance by other Yugoslavs.

In the absence of strong leadership from Belgrade, where the leaders of regional parties take turns heading the federal government, Slovenes are moving toward a style of government that is closer to Western Europe than to the rest of Yugoslavia.

Out of the Mainstream

Slovenia's officially sponsored youth movement and its outspoken magazine, Mladina (Youth), have recently come under attack by government officials because of proposals and articles that veered out of the Yugoslav mainstream, but local authorities did not join in.

Nowa Revija, a literary journal, was also denounced, in connection with articles that were seen as hostile to the regime, but the local Communist Party said, "There will be no pogroms" against the editors.

There are few places, if any, in the Communist world where an official organization like the socialist youth organization would call for independent trade unions, legalization of strikes, a better deal for draft resisters and open elections.

Campaign Against Torture

Similarly, there are few, if any, Communist countries where a government-authorized magazine like Mladina would undertake a campaign against the alleged torture of political prisoners. And nowhere else would such a campaign be likely to be taken up by the local political hierarchy, as the Socialist Alliance, a front organization dominated by the Communist party, did last year.

In fact, the key figures in both the youth movement and its controversial magazine are themselves members of the party, or League of Communists, which has controlled the country since the end of World War II.

Its leaders prefer to speak of themselves as "guiding" rather than ruling, a distinction that may be honored more in the breach. But the unique circumstances in Slovenia have forced the league to find its own way of doing things, its leaders say.

"In Slovenia, the League of Communists has to fight for its opinions and make people agree with its reasoning," said Bozena Otrewosnik, vice president of the Socialist Alliance of the Working People, which exercises political control on the league's behalf. "We take this as normal, and perhaps this is what makes us different from the other republics."

Tolerant of 'Rascals'

Otrewosnik, a former schoolteacher, smiled tolerantly as she talked of "rascals" in the youth movement and on the magazine staff who "sometimes do not play by the rules."

Indeed, the Slovenes have traditionally prided themselves on their orneriness, or as an article in the magazine Teleks put it, their "if-your-cow-dies-I'm-happy" attitude.

"If you take three Serbs you have a regiment, and if you take three Croats you have a Parliament," a Ljubljana intellectual observed recently, quoting an old saw that plays on the reputed national characteristics of the country's two largest ethnic groups. "If you take three Slovenes, all you have is three Slovenes because you can never make anything out of us."

Slovenes point to centuries of Austrian rule as the key to their economic achievements. For most of that time, much of the rest of what is now Yugoslavia stagnated under the Ottoman Empire while Slovenia, linked to a major industrial power, nurtured its work ethic.

Working After Sundown

"In the south, people sat in the shade and drank coffee," said one resident of a mountain town. "Our peasants would keep working even after the sun went down. The aunties would go over to sit with each other, and their hands would always be busy with embroidery or some other work while they gossiped."

Today, with less than a tenth of the country's population, Slovenia accounts for 25% of the gross national product.

There is virtually no unemployment here, though it has soared to 14% nationwide, and wages and prices are higher than elsewhere in the country.

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