WASHINGTON — Almost every day for the past few weeks, Slovenian-Americans--mostly middle-aged and out of shape--have telephoned Slovenia's Washington office to volunteer to fight for the independence of the embattled Yugoslav republic.
"All over the country, people that we never heard of before are calling with offers of help," says Florijan Bevec, a member of the staff at Slovenia's liaison office. "They even want to organize volunteers to go there to fight."
All offers are gratefully--but firmly--rejected.
"This is not needed," Bevec said. "People who were born in this country could not stand the hardship of guerrilla warfare. Very few of them would be physically or mentally capable. And of course, you have to know the language to fight as a guerrilla, and a lot of these people don't speak Slovenian."
Instead, Bevec and his colleagues tell the volunteers to write to President Bush, the State Department and members of Congress to urge the U.S. government to abandon its opposition to independence for Slovenia and the neighboring republic of Croatia.
The Bush Administration supports the continued unity of Yugoslavia, a 78-year-old federation of six disparate republics--although U.S. officials say that Slovenian and Croatian independence would be acceptable as long as it is achieved peacefully and with the consent of the other republics.
These have been heady days for Americans of Slovenian and Croatian ancestry. Their homelands are at last asserting independence after having been subordinated to some other nation for most of the past 1,000 years.
Although the United States has not extended diplomatic recognition to either republic, both Croatia and Slovenia are represented in Washington by liaison offices that the rebellious republics regard as embryo embassies. In addition, unofficial organizations of Croatian-Americans and Slovenian-Americans have sprung up in the 18 months since the two republics began agitating for independence.
Indicative of the importance that Croatia places on its U.S. office, the republic is represented by Frane Golem, who, until he was sent to Washington a month ago, was foreign minister in the government of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
In the two weeks since Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence, the republics' representatives, both official and unofficial, have been engaged in an almost continuous round of press conferences, television and radio interviews and direct contacts with Administration officials, members of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers.
For the time being, at least, the Slovenians and Croatians are virtually alone at the U.S. public-relations front. Although Yugoslav Ambassador Dzevad Mujezinovic has stated the case for continued Yugoslav unity in press and broadcast interviews, he has been unable to match the fervor of the breakaway republics.
"That (public relations) is pretty much left to the Slovenians and Croats, who are much louder than the Serbs right now," says Momcilo Koprivica, press counselor at the Yugoslav Embassy.
On one level, the conflict is primarily an ethnic one, pitting Serbia--the largest of the federation's republics--against Slovenia and Croatia. In that regard, it is a continuation of centuries of Serbo-Croatian animosity. Both the Bush Administration and the Yugoslav federal government see the crisis primarily in that light.
But Slovenian and Croatian spokesmen in the United States describe the controversy in Cold War-era ideological terms. They see it as a battle between hard-line Communists and free-market democrats.
"Communist ideology remains strongest at the highest levels of the Yugoslav People's Army," Golem told a recent press conference. "The officer corps of the Yugoslav People's Army remains entirely Communist, and more than 70% ethnic Serbian."
"This is a war that has been unleashed by the Yugoslav federal army against Slovenia, period," says Peter Millonig, chief of the Slovenian liaison office. "It has nothing to do with ethnic strife, even though we know that ethnic strifes are maybe the symptoms of this problem, but certainly not its cause."
Croatian and Slovenian spokesmen say they are having much more success in influencing Congress than they are in persuading the Administration. They say the anti-Communist argument is more effective on Capitol Hill.
Adrian Madunic, public affairs director of the Croatian-American Assn., says the Croatian and Slovenian cause has made substantial strides among members of Congress and their staffs in the past week. He concedes that the Yugoslav federal army--by using excessive force--had made the lobbying job much easier.
But Tia Pausic, a representative of the Croatian Democracy Project, asserts that the Administration also is becoming more receptive to Croatian and Slovenian arguments.
"What is getting through to the (U.S.) government now is the fact that their policy has basically led to a situation that could destabilize Europe--precisely what they had hoped to prevent," she says.
Pausic contends that Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III are struggling to find a way to change sides without having to admit failure of their earlier policy and its stress on continued Yugoslav unity.