Yugoslavia: the Awakening

The meeting in the Culture House next to the neo-Baroque church on the hill in Slovenska Bistrica, a picturesque small market town in Slovenian Styria, bore all the marks of novelty and improvisation that I had come to expect from Yugoslavia’s first multiparty election campaign since 1946. Although the hall was almost full, men still hammered on the stage as they labored to erect a make-shift flagpole, while others were pinning large letters to the orange drop curtain at the back. These in due course spelled out the names of the six parties that had come in the northern republic of Slovenia to form the opposition coalition known as DEMOS—a name whose Greek denotation held great appeal for the intellectuals who had thought it up, while forming a neat acronym for “Democratic United Opposition of Slovenia,” an otherwise unpronounceable mouthful for the average voter. The meeting had been called to present DEMOS’s slate of candidates for the elections on April 8, and for their presidential candidate, Joze Pucnik, to make a major policy speech.

The voters crowding into the hall on this occasion were Slovenska Bistrica’s farmers and artisans. If the town had been on the other side of the Alps, one of my companions informed me, in Austria, Bavaria, or Italy, its houses would have been gaily painted, its shops bursting with consumer goods, its cafés ringing with Tyrolean accordion music, its market square filled with busloads of tourists coming to empty their purses. As it was, we had driven here through the dusty, deserted streets familiar to any visitor to Eastern Europe, where the lackluster shops and cafés were tightly shuttered, and the only place to buy a drink was the shabby socialist hotel in the town center. Slovenia, with a population of about 1.5 million people, is not large and its mainly Roman Catholic citizens know they have the highest per capita incomes in all of Yugoslavia. Yet they also know they are getting poorer because of the badly managed Yugoslav economy.

By the end of last year Yugoslavia’s inflation rate had risen to a disastrous 1,500 percent, and its standard of living, after deteriorating steadily at a rate of 10 percent per year over the past two years, had fallen back to where it was in the 1960s. The Slovenes are particularly incensed, because with only 8 percent of Yugoslavia’s population, they produce nearly 20 percent of the gross national product, and are responsible for 25 percent of exports to countries that pay in hard currency. Worst of all, for them, is the fact that all their earnings are funneled through Belgrade, which deducts enormous sums for subsidizing the backward south through the Fund for Underdeveloped Regions. In good times the Slovenes were more ready to shoulder this burden (which they estimate consumes 20 percent of their income), but now, facing a serious problem of the emigration of skilled workers to the West and with their own infrastructure …

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Letters

The New Yugoslavia’: An Exchange October 11, 1990

Yugoslav Troubles August 16, 1990