Path to independence
Since 1550, when the Protestant Primož Trubar penned the word Slovenes for the first time, a common Slovenian national identity has slowly developed. The idea of Slovenia only emerged in 1843, whereas the first national programme was drawn up by a group of a few Slovenian intellectuals in 1848. The Slovenes lived in lands historically ruled over by the Austrians that were marked by a strong regional identity and an ethic mix. The eastern part of the Slovenian territory developed independently in the Hungarian part of the monarchy, with the local Slovenes (Prekmurians) developing their own language. By introducing compulsory lower primary schooling, the Hapsburg Monarchy enabled the Slovenes to survive as a nation, while preventing them from achieving political autonomy. With the downfall of the monarchy, the majority of Slovenes joined the Yugoslav state, although the entire western territory encompassing a third of the Slovenian population remained under Italy, the northern part (Carinthia) under Austria, with the eastern part being divided between Yugoslavia and Hungary, with the former receiving the larger part (Prekmurje) and the latter the smaller one (the Raba region). All minorities were quickly subjected to assimilation, initially and particularly the people of Primorska, under fascist rule. In the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Slovenes made economic and cultural gains and also acquired their first university; however, they failed to achieve their main goal: political autonomy. By resisting the German, Italian and Hungarian occupying forces, the Slovenes managed to survive as a nation, achieved a change of the western border and the status of a Republic in the Yugoslav socialist federation. They had their own assembly (parliament), government (executive council), after the Constitution of 1974 a collective republic presidency and after 1946 under all state and republic constitutions a right to self-determination, including the right to secession.
The decision on a completely independent country came to fruition in the second half of the 1980s and was confirmed at a plebiscite in December 1990 after the first multi-party election in the spring of the same year. The reasons underpinning such a decision were Yugoslavia's inability to introduce democratic changes and exit a serious economic crisis resulting from an ineffective economic and political socialist system, and to join the European Economic Community, later the European Community and the European Union. Parallel to this, the historical Slovenian fear of the Germans and Italians faded. Slovenian independence only became a reality after long-winded political conflicts with the Federation and, finally, with a successfully executed armed resistance in a ten-day war against the Yugoslav army. The world’s superpowers including the EU did not look favourably upon Slovenia’s independence and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. This is why Slovenia’s plight for international recognition was difficult and, at first, extremely uncertain, being dependent on countless international circumstances at the end of the Cold War.
Multi-party democracy, a market economy system
The difficulties accompanying the creation of the Slovenian state were complex and multi-layered. The independence process was also combined with an attempt to establish a multi-party democracy and a market economy system. The State of Slovenia was born at a time when the functions of classical nation-states have been exceeded and have, in Europe at least, lost many of them (defence, economic and monetary systems, national currencies, national law, human rights…). Its elites were weak due to its small size, which quickly became apparent in all areas. Sympathy for the young state and its historical traumas was far from what politicians and the population had expected. This explains why so many frustrations emerged during various blockages in the EU accession process and upon joining NATO, combined with a certain stance that Slovenia can be self-reliant. The uncritical mimicry of Western countries on one hand and distancing from all Yugoslavia-related contents on the other were the prevalent characteristics of the first decade of independence. The fact that a Slovenian democracy was established out of the nation’s historic urge to catch the perfect moment to establish a state remains clearly evident today. Even though during the plebiscite Slovenia granted residents from other republics of former Yugoslavia permanently residing within its boundaries all pertaining rights, this promise has not been fulfilled in its entirety. The majority were granted Slovenian citizenship, yet over 24,000 people who did not apply for it or failed to obtain it for other reasons were simply “erased” from the central civil register. A rectification of these injustices is in progress as part of the 20th anniversary of the independent state of Slovenia. No nation from the region of former Yugoslavia has so far been granted the status of a national minority. They are free to associate in cultural associations.
The “Slovenian style” transition, which long seemed to be a success, today reveals a relatively murky side. Regional segmentation was substituted by fragmentation into small municipalities, few of which exemplify development drive. The formerly exaggerated egalitarianism was substituted by extreme individualism, and the key success criteria are political power and wealth. The end justifies the means.
Joining the EU
Can the dark side of the transition process overshadow all positive features of Slovenia’s independence and 20 years of independent national development? Certainly not, from a historian’s point of view. Here, it needs to be immediately pointed out that the Slovenes (too) frequently feel miserable, even though they ought not feel that way according to objective indicators, and that their sense of the injustices, be they actual or imaginary, they have (supposedly) been subjected to is overdeveloped. This is partly a historical feature and partly a feature of the character of the people. Historic breaks are unique. They are not gentle, they create new individual and collective injustices in the desire to rectify the old ones, stir up the social strata, and establish new elites for decades, even centuries ahead. But historical facts paint their own picture. There are less than 200 countries in the world. The Slovenes are one of several thousand nations that have managed to establish their own country. Since 1992, Slovenia has also been a member of the UN. There are stronger nations in Europe that have not been so successful. After all, Slovenia’s entire population could be easily housed in a reasonably-sized suburb of a large European city. In 2004, Slovenia joined the European Union and presided over it in the first half of 2008 as the first of the new member states to do so.
Member of the EU
The status of an independent state offers Slovenia a considerably better position than it would have had if, given the favourable development of events, Yugoslavia had actually reformed itself and entered the EU as a single state. In this case, Slovenia would have only been one of its regions. Currently, Europe shows the will to together resolve the global financial crisis and retain the established integration levels. One can only hope it will pass this test. At the same time, nation-states still represent a significant protection factor. Slovenia has already overtaken the average EU GDP, and even overtaken some of the older member states, while still somehow managing to retain its social state model. It is a modern state with a well-diversified education system along with developed, widely accessible information technologies and good road connections (and a terribly out-dated railway system). It is one of the ecologically better developed states, has a low crime rate and offers its inhabitants a comfortable and quality life.
Of course and in spite of the anniversary, some self-criticism is in order: completely discerning the consequences of local community development from global development is never possible. The Slovenes have some character traits that need to be considered in any assessment: the “obsession for possession” results in the majority of family investments being made in their own houses and apartments. Since the early days of motorisation in the 1960s, owning a car has been considered a status symbol. Janez Menart, one of the most talented Slovenian poets of the second half of the 20th century then stated: “In a lovely Zastava 750 the Gent rides about, while his belly’s busy rumbling on some sauerkraut”. Slovenian motorisation has increased tenfold and modernised since then, but the mentality remains the same. Slovenes reveal no considerable sense of humour (unless the joke concerns one of the nations of former Yugoslavia). The average Slovene is quite conservative, but simultaneously exemplifies no problems with globalisation. You will find them all over the world and, similarly, all modern artistic and other trends quickly find their way to Slovenia. In sports, the results far exceed the size of the nation.
Another Slovenian characteristic is that children become independent comparatively late due to accommodation being relatively inaccessible and other economic reasons. The “prolonged adolescence” in Slovenia extends into the thirties. This immaturity is a characteristic which could be symbolically transferred to the state itself. Frequently and despite it being 20 years of age, Slovenia is also still on the path to true independence. The endeavours to achieve the so-called third national consensus on the future course of the nation (following the plebiscite, gaining independence and joining the EU) have so far not borne fruit.
In fact, the Slovenes create most of their own problems. This phenomenon has frequently occurred in Slovenian history. However, at present, the existence of the Slovenian nation is not at risk by others, but chiefly depends on itself and its own resourcefulness. If Slovenes manage to overcome this uncertainty, the content of the state they have fortunately managed to create, partly due to their own ingenuity and partly due to favourable historical circumstances, might see a more opulent future.
Dr Božo Repe