Jelko Kacin - interview
There is little doubt that the media played a key role in the process of Slovenia's gaining independence 20 years ago. The war for independence was fought largely in the public eye, and the media was used as the main tool for communicating our truth. Who does not remember Jelko Kacin, the then Minister of Information, and his confident TV appearances as he steered and won the media war?
At the end of June 1991, in the critical 10 days of war, you addressed the public regularly, even several times a day, to keep people up-to-date with recent developments in the war between Slovenia and the Yugoslav Army. For most Slovenes, you were the only link to the events of the time. How do you see those events now?
J. Kacin: Unique, definitely, unparalleled by any other event in the nation’s history, and unlikely to happen again. True, the media played a crucial role in unveiling the circumstances in Yugoslavia at the time. The Ministry of Information, which I led from April 1991, was fully aware that the independence process would only succeed if we were able to “sell” Slovenia’s side of the story to the public, both at home and abroad. As no national press agency existed at the time, the task fell on the Ministry. We could certainly not expect Yugoslavia’s only press agency Tanjug to provide fair and unbiased coverage of the events. When it became clear that Tanjug would not support us in the sovereignty process, we decided to set up the Slovenian Press Agency. We managed to secure financial and human resources from the state and, with very little time on our hands, set the agency in operation a week before the declaration of independence. I am pleased to say that in a very short time we established excellent working relations with a wide circle of journalists from major media agencies.
Your appearances were definitely unique; you were described as convincing, spontaneous, and direct, and these qualities won over the international public.
Through the media, you conveyed the message that Slovenia more than deserved its independence. It is generally believed that the media battle was managed brilliantly and that the victory was complete because of the responsiveness, quality, and functionality of the media. Would you agree with that?
J. Kacin: Certainly. Before I was appointed Minister of Information, I had already been actively involved with the media and communications in general; I worked part-time for the national public broadcasting organization and held lectures at various schools and training organizations, including the Defense Training Centre in Poljče. A defense studies graduate, I knew a lot about the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA, also JLA), maybe even more than others. This knowledge is what made my reports more convincing, spontaneous, and straightforward. Given my media experience, I was also well aware of the power of visual effects, and that is why in my public appearances I favored television at the expense of other media. Television actually showed people in Slovenia and abroad what was going on. Even in hard and difficult moments, I strove to appear calm and composed in our press conferences. Television viewers never saw me wear a uniform; I would always act as the public face of the government. I avoided making any sentimental statements and paid special attention to ensure no one felt left out or unsupported. I worked for the good of all citizens; in other words, I was totally apolitical. I never commented on national, religious, cultural, sexual, or other beliefs and orientations. My main task was to present the conflict as a case of a “David versus Goliath” struggle as convincingly as possible. When a reporter asked me how many casualties there were in the war, I replied that this information would be provided by the Red Cross. As a state, did not report on the number of victims. Of course, when compared to uniform-clad General Blagoje Ađić, who monotonously mumbled into his beard, my media addresses were different: they were youthful, fresh, persuasive….
…and original. The media said: Slovenes have shown how to wage an effective information war in a partisan manner, with well-planned coordination of the media. Slovenia came out of the war as a winner because it won the media war, using carefully selected words and the tone of message to present each situation to its advantage ...
J. Kacin: ... Yes, that’s what the papers said. The reason why I always spoke to the media in a composed voice was to calm down the members of the Territorial Defense Force and Police in the trenches, as well as the members of the Civil Protection Service and their families. Our key message was that Slovenia did not enter the war because it wanted one or to win it, but simply to end the hostilities as soon as possible. When the hostilities cease, negotiations can start. And when you start negotiating, you become a partner – until that time you are just a victim of an act of aggression. A negotiating state is the subject of an agreement, and by putting an end to the hostilities, Slovenia became a respected political player.
This period is closely related to the first democratic elections and profound political changes, as well as to the all-round maturing of Slovenian society – which demanded a different approach to the future and called for more future, less past, and some distance from history.
J. Kacin: It was completely clear that the time of Tito was becoming a thing of the past, and the cries for reason and democracy were getting louder and louder. Slovenia refused to put up with the federal government any longer; it was particularly opposed to Serbian politics which tried to manipulate Montenegro, Kosovo, and Vojvodina to block any changes leading to the democratization and introduction of the market economy. The period also marked the beginning of retrograde processes, manifested in efforts to remove armchair politicians from their offices and appoint more progressive political leaders into republic governments. It became clear that the country we lived in faced an uncertain future. Gradually, we also realized that the changes in Yugoslavia could not be secured by peaceful means. It was at that time that I took over as Deputy Minister of Defense. But the moment that was crucial for my further work with the media was when the YPA special forces invaded the headquarters of the Territorial Defense of the Republic of Slovenia and put General Hočevar in charge of the Territorial Defense. The incident showed that the army saw the whole issue as an internal affair, and made it clear it would not refrain from such interventions in the future. The second turning point was the time of the referendum and the preparations for it, when the nucleus of the Slovenian Army and new weapons were presented at Kočevska Reka. I made sure that the government in Belgrade was informed that Slovenia had acquired its own weapons and was prepared to use them for the country’s defense. We started letting people know that the situation had evolved and that the defense of Slovenia was no longer impossible nor risky.
The decision by the government of the Republic of Slovenia to hold a plebiscite on independence on 23 December 1990 was therefore a result of a series of events. It was a historical opportunity for Slovenes to decide the course of their future. However, the nearly unanimous support of the citizens for the independence process made the situation in Yugoslavia more uncertain than ever.
J. Kacin: The plebiscite was a point of no return. Its outcome showed that the electorate voted for a new, better, and independent path. I do not believe that any Slovene expected the referendum to pass with such overwhelming majority. Surprisingly, even many non-Slovenes voted for independence. The overwhelmingly approved referendum on independence and the unanimous support of the citizens it received pushed Yugoslavia into further uncertainty. It also marked the beginning of the hardest period in the independence process – the preparations for the declaration of the sovereign state of Slovenia. According to the Plebiscite Act, the country had six months to implement the will of the people. Intensive preparations for Slovenia’s independence were also launched towards the media.
Is it true that you didn’t expect such an overwhelming outcome?
J. Kacin: Yes, that’s true. When the discussions on the referendum motion started, many accused us of being irresponsible, and of not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. And when the referendum was confirmed, another question arose: What majority will it be carried by? We set an ambitious goal: two thirds or nothing! But to get an almost 90-percent support – no one dared dream of such an outcome.
What was your work like in those history-making days?
J. Kacin: Ever since the YPA had invaded the headquarters of the Slovenian Territorial Defense Force, I feared, as Deputy Minister of Defense, that eventually the YPA would also take control of the Slovenian Radio and Television (RTV Slovenija). Therefore, I worked hard on how to protect RTV Slovenija and ensure its continuous operation as a system that informed the public of current events. To achieve this, all broadcasting vehicles and other equipment were moved to locations where they would be kept safe in case of military intervention. The possibility of the Serbs outvoting the dissident republics gave rise to a threat that the Yugoslav Presidency might declare an emergency situation and attempt to overthrow the democratically elected governments in Slovenia and Croatia. We entered the crucial phase of preparing for Slovenia’s independence. Time was tight and the work had to be carefully coordinated.
... which was probably the main reason why you were appointed Minister of Information by the government at that time?
J. Kacin: That’s right. I took over the office only two months before independence. The declaration of independence day was nearing, and there were still many activities to be done in the media. Our main tasks were to establish the Slovenian Press Agency and undertake an extensive promotional campaign to accompany the declaration of independence. Also, considerable effort was put into cooperation with domestic media, in particular the electronic media, which were of utmost importance due to their short response times.
When you took over the Ministry of Information, the pace of events picked up considerably …
J. Kacin: Of course, in that critical period every day mattered. It was crucial that all citizens understood that Slovenia was indeed ready to gain its independence. The journalists were particularly interested in Slovenia’s process of economic independence, its economic relations with the international community, the issue of supplying the population, as well as defense and safety issues. Although press conferences often started several hours late, attendance was always high at the conferences covering the SFRJ Presidency Sessions in Belgrade, which were attended by President Kučan. During all this time, we also considered worst-case scenarios. We needed to define and create new national symbols, design a new flag, and coat of arms. To illustrate, we only had three days to sew the flag. A large part of our efforts focused on the main national ceremony, which was held on 26 June at the square Trg Republike in Ljubljana. The ceremony was magnificent and unforgettable; history was made that day.
But the dreams that were allowed that evening were shattered the very next morning when the YPA launched an attack on Slovenia. We were in the middle of a war: there were soldiers in the streets, tanks, and barricades; border-crossings and airports were closed.
J. Kacin: Tanks had hit the streets of Primorsko a day before, on 26 June, and two military aircraft did several flights over Ljubljana in an attempt to frighten the people.
How did you perceive the aggression of the YPA?
J. Kacin: As their utter defeat. People will not be intimidated by tanks. They were appalled at the actions of the YPA, which had grossly misjudged the situation. I, on the other hand, was more concerned with how to steer the course of events to prevent any premature incident that would further enrage the Belgrade government. If we had acted too soon, everything would have fallen apart and we definitely would not have been able to continue the sovereignty efforts as we had. You know, I was always sent to places where the temperature had hit boiling point and things were incredibly tense. I remember being asked about how I saw the flyovers. I replied that they were done in celebration of the birth of the new state of Slovenia.
And then came the Brioni talks, where the issue of war and peace was decided.
J. Kacin: Practically all the leading politicians from the Balkans and Europe were present on Brioni. We worked on the home front while Milan Kučan, Janez Drnovšek, France Bučar, Lojze Peterle, and Dimitrij Rupel went to the Brioni islands. They had to accept a decision, which was by no means an easy one. The Ministry of Information staff reported from the Brioni on the positions of the Slovenian delegation. Their reports include the speech of General Ađić, in which the general threatened Slovenia and asserted that the YPA was able to defeat Slovenia within 10 to 15 days as its units were prepared. The talks were extremely hard but eventually led to the signing of the Brioni Agreement. Some of those not involved were skeptical and critical about the outcome of the talks, and we needed to formulate the key messages with extreme caution and persuade editors that the Brioni Agreement was not an act of betrayal, but a guarantee of a peaceful and effective outcome of a military conflict and sovereignty process.
All the information was broadcast from Cankarjev dom, the location of our press centre. On my frequent visits to the press centre I always tried to be calm and composed. To make the reports more appealing to viewers, my colleagues would bring me the information to the studio as soon as it was delivered, which made us look on top of things. No journalist’s question went unanswered. The role of RTV Slovenija in the entire process is historical. We also won the war thanks to the responsiveness, functionality, and professional attitude of our media.
Those were exceptional days – eagerness and cooperation were a constant. And today? Do these qualities still pervade public activities? How do you see Slovenia 20 years later? Can we be proud of its time of independence?
J. Kacin: As a member of the European Parliament, I look at Slovenia from the inside and from the outside. From the outside, it appears a relatively successful and wealthy state which has asserted itself in many fields. It successfully completed its Presidency of the EU Council and is doing relatively well economically. Moreover, I believe that the official unemployment figures are incorrect. The unemployment numbers are pushed up by people who have registered with the Employment Service and will continue to be classified as unemployed until they become eligible for retirement, just because they are afraid of what pension reform might bring. Slovenia has a healthy economic growth. From the inside, however, I see it as a state which is too self-absorbed, too contained by its narrow valleys to embrace the horizon, a state which, needlessly, gives in to despair, self-pity, and helplessness instead of searching for constructive solutions. I believe Slovenes live a high quality life, enjoy safety, and stability. There is a certain number of poor people, but few live at risk of poverty as the society’s social network remains strong. There are a lot of young, competent, and qualified people living in Slovenia who could easily find a job outside their home country. In other words, Slovenia is like a small mammal amidst large dinosaurs, agile and flexible.
It is a pity it does not benefit more from these features. My advice to the young would be to transfer the experience gained in Slovenia to other countries and try to make a career abroad. In this way, the young could help Slovenia push its GDP growth to up to 10 percent. However, the Slovenian environment does not encourage such actions; instead, it creates a schizophrenic atmosphere that only worsens the welfare of the society.
As a member of the European Parliament and the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS), how do you see the EU and Slovenia’s role in it?
J. Kacin: As a European Parliament Member, I feel I can be creative, useful, not limited or constrained in any way. I work a lot and efficiently. I am a member of many committees and I treat my colleagues with responsibility and loyalty, and with very little or no political agenda. I am not determined by the political situation in Slovenia, although I uphold Slovenian and European interests. This allows me to be critical of the situation at home. It is very hard for me to accept that the credit for all that is good goes to those working in Slovenia, whereas the EU takes the blame for all that goes wrong. This is simply not true! Slovenia is also doing well because it uses the euro as its currency. Without the euro, the country would be much weaker, poor even, with a struggling economy. Another thing that is unacceptable is that Slovenia is the only country that will put the pension reform up for a referendum vote. It is political, and more importantly, quasi-political and short-sightedly manipulating to oppose pension reform, and in times like today it can even be termed irresponsible, counter-European, and utterly mischievous!
Inteviewed by: Vesna Žarkovič
Photos: Mateja J. Potočnik