Could the Yugoslav Wars Have Been Avoided?

When I traveled through Yugoslavia in 1990, a number of people confessed their fears to me. They were worried about the rise of nationalism, particularly in Serbia with Slobodan Milosevic. They were concerned about the economic situation – the high level of national debt, the overall stagnation, the persistent gap between the more prosperous northern republics and the less prosperous south. And they feared that the federal structure of the country could not withstand these centrifugal forces.

When I met political scientist Mitja Zagar in Slovenia, he provided the most chilling prediction. “I believe that the only way of dismantling Yugoslavia without creating any kind of new links or forms of common living would be if there is a war in some parts, maybe Kosovo-Serbia, maybe Croatia,” he told me. “But I think the most dangerous spot is Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

Yugoslavia did not come up with new linkages or ways of common living. Instead, as Zagar presciently told me, war indeed came to Yugoslavia, first very briefly in Slovenia, then between Serbia and Croatia. The most dangerous spot did turn out to be Bosnia, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks all collided in a horrifying bloodbath. And, finally at the end of the 1990s, the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo flared up. Could those conflicts have been avoided? Or, at least, could their violence have been considerably minimized?

I caught up again with Zagar in August 2013, where he graciously interrupted his vacation in Vrsar, along the Istrian coast in Croatia, to sit down for a return interview and answer those questions, among others.

“The international community could have reduced the amount of violence substantially,” he told me over lunch. “I don’t think it could have eliminated it completely. The international community was constantly sending mixed signals. On the one hand, they defended the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. The U.S. administration at the time saw Yugoslavia as a precedent for what would happen in the Soviet Union. What they really feared at the time was the uncontrolled disintegration of the Soviet Union and what might happen to the nuclear arsenal. For all the costs, they wanted to preserve Yugoslavia as it was as a lesson for the Soviet Union — and the United States would do everything to achieve this. It was also a signal to the Yugoslav leadership. At the same time, there was another policy, which was to support the political opposition to the previous regime and support democratization. This was one of the largest miscalculations, and it still continues today.”

The mixed signals that the international community was sending to Yugoslavia turned out to be quite dangerous. “The federal authorities, particularly the army, considered this as carte blanche to do whatever they needed to do to maintain the territorial integrity of the federal state,” Zagar continued. “From Washington’s point of view, it was fine if the regime fell apart and was replaced by a democratic government. But what the United States truly wanted was to preserve territorial integrity so long as the Soviet Union didn’t disintegrate. But people in Yugoslavia would have made different calculations if they knew that they didn’t have 100 percent backing. The United States or the international community could have said: ‘If you do something violent, we will make sure you are prosecuted in front of an international court for all your misdoings, atrocities, and crimes.’ If they’d done that, the generals would have been, if nothing else, more careful.

In addition to issuing a stern warning to the Yugoslav political and military elite, the international community could have considered intervention at the first sign of conflict with UN peacekeeping forces. “If they did that, already in Slovenia, they could have prevented large-scale conflicts in other parts,” Zagar explained. “They probably couldn’t have entirely prevented the civil war in Bosnia, but the intensity would have been reduced and the ethnic makeup would not have been changed to the extent it was.”

This was not just a missed opportunity to avoid greater bloodshed in Yugoslavia and to redefine sovereignty in the post-Cold War period. It was a missed opportunity, Zagar concluded, for the reestablishment of human rights as the basis of international law. International law is still the law of states and the international community. In this case, we could have had two equally strong foundations for international law. One would be the law of nations. And the other one would be human rights as the basis of international law. This opportunity was missed, and I’m afraid that it is missed for at least 50 years if not more. The problem then was that the George H.W. Bush administration did have a vision of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but it didn’t have the vision of what to do after. And the only circle that was actually considering those options was the U.S. administration at that time. They were thinking, ‘We will consider the possibility of fire and we will discuss that possibility all the time. But we won’t establish the rules of procedure and the activities and the equipment needed to evacuate a building when it’s on fire and then to put the fire out.’ They were only talking about the possibility of fire and what to do if a fire happens.”

In addition to talking about the fate of Yugoslavia, we had a wide-ranging discussion about the persistence of bureaucracy, what virtual games can tell us about the global economy, and the future of sustainable development.


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I was actually working at that time at the Marxist institute in Ljubljana. I remember learning about the fall of the Berlin Wall on the trip. But then when I returned from the trip, we talked about it at the office. It was a discussion among people you know — Lev Kreft, Tomaz Mastnak — and we were considering what that would mean, particularly from the perspective of the future development of Yugoslavia, which after 1988 had already passed the point of no return. We were discussing how nobody knew what it would bring. That’s how I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was some hope, but it was a huge question mark.


Did you also talk about what impact it would have on the Left in general?


We were discussing both the global implications of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the problems with perestroika, and the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union that had already begun. We also discussed that the Left in the West at the time didn’t really know what to do, how it was kind of lost. It was an interesting period. You might remember one of the topics we talked about off the record in 1990 was non-party democracy, which we were discussing at lot at the institute, and the possibilities that new technologies might bring in this respect. Some of the discussion was optimistic, some pessimistic. Some of it was: what the hell is actually happening? Because nobody in the West or the East had foreseen it properly. And even today we still don’t fully understand the implications.

If you look at Germany today, you see that some of the fears materialized and some of the high expectations did not.


For instance?


There are still differences between east and west Germany. From the perspective of the Left, labor rights have actually gone backwards. And when I speak to trade unionists from western countries, only some are aware of this fact.


They think that Germany reunified and everyone is fine? They’re not even aware of the closure of factories in the east and the high unemployment?


They are aware, but they’re only working on behalf of their members. The last time I visited Detroit and talked to trade union activists it was the same. The unions don’t always even act in the interests of their own members. One of the topics that I like as a topic of discussion — though as an actual development it horrifies me — is the redistribution of wealth that has taken place since the 1970s and more quickly in the 1990s with the introduction of financial derivatives. A group of my colleagues, economists from different countries in the West and also Russia, tried to review the redistribution of wealth in history. In general, it has been approximately 20 percent of the population controlling 80 percent of the wealth. It hasn’t changed much since the period of slave ownership. The social situation has changed, but the general balance was somehow between 10 and 25 percent or 30 percent of the population owning between 70 and 80 percent of the wealth.

In the 1990s, between 10-15 percent of the richest people controlled 80-90 percent of the wealth. Now we have a situation with these derivatives that 1.5 percent of the population actually controls between 80 and 97 percent of the world. Even slave-owning societies weren’t so unequal. That’s not to say that on average people are worse off. But if I were to compare it with 15 years ago, in Europe or the United States, particularly what used to be called the middle class is economizing as their costs have gone up and their incomes at best have been stagnant if not decreasing.

So, my favorite topic of discussion is the concept of sustainable development from two respects. One is how to develop in a way that will not destroy our eco-system. The second is how to start considering social arrangements that are more just, that allow not only for a small increase in the material standard of living but also in the quality of life.

When I am talking to colleagues in academia, we were used to working 12-14 hours a day. But at least our jobs were secure, our basic needs were met, we had some basic infrastructural conditions for work. All this has gone or is disappearing. For example, I’m a tenured full professor, but that doesn’t guarantee my job. They could eliminate the entire institute, the entire school. They do that in the United States, on a massive scale in Greece, in Spain, to a lesser extent in Portugal, and to a slightly lesser extent in Ireland.


We used to talk about the necessity of the rich and the middle class in America to economize as part of a global redistribution of wealth to the less fortunate parts of the world. We never imagined that the American middle class would economize as part of a redistribution of wealth upward!


But that’s actually what’s happening. If you calculate the wealth of billionaires, you will see that it actually grows much faster than the GDP of all the countries in the world. If that happens, then you know that you’re having a redistribution. Being a kind of a globetrotter, having at least some view of some societies, I can tell you that this is truly a global process and it is getting worse. With North America, there’s a slight increase in unemployed youth in Canada. But you don’t have the precise statistics in the United States by age and data for the labor market. But talking to colleagues in different places there, I’ve found that part-time employment or uncertain employment for students is increasing and becoming more and more the rule.


How would you fit the changes of 1989 into this larger pattern of the global redistribution of wealth upward?


It actually didn’t play much of a role. It only contributed to the globalization of certain processes. It removed the barrier that previously protected at least some people. There is an interesting twist in the story, however. Who has learned to play the game the best?


Which countries? Or which people within the countries?


Both. Some countries come and go: tigers, BRICS. But there is one permanent member, and that is the country with the fastest growing number of billionaires. Its growth is not as great as it was before, but it’s still doing better relatively than most other countries. And that’s China.

So, what did the fall of the Berlin Wall mean for all this? Some economic patterns became global. Some that were previously observers became players. And China did something that is truly amazing. The pupil actually exceeded those who considered themselves the masters. What they did was interesting and pragmatic. They combined the mechanisms of the planned economy with some of the approaches of the market economy. What a free market economy lacks is planning and stability, and that’s what the command economy provides. The famous saying usually attributed to Chairman Mao but which is actually Confucius — it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice – illustrated their pragmatism. You know who is the biggest single owner of property in New York? The Chinese government. If you add Chinese private owners, then Chinese control the real estate market in New York, even if it’s still the old Jewish companies managing those properties. The Chinese have a pragmatic approach, which turns out to be the best answer to the daily questions of running a business.

When you change the system, you usually have to establish something to replace the old institutions. This is a historic perspective that people usually don’t consider. In Russia, already in the period of the Soviet regime, they started to do research and found out that there are only two strata in society that actually preserved their continuity since the 18th century. Guess which two?




Yes, the bureaucracy. And the second?


The wealthiest?


No, there was discontinuity with the wealthy because of the Russian revolution. The purges also ensured discontinuity in the military sector. The only other sector that remains was what the Russians call the intelligentsia: the educated. With the first Five-Year Plan, Lenin wanted to change the apparatus. It’s interesting to read his articles on the daily practical issues of running a society. He writes: “if we eliminate all bureaucracy, everything will stop. We actually need the bureaucrats.” So, what to do? He recommended adding political commissars to take care that the bureaucrats do things right. The political commissars didn’t transform the bureaucracy, but the bureaucracy in a way included the commissars, who became part of the bureaucratic class. Quite frequently we overlook these important elements that contribute to the functioning of society.

For instance, the Slovene bureaucracy enjoyed continuity from Austro-Hungarian times until 2005-7. What happened then was extremely interesting. Previously it was the top officials in bureaucracy that somehow nurtured their successors. They directly appointed them and shaped the structure of their office. In 2005-7, a number of high-ranking public officials in Slovenia retired, some of them even prematurely because they feared what would happen. Some of them didn’t want to deal with the government, particularly the way Janez Jansa, the head of the government, was treating them. To a large extent he had abolished their independence. He also tried to do away with the structures of internal responsibility and control because he wanted to control things through his own ministers.

In Slovenia, and in Europe more generally, we’ve never had a spoils system as in the United States. Even with a spoils system, the basic bureaucracy remains. Otherwise the new administration knows that it would take too long to establish a basis for the normal functioning of the system. But the Jansa administration didn’t look at it from this perspective. It wanted to have the people in charge to be loyal. And the bad news is that Pahor’s government afterwards was no different. It didn’t realize one thing. It was still appointing the wrong people, claiming that it was appointing experts based on their merit. But it didn’t remove people employed by the Jansa government, who were not employed based on merit but on loyalty. This was one of the factors that undermined Pahor’s government and why it stepped down and why we had early elections.


The continuity of the bureaucracy is a point of great contention in all the countries that I’ve visited. People quote that as an example of how the system hasn’t changed in any significant way.


In many other countries, it has not changed. But the same is true also for Western society and not just for new democracies. In a stable system, you don’t see that so obviously. However, when I was in the States, I did an analysis of my own in three cities — Chicago, Detroit, and New York — to see how city and county administrations were functioning, I found the same patterns of continuity that I found in Europe. They told me that it wasn’t the case in Scandinavia. When I was in Norway, I did the same analysis and found that it was the same there as well. People are not even aware of the fact. When you look at how bureaucracies continuously grow and need new people, and when you see that there are frequently three or four generations of public administration employees in the family, tell me this is not continuity!


This breeds both loyalty and stability.


And it’s not just negative. Without that stability, the system would just collapse. One of the reasons why Slovenia has done so poorly in the last seven years is the process I’ve described: discontinuity. When quality and independence are no longer the main criteria for choosing public servants, you build a major malfunction into the system. First of all, politicians don’t want to hear that. But more disturbing is that social scientists tell me that I don’t have enough hard evidence. But some characteristics you can’t get from a sociological survey, which is too rough an instrument to measure that phenomenon. Psychologists have some better instruments. But even there, you should not assume that societies are functioning mechanically. There are some rules, but frequently there are just as many exceptions to the rules and irregularities. Most of the time we social scientists miss at least a few of the most important factors because we are not aware of them, don’t have adequate instruments to detect them, and so on.

I don’t actually have an answer to this methodological problem. The more stuff I do, the more I believe in methodological pluralism. We should go beyond what Michael Keating and Donatella Della Porta are doing in their project. They’re not really questioning the objectivity of the methodologies, and I think these should also be questioned. The more I do my own research, particularly now in diversity management and sustainable development, the more I see the inadequacy of the tools that we have. We just can’t analyze certain things because we don’t have adequate yardsticks.


Can you give any examples from diversity management?


Diversity management was introduced into social science through economics, and economics took it from the natural sciences. In the natural sciences, they first discussed this concept under different names when they were talking about different biomes, particularly forests. Forestry was one of the key fields in which this developed. In forestry, they soon realized that it is not enough to consider just trees and plant life. You also have to consider animal life. Actually, the zoology of the forest is sometimes more important than the botany of the forest.

To give you a very practical example, I’ll use an economic example from Australia in the 1960s when they first considered the diversity of the labor force a problem. Namely, companies employed people who came from different countries, different traditions, different cultures. One of the managers of the firms I interviewed was in the food processing industry.

He said, “We need continuous production, that’s the nature of the business. There are people coming to Australia who don’t want to work on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. For us, initially, it was a problem — how do we organize this process? Then one of our colleagues actually started to look at it from another perspective. He said this is not a problem but an advantage. We can have a worker who is much happier working on the weekend — Muslims not working on Friday, Jews not working on Saturday, and all the Christians happy to be free on Sunday.”

At this point, they started to call it labor diversity management. As very frequently in life, it’s a question of perspective. If a representative of a shoe factory sees that everyone works and walks in bare feet in Africa and that person is a pessimist or a realist, they’d say that this is not a market worth exploring. But an optimist who believes that cultures can change says, “This is a land of enormous opportunity. Nobody wears shoes — let’s go there! If we are the first ones to actually succeed and be accepted, we will actually enjoy the fruits.”

Adam Smith wrote about this in The Wealth of Nations. He wrote something else that has been completely forgotten. When he wrote of the “invisible hand,” people quite frequently interpreted it as complete freedom and God’s intervention when needed. As a matter of fact, when you read carefully, you will see that the role of the invisible hand has to be played by — guess who? — the state. It has to regulate. Because people by their nature tend not to abide by rules but, rather, circumvent them whenever possible. This is something that we completely forget.


Coming back to the question of the redistribution of wealth, one of the arguments made very frequently is that the major reason for the breakup of Yugoslavia was the resentment of Slovenians and to a lesser extent Croatians about the money redistributed to the south. I’m curious how that argument sounds these days.


We hear it at the level of the European Union these days.


First as tragedy then as comedy.


You might remember that we discussed this as well 23 years ago. Then I told you that the problem in Yugoslavia was that everyone felt exploited. This is exactly what is happening today in the EU. Then, people in the south felt exploited by people in Slovenia, who were much better off than they were in the south. Slovenes felt exploited by the south because Slovenia paid huge amounts for the underdeveloped regions and had no influence over their spending. Slovenians didn’t resent contributing to less developed regions – they resented not having influence. Even by Slovene standards, it was not spent very rationally.

What you had in addition then was nationalism. Republic leaderships were becoming more and more nationalistic. They only took care of their own republic dominions. Occasionally nationalists can make deals at the expense of third parties. But there were actually five such regimes without a scapegoat at whose expense they could do deals. Nationalism uses economics and culture to promote its goals and conditions. If we look at nationalism from the instrumentalist and functionalist point of view, it’s just a means to achieve certain ends. Politically it is very practical because it is relatively easy to mobilize people, particularly in a society with no political infrastructure.

Speaking of the old Yugoslavia, I was lucky enough to have traveled to all parts of the former country, several times. I used to speak or at least understand all the national languages and even the minority languages. At one point I was visiting a small village in the southeast of Kosovo at the Serbian and Macedonian border. There, in the small village, they were growing cotton. This was the first time in my life I saw how cotton was being picked. The whole village gathered and everyone was picking cotton. They were singing and talking. They told me that the village was multiethnic — there were Albanians, Serbs, Macedonians, Turks, and people who called themselves Catholics but later declared themselves Croats. They all lived in the same village, and they didn’t intermarry much. However, when a couple from one community married, godfathers came from other communities. So they were all connected.

I asked them how it functioned. They told me: quite well. Everybody spoke Serbian. Serbs usually didn’t speak much of the other languages. Macedonians spoke Serbian and a few words of Albanian. Albanians spoke Serbian and Macedonian and a few words of Turkish. The other community well integrated into the villages was the Roma. And the Roma spoke all the languages. When they were singing, they also sang Roma songs. So, even though they did not speak the language, everyone knew a few Roma songs to sing while picking cotton. Then I asked an older Roma man about the situation of Roma. “We are somewhat marginalized but we are well off here,” he said. “They consider us their Gypsies and take care of us. And you know what. We Roma are the ones who are illiterate in all the languages.”

I asked how it functioned during World War II. This was already during the period of unrest in the 1980s. He told me that when Albanians came, the local Albanians protected them. During World War II, when the Ballists came, local Albanians protected Serbs and everyone else, saying “Look, these are our Serbs and our Macedonians, leave them alone.” When the Chetniks came, Serbs did exactly the same with all the others. When the Partisans came, they all collaborated from 1943-44 with the movement. The local Orthodox priest and the local mullah were actually also collaborating, and both collaborated with the national resistance, which I found quite amazing.

That shows you something that is actually to a large extent forgotten. The Balkans were not just a place of millennial warfare and killing. There used to be quite a good level of coexistence. That’s not to say there were no conflicts or killings. They happened, as they happen everywhere you have a plural environment. But the level of accommodation in the Balkans was amazing. People tend to forget that when the Jewish pogroms took place in Spain in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the last wave of Jewish refuges found refuge in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Where they brought priceless copies of the Talmud.


It’s also why in addition to Yiddish you had the Sephardic language there. That’s why in Sarajevo, the lingua franca among Jewish population was Hebrew. It was used not just for religious purposes as was normally the case but as a functional language. It had the same function as Arabic in Islamic countries.

So, what happened to that village after the conflict in the 1990s? I hadn’t been back to the village, but I talked to some people from there. And they told me that the first to emigrate from there, the ones actually pushed out, were the Gypsies. The Turks left for Turkey. The Catholics left for Croatia. So predominately there are Albanian families and a few Serb families. But the fabric is gone forever.


Those folks are never going to move back. But if it hadn’t been war, the inevitable movement from countryside to city would have destroyed that fabric.


But not that quickly. And if the countryside is doing well, particularly at a time of economic crisis, these processes are not that extreme. Definitely the village would change, but the dynamics of change would be difficult to predict. Already at that time, the majority of the people in the village were elderly. I didn’t see many youth.


In terms of the reasons for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, you described the variety of resentments that people had in the republics at the time. Do you think the resentments could have been handled in a democratic way — for instance, if the democratic Left party had won the elections at the republic level?


I don’t think it ever had a chance.


Because Milosevic and Tudjman already had a degree of support and status?


The point of return was reached in 1988 when Milosevic consolidated his power. It’s not to say that Milosevic is the only one to blame. But there is no doubt in my mind that he was the most responsible. What people did not realize at the time was that there wasn’t a multiparty infrastructure in place in former Yugoslavia. A multiparty democracy was introduced in an environment with very limited or no multiparty democratic tradition. There was some tradition pre-World War II but even that was limited because of the dictatorship. So when people speak of Yugoslav and Polish democratic experiences in the first half of the 20th century, I usually tell them that they should reread the documents rather than the official histories of those countries. Of course official interpretations were different from reality. But we all know what the Yugoslav and Polish regimes were like.

Already in the 1980s, when the economic crisis was deepening, political parties were introduced into an environment without party infrastructure — without membership, structure, or ideology. They picked up their names from Western parties. They usually didn’t even understand the ideology behind the parties. Then they needed to mobilize the voters. And there was only one way: ethnicity. It was present, and it had a certain impact on policy and politics before. Partially as a choice and partially as the last resort in all environments, political parties resorted to nationalism because they all saw it as a potential mobilizer of voters. The Slovene Left party at the time, the United Left Democrats as they called themselves, wanted to avoid this situation but had no grounds for mobilizing the voters.

You then had two situations. In one situation, two nationalists, who believed what they were doing, competed against each other. In another case populists, former Communists or whatever, actually tried to use nationalism. They weren’t aware that once they used nationalism they were trapped by it. Even the nationalists were not aware of the fact that when you have nationalistic policy, in order to be a successful nationalist, you have to be more and more radical all the time. Even some of the true nationalists overlooked that fact. I spoke to some of them. They said, “We had our intentions, and they were not that radical. But once we rode the horse of nationalism, there was no way out. If we were no longer radical, we were no longer heard. Because everyone used that rhetoric.”


Slovenia to a certain extent escaped that situation. That was the situation in Croatia and Serbia. But in Slovenia –


We had a kind of peaceful slow transition. The transition in Slovenia already started in the early 1980s and continued into the 1990s. That was a very specific situation. An additional factor that one has to take into account in Slovenia was that the Communists were not just the opponents but also part of transformation. In reality, Slovenia was just about the only society among the former Communist countries that had such a situation. In all the other environments, the Communists only gave way when forced to. In Slovenia, they were part of the process. They were not at the forefront. Rather they were used as a kind of buffer zone between the Belgrade regime and the opposition movements. And the new social movements in Slovenia emerged from within the Union of Socialist Youth.


I had a specific question about the Mladina case. I heard that the JNA at the time had a contingency plan for military intervention in Slovenia and that’s the information that Mladina was going to publish and the government didn’t want published.


Did they have plans? They might have had different ideas, among them most likely a contingency plan not only for Slovenia but for other republics as they saw the situation deteriorated. The JNA saw itself as the defender of the federation and Yugoslav tradition, particularly Titoism. Was this what the documents were all about? Partially, from what I’ve read. Whether any specifics were worked out, I don’t know. I think, however, that the military was caught by surprise by the rapidity of the events. When I spoke to some of the Yugoslav high officers at the time, they claimed that they didn’t have an actual plan. But that was as far as they would go. We didn’t discuss many details. I spoke to some who actually switched sides and helped Slovenia, and they were also not aware of such practical plans existing. There was a general idea of a contingency plan, but not an executable plan that they would know about. But we felt at the time that there must have been something.

You might even remember that some even left Slovenia when everything started and waited just across the border. My personal experience was interesting. On the day of the declaration of Slovenia’s independence, I was in Bologna at Johns Hopkins University there. The next day my wife and I came to the library and the librarians told us that the military intervention against Slovenia had just started. My wife decided that she needed to return to Slovenia. We were one of the two cars that on that day entered Yugoslavia. There were tanks aiming at the border crossing. A few cars were exiting. A minivan and our Yugo were the only two cars entering. We were driving to Ljubljana and the highway was completely empty. Not far from Vrhnika, on the highway, we actually met a tank that had broken down, and the soldiers were still in there. While we were approaching and passing by they were following us with the machine gun. I was terrified because I knew what could happen if these guys panicked and by accident pulled the finger. We would have been blown to pieces.

We got to Ljubljana. All the entrances to the city were blocked. But luckily we knew some back roads to get to our apartment. My territorial defense unit had already left. So I had nowhere to go. They told me, “Okay, you know some foreigners and some foreign languages, so you will accompany journalists.” So, I accompanied journalists during the 10-day war. Driving around with the journalists I was basically at all the hot spots. I was at the airport. I was at Crnuce. I was at the Ljubljana castle when it was strafed by planes.


On that day when Slovenia declared independence was also when Slovene territorial units took control of the border crossings.


Actually, they were Slovene police. The Yugoslav customs officers didn’t know what to do. They looked at our car and waved us through, the quicker the better. They didn’t ask any questions. Just above the border crossing there were Yugoslav tanks. My hometown is Radovljica in the Gorenjska region. My unit from Radovljica was stationed close to the Karavenke tunnel. They never encountered the Yugoslav military. They never shot anything. It was pretty much peaceful. I experienced much more battle than they did.


Did it seem like the conflict would be short-lived, or were you worried that the conflict would last a long time?


We didn’t know. I noticed immediately that Slovenia was winning the media war. That was truly important. Once the tanks of the Yugoslav military coming from Croatia were blocked on the highway and didn’t reach Ljubljana valley, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Even though they were flying some fighter jets into Slovenia and did some military action, without the actual ground units, without infantry, you cannot really control a country. The Slovene territorial defense managed to block military units in the barracks. But some units were too big and moved too quickly. But they didn’t have any supplies. So it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to last.


And the Slovene territorial units seized many of the JNA material.


They blocked the barracks and that was sufficient. Usually the storage facilities were outside, and they were able to capture quite a few of them without any fight. In a few cases, there was a fight. But it depended on individual JNA officers how it went.


The JNA learned that lesson in Croatia and made sure to seize the arms of the territorial units here.


Exactly. In Slovenia, they actually disarmed part of the territorial units. But at the same time, including our own unit, we had our own weapons that were never confiscated by the military.


When were you assigned to a territorial unit? Was that part of your obligatory military service?


Yes. But the territorial defense units were under the command of the Slovene presidency. Although they were organizationally linked to the federal army, they had their own structure. In addition to that, the Slovene police actually established quite a good system of units. In some cases it was actually the police units that played a crucial role, because they were better trained and knew the situation better. The territorial defense units were later abolished, which I think was a major problem. Slovenia with a military can defend itself for a day, without a military for three hours – the Slovene ministry of defense claims differently but that’s the reality. But it was a very good practice for locals to serve in the territorial defense units. They knew the territory, knew the people, knew the local infrastructure — this was instrumental in the Slovene case. Other republics didn’t have such a powerful and well-organized structure. They had it more formally than actually — and we in Slovenia took it seriously. I had military exercises every year. I was a very specific case since most of the time I spent in the offices doing administrative work. Still, we had our exercises and I had to go.


Marko Hren felt that the possibility of eliminating the Slovene military after independence was viable. His argument was that the president had information not released to other people about JNA plans for intervention prior to what happened in 1991. Hren said that the peace movement’s plan for the demilitarization of Slovene as part of a regional demilitarization was much closer to reality than most people realized.


Were there initiatives of that kind, yes. Were there people advocating for them, yes, myself including. Was I realistic enough to realize that it was impossible: yes.

At that time, basically all options were open. I spoke about those issues a few times with Janez Stanovnik and Milan Kucan [the last president of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia and the first president of independent Slovenia respectively]. They are both friends of mine. I asked them quite specifically, and they never thought it was a very realistic option. They discussed it, as all options were discussed. They probably had several alternative scenarios in place in order to pick the best combination at any given time. Demilitarizing Slovenia was a nice idea. We all loved it. We all hoped that Slovenia would not become a NATO member state.

But at one point, I decided not to oppose Slovenia’s bid for NATO membership because in the balance of power in the 1990s, it seemed to be a good option to be included in a broader network. I would still abolish the military at the first opportunity. But I wouldn’t abolish it completely. I’d preserve the civilian defense and natural disaster capabilities that obviously no other institution can provide without the army. That has always been my option.


An original Japanese option.


Yes, provided by the Japanese constitution. If it were up to me, I would preserve territorial defense, restricting it mostly to civil protection and disaster assistance functions. But I know this is not realistic. But as part of sustainable development sometime in the future, I hope we have it.


In our interview in 1990, we talked about the potential for conflict. You said that if Yugoslavia fell apart, it would fall apart violently. You named the three places: Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Of everyone I talked to, you were the most prescient. But looking back now, was there a possibility for Yugoslavia to dissolve without violence. You said that 1988 was the critical year when Milosevic consolidated power. Was there a point before or shortly after that when the potential for violence could have been at least reduced?


The international community could have reduced the amount of violence substantially. I don’t think it could have eliminated it completely. The international community was constantly sending mixed signals. On the one hand, they defended the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. The U.S. administration at the time saw Yugoslavia as a precedent for what would happen in the Soviet Union. What they really feared at the time was the uncontrolled disintegration of the Soviet Union and what might happen to the nuclear arsenal. For all the costs, they wanted to preserve Yugoslavia as it was as a lesson for the Soviet Union — and the United States would do everything to achieve this. It was also a signal to the Yugoslav leadership.

At the same time, there was another policy, which was to support the political opposition to the previous regime and support democratization. This was one of the largest miscalculations, and it still continues today. Democratization was understood as simply copying the American way. It doesn’t function in the Balkans. Nor does it function in the Middle East.


It doesn’t even function in the United States!


Yes, that’s true too. Those mixed signals were actually quite misunderstood. The federal authorities, particularly the army, considered this as carte blanche to do whatever they needed to do to maintain the territorial integrity of the federal state. From Washington’s point of view, it was fine if the regime fell apart and was replaced by a democratic government. But what the United States truly wanted was to preserve territorial integrity so long as the Soviet Union didn’t disintegrate.

But people in Yugoslavia would have made different calculations if they knew that they didn’t have 100 percent backing. The United States or the international community could have said: “If you do something violent, we will make sure you are prosecuted in front of an international court for all your misdoings, atrocities, and crimes.” If they’d done that, the generals would have been, if nothing else, more careful.

But then the Soviet Union disintegrated anyway, and peacefully to everyone’s surprise. And suddenly Yugoslavia didn’t matter any longer for U.S. foreign policy. At the time the United States was the world’s only superpower. Europe didn’t know what to do or how to do it. It was total confusion. The United States was the only viable actor in the international community at the time. The United States was still using the old bipolar model, which the Obama administration is still using, the old model designed in the 1970s by Zbigniew Brzezinski. And they still use Samuel Huntington’s concepts of understanding global culture and politics. It’s quite simplistic, but it somehow functions in practice, so their attitude is: why change?

What happened in Yugoslavia was disastrous. Because everyone interpreted the mixed signals the way they wanted to, they understood the United States as providing them with full backing. The United States never fully backed any opposition in the world, not even the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa — and that was the closest, realistically speaking. From Washington’s point of view, it’s nice to talk about right and wrong, but the only right is our national interest as we see it at the time. Ideology exists everywhere but people utilize ideology only for their own political and military interests and ends.

So what could the international community have done? Three things. First: be clear. Second: state that any kind of atrocity and use of force would be prosecuted in front of international fora. And third: intervene the moment the conflict exploded in the context of the UN charter and peacekeeping and peacemaking operations. If they did that, already in Slovenia, they could have prevented large-scale conflicts in other parts. They probably couldn’t have entirely prevented the civil war in Bosnia, but the intensity would have been reduced and the ethnic makeup would not have been changed to the extent it was.


But at that point, there hadn’t really been any precedent for intervening to stop atrocities occurring within a sovereign nation. They could have set a precedent. But it would have required considerable political will.


You had some attempts already before — in Africa in Biafra, for instance. You could have used the concept of humanitarian intervention, which was and still is extremely disputed. Could this concept of R2P, the responsibility to protect, have been viable at the time? I think so. There was only one superpower at the time. It definitely would have been easier than now.


The Soviet Union was in no position to block it, and China had not really asserted itself yet at the international level.


Exactly. It was an opportunity missed.


It wasn’t just an opportunity missed in a specific application in a specific context.


Yes, universally.


And a missed opportunity to redefine sovereignty in the post-Cold War era.


And also for the reestablishment of human rights as the basis of international law. International law is still the law of states and the international community. In this case, we could have had two equally strong foundations for international law. One would be the law of nations. And the other one would be human rights as the basis of international law. This opportunity was missed, and I’m afraid that it is missed for at least 50 years if not more. The problem then was that the George H.W. Bush administration did have a vision of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but it didn’t have the vision of what to do after. And the only circle that was actually considering those options was the U.S. administration at that time. They were thinking, “We will consider the possibility of fire and we will discuss that possibility all the time. But we won’t establish the rules of procedure and the activities and the equipment needed to evacuate a building when it’s on fire and then to put the fire out.” They were only talking about the possibility of fire and what to do if a fire happens.


It didn’t just apply just to questions of human rights. It applied to economic questions as well. The Bush administration could have said that the states emerging after the changes of 1989 should not be considered the inheritors of the debt of the previous states. It’s remarkable that they did not forgive the debt.


They couldn’t have done that. That would have undermined –


Financial stability.


Not only that. Financial stability was not so much an issue. But growth was. The United States was emerging from the economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, and the major issue was growth.

Just recently a few economist friends of mine from France, Scandinavia, Germany, and the UK did some research on financial currents in the Eurozone prior to the crisis in Greece. They did calculations only for a few banking systems, but the findings were still remarkable. German banks made approximately 1.2 trillion euro on the Greek debt crisis. Swiss and UK banks made something around one trillion euro. The others did less well. And some countries like Slovenia paid. This in a way resembles a conspiracy theory. But it shouldn’t be taken that way. They also analyzed the financial currents prior to the U.S. subprime real estate and financial crisis. They told me that the day before its bankruptcy, Lehman Brothers was still considered first rate, and even the U.S. government loaned it some money. The system does not have any defensive mechanisms in this situation. Who got the money that went to Greece? Banks in Germany, Switzerland, and UK earned far more than ever went to Greece. And what actually went to Greece was channeled into private pockets. The average Greek might have done a little better, but they only got on average a thousand euro annually. But three percent of rich Greeks, in terms of taxes, brought 600 million euro out of the country in the year of crisis.

Now my colleagues are doing calculations of tax evasion. They calculated that in the Cayman Islands accounts alone approximately one trillion dollars has been laundered through tax evasion. This is all virtual money, but that’s how it operates. Considering the background of the George H.W. Bush administration, it wasn’t in their interest to reduce the financial profits of the interests that backed the administration. So it wasn’t even an option to be considered.


Debt forgiveness is one thing. But even taking into account the natural avarice of the financial actors and the efforts of the government to abet that avarice, it still would have been in the interests of the United States to provide investment to reduce the period of time during which the economies in the region bottomed out.


You forget one thing. These people no longer read Keynes. Otherwise, they would have known that the principle of a sound economy is to counteract the crisis cycle.


They didn’t even read Adam Smith properly as you pointed out.


Keynes in this respect is better: he offered practical recipes for handling the downward part of the cycle, which Smith didn’t do. Smith predicted ups and downs, but he didn’t see the cycles in this way. And they didn’t exist at the time, or they did but he didn’t have the data to support that theory. But even at that point, it was clear to Adam Smith that economy was not a self-regulatory mechanism. People, though they might be fundamentally good, act selfishly. We might be ashamed at what we do later on, but at the time, we act selfishly. I do that, you do that, everyone does that. It’s a self-preservation instinct.


Slovenia is held up as the example in the region of the country that most successfully dealt with the economic transition — it didn’t privatize everything immediately, the economic actors in Slovenian society tried to ensure that there would be investment after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.


Set up a meeting with Joze Mencinger. He was the deputy prime minister and minister of finance in the first Slovenian government. He resigned because his concept was not accepted — and if his concept was not accepted, he didn’t want to have anything to do in the government. Joze is a wonderful person. We talked frequently about those times and that situation. His insight is extremely valuable. You should definitely meet with him. Today, serious economists claim that his concept of transition was the best and most viable concept that was considered at the time. Unfortunately for Slovenia it wasn’t adopted. Of course he suggested one key concept that was unacceptable to them. He said that the ownership didn’t matter as long as the owners performed their function. He was against privatization, against restitution in kind. He can give you interesting insights.


Even though the government didn’t follow his suggestions, it still followed an approach that was better than Poland.


Yes, for practical reasons. We had a relatively good managerial structure at the time, though today they — particularly right-wing and center politicians as well as the Chamber of Commerce — don’t want to recognize that. They were good managers. Slovene companies, even though they were publicly owned, functioned well. They were profitable, well organized. Just imagine: the Slovene economy lost two-thirds of its market, and still it survived. Not only did it survive but in a few years it started to thrive. It wasn’t just smart economic and financial policy. It was the foundation. And this foundation started to be destroyed in the post-2005 period when the process of privatization was intensified, which actually was called in this region taken-ization. That was what Mencinger’s policy, even though partially followed, prevented until 2005. At the time, Slovenia was being constantly blamed for not being radical enough. It was the time of the economic boom, and everything was cheap. The people who wanted to privatize the companies followed the logic that existed at the time.

The economists called me a crazy lefty because I told them that the financial system at the time acted like a pyramid scheme. The first people would cash in and benefit, and everybody else would lose. If you look at the situation right now, it seems that my stupid lefty analysis at the time wasn’t so inaccurate. It wasn’t anything new. I just said what Schumpeter said at the turn of the 19th century when he predicted such an outcome if the economy was not regulated properly. He didn’t invent it. Marx wrote about it. And Marx read about it in a certain gentleman we mentioned early: Adam Smith. We just don’t have a proper view of economic development, of history, of how things are interconnected. When I asked Joze Mencinger how he came up with his concept, he said, “Look, I read all those classics. But my mother taught me the logic of household economy. And guess what: whenever the theories didn’t work, the logic of household economy did. So I just combined the two.” I don’t think he will respond to your questions that way because when we were talking it was friendly and informal..


And because it is verboten among economists to compare national economics and household economics — perhaps to give their own profession a certain dignity.


Perhaps. But in my view that was the best explanation of the situation that I’ve ever gotten. Based on that experience, I started to apply my knowledge of household economics to developments. Some world-class economists actually consider this the right approach, like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.


There’s an article in a recent New York Review of Books arguing that the Germans could have, though perhaps not easily, cushioned the economic crisis in Europe by recognizing how much they had made and reinvesting –


– a part of it. They wouldn’t have had to reinvest everything. That’s what these guys calculated. German banks alone in the Greek case made a 1.2 trillion euro profit. Can you imagine that number? It didn’t happen overnight, but since the mid-1990s.


It’s not that much different from how much U.S. banks profited from Latin American debt over time.


Just look at the analysis of Bretton Woods that was also done in the 1970s that showed how much the United States made at the expense of the Third World by having the dollar as the basis of the international monetary system. The number then was a few hundred millions annually in the 1970s. If you recalculated based on current prices, it would be a couple hundred billion a year for doing nothing else but letting the world use the dollar as the basis of international monetary exchange. We will need to start asking ourselves slightly different questions, ones that have been asked in the past by Smith, Marx, Schumpeter, Keynes. Keynes still believed in a just economy — and that was what Roosevelt’s reforms were built on.


Even the Bretton Woods system was supposed to be structured that way.


Yes. And Bretton Woods, while it was based on the gold standard, served as a barrier. When the gold standard was removed, it was the first opening in the dam. These other financial instruments exploded the dam. And there was nothing to protect the system from the flooding. These derivatives are nothing but a pyramid game. There’s no real value behind it.


When the actual pyramid scams broke out in Albania and Romania, they were considered aberrations, exceptions to the rule, rather than the supreme expression of what was going on elsewhere in the region.


Here’s a practical example. Have you heard of the Internet game Travian? It’s a multi-player game where you buy territory, houses, appliances, supplies, whatever you need. They’re virtual, but you buy them with real money. You how much profit they make? It’s a free game, but they sell these virtual things. In 2010, they made around $300 million. For selling virtual goods.


And there’s a secondary market where people in China sit in front of computers all day mining stuff in these virtual worlds, which they would then sell for real money.


Tons of money.


In tiny little villages in western China there’s nothing other than these rooms of computers mining this imaginary material.


I’m playing this game just for fun. It’s a stupid game, a racing game. I’m doing it as an experiment. I’m the only one not buying stuff. I earn by doing things and just to keep playing. But I see some people spend a few hundred euro a month buying goods so that they can score better than I do.


It’s the same as the global economy. Much of the wealth that people accumulate is virtual — they never use it. They have 40 cars, and rarely use most of them. So they might just as well be virtual. And people probably use their virtual cars more often in their virtual worlds!


In this game, I have some great cars. What I do is to play the game half an hour a day, when I have time. My wife is mad at me for doing this. She is worried that I will spend money.

I am doing this to understand this logic of my students. They are living this reality. A demographer in China told me that Chinese men were crazy about computers. That’s lucky. If not, there would be a war over women, because in some generations it’s 60 percent male. Women are at a premium. In the past, in similar situations, there were wars for women. So, thank god for computers, he said!


There was a popular book in the United States predicting war in China because of the excess male population there.


In history, demographically speaking, that was the case. But today they don’t consider an important factor that keeps Chinese males busy after work. And it’s less hassle to deal with a computer than with a real woman.


Right now we’re dealing with a second round, even a third round of austerity in this part of the world. Do you see any positive movement anywhere in the region?


No. Globally we are in such a dead-end like with the collapse of the Roman Empire.


That’s the most depressing thing you’ve said all afternoon.


It’s not that depressing. When the Roman Empire collapsed, something new started. It took a couple generations. Actually it took a millennium.

But do I see any positive future examples? I actually do. There are small pockets. In August I will go to a small European conference of youth organizations in Izola. There I will be talking about diversity management and sustainable development. An organization of 12,000 young people in Slovenia is organizing that conference. In a country of two million people, 12,000 students is quite a number. They have a grassroots organization. They are bringing 50 different organizational representatives from different countries. One of the guys in the student organization participated in one of my seminars. He said, “What you are asking are not just legitimate questions, but questions that nobody else is asking.” They lead anti-tobacco, anti-alcohol, and anti-drug campaigns among youth and want to create healthy lifestyles, and they wanted to see where we intersect. What I liked particularly was the next question: “You were there in the 1980s, you have the knowhow, so can you tell us how?”


We have seen the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation. And we are now seeing a European system, however we describe it, that has evolved from its original concepts in many ways and is now suffering some shocks. We’re no longer seeing harmonization up. A democratic deficit has been there for some time. Given your understanding of the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation and your knowledge of federalism more generally, what do you anticipate the future of Europe Union to be?


This is a trick question! So, I will answer it that way. If you’re asking me if I’m still a federalist, I am. I still believe that federalism still provides some extremely good practical solutions to the problems that not only Europe but the world is facing. I see federalism as a global and universal system. And I’m still quite optimistic about the possibilities that federalism offers.


So, you’re a Kantian in that regard.


Yes and no. His was still a federation of states. I see it slightly differently — a federation of all different forms of social organizations that might be socially relevant in different forms and different contexts. This does not exclude state federalism. But state federalism is only one of the options. In the future if trade unions want to be play a role, they will have to reestablish federations of trade unions. I see the need for federations of universities, and so on. The proposal I’ve had in Slovenia for some time is to organize an inter-university graduate school to which we would also invite outside universities, both as institutions and in the form of individual scholars. Needless to say, they consider this idea utopian. But that’s how I see federalism. If you want: a coalition of coalitions that constantly establishes structures for the realization of certain interests.

Last time we discussed asymmetric federalism and the models I was studying at that time. When it comes to organizational aspects, I believe that asymmetrical federalism offers some good options, either for Europe or for the United States. It already exists to a certain extent in the States. It’s formally recognized with regard to concluding international treaties with California, for example, but it’s still not a part of the federalist design in the States. What we will need is a broader institutional framework that will be flexible and at the same time permanent to the level that it remains operational.

Now the question of Europe. Is Europe a viable option? To be quite honest, there’s no alternative. I don’t really think it’s a viable option, but we don’t have any other alternative. It’s like democracy. We haven’t invented a better option. As we should have learned from history, Pax Romana, Pax Germana, and Pax Christiana don’t work in this respect. Europe is much more diverse than that. So, whatever we have, we will have to deal with the issue I’m focusing on: managing diversity. Even though Europeans generally don’t want to recognize it, Europe is an old lady and globally a dead-end — unless it offers what it has produced so far, with all the problems and deviations and question marks connected to it, namely history and culture.


I’d add the concept of subsidiarity.


That’s important. But I’d rather talk about the concept of sustainability. When I’m talking about self-sustainability, I’m not just talking cultural dimension, but ecology and all the other dimensions we talked about before.

Do we have a vision of that kind of Europe? We have some intellectuals who are marginalized that the mainstream calls lunatics or dreamers. But those dreamers are actually the most realistic persons I know. They are trying to develop a concept and a strategy and are at least asking the right questions. And they are quite disillusioned with what is going on. Many are no longer optimists. Have they given up? Have we given up? I don’t think so. In the past, Europe imposed concepts on the world. Now, it will have to sell them if the current system persists and prevails. Or it will have to explain them.

Unlike Americans, Chinese have a tendency to ask questions. Americans provide answers; Chinese ask questions. Is there hope there? The problem with Chinese, though, is that they’ve learned to be imperialists from the West. Can they do it differently? I guess they can. At least they are asking questions and that’s good. Chinese culture has another very important characteristic that American culture doesn’t have. American culture, in a way, perceives itself as a melting pot. The Chinese simply absorb but not in the form of a melting pot. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a black or white cat. This might be an opportunity. But I’m afraid that many Chinese intellectuals, educated in the West, have lost this tradition.

So, am I a federalist? I am. I mentioned only the Chinese example, but there are others. I was very hopeful that Brazil, when Lula was president, could have added something. However his successors proved to be not of equal standing and stature and didn’t share his background as a trade union organizer, which shaped his political perspective. He instinctively knew some things that the new guys don’t understand or even consider. Instinct, as a matter of fact, is extremely underrated both in science and in everyday life. We should consider it far more. My instinct when you wrote to me was that we should meet regardless of the circumstances. And my instinct was correct 20-odd years ago when we met, and sporadically in between we remained somehow in contact.


There have been a lot of continuities in your thinking and your approach. But have there been any discontinuities? Is there anything you believed in strongly 23 years ago that you no longer hold to?


Definitely there are. Some of them may sound stupid. I thought I would always be able to work 16-20 hours a day, which I no longer am able to do. When it comes to conceptual thinking, I’ve traveled a certain distance from when we first met. I matured in a way. I acquired a harder skin. I wish that many people hadn’t tried to prevent me from doing things I wanted to do. They don’t need to support me or cheer what I’m doing — just not to create difficulties and try to harm what we are trying to do.

But, as a matter of fact, there is more continuity than discontinuity. It was probably in the 1980s that the time and place and circumstances truly shaped me. I was a part of processes in Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Central-Eastern Europe and even broader, occasionally, and this is what shaped me. I believe that I’m still an optimist, though maybe not as radical as I used to be. Some organizations and some structures that we’ve established have collapsed. These are the discontinuities. The fact that civil society has been marginalized, globally and in most individual countries I know, is another discontinuity. I’d hoped that this wouldn’t happen at the time. But there are still pockets of civil society.

I’m still following the same motto, which is a slightly revised Jewish proverb. It goes: if not now, then when; it not this, then what; if not me, then who? And I added: if not this way, then how?


The last questions are quantitative When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Slovenia since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?


In the late 1980s, regardless of all the traumas that we were experiencing, it was a time of hope, globally and in Slovenia. It was a transition in the East, democratization in Slovenia, transition in South Africa. It was the last kicks of those concepts of equal development launched by the UN in the 1960s and 1970s around basic needs and so on. It was an extremely optimistic time. Our hopes were quite high back then. We were aware that we were to a large extent idealistic.

But I knew what capitalism was like and I didn’t have the same beautiful image of capitalism that others did. After all, I’d seen it function in the United States. At the time there was the TV show Dallas, and the majority of people in the States did not live even like butlers on the show. They were not even depicted on the show. And the percentage of people who lived like the main characters was truly marginal. But people in Eastern Europe thought they would live like JR. So, I guess the numerical value would be 5.5.


Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?


In material ways, I’m probably doing better than I was doing then. In intellectual terms, considering the openness of the environment, the spread of new ideas, the vibrancy of intellectual discussions at the time, the space has actually closed and become far more limited. So if we add all these up, I’d say 7.5.


When you look into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Slovenia over the next two to three years, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?


This fall will answer this question in a way. But considering the current political spectrum and the personalities that are key players, it’s rather questionable. I’ll give you three marks for three alternative scenarios. The first one is that this government continues, does some reform, and is partially successful, and Slovenia continues to exist through the crisis with the help of Brussels and other strong institutions. In this case, I would say 5.

If the populists take over, particularly those on the Left and Right who are smeared by corruption and have been even sentenced by the court, it will be a coup d’état by democratic means (and we know how Hitler came to power). Then 2.5 would be realistic.

When Jansa was sentenced to prison, he said something that truly scared me. He said that he would fight the sentence with all legal means — which I found perfectly reasonable — I’ll do my best to help him if he asks me, even though I disagree with him. He should have the same options and opportunities under the rule of law as everyone else. However he went on and added “all non-legal means,” and this is what scared me. He later on said that he meant democratic political actions. But when it comes to court cases, you don’t do that. The moment you start questioning it, you undermine the whole system. That reminds me of the 1920s in Italy and the early 1930s in Germany. The Weimar constitution was probably one of the most democratic constitutions. And the whole Third Reich functioned under the Weimar constitution, with some slight modifications.

I’m pretty much afraid that they would do in Slovenia what Orban has done in Hungary. And I already considered Orban pretty dangerous in the 1980s. It was not true for Fidesz, because it was pluralistic back then. But now Fidesz is a single-leader, single-mind organization. At that time, you had people close to Fidesz who were not formal members, like Andras Biro and Ferenc Mislivetz, who are world-class intellectuals. They were working with circles around Mary Kaldor. Fidesz nowadays is very different. Now it’s quite close to being a populist nationalist formation that is almost as dangerous or perhaps even more so than Jobbik. This is why this second option is quite realistic.

If the alternative is established through civil society movements and new parties capable of establishing an alternative scenario that also says no to Brussels and to financial institutions, if they follow the logic of stable if not sustainable development, if they can say no to austerity measures that continue a downward spiral — if they read Schumpeter and Keynes and learn the lesson that during hardship, you invest and start public work programs — if they manage to agree on a sustainable development concept, the outcome could be quite optimistic, then 7.5.


And of the three scenarios, if you had to bet money, where would you put your money?


All are possible. I hope for the last one. I fear the middle one. If the status quo is preserved, the first one is also quite possible. But I would opt for the last one: I’m an optimist and I don’t want to give up.


Vrsar, August 3, 2013


Interview (1990)


Mitja Zagar is a political scientist who has worked extensively on the question of federalism, both in theory and in practice in Yugoslavia. He was involved in the democratization discussions within the League of Communists and remains on the left side of the political spectrum in Ljubljana.


Tell me about the regional economic differences in Yugoslavia.


The picture is different if you travel in the southern part of Yugoslavia. The situation there is tragic. Even in the factories that do work workers are paid pretty bad. Maybe the situation is a little bit better in Serbia and Vojvodina but the whole situation is rather complicated. The economic situation in Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo: they’re already bankrupt. They are only supported by the federal government.

The situation is also tragic in Bosnia; not so much because of the economic problems, which do exist there, but because of the national and religious conflict, especially in the last few weeks. Between Moslems and non-Moslems is the problem. Also between Moslems and Orthodox, between Orthodox and Catholic. They will have elections at the end of this year. The Bosnian elections will be quite interesting but I don’t think that they will solve anything. The election would bring a new, probably non-Communist government. But no party will have a majority by itself. It would have to be a coalition of someone against someone. The most possible solution would be Moslems and Croatian Catholics against Serbs. Moslems will be the key. HDZ has a branch in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serbian party is authentic but there are branches there also from both Serbia and the Serbian party in Croatia.

In Serbia, they have about 60 parties and only two or three are of any size. The former Communist party which was fused with the former Alliance of Socialist Working People into a Socialist party of Serbia led by Milosevic who is still quite a popular person. He just two days ago had a speech in which he mentioned that confederation might not be such a bad solution and not only Croatia and Slovenia are to be blamed for everything but also there are problems in Serbia as well. He changed his way of speaking a little bit but I am not sure whether that is a matter of tactics or a change in standpoint.


What about this Markovic party, this Yugoslav party? Does it have any support anywhere?


Just before I left Yugoslavia three weeks ago, I was in Croatia, in Dalmatia, and surprisingly I found that his party has quite a lot of support down there. Some parties are interested in cooperating with it. In Croatia that would be the former League of Communists, now the Party of Democratic Change, then the Socialist Party, formerly the Socialist Alliance of Working People and then some smaller parties. And there was a statement made by Tudjman that unfortunately there was no better alternative than Markovic right now and the present government should have support even if they do not agree with it.

As for the situation in other republics, I know quite a lot of people willing to join in Montenegro. In Serbia, they got some people to support it. In Macedonia and Slovenia, I think they would try to establish a coalition. Maybe they will even try to establish a national consensus. In Slovenia, it is not very likely that this will happen. The situation is already too divided. But probably Markovic would try to find a solution through the former Youth Organization, now the Liberal Party and the former League of Communists which in October will change its name probably to Party of Democratic Change. (The Slovene former League of Communists is the only true social democratic party in Slovenia. The party which calls itself the Social Democratic alliance is in fact rather a Liberal party in the West European sense – or maybe right wing Social Democrats.)


Given that some republics are so dependent economically on the center, I would think that they would be very supportive of a Yugoslav solution that preserves close cooperation between the republics.


I would say that they, that is most of the political structures in these republics, are supporting Markovic. It is not the situation in Montenegro because of special historical and political background having to do with Montegrin-Serbian relations. But in Macedonia, Markovic has support. But the situation is complicated. They are pretty much aware that they cannot survive by themselves but they are even more afraid of becoming a Serbian colony than ever before.


Federation just doesn’t seem very popular here in Slovenia.


My field of scientific work is federation. I did my Ph.D. on federation. The model which I especially deal with is asymmetrical federation, a term which was popular in Yugoslavia a year ago but which is not so popular now. The idea of Yugoslav confederation is utopian. What we will have will be a federation, a very loose one. Confederations as they existed in the past – American confederation or some confederations in Europe – could not exist in the modern age. Already in the 18th century, this was not a system that could provide for all the needs of the country. This was the 18th century! As for the EEC and EFTA, they are closer, I think, to federation, especially because they have some constituted bodies which do not make decisions by total consensus but also in some cases majority voting. And as soon as you have majority voting, you can not speak of confederation. Because confederations do not accept that. So Yugoslavia would be a loose federation, even looser than the EEC now. Probably due to economic problems and interdependence of different parts of Yugoslavia, it would eventually strengthen. It would not be a federation like it existed in the past which was in part very centralized and unitaristic. It will be something new. The best guarantee of this is probably economic reasons. Politically, almost 30-40 per cent would maybe agree to dismantling Yugoslavia. But as far as economy is concerned…

It is best expressed by data prepared by the World Bank and the IMF. Very similar information was put out by Benetton when it was considering to penetrate our market by buying a large factory, Elan, in Slovenia, which produces skis, boats, planes and so on. First, data by World Bank: an interim study that was not published. They estimated that in the next few years in Yugoslavia there would be some 5.5 million unemployed out of a population of 24 million. They estimated that to cover the basic needs for these people some 5 billion dollars would be needed for the next two years. They though that Yugoslavia would need three years to start new economic cycles to restructure the economy before unemployment will begin to decrease. They estimate that Markovic would need 15 billion dollars to start this process of restructuring. They said that they were thinking of giving Yugoslavia some credits together with some private banks. But they made two preconditions in order to lend the money. To have a program on the economic development of Yugoslavia: first, cut inflation which was done in the last year and second, to have half sum of the money lent to be kept in federal reserve. That means that beside the 5 billion needed for basic needs and social security, they estimated that Yugoslavia should have 10 billion in federal reserves. So they would lend them 15 billion. And it seems as if Markovic is doing these things.

The data collected by Benetton. They say that are not interested in the Slovene market by itself should Slovenia secede from Yugoslavia. It is too small and it is not important in the way of transportation. They also estimated that at the first moment of independence, Slovenia would need some 7 billion dollars just to survive. And of course no one is ready to give that money to Slovenia.

So I believe that the only way of dismantling Yugoslavia without creating any kind of new links or forms of common living would be if there is a war in some parts, maybe Kosovo-Serbia, maybe Croatia, but I think the most dangerous spot is Bosnia-Herzegovina.


But as you mentioned with Macedonia, a republic might disregard economic arguments if it wants independence. Surely Slovenia might disregard economic arguments as well?


Yes but what we will do when we have social unrest? The only one with the dollars who could deal with this unrest is Markovic. If anybody else had the money, there wouldn’t be a problem.


When you describe this situation to the Slovenian government, how do they respond?


In the past they didn’t. When I came back from the United States, I talked with some people quite close and even members of government. Although we are not in the same party we are all friends and somehow these relations haven’t changed that much. At least they communicate with me. You may now that pluralist democracy has made it that some people who were friends in the past are no longer talking with each other. I was always a member of the League of Communists, I was one of those who were part of the democratization debate back in 1985. I was working a lot in the youth organizations since 1980. So I was very much connected with this policy.

So we were discussing these questions when I came back from the United States in early spring just after the elections. They were not even members of government at that time, only members of the party which won the elections. And they did not recognize this situation: they said, you may talk like this but it is your ideology. Later on, three months later, when the Benetton study was made, the president of the Slovene government announced that the first option for the Slovene government was to establish a Yugoslav confederation and to somehow keep cooperation at the highest possible level. So they obviously have changed their opinion. Of course, no one forgets the question of complete independence of Slovenia which would be a quite realistic solution in case of civil war in Yugoslavia. But in any other case, I don’t think anything like that will happen. I have contacts in the EEC, in Scandinavia, in the United States, and no one there is ready to recognize the Slovenian government as the government of an independent state. They are ready to cooperate with the Slovenian part of Yugoslavia. But they are not ready to accept Slovenian independence. Slovenia would make the same problems that the Baltic republics now do.


Confederation doesn’t seem to mean anything for most people I’ve talked to in Croatia and Slovenia, anything other than independence for the six republics here in Yugoslavia.


Everyone in Yugoslavia fears Yugoslavia. It is very strange. It is needed by everyone and everyone fears it. I still believe that the Yugoslav option, before a civil war, is the best possible solution. All other solutions are worse. On the other hand, I think that ideas of confederation will change quite soon into something else. The first idea would be to establish a completely independent state. Political ideas would be fulfilled – there would be independence day which everyone would celebrate – then people would think about what would happen in the future. Then they would find out that transport in Yugoslavia is very closely connected, something they didn’t expect. All of the sudden, some new points would intensify this idea of confederation, which would still be loose compared to anything else in Europe. But you must realize that people fear the Yugoslav state because it is not a modern state. It is an old-fashioned, bureaucratic, Balkan state. With everything that that means: unskilled, a lack of professionals and experts. Of course, people are afraid of those kind of connections.

In the near future, we will just have to learn to live with the problem of Kosovo. It is a problem that can’t be solved for another 20 or 30 years. The British have learned to live with Northern Ireland and they do it quite well. France has learned to live with Corsica. Spain has learned to live with the Basques.

All the people who are right now in positions in Croatia and Slovenia – and this will probably be the situation in the other republics as well – are former members of the League of Communists. They were socialized in the League. They are not really democrats. They have been speaking about democracy but I don’t think they know what it is. They couldn’t define it. Some of them haven’t even heard of rules of procedure or anything like that. Democracy is not just that the loudest is the strongest.


Democracy is often seen simply as a vehicle for one’s own interests?




When I think of confederation – as in the EEC – I think of cooperation between equal partners. Where there isn’t equality – as between North and South economically in the EEC – the confederation attempts to equalize this situation. But Yugoslavia doesn’t seem to have this equality of partners.


Somehow I think you are right. On the other hand, political equality is something different than equality in practice. African states are considered to be equal in the United Nations, but we all know how equal they are. Probably that is how it would happen in Yugoslavia. Also in the United States you have equality of states. But how can Rhode Island compete against New York or California?


But inhabitants of Slovenia seem simply to want to get away from the economic problems of the south or the ethnic problems in Croatia even. They want that to be the problems of another country.


If you spoke to ordinary people, they still do expect that democracy and political pluralism will bring them welfare. They do not know that in New York, 500,000 live under the line of poverty. They do not know that capitalism doesn’t mean being like someone from Dynasty or Dallas, that real capitalism is something different from what they watch on TV. Even the people who were in Western countries who met real poverty there don’t realize that in the U.S., for example, 5% own 25 per cent of the wealth, and 30% who have less than 5% national wealth. They simply don’t think that something like could happen in Yugoslavia. And if they are aware of this, they think that they will be in the top 5%!. On the other hand, Americans are aware that trade unions are important in the U.S. and even if Reagan tried to oppress them, he didn’t succeed completely. They are quite well aware that they should work in their community or municipal councils and influence the way problems are dealt with. That is a question of pluralist culture and it hasn’t been established here in Yugoslavia.


What do you think of the coalition government and how the Social Democrats, for instance, are acting in the coalition?


No relevant scientific research exists which would provide a basis for any conclusions so I will give you just my personal view. I work on the problem of comparative political systems. I dealt in the past with political parties in Western Europe, the United States, Scandinavia. From the perspective of a person working in this field, I would say that the situation in Slovenia is abnormal. And there are three reasons. First, debates on democracy and pluralism began in the League of Communists here in Slovenia. The people who started it, for example, Tomaz Mastnak, Slavoj Zizek – they were all members of the League of Communists. So the situation was a little bit different here. Though now no one wants to accept the role of the League of Communists, history will have to accept it. So, we are still in the transition from one party to a multi-party state. Second, people who are right now working in all political organizations were already in the past active in so-called socio-political official organizations. They’ve been politically socialized in a certain way. This is a reason why democratic culture is not really present in these organizations. Third, these elections were based on who is against the past. There was almost no positive program offered by the Demos coalition. Just some abstract points that really meant almost nothing. The results in Slovenia show that people were not so disappointed with the old situation as it seems to be. Demos coalition only won a very small majority. If you compare its votes to the Liberal (former Union of Socialist Youth) party or the League of Communists or the Socialist Alliance, then almost 50 per cent still believe that these parties did a good job.

And in fact, after the elections, it was shown that the level of liberty and freedom before the elections was much larger than it is now. In terms of political debate, pluralism, possibilities of everyone being able to express his or her ideas. Right now it is not so simple. Before, everyone could write in newspapers. Everyone was able to get access to radio and TV. Now it is not so easy. In Slovenia, it was the most liberal situation that I have ever met anywhere in the world. Even more liberal than the United States. There was even no personal censorship. Everything was allowed to be said. Especially intellectuals who have experienced this period, they would not be satisfied with any other period. After the elections, there was a large polarization. Demos won and they were disappointed that the elections didn’t go so well for them. For example, the President of Presidency is a former leader of the League of Communists; two members of the presidency are members of the League of Communists.


They were elected by Parliament?


No, those were direct elections. Demos won majority in Parliament, but the League of Communists won two of the seats in the Presidency. In the Presidency, Demos has 3-2 and in Parliament, 53-47.


I’m a little confused with the government structure in Slovenia.


The agreement which everyone accepted in the Demos coalition was that the largest party would get to choose the prime minister. There are 5-6 major parties in Demos, the largest of which is Christian Democrats who got the prime minister. Before that, we were arguing that the largest party in Parliament should be allowed to choose the post of prime minister. And not the largest party in the coalition. But then it was accepted. There are three largest parties: League of Communists which is still the largest single party in Parliament, the Christian Democrats, and then the Liberal party. There are two parties doing quite well: the Greens (mostly political center and the right-wing Greens) and the Peasant party. Right now there are some talks of a fusion of the People party and the Christian Democratic party. Then there are parties that did a little worse but are still in parliament. Three such members of the Demos coalition are Social Democratic Alliance (which is rather the political center in the European sense although there are differences in the party and there is a wing which is truly social democratic), Slovene Democratic Alliance, Slovenian party of small entrepreneurs which is trying to call itself the liberal party and they have a case in front of the court because the name is used by the former Alliance of Socialist Youth. And then there is the Socialist Alliance which is the smallest party in the parliament. Then there were ten other parties which appeared but were not elected to parliament. Before the Demos coalition was established, there were some differences between these parties. But later on, they tried to minimize these differences. Making policies in Parliament requires a certain amount of unanimity. That is why they try to unify the coalition. On the other hand, some of the parties are not very satisfied with their position within the coalition; they still want to preserve their identities. That is one of the reasons why some quarrels are present. A normal political situation will happen in Slovenia when the coalition stops acting like a single party. Five or six years is needed to achieve this. Right now, public opinion shows that if there are no big mistakes by the government, they should also win the next elections which will be one year after the adoption of the new constitution. Of course, the parliament could decide to dissolve itself before this time and hold new elections. The only way for today’s coalition to lose in the next two or three years is if it simply falls apart and some kind of left-center coalition is established from the former League of Communists (if it changes quickly enough), Liberal party, left-wing of the Social Democrats, the Green. But it is not likely to happen if the governing coalition doesn’t fall apart.

Two blocs have already been established in parliament. Unfortunately, some substantial questions were not put on the agenda during parliamentary sessions: for example, social security, transition of the Slovene economy, no adequate program of civic government was prepared. These substantial questions have yet to discussed.

Some differences have been expressed. For example, on the law of public information. As you might know, we had a strike of journalists, for the first time in 45 years. Someone in the Demos coalition said that some editors and journalists should be replaced. And that provoked our journalists. In the last five years, no one was really oppressed. For example, after the famous 57th number of New Review was published – when they came out for Slovenian independence – the editor was replaced but nothing really happened to him. In Yugoslavia, there was an argument that he should be imprisoned and the magazine abolished but in Slovenia nothing really happened. So, the strike was the first in the new democracy and it was successful. The draft law was removed from the parliament.


The new constitution has to be adopted by 2/3 vote in Parliament?


That is not clear yet. There has been talk of adopting the constitution by public referendum, for instance.


You have three chambers of parliament in Slovenia? What are the differences?


They have different electoral bases. We have the social-political chamber in which representatives of political parties are elected on a proportional basis. The other chamber is the Chamber of Communes in which representatives of communes – an area somewhere between a municipality and a district like a county in the UK system – are elected on a majority basis. The third is the Chamber of Associated Labor in which delegates are people employed in different fields of economy and social services.


The political parties ran candidates for all of these chambers?


Officially, they ran candidates only for the first chamber. But in fact, they ran candidates for the other chambers as well. Everyone knew which parties supported the candidates to the other chambers.


And the electoral results?


In the social-political chamber, 55 per cent majority for Demos, 18 per cent for League of Communists, 15 per cent for Liberal party, 3 per cent for Socialist Alliance. In the Chamber of Communes, Demos has a complete majority. In the Chamber of Associated Labor, the Liberal party, Socialist Alliance and League of Communists have the majority. Of course, Demos would like to eliminate this chamber. They would like to fuse all three chambers as they did in Croatia. The other option is to keep two chambers, social-political and the communes.


Were local elections held at the same time?


Yes, which were won by the Demos coalition. But not in every commune. In Ljubljana, for instance, there is one commune where the League of Communists and the Liberal party had a majority and formed a government. In Zagorje, there was a large victory by left-wing coalition. In a few years it will probably be as in Italy where the Communists are ruling some provinces but are not allowed to join federal government.

Also on the topic of Italy. Italy has already said that if Slovenia becomes independent they would claim Istria and the Slovene coast. I was at a meeting in Trieste when a president of their chamber of lawyers stated that if the borders of present Yugoslavia are changed, then of course Italy would try to re-establish its former borders. They said that they signed no agreement with Slovenia, just with Yugoslavia. An Italian ministry of foreign affairs was present who did not oppose him, who did not say that that wasn’t the official stand of the Italian government.


1 Comment

  1. In hindsight, would this kind of discussion not had been useful before the war broke out? It seems to me we lack the mechanisms whereby ordinary people can express their opinions and fears and are trained and helped by those who have experience in similar situations, to construct productive communication. Let the politicians stand aside, so that majority can actually work on bridging the gaps without their expertise.

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