In 1990, when I was in Romania, inter-ethnic conflicts broke out in Transylvania. Although the cause of the conflict in March 1990 in Targu Mures is disputed, the most likely story concerns a bilingual sign — in Hungarian as well as in Romanian – that a pharmacist put up on a shop in the city. There was a protest. Various wild rumors spread. Tensions escalated, and a full-scale riot broke out. Several people died, and hundreds were injured.
Today, there are bilingual signs all over Targu Mures. Relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians are quite peaceable. Sure, there are plenty of things to complain about in Romania today. But the country certainly did not go the way of Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia. The very word conjures up images of war, fratricide, and genocide. But imagine if what happened in Romania – a very literal dodging of a bullet – happened in Yugoslavia, if the tensions that escalated between Serbs and Croats in 1990 were somehow addressed and war averted. Marko Hren has spent a lot of time thinking about this “what if.” He believes that peace activists were “so close” to preventing the slaughter that spread through the region in the 1990s.
“We still need research about that time between November 1990 and June 1991,” Hren told me over coffee in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana last October. “Was an opportunity missed? What I can prove is that various things were converging: we had a good setting, a local Peace Institute, a strong intellectual group in Ljubljana with links to people in power in Slovenia, and with connections to the European platform including the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The CSCE process at that time was promising: early warning systems were designed, conflict prevention mechanisms agreed-upon. We were so close to preventing genocide. That’s been my obsession for 20 years. We were so close. We can learn from that. We should learn.”
I met Marko Hren back in 1990 when he was a computer programmer turned peace activist. He later became a leading force behind the most successful squat in the region – Metelkova in Ljubljana. He has also worked in the business world and in government.
He thinks a lot about lessons learned – and not just concerning the war in Yugoslavia. He is dissatisfied with how Metelkova has turned out. He’s critical of the failure of NGOs to make needs assessments. He’s disappointed with the general knowledge of democracy in Slovenia today. That is one of his principle preoccupations: learning from failure.
But he also retains the same curiosity and drive that I encountered in him more than two decades ago. Whether talking about organic food production or the transformative nature of the Internet, Marko Hren remains a passionate activist.
I want to start with 1975. It was your first encounter with the War Resisters League. How old were you?
I was born in 1959. I was playing in an ethno-group developing music traditions from all the Yugoslav republics. We were touring all the time. I was in secondary school at the time. I was 16. I got in touch with War Resisters International in Switzerland in 1975. The WRI activists were mingling in a crowd at the international festival, handing out leaflets and selling badges at street stalls. That’s where I got my first broken rifle badge and my first “War is a crime against humanity” leaflet.
You’ve said that at that point you weren’t thinking about peace movements.
My thoughts and dreams were already involved with concepts of ahimsa and the concept of nonviolence. I developed my own pacifist philosophy as a teenager.
How did you do that?
Dreams played an important role. The process was irrational, intuitive.
You came back to Slovenia and then met some people who shared the same philosophy.
We formed a group of like-minded students at my school. One of them is still a Bohemian, an artist-in-residence at the former squat here at Metelkova.
What fascinates me in the history of the Slovenian peace movement is how strong it became in a relatively short period of time. By the time of the late 1980s, early 1990s, it has become so influential that the possibility of turning Slovenia into a demilitarized zone and the spreading peace education throughout the curriculum was a politically feasible program.
I think the power of that group was that it was cross-generational and cross-professional. It included people like sociologist Pavel Gantar and philosopher Tomaž Mastnak a renowned poet Neža Maurer, some war veterans, and a number of students. It was great to work in such an ad hoc think tank. I was a mathematician at that time employed in a computer programming R&D enterprise, and I learned that I needed to obtain the skills of a social scientist. Tomaž Mastnak was by my side correcting everything that I wrote. It was a pleasure to work with these people. That’s where the power was. It was a fusion of very diverse people from different parts of the mental globe. This was catalytic for the ideas we had..
It seemed much stronger than peace movements in other countries at that time.
It was definitely comparable to all the strong peace and human rights nucleuses in Eastern Europe. We took part in all the major events such as the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) conferences. We quickly linked up with East-West dialogue. The common denominator of all our actions was our international scope. We got connected to existing networks on the planet at every level: European, regional (Alpine-Adriatic), international/global. Each and every campaign we did was immediately plugged into regional, European, and global contexts. We were spontaneously thinking globally and acting locally. But we did invest a lot into international activity. We travelled extensively. That’s why, somehow naturally in 1988 when the transition was at its peak, the peace movement took over the coordination of the informal foreign diplomacy of the opposition here for an initial period of time.
But you also were ambitious in terms of your program for Slovenia. Many peace movements are marginal and think marginally.
Yes, the place where we are sitting is the proof of our ambition. We are at the present cultural center on Metelkova Street, which used to be the Yugoslav Army headquarters but has been turned into an open agora through a grassroots action. It’s a living monument to the Slovenian spring. The project was led by hundreds of groups and individuals that were active in the 1980s locally in Slovenia. It’s a result of a project that began before the war and which symbolically speaks to that period of time. I was an initiator and a head of the project here.
But we did not fight against the communists with this project, as you have written elsewhere. On the contrary, the squat of the military barracks happened because the right wing after transition took power in the city and we fought the right-wing post-transition elite who had plans other than the plans that our movement has agreed upon with — at that time, in 1993 — a left-wing government. Before the transition, before the war, we agreed that this military facility would be passed to the art and social movements. I was fighting everyone in the case of the campaign for the Metelkova cultural center. In a way, this campaign was an epilogue to our fight against the Yugoslav army.
Our ambition was to revitalize the urban structures. And now here in Metelkova, we’ve got the biggest NGO cluster in Europe, the biggest urban infrastructure for NGOs and artists in Europe.
But I must underline that this and other projects were not our innovation. All this has been implemented elsewhere. For instance, the Rote Fabrik, the Red Factory in Zurich, was a sort of best practice that I was looking at when I was designing the “Metelkova military barracks reconversion campaign.” Even our demilitarization project was copied from the Switzerland Without an Army campaign. We were campaigning in 1989 at the same time as the referendum in Switzerland to abolish the army. Andreas Gross, from the Direct Democracy group in Zurich, was my very good friend and was very influential in my political formation. I spent a lot of time in Zurich. We learned good ideas and projects and immediately implemented them locally. We write everywhere in our papers that these Swiss and other projects influenced our reality.
Have other groups in turn followed Metelkova’s example? Lots of people come here and say this is great, but has anyone gone back to reproduce it in their society?
The group in Zagreb did look into our projects very carefully and adopted a fanzine like ours that they called M-zine. Many people in the region were encouraged by Metelkova to squat degraded urban areas. What the Swiss movement gave us was encouragement. It would never spring to my mind to have a vote on the army. But they did it. What we did was quickly adopt and adapt with all our intellectual enthusiasm.
You got support from left progressive forces for the proposal for a demilitarized Slovenia. But you’ve written that you didn’t get enough support from the conservatives.
My point was that our approach was open. Actually the support we got in 1989 was largely from right-wing circles when we were preparing for the elections. I served as a temporary ad-hoc coordinator of the foreign policy of the emerging democratic groups (not proper political parties yet), calling meetings of the people in charge of foreign policy, and that’s where we discussed demilitarization as an interesting approach to getting rid of the Yugoslav army and at the same time opening space for nonviolent conflict resolution approaches. Our proposal was: let’s promote nonviolent conflict resolution, a peace conference for the Balkans, and in such a way get rid of the Yugoslav Army that we all identified as a main problem. The peace movement approached everyone, all political actors.
My working environment at that time was Mikro Ada, the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) where Janez Jansa, the current prime minister, also worked. There were four of us. He gravitated towards the center-right. Also, today’s bishop Anton Stres was at that time my close coworker in the field of peace. He was a chair of the Catholic Commission for Peace: Justitia et Pax. He signed our best-known document, The Declaration for Peace, which was a core political document supporting the demilitarization of Slovenia. When the Left parties started a strong PR for the demilitarization process, I wasn’t cautious enough. Instantly in that moment the right-wing leaders perceived the demilitarization campaign as a program of the Left. Some of the left-leaning leaders opposed independence. Some leaders of the Right that were in government at that time interpreted the declaration of peace as against independence, as a program to demilitarize the Slovenian army. I made a mistake. I thought that people in the right wing were already on board, since I really had smooth access to and a good working relationship with them. But then when they saw the left-wing opposition politicians campaign enthusiastically for this project in media, they thought something was wrong. But it’s interesting that nobody discussed the content of this declaration for peace; the discourse was about political confrontation only. The letter of today’s bishop, dated February 16, 1991, when he withdrew from the peace movement campaigns, is indicative.
The proposal to use conflict resolution techniques to handle the emerging conflicts was endorsed at very high levels, even by the right-wing government.
You said at the beginning that we were a powerful player, and that’s true. Somehow we managed to implement some institutional tools, like the Commission for Peace Politics in the parliament, led by a parliamentarian Viktoria Potocnik of the Liberal Democrats. It was an institutional setup to promote peace politics. I was member of that commission as an external expert. I was also sitting in the consulting body of the president of the republic, which was the left-wing Milan Kucan at that time. These were two “left-wing” institutions in parliament and presidency, but the right wing controlled the government. I also had access to Defense Minister Jansa, who was a previous coworker and friend, as well as to Lojze Peterle, the prime minister from the Catholic party who was my colleague from the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights. We had relatively good access to these politicians. We had preliminary talks concerning the establishment of the Peace Institute within the framework of conflict resolution proposals. The Peace Institute was a project meant to serve the facilitation of the peace conferences for the Balkans. All this is documented in details in my digital volume: Slovenian peace movement in the context of Yugoslav anti-war contention, Re-discovered history of war-prevention (1984-1992) which is published at www.dlib.si and available for free download.
What happened in 1990 after the elections, and now I know this, the government got information daily on the preparations of the Yugoslav army for intervention. We didn’t know this at the time. Basically in clandestine the government of Slovenia prepared independent military troops under the full authority of Slovenia. General Krkovič was a chief coordinator of the establishment of Slovenian troops within the territorial defense concept. Arms were secretly brought in as Slovenia prepared for intervention. That’s why Janez Janša and the ministers in the cabinet probably thought that there was no room left for negotiations. We thought that negotiations and the Peace Institute and the peace option were feasible. We had all the major people on board of the international council of the Peace Institute such as, for example, Jan Oberg, Gene Sharp, Julio Quan from the UN Costa Rica University of Peace. But the Slovenian government was secretly planning the armed defense, and at the final stage they didn’t want to fund our proposal for a peace process.
We still need research about that time between November 1990 and June 1991. Was an opportunity missed? What I can prove is that various things were converging: we had a good setting, a local Peace Institute, a strong intellectual group in Ljubljana with links to people in power in Slovenia, and with connections to the European platform including the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The CSCE process at that time was promising: early warning systems were designed, conflict prevention mechanisms agreed-upon. We were so close to preventing genocide. That’s been my obsession for 20 years. We were so close. We can learn from that. We should learn. This is the key argument discussed in the paper mentioned earlier, available on www.dlib.si. And I still await responses. I often say that what we record in history are wars and victories. Prevented wars are not recorded.
They are the dogs that do not bark.
Imagine if I explained to you today in 2013 that we prevented war and genocide in the past, in 1990. Imagine that there had been no wars between 1991 and 1996 and today we sit here at the former Metelkova military barrack and I am explaining that we prevented war and genocide with our well-pre-meditated, complex, ambitious project. Can you imagine such a situation?
I would say, “Marko, how can you prove that? You’re overreacting!”
Exactly. So, how can we research that phenomenon? I claim that the opportunity to prevent wars and genocides in Yugoslavia in the period between 1991 and 1995 was realistic. Did we ever research this hypothesis?
The conventional narrative is that the conflict was inevitable because Milosevic had calculated that Yugoslavia was over. He would make a half-hearted attempt to intervene in Slovenia but not a major effort and his concern was mainly Serb populations in Croatia and Bosnia. Tudjman had made a similar calculation and the two of them met at Karadjordjevo to divide up Bosnia. Nothing could be done because of the political and military ambitions of Milosevic and Tudjman. But you’re arguing that between November 1990 and the formal declaration of independence, those two principal figures could have been reined in.
Absolutely. When we read the decision that the U.S. Congress made in October 1990, the emphasis was on republics. The message was clear: let’s work on republics. The only thing missing was supporting the dialogue among those republics. That’s what we did at the Peace Institute in Ljubljana: we created a proposal for a framework for this dialogue process. First we should have had to analyze the different situations occurring in all the republics after the elections in 1990 – and that’s what the U.S. State Department supported. The United States, the CSCE, and the local players here in Slovenia were mature enough for a peace process. But we acted too slow, and we acted without agreement between regional and international NGOs, experts, and mediators.
When we talked, at the end of August 1990, our discussion focused almost entirely on the question of confederation. At the time, at the Yugoslav level, there were any number of proposals, like the 4 plus 2 proposal, on what greater autonomy might look like, what the responsibilities would be at the Yugoslav level and on the republic level, and so on. Do you remember your reaction to the state structure discussion at the time?
I don’t know what I said, but what we did continuously put down in papers was that the important issue was the equality of the process, not the solutions. My approach at that time was basically embedded in the recommendation: “don’t take positions, express interests, define the process.”
The classic conflict resolution approach.
Yes, exactly. We proposed to analyze the situation and see where to go. The Slovenian presidency partially followed our proposals and started so-called “missions of good will” to other republics – this process was led by presidency member Dušan Plut of the Slovenian Greens. I was always defending the constitutional right of nations for self-determination. This was embedded in the Slovenian constitution as well. The struggle here locally was based on that collective human right. We kept explaining to foreigners that already at that time Yugoslavia was a confederation with strong autonomy assured for all republics, even on the military plane. The defense concept of Yugoslavia involved a three-fold structure: the permanent army of conscripts (the so-called Yugoslav National Army) was federal and centralized, but the territorial defense structures as well as the structures of the so-called civil defense concept were under the authority of the republics, i.e. the Slovenian presidency and the Slovenian executive council. This three-fold governance of the defense systems was subverted in late 1990 by the Yugoslav army, which entered into the storage facilities of the weapons of territorial defense. This was one of the first conflicts in which the Slovenian government viewed the Yugoslav army as subverting the constitution.
Probably at that time – in August 1990 — I told you that I was surprised at how little knowledge there was in the international community about the true nature of the Yugoslav federation. Let me give you an example. In 1988, when I was with Petra Kelly of the German Greens sitting in the office in Bonn of Helmut Kohl’s main advisor on Yugoslav region, I told him “Look, my friends are in prison in Ljubljana, the trial will be at the military court. They are civilians, and the process is being held in Serbian in the middle of Ljubljana. They have no right to a civil attorney.”
He said, “It’s not nice that civilians are tried under military court and are deprived of the right to a civil attorney, but what’s wrong with the military trial being conducted in Serbian? That’s the official language there!”
I said, “Sir, constitutionally the official languages in Slovenia are Slovenian, Italian, and Hungarian. Serbian is not on the list of official languages in Slovenia. Italian is there because of the minority in the western part, Hungarian because of the minority in the Eastern part. The Serbian language is not used in Slovenia.”
I was into federation discussions in Europe. Of course we as anarchists were dreaming of Bakunin’s idea of a world of little regional federations of autonomous communities, at least in conceptual terms. Concerning Yugoslavia’s “federalism,” you should not confuse anarchist federalism with the state federalism of the Yugoslav type. We were requesting complete sovereignty, which was a constitutional right. If we are not happy with certain decisions of the federation, we simply abolish the federation. That was for us completely logical. If we cannot – for example – achieve our goals of the legalization of conscientious objection in Yugoslavia, then let’s get rid of Yugoslavia and institute conscientious objection in Slovenia.
The peace movement in Europe and globally had a variety of different perspectives. Some members of the peace movement worked very closely with you and supported what was going on with Slovenia’s peace movement. You were not happy with other members of the peace movement. There was a debate within the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA). Tell me about that challenge of engaging the peace movement and being disappointed by the response of some elements.
I wrote extensively on this. I suggest this as a topic for future research: the HCA positions taken by key HCA persons during the Yugoslav crisis in particular should be scrutinized. The Yugoslav crisis actually killed HCA politically. This international forum was not able to discuss the issue, couldn’t seek consensus let alone find consensus, and it was manipulated by Sonja Licht who was grabbing for power. Researchers should study primary documents, not witnesses. Why were we not able to present a joint opinion of pan-European civil society to the European troika by May 1991? The answer from my perspective is only one: because some individuals wanted to promote their personal views. I claim that some people manipulated the pan-European moment. Johan Galtung was blackmailed, or maybe he intentionally favored Sonja Licht’s positions. But the fact is that the pan-European movement did not come out with a constructive, consensual statement on Yugoslavia. My hypothesis is that we had enough time and knowledge to play a constructive role in the pre-conflict period. We were connected. We communicated. We supported each other and then we were blackmailed. I think it’s a serious weakness of that time that deserves research. I would love to see original letters that, let me take but one example, Mient Jan Faber, an HCA co-chair of the time, wrote to the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands, Hans van den Broe. This must exist in the Dutch archives. Is Faber willing to show his entire correspondence of the epoch? And why did he never ask me or Tomaz Mastnak or Pavel Gantar to read the drafts before he sent them out? Or did anyone study Galtung’s statements of the epoch?
The END conference in Moscow in 1991 was an important conference. We wrote an analysis of the Yugoslav situation and proposals, everything, but the meeting was completely overshadowed by the delegation from Belgrade. We couldn’t travel to Moscow at that time.
The debates within the peace movement mirrored the debates within Europe more generally.
The debate was intense. For example, Tomaz Mastnak and I were in New York City for the War Resisters International meeting in 1993. We discussed international sanctions. I remember the discussion very well. We spent nights talking with people. Of course the pacifist positions involved a strict arms embargo and no military intervention. We were lobbying for military intervention — Sarajevo was under siege — or lifting the arms embargo and letting people defend themselves. The discussions were tough. What we should learn from this is not to stick to our ideologies. The ideology of the left wing in Europe at that time was locked in a slogan “no change in borders,” assuming that any change in borders would lead to conflicts. The border between Slovenia and Croatia was already on the map. It was a thin red line. It simply became a thicker line. The border did not change geographically; it changed in its quality. And in a few months it will get thinner again when Croatia enters the Schengen area.
It eventually became clear that the proposals to demilitarize Slovenia and use conflict resolutions mechanisms were not going to pass in Slovenia. With the impending intervention of the Yugoslav army, Slovenia decided it was necessary to have its own army. The focus of your peace movement shifted to peace education in the school system, toward the Metelkova struggle, toward establishing the Peace Institute as an autonomous research institution. How did you feel personally at that point? As you said, you were very close to achieving the larger goals. And then to not to achieve them, how did you react?
There was enormous field of action that needed us all to invest our time and strength: the refugee issue, the war in Bosnia, the effort to prevent wars in Kosovo and Macedonia. In 1992-93, I lobbied extensively for sanctions and for military intervention. The arguments were the same as in 1989 and 1990. With the Peace Institute, I traveled extensively in those first years. I was aware that a strong civil society is a must for peaceful coexistence. The proof was that there was bloody conflict in places without strong civil society structures. The only institutions existing in Bosnia were either religious or Komsomol or Communist. After transition, the people gravitated toward the only existing institutions of shared identity: religion. My point is that conflicts are more easily manageable in societies where pluralism is structured then in societies where civil society lacks pluralistic structures and is dominated by ideological or/and religious monopolies. In other words, it is easy to manipulate (fuel conflicts among) populations where there is a lack of diversity of interests.
Our assumption with the Metelkova project was the following: let’s create an infrastructure for pluralism, for the civil society expression of identities and lifestyles. The conversion of the Metelkova barracks was very difficult. We faced lobbyists from the city and from the construction lobby. We were in the squat for years without electricity – from 1993-95 — and it was a very tough time. On one hand there was the apocalypse in the Balkans and our feeling that we had failed, that genocide was our failure, Europe’s failure. And on the other hand there was the squat and lots of drug addicts because the only methadone center was on the street here. We were located in a center of urban pathology. It was a depressing time.
Were you in the squat itself?
I was the project leader and a chairman of the Metelkova Network, elected by the constituency.
For that entire time?
The Network for Metelkova was formally constituted in December 1990. We squatted the Metelkova military barracks in September 1993 and I remained with the project until 2002. My projects are very well documented at www.dlib.si. There were a range of projects: renovation, urban architecture, social cooperatives, creating a network of productive units, programming, and just surviving from year to year.
It’s essentially the construction of a society in miniature, isn’t it? It’s very ambitious. The initial project was to completely transform Slovenia, turn it into Switzerland. But you came up against the realities of the war in the region, the reality of politics. But you were able to take that vision and realize it at the level of Metelkova.
That’s a lucid observation. It’s exactly the evaluation I wrote in my very thick book on Metelkova, a digital book published online as an anthology of Metelkova with primary sources. We were not able to stop the war nor were we able to fulfill our ambition of demilitarizing the country. For me personally, Metelkova was a sort of compensation. I wanted us to implement at least this. That’s why I remained with the project for 10 years or more.
Are there any original ambitions connected to Metelkova that haven’t been realized?
Of course! Let me be clear: the Metelkova as it is now is far from what I envisaged. The whole concept of grassroots cooperatives earning enough to manage autonomously the space failed completely.
Why was that?
It’s all in my papers, but let’s make it short. I made a mistake. I trusted the rhetoric of middle-class artists and activists. That’s a problem that can be traced in several transition countries. Artists, progressive people, and NGO leaders – to a large proportion — belong to a social elite: to a well-connected and shall I say “lazy, comfort-zone” elite. I was one of the few proletarians, the child of proletarian parents, at Metelkova. I did not understand the problem of caste-divisions until after I cut my teeth with the constituency at Metelkova. Why are they so lazy? Why don’t they want to create enterprises to survive? How come we can’t make cooperatives and earn money for our survival and for self-sustainability? These were the questions that I posed to myself, and the answer to them is: “Because they don’t need to.” They go home to eat out of the refrigerators of their parents and then come back to party.
Most Slovenian NGOs are led by middle-class or high-society elite. That’s why we almost don’t have membership-driven organizations. They are skilled in fundraising. They get money — from Soros, for example. Soros funded elites not marginals. The problem is not that NGO leaders are representatives of elite. The problem is not that the elite is doing humanitarian work. It’s nice. The problem is the dumping and the fact that NGO leaders belonging to social elite are pretending and, one may say lying. You get dressed like marginals and pretend that you’re marginal and say “we marginals from the edges of society deserve money from the public authority, from the ministry, from the municipality. We deserve money, space for an atelier and beer for the evening.” I was blackmailed by people from the Metelkova network. I discovered after years that there were people here claiming that they have the right to have an atelier on city property free of charge while they had a huge house in the elite part of the city, which they were renting out to entrepreneurs. I made a mistake. Metelkova is my big mistake, but I learned a lot.
I made a mistake in terms of needs assessment. What is the real need of the population, of constituency, of members? I bet that the majority of artists/users here at Metelkova are not eligible for free space – if reasonable criteria would ever be introduced. Afterwards, when I looked into other projects in the NGO sector, the root cause of failure was needs assessment again. Who is the beneficiary? For whom are we working? Who do we want to benefit and are they eligible? A serious problem in Slovenia is the lack of clarity concerning the “caste divisions.” Gregor Tomc, the first program director of the Peace Institute, a professor of social sciences at the university, one of the leading punk intellectuals in Slovenia, once asked me, “How would you evaluate the experience at Metelkova in one sentence? I answered instantly, “There was a problem of castes.” I never belonged to the elite, and the guys here were children of university professors, people in management. You don’t enter the project with the same logic if you belong to different social layers.
When I left Metelkova, my new NGO project was to establish fair trade. We created the first fair trade store in Ljubljana. Very soon I bumped into the same problem. The people I worked with belonged to the upper middle class or even a bit higher. For them, the project was a pet project. I don’t say that they weren’t undertaking this with sincere emotion. But when you don’t need to create profit, you just don’t do it. Your evolved philosophy about the eligibility of your project for public funding and all your fund-driven projects take you gradually away from constituencies and from the issue. Again, I do not want to say that upper-class activists could not necessarily be sincere and good-minded!
This is also the question of true sustainability. If you’re only sustained by public funds, you’ll only last as long as those funds last.
Back to your question about where we failed: we failed in economic sustainability. I used to draw a simple self-sustainable economy pie chart at the beginning of Metelkova. Our goal for the next five years would be to assure three-part funding: one third we earn ourselves with our proper activities, one third comes as a direct input from our members, and one third comes from external funding. Slowly, the pie would be enlarged with a larger proportion of our own income. We would create profit and invest. In such a way, we could also sustain our autonomy. My argument was that if we’ve got public land in the very center of the city, just a block from the railway station, then it shouldn’t be difficult to create profit for our artistic and social milieu. And nothing of that concept materialized.
Not even the youth hostel?
The youth hostel is a public enterprise. It’s not autonomous. My idea was that it would be managed as a cooperative, fully in the hands of independent actors. But it’s a public institution, and it’s not run by independent people. Even more, Metelkova artists and social groups have no voice in the management. So, in this sense, it’s a complete failure. What you see is a nice hostel with an innovative concept and a nice history.
And very well designed.
It’s well designed and innovative. That is due to the availability of time. Seven years of squatting gave room to the imagination.
How long did you work on the fair trade project?
Just at the initial part. I used to work with Oxfam and the L’Atelier network in the 1980s. The final decision was made when I was preparing a project in Brazil around 1997. I wanted to do anthropological research with my friend Amalia Souza and the nucleus of Cultura Indigena. When I saw the coffee plantations and the deserts on the previous territory of the rain forests in Brazil, I thought that ethic consumerism would increasingly become a priority activity. At that time the majority of the coffee on the market was Brazilian. Vietnam is now the main producer of coffee stocks. Coffee is a good example of how to enter into ethics through consumerism, through the daily consumption of a little thing.
With an enormous profit margin.
And huge damage done to the environment in Brazil, Vietnam, and elsewhere. There’s a huge desert the size of France in the Sao Paolo region because of the unsustainable production of coffee. This land devastation was my motivation to get into fair trade. Then I found partners. Our original idea was to open fair trade here at Metelkova, but this project was so slow and lazy. So we opened it in the middle of town.
It’s still there?
Yes, it’s still there.
But it caters mostly to an upper-middle-class clientele?
It’s a tiny little project. I just wanted to illustrate that we have the same problem with governance. It’s not membership-based. It’s not a social cooperative. It’s not serving direct beneficiaries on the ground. It’s a nice project, it’s educational and provocative. We challenge people in Ljubljana. But in terms of governance and in terms of impact, it’s clear that it’s not a social cooperative.
Have you been able to create a genuine social cooperative?
No. I think we have a serious problem in our post-transitional society, which is an inability to do real needs assessment. The projects absorbing available money are normally initiated and managed by people who are not directly connected to constituencies. They are intermediaries. A lot of money is drained off in between. I just had an interview with someone doing a study on social cooperatives. I told her, “I would love to see a cooperative springing up in Slovenia that is really genuine, from the grass roots, membership-based, serving directly the members, with a transparent business model.”
In Slovenia, this approach did not take root. There were many experiments starting with eight cooperatives here at Metelkova. I got very good funding for the initial cooperatives here. But it all ended without success. There were other experiments. But there have been structural and conceptual problems around the whole thing, including on the side of funders and government. When I was interviewed a few weeks ago about social cooperatives, I recommended the government set up scrupulous eligibility requirements for proposals and look into the constituencies carefully before they put public funds toward the proposals.
What about agricultural cooperatives? I did a piece on Slovenian organic agriculture here a few years ago for Food First.
Only 3 percent of organic food sold on the Slovenian market is of Slovenian origin. The largest chain for organic food, managed by my good friend, imports basically all its products.
Unfortunately we’ve also seen the rise of the organic industrial complex. In the United States, the organic sector is structured much like the industrial sector. They cut costs this way and push out smaller producers. This wasn’t the case when I was writing the article.
What is not in the figures is the production of organic vegetables and fruit for household needs. That’s where Slovenia is enormously different from the majority of other countries. Slovenians are property owners. A large part of Slovenian households include gardens. I have a garden and produce my vegetables, apples, plums. We produce all the jams we need at home. I produce my own vinegar, etc.. Also, a lot of families in Ljubljana have relatives in the countryside.
Another factor available in Europe not available in the United States are the payments provided by the EU to farmers for environmental purposes: to preserve watersheds, soil, special areas like marshes. Farmers can grow organic produce but can also support themselves through these abatements.
Increasing the self-sufficiency of food is a priority. Our food sector is in trouble in the European market. On the other hand, we have all these resources.
Are you still doing what you were doing four years ago when you were working on transport?
Transport, telecommunications, and energy. I’m still into policymaking.
Are you still enjoying that?
Yes, this assignment offers an enormous field for intervention. With the emerging technologies and opportunities to reduce dramatically carbon footprints, it is an enormous challenge to create instruments of support, be it tax exemptions or direct subsidies for citizens, small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SME), or large-scale enterprises.. But there’s also the enormous pressure of diverse lobbies. There’s also room for ethics and activism in policy making in this domain.
My career is now pretty much balanced. I have more than 10 years experience in business including cutting-edge R&D technologies; more than 10 years in NGOs; and now almost 10 years in government. There is room for ethics and genuine ethical activism everywhere. When I was in business I refused to sell/develop my software for the Yugoslav army, and I got into trouble with my enterprise management. So we created an SME with Janez Jansa and colleagues. So, there is room for resistance in all sectors. On the other hand, altruists and egoists, sincere people and liars, those who love the truth and those who manipulate, those who are lazy and hardworking: the proportion of positive and negative characteristics of the people is – according to my experience — the same in all sectors: NGO, GO and businesses. The NGO sector is not exempt at all. And you can meet hardworking altruists with high ethical values in the GO and business sector as well as in NGOs.
When you look at the situation here in Slovenia, what makes you most optimistic?
My philosophy is that you need to find optimism internally. In the Slovenian language we have a beautiful word that is translated into English as “circumstances.” In Slovenian, it’s okoliščine. If you split the word into three parts – okol išči ne – it means “don’t search around.” Look into yourself! People say that circumstances drive their actions, their attitudes, or their morality. In Slovenian, the word denies that: Don’t blame things around you. It’s all inside. My motivation comes from the ability to permanently evaluate what we are doing. That’s what I’m missing in Slovenia at the moment: I long for intellectual circles that would permanently evaluate our performance. True motivation and optimism comes not from circumstances but from an internal assessment of processes. Are our actions correct? Shall we revise our goals?
Personally, I’m more and more immune to illusions. I see phenomenon in society from the perspective of experience and failures. I’m not ashamed of speaking of failures.
Failure is the mother of creativity in the artistic realm.
Failure is the way that the child learns: through falling, falling, falling.
But when people become adults, they don’t want to fail. There’s a tremendous fear of failing.
We have very up-to-date examples of misconceptions and failures. For instance, 20 years of democracy here did not produce a mature pro-democracy population. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I observe the level of understanding of democracy. For instance, there was a candidate, Miro Zitko, who failed to collect 3,000 signatures to become a candidate for the presidential elections. He lives in a remote village in his eco-house that he built himself from wood and stone. He ran for these elections to promote an environmentally friendly lifestyle, organic food production, and concepts of self-sufficiency. He invested his time to run for office, but with a program that has nothing to do with the function of the president, which shows a compete misunderstanding of the office. A president is not a political party. He is the chief commander of the Slovenian army. Aside from protocol, that’s basically what he does.
It would have been a waste of his time.
If it was only meant as PR, okay. We have a right to participate in elections to bring up issues. But if that was the idea, then we would want a consensus of the interest groups around eco-housing and organic food production concerning the issues raised by the candidate. None of that happened. He did not network within his own constituency. Such failures have long-term implications on Green autonomous grassroots political organizations. Will we be able to learn from Miro’s failure? Will Slovenians evaluate that campaign that ended yesterday? No.
Speaking of prominent failures, how have you viewed the political rise and fall of your former colleague Janez Jansa?
He was one of the three strongest political leaders in the country from 1991 on, either in government or as the strongest political opposition in parliament. I wouldn’t say that he had ups and downs. He’s still the prime minister.
But he’s currently under investigation.
Everybody is currently under investigation. Who is not?
True, I’m not. Although a few weeks ago, I was invited as an important source of information to the Slovenian version of the FBI, a new institution established under the previous mandate of Jansa. They investigate political corruption and conflicts of interest. So, I am still under investigation. Most of the political leaders are in this country.
You’ve already given me some of your second thoughts about how you’ve changed your perspective over the last 20 years — on Metelkova, fair trade, the Slovenian peace movement. Are there other topics around which you’ve had serious rethinking?
That’s a good topic. You had big debates with the War Resisters League on military intervention. So, how have your views evolved on pacifism?
I embrace ahimsa and the concept of nonviolence. It’s a more and more valid concept. It needs centuries to introduce it into society. It’s definitely a field for intervention of progressive minded people, on all levels, in all periods of time. The concept of nonviolent conflict resolution and resistance — I dedicated my book on Metelkova to new generations of resistance. These historical examples are important to me. That’s why I invest a lot of my free time in evaluating the failures, like the missed opportunity around the date June 20, 1991 that I spoke about earlier. All generations in the future will have to challenge democracy. Will they use nonviolent techniques and international cooperation, NGOs and GOs, all levels of networking and lobbying in the global sense? The whole approach toward seeking consensus at the international level, at EU level for instance, seems to be relevant.
What did you think of the Occupy movement here?
That was an echo of the movement from the United States. The leaders of this movement were elite, not grassroots: professors from the social sciences etc.. That happens whenever there’s a global movement: a professor comes somewhere from his office with a black mask on his face and shouts. Creating a grassroots movement requires a certain incubation time on the ground. Creating an organic garden takes years to prepare the soil. All gardeners know this. It’s again an example of a failure, of something stolen by intellectuals, who are already in power.
What do you think of Rog?
Rog is an example of a failed cooperative. I worked with them on the issue of workers. Because I wrote a book on cooperatives, they wanted me to consult with them on how to run the cooperative. They did not manage to get it off the ground. It was another example of the elite running a so-called marginal project. They have loads of problems with internal democracy, according to what I know. They have charismatic leaders. It’s not a good example.
Rog is a complex thing. I have many thoughts about it. Not more than 20 percent of Metelkova’s capacity is currently being used. Ljubljana does not need that many public institutions. The Metelkova clubs are almost unused during the day. I did read the tender for the rebuilding of Rog, which was published last year. It was called a public-private tender, which is not the real case. The notion of public-private partnership is – in my view – misused in this case. The law on public procurement using PPP is used here to compensate on real estate taxes rather than to introduce a well planned public-private business and governance model. There is no concept of how the public part will be managed after the Rog factory is rebuilt. They have in mind that the municipality will pay for the program. There is no idea about self-sufficiency.
What about the movement of the Erased?
There are organizations run by the Erased?
There are two organizations run by the Erased themselves.
It’s of a different nature. This is clearly a temporary campaign rather than something that builds a long-term structure.
Were you surprised when the issue of the Erased came to light?
I don’t remember whether I was surprised or not. I was not involved in that topic — it wasn’t on my agenda.
Have you thought about it since?
No, I was not preoccupied with this issue. And I don’t have a clear opinion on that.
Any other issues you’d like to speak about?
I’ve written about the things that I felt an urge to communicate. It’s all in the digital library www.dlib.si and I welcome comments and views by readers.
I end with three quantitative questions. When you look into the near future, the next couple of years, how do you evaluate the prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
I have no clue. I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. My experience shows both good and bad of life. I love life. I will have a baby next month.
Concerning organic food production, I would give high marks here. I was into organic food production and consumerism for the last 20 years. I cooperated with the first organic food store in Ljubljana and with Brane Žilavec, a permaculture and organic food pioneer. When I look at the consciousness about organic food production, I’m optimistic. I see that people are changing their views toward fair trade. We might need the climate change paradigm to push us toward that.
I’m also an optimist concerning colonial thinking. The history books will be dramatically rewritten in the next ten years, globally. The Nag Hammadi library was discovered in the 1960s. The Qumran Essene writings were discovered in 1959. The Bhagavad Gita was translated by the end of 18th century. We’re only talking about a century of availability of primary sources and their translation into “colonial” languages. We are only in the 17th year of the existence of the Internet. So, I’m optimistic in terms of comparative anthropology. The myths and lies of the big ideologies, including Catholicism, will be wiped away in the next 20 years. Our children will be thinking very differently from the way we think. They will be free from linear, mono-ideological indoctrination.
We cannot design the future if we don’t make peace with the past. What is needed in our society is a realistic insight into the past. The archives of the Second World War are still hermetically closed. Only now is the alliance between Hitler and Stalin coming to the surface thanks to the witness of people who were involved. What I had to learn in my primary and secondary education is outdated today. The eyes of the people will open. In terms of this paradigm shift, I am optimistic and put a score of 10.
When you look back to 1989, how would you evaluate the changes here in Slovenia, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
I told you already that I’m not happy with the awareness of democratic decision-making, or with the understanding of basic democracy. Media is corrupt. Journalism is at a low level. It doesn’t seek truth. It serves lobbies. I’m not satisfied with the existing level of the culture of dialogue in Slovenia.
But I’m very satisfied in terms of the strength of the population in evolving so quickly through a relatively difficult process. In terms of all these big issues — like becoming a member of the EU or ensuring independence in a relatively short time, we evolved constitutionally and in terms of democratic standards — I think we should be proud of the last 20 years. The transition was constitutional, it respected human rights, and it was largely nonviolent. As a community, we should be proud. I insist on repeating that.
Same scale, same period of time, how would you evaluate your own life over that time?
After 10 years in business, 10 years in an NGO, and 10 years in government, I have pretty much the same observation: there are good people in all sectors and junk people everywhere. What hurts more is my disappointment with NGO people. We have this illusion that people in NGOs follow higher ethical standards. My most painful experience was that people in progressive circles did not exercise more solidarity or higher ethical standards when the situation required it. I had to make peace with the fact that NGOs have individuals that are subject to the same cultural pathologies as everyone else. I need some time to recover from this experience and find motivation for future action from within and not from the circumstances.
What you wrote on your website about my having been an anarchist and now working in government is irrelevant. I’m the same person in government circles that I am among anarchists. I express the same quality of human tissue here and there.
Ljubljana, October 18. 2012
The Interview (1990)
When I arrived in Ljubljana, slightly overdue, I immediately hooked up with Marko Hren, a former computer professional and now permanent peace activist. We went out for lunch and he told me about the Center for Peace Culture and Nonviolence, his activities and the Slovenian attitudes about a confederative solution for Yugoslavia.
The Center for Peace Culture and Nonviolence is located in the very center of Ljubljana, on the second floor of a restored building, above several very fashionable boutiques. Started half a year ago, the core of the group is around 20 people, each of whom have undertaken a particular project: conscientious objection, conversion, peace studies and so on. Several members, including Hren, sit on a governmental commission on “peace politics.” Many members were active in the alternative list put together for the elections. Greens, feminists, gay/lesbian, peace activists tried to get Hren elected to parliament but didn’t get enough votes. The most recent project is an attempt to convert a former army barracks located in the heart of the city into a space for alternative cultural, political and social groups. 40 groups, bringing together 400 people, have developed a proposal for the government. Since they are the first to request the space, the activists are quite hopeful.
Over lunch, Hren discussed confederation. Belgrade and Serbia, he told me, fell under the category “international relations” for Slovenians. More precise: “international problems.” People rarely go from Ljubljana to Belgrade, to study or for a visit. People are more likely to travel to Vienna, to Rome, to Munich. Therefore, the entire notion of a Yugoslavia is alien. And federation is not a popular concept either.
Yugoslavia, he related an old joke, had 7 neighbors, 6 republics, 5 nations, 4 languages, 3 religions, 2 scriptures and 1 party. The situation has changed and now the task was “to internationalize Yugoslavia, not in terms of far-off countries, Third World countries, Non-Aligned countries, but neighboring countries of Central Europe and the Mediterranean.”
Well, what was this confederation then? The way Slovenians talked about it, confederation seemed little more than six independent countries. Hren replied: relations would be based on contracts. But what would the difference be between such contracts and any treaties or agreements signed between sovereign nations? Certain things would still be in common, he answered. Like what? Telecommunications, the post. Really? I pressed. Don’t you also want independent telephone lines and postal connections? Yes, he admitted. So what remains in common? Nothing really, Hren finally replied. Confederation was simply a term used to permit negotiations. Actually Slovenia preferred outright secession but Serbia would not permit such. Therefore, confederation was put forward as a compromise, but only on a linguistic level. Slovenians say “confederation” but they mean “secession.” As far as Hren was concerned, “something stupid and strange will come out of” the compromise process. But that was politics.