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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 127-140

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Slovenia's Smooth Transition

Anton Bebler

One of the great but under-reported success stories of postcommunist democratization has taken place in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. After blunting a short-lived but violent attempt to force it to stay in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, this small republic of two million people proclaimed its independence on 25 June 1991. It has since compiled a record of political liberty and relative prosperity and has, whatever its flaws, managed rather successfully the "threefold" transition to national independence, political democracy, and a market economy.

In contradistinction to some views held in the West, Slovenia's experience showed that it was possible first to reform and then peacefully and legally to transform an authoritarian communist-dominated system into a competitive democratic order. Also noteworthy is that many of the reformers, including some of the old regime's most vocal public critics, came from the ranks of the ruling League of Communists of Slovenia or its successor party. The peculiarities of the Slovenian case include:

  • the starting point of political, social, economic, and cultural transition;
  • the initiators of the change;
  • the legal form of the change;
  • the contradictory relationship between the introduction of compe-titive pluralism in the political sphere and the simultaneous disbanding [End Page 127] of participatory self-management and self-government in workplace and local affairs.

In a sense, Slovenia's story is only a chapter in the larger tale of the democratic wave that rather unexpectedly swept across Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe during the last years of the twentieth century. This time of fundamental change saw Slovenia transiting from a single-party (albeit liberalized) communist regime to multiparty democracy; from being a constituent part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) to being an independent country; and from having a semi-marketized socialist to free social-market economy.

These shifts took place in Slovenia at about the same time as similar developments were unfolding in other communist-ruled states of East-ern Europe. Throughout the region, more or less the same general causes were at work: The communist regimes had failed to deliver on their own promises of prosperity and freedom. Their closed, authoritarian political systems produced decay and degeneration, and were disinte-grating from within. Widespread discontent over poor or dismal economic performance led to pressures for deeper social and political change, beginning with the replacement of unpopular and discredited communist rulers. In Slovenia these phenomena were present in much-softened forms.

The demands for change did not always flow solely or even mostly from a love for democracy and its ideals. Democratic slogans were in the air, and discontented individuals or many "turncoats" mouthed them to hide their own desires for power. With the exception of the Czech lands between the two world wars, Eastern and Central Europe was a region with little or no experience of democracy and its associated habits, institutions, and procedures. Not surprisingly, therefore, communism's fall did not necessarily imply democracy's rise. In 1989, libertarian traditions, tangible elements of political pluralism, and basic democratic attitudes all tended to be in short supply.

In Slovenia as in the rest of the region, there were positive as well as negative reasons driving the transition. Perhaps the strongest positive reason was the "demonstration effect" that came from exposure to the prosperous and democratic states of the West. As citizens of the northwesternmost republic of Yugoslavia, sharing relatively open borders with Italy and Austria, Slovenia's two million people had for decades enjoyed virtual freedom of movement and settlement abroad. Western media and ideas were familiar to them. They shared strongly in the general desire of East Europeans for higher living standards, more freedom, and the right to choose their own rulers. All these factors boded well for an orderly democratic turnabout, even if the changes of 1989 to 1992 brought some mixed consequences.

Compared to most other East European countries and still more to most former republics of the USSR, Slovenia has had an easier time. [End Page...


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