Yugoslavia: Saying Yes to Independence

A stunning landslide vote in Slovenia brings the breakup of a European nation one more step closer

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When voters cast ballots in an independence referendum last week in Slovenia, one of Yugoslavia's constituent republics, the only real question was how large the pro-secession margin would be. It turned out to be huge. More than 88% of Slovenia's 2.1 million people opted to break away from Yugoslavia, an increasingly unwieldy federation of six republics and two semiautonomous states.

The size of the independence vote shocked the country and prompted warnings from the federal government that Yugoslavia was headed for chaos unless agreement was reached quickly on a new framework for holding it together. Even the triumphant Slovene nationalists did not dispute the need for such talks, but they made it clear that major changes for the republics — such as taxation rights, an independent military and a larger role in foreign policymaking — are needed if Yugoslavia is to survive. "Whether it is called a confederation or a community of Yugoslav states," said Franc Bucar, the president of Slovenia's parliament, "Yugoslavia can exist only as a territory for achieving common interests."

Common interests, though, are few in a state forged out of remnants of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and held together for the past four decades by little more than communist ideology. Much like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia is discovering that its mosaic of nationalities, cultures and religions is coming apart. In the year since revolution swept across Eastern Europe, nationalism has replaced centralism as Yugoslavia's dominant political creed.

Nationalistic opposition parties ousted the communists in elections held last year in Slovenia and Croatia, the two northern republics that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In tiny Montenegro and powerful Serbia, whose 8.1 million people make up more than one-third of Yugoslavia's population, old-style communist leaders stayed in power, but only by resorting to chauvinist appeals.

In December the leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, Slobodan Milosevic, won 65% of the vote in a free election, which gave new force to a long list of Serbian demands. Serbia has already all but annexed the neighboring province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs more than 10 to 1. Serbia is insisting on special rights for ethnic Serbs in Croatia, which last year adopted a constitution giving it the right to secede from the federation. Serbia has used its strong representation in the federal army to issue thinly veiled threats about possible use of force should Slovenia and Croatia secede.

Yet for all the harsh talk that has accompanied the gradual collapse of the federation, some federal officials still hope that Yugoslavia will not break up. Says Janez Drnovsek, a former federal President and a Slovenian representative on the eight-member federal presidium: "Now that elections are over in all the republics, I believe their leaders can sit down and start real negotiations for a new association of Yugoslav republics. Nobody, not even Serbia, can be interested in a federation that is in a permanent state of instability or conflict."