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Slovenia’s Sensible Battle for Sovereignty : Yugoslavia: The country is an economic shambles and could potentially disrupt the new European order.

<i> Peter Millonig is head of the Bureau of the Republic of Slovenia in Washington. </i>

When Slovenia co-founded the state of Yugoslavia in 1918, the new arrangement was perceived to be a voluntary union of nations. Today, Yugoslavia is a country whose republics yearn for sovereignty.

Why is Slovenia--the most advanced of the republics--in the forefront of such aspirations? With only 8% of the total Yugoslav population, it produces 20% of the gross domestic product and about 30% of goods exported to the European Community and countries of the European Free Trade Assn. There is almost no trade imbalance and a negligible budget deficit. And since April of this year, a parliamentary democracy has tried to free the nation from the bureaucratic shackles of the previous communist regime. One could, therefore, initially conclude that there are no reasons for Slovenia to demand a different Yugoslavia.

But there are reasons: Not only is Yugoslavia economically a shambles--which makes life unbearable for those who work the hardest and get the least in return--it also never managed to resolve its severe multinational crises.

The election in Serbia on Dec. 9 signals a deepening of the conflict, since the renamed Communist Party, skillfully taking advantage of nationalistic sentiments, won by a landslide. Democratic reform processes in the north, once thought capable of slowly engulfing the entire nation, will still be compelled to compete against communist unifying forces in the south. That is why Yugoslavia has the explosive potential to undermine the foundation of the new Europe--with the prospect of thousands of refugees flooding the Continent.

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Can this process of destabilization be reversed? The U.S. government supports democratic change, provided that the foremost political prerogative--the territorial integrity of the state of Yugoslavia--is not violated. This attitude lacks the understanding that not much can be changed unless each and every nation making up Yugoslavia has the right to self-determination. Or, as former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recently stated, “only self-determination can assure democracy.” He was referring to the Soviet Union, but the same principle applies to Yugoslavia, with its similar multinational structure.

There can be no unity among the Yugoslav nations--a prerequisite for democratic changes--when there is no mutual consent on the type of government, internal arrangement and economic policy. Territorial integrity requires an attitude of parity--the notion that differences can be worked out only through continuous compromise.

Yugoslavia has had 45 years to prove it can handle its affairs. It has not succeeded. Why not give the program of the new Slovenian government a chance? The concept rests on three pillars: the right to self-determination of the Yugoslav nations, European integration and the establishment of strong economic ties with the East.

Sovereignty of the individual republics seems to conflict with the current structure of the federal state. In reality, it would be a transformation to a more advanced stage of statehood--in which individual nations within a federation could exercise sovereign powers and also decide what types of stately duties they wished to transfer to common institutions of a supranational character. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is aware that the Soviet Union can only be saved by implementing such a legal structure. Yugoslavia will have to face that reality, too.

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European integration is imperative for any country located at the fringes of the new economic movements. Slovenia, bordering Italy, Austria and Hungary--clearly an advantageous geographic position--does not, of course, wish to miss out on opportunities now arising. It is also uniquely qualified to play a significant role in the field of increased economic cooperation between East and West.

Yugoslavia can attain a peaceful transition from communism to capitalism only if becomes a union of sovereign nations. If that is understood, then Slovenia, a leader in the movement to restructure Yugoslavia, can solve the Balkan conflict--and prevent the powder keg from igniting.


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