Freedom Worth All the Costs, Say Croats, Slovenes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jozefina Mokos says she knew there would be trouble after Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia a decade ago. But it didn't matter--she was still "the happiest person in the world."

Even looking at all that has happened since the two republics launched the breakup of the Balkan federation on June 25, 1991, Mokos, a retired sales clerk living here in the Croatian capital, has few regrets.

She's not alone. In Croatia and Slovenia, the two most successful of the states carved out of the former Yugoslav federation, most citizens feel today that freedom was worth every drop of blood, every lost market and bankrupt factory.

"It's always better when one nation is alone," Mokos said. "It's stronger, and it's easier to govern that kind of state."

Borut Pahor, president of Slovenia's National Assembly, said independence gave his country "a chance to include itself among the wealthy countries of Europe."

"We don't regret anything," he said. "Everybody knows this was the right decision."

Today Slovenia, a nation of just 2 million, is by far the wealthiest former Yugoslav republic. Neighboring Croatia, which has a population of 4.6 million, is the second-most prosperous.

Slovenia needed to fight for only 10 days, with minimal casualties, before it was allowed to go its own way. Croatia paid a far larger price, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 dead in more than four years of fighting--much of it between the newly formed Croatian army and the country's own large Serbian minority.

Though hard to find, there are some people, such as Miha Zadnikar, 38, a program planner at an alternative theater in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, who question whether the breakup and transition to free-market democracies were worth the price, either in blood or in social costs.

Trained as a sociologist, Zadnikar helped lead a group of squatters who took over an abandoned Yugoslav army base in 1993 and succeeded in turning it into a center for cultural activities, including the theater he helps run. The center adds to Ljubljana's cultural richness. But it doesn't make up for a lack of the diversity that people like himself enjoyed in the old Yugoslavia, he said.

"In so many ways, it was not worth being independent in such a way," Zadnikar said. "The great disadvantage is that Slovenia is very small and very, very white--white, Catholic, nationalistic, often very narrow-minded."

Both Slovenia and Croatia are heavily Roman Catholic. They were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and see themselves as historically oriented toward Western Europe.

Most of the rest of the former Yugoslavia was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and most people in those areas are Orthodox Christians or Muslims.

Zadnikar said that in addition to the loss of the cosmopolitan qualities he enjoyed in the former Yugoslav federation, he regrets the bloodshed that saw huge numbers killed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere as the country broke up. He and many others also miss the strong social benefits of the past, such as free health care.

Still, Slovenia and, to a lesser degree, Croatia have fared relatively well in the last decade. Bosnia suffered far more deaths, and Serbia paid a greater economic price.

Few Slovenes or Croats believe that their countries are in any way at fault for triggering the former federation's division into these two states, plus Bosnia, Macedonia and a smaller Yugoslavia composed of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

Few Anticipated the Scope of Events

"Yugoslavia could not be kept up," Croatian President Stipe Mesic said, "because it was being sustained by three integrating factors: [Marshal Josip Broz] Tito with his charisma, the multinational Communist Party and the Yugoslav army, which was also multinational. Tito left the scene. The Communist Party fell apart. And the army sided with Slobodan Milosevic's regime."

Nevenka Jelenc, 54, a Croatian woman who moved to Slovenia 25 years ago when she married a Muslim from Bosnia, was among the many who failed to see the size of the coming tragedy.

On the day Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, "we felt really celebratory," recalled Jelenc, who lives in Maribor. "We're disappointed that it turned out this way. . . . I didn't know we'd have to have passports to get across the border. And so many dead people. That's wrong. But I'm not unhappy here."

Jelenc blames the wars on politicians who sought to hang on to power and wealth, and on Serbs who she said wanted "revenge because they lost so many fights in the past."

Serbs "never say they're sorry," she added. "They say we are all guilty."

Jelenc also faults the West, which was ineffective in stopping the bloodshed in Bosnia until 1995 but bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop then-President Milosevic's repression of ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo. "A great deal of guilt also lies with the world," she said. "It was too late that you did what you did."

The transition to independence and a capitalist democracy was smoothest by far for Slovenia, but even it had to cope with the sudden loss of most of its markets, which were concentrated in the former Yugoslav federation and Soviet bloc states. The Slovenian economy contracted 8.9% in 1991 and 5.5% in 1992, but steady growth, averaging slightly more than 4%, resumed the next year. The economy expanded 4.6% last year, with unemployment at about 12%, according to government statistics.

Today, two-thirds of Slovenian exports go to the European Union. Per capita annual economic output is about $10,500, up from $8,700 in 1990.

Croatia's economy was blasted both by loss of markets and war, which disrupted production, damaged or destroyed many homes and factories, and for a while nearly wiped out its important tourist industry. War damages were estimated at $20 billion. Croatia's economy shrank 15.1% in 1991, 12.8% in 1992 and 3.2% in 1993 before recovering. It expanded 3.7% last year. Unemployment stands at 23%, according to government figures, with per capita output at $4,100.

Croatian tourism made a strong comeback last year and this year is off to an even stronger start. Tourist overnight stays jumped 45% last year, with foreigners accounting for 87% of the total. That still is only about 55% of the level seen at the late-1980s peak.

"A lot of people from Italy come here, especially on the weekends," said Marin Nekic, 21, manager and chief bartender at the huge and raucous Cocktail Bar Hemingway in the Croatian Adriatic resort town of Opatija. "They tell us in Italy they don't have bars like Hemingway, where they can get totally crashed from alcohol and [pick up] pretty ladies, things like that."

As in many post-Communist countries, younger people have most readily adapted to the competitive spirit of capitalism.

"People today who are 40 or 50 years old aren't independent enough to take care of themselves, to be independent in business, things like that, because they were part of a big system [where] someone's always above you giving you orders," Nekic said. "Today, young people like me, we have to fit in to the lifestyle from the West."

Nekic has mastered such skills as juggling liquor bottles behind his back and serving drinks with his hair on fire, aided by carefully applied dabs of strong alcohol and a secret technique. "We try in Croatia to do something extra for the guests and the foreign tourists so they can see we are progressing and fit to the West," he explained.

Croatia Still Has Ethnic Tensions

The price for freedom "was worth paying," Nekic added. "We didn't have our own country for 900 years. We were slaves. Now we have our own country, and we can run it how we want to."

In Croatia, great tension still exists between ethnic Croats and ethnic Serbs, and the rate of return of Serbs who fled is still low.

Returns have picked up since a new, more democratic government took power in Croatia early last year after the death of Croatian strongman Franjo Tudjman, but those wanting to come back still face many bureaucratic obstacles. An estimated 300,000 ethnic Serbs left Croatia in the 1990s, and, according to government figures, 80,000 have returned.

But Milan Djukic, head of the Serbian National Party, the main party representing Croatia's Serbian minority, said only about 40,000 have really come back to stay.

"The same thing is happening as under Franjo Tudjman," Djukic said. "Serbs can't get their rights. They can't get their property and their homes, and they can't get jobs."

President Mesic acknowledged the problems.

"We are not satisfied with the rate of return of refugees," he said. "On the other hand, we must be aware of the fact that we had very recently a very brutal war with a lot of bloodshed, which gave rise to hate."

Slovenia, having escaped serious ethnic battles and having been home to only a small number of Serbs, doesn't have these kinds of problems. But in parts of the country, the economic boom of recent years still hasn't made up for the decline caused by the upheavals of the early 1990s.

Marko Habjancic, 23, who studies baking at a technical school in Maribor, said he believes that Slovenia's economy would be stronger had it stayed in Yugoslavia and retained its old markets. Nevertheless, he said he glad it became independent. The other national groups in the Yugoslav federation "didn't like us," he said.

Since independence, Maribor, about 70 miles northeast of Ljubljana, has suffered a sharp economic decline, with many factories going bankrupt, Habjancic said. "All the state organizations are centralized in Ljubljana," he said. "That's where all the deals are made. So Maribor, being far away, somehow doesn't get its share."

But he added that he expects Slovenia to join the European Union in a few years and that even in Maribor, the move should turn things around. "There will be foreign investors coming and opening new factories," he said, "so there should be jobs for people."

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