MIRacles No.4

Joel GAzis-SAx
12 Srpanj 1992
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992 by Joel GAzis-SAx

I first discovered Slovenia only a few weeks ago when I sat in the Hoover Archives watching a video of Milan Kuchan inaugarating his new independent state. My heart was hard. I had been conditioned to think of the Slovenes as the "bad guys" who started all the violence in former Yugoslavia. I waited, expecting the worst sort of propaganda from this film: the jingoistic justification of the murder of an "inhuman" enemy.

In the half hour that followed, I learned about the Slovenian miracle. Nonviolence rather than military force played a greater part in the struggle. Slovenian leaders sought to negotiate their independence. Police and military officers from both sides approached each other and talked about their disagreement.

A few days ago, I went to Ljubljana for the first time. As I sat in an outdoor cafe in the old city below the castle, I turned to Boris Horvat, the director of AdriaNet, and with an enthusiastic smile said "Here I am at last. Living in the miracle."

"Well," said Boris with a little laugh, "on the edge of the miracle on the edge of the world."

It does seem, at first glance, that the Slovenes are specially blessed by God. Where whole cities in Croatia and Bosnia lay in waste before the onslaught of the nationalist elements of the Serbian army and Serbian irregulars, Slovenia escaped almost unscathed. I have looked in vain for signs of the war in Ljubljana and seen none. I have listened for hatred of the Serbs and not heard it. Boris told me that there were some incidents, some threats against owners of Serbian restaurants, but he had heard of nothing recent. Many Serbian professionals continue to work in Ljubljana.

In their drive for independence, the Slovenes separated the JNA war machine from the people. The most miraculous thing about Slovenia's experience is that Milan Kuchan's government consciously worked with pacifists to create a nonviolent defense against the JNA. The Slovenes blockaded rather than attacked the barracks. Even as JNA bombers flew over Ljubljana and destroyed the Slovenia's entire national airline, Kuchan persisted in trying to made peace.

Marko Hren of the Ljubljana Peace Institute was one of Kuchan's advisors. He and other Slovenian pacifists were criticized by outsiders for their decision to help the government in its nonviolent struggle against the JNA. Hren, himself, is critical of the perception that Slovenia started all the violence in the region, first by voting to secede in December 1990 and then by actually doing so on 26 June 1991.

He turned to me as I sat in the back of Boris's car and challenged my understanding of recent history. "Do you know when the violence in Yugoslavia began?" he asks. "Not in June 1991 when Slovenia seceded as they tell you back in America. It began in August 1990, in Croatia, when Tudjman moved to replace all the Serbian officials in Dalmatia."

My guide in Osijek repeatedly justified Croatia's secession by telling me about the terrible inequity in the assignment of official positions. Though Serbs comprise about 12.5% of Croatia's population, they enjoyed 50% of the administrative and police posts in the Republic. Hren says that Tudjman sought to redress this long-standing wrong by announcing plans to replace Serb officials and police with Croats. The Dalmatian Serbs reacted by blocking highways and rail lines to Split. The fighting began.

I sometimes ask Croats why their separation from Yugoslavia was so much more violent than the Slovenian's. I hear that the Slovenians possess a "unique culture" or that they are "homogenous". Peace activists both abroad and in Slovenia ask themselves "What makes Slovenia different?"

If we ask such a question, I think, then we must acknowledge the existence of a subtext. I find this similar to the assertion that there is something special in Swedish culture which makes socialism practiceable. The real motive in asking the question, I suspect, is not to find a way to bring the Slovenian case to bear on the problems of Croatia, Bosnia, Palestine, the United States, or any other nation: it is to prepare for the presentation of an excuse. We ask the question and in seconds we have the answer "it is because the Slovenes are so homogenous/possess a unique culture."

In this way we lend power to the emotion of despair, both among pacifists and among peoples with nationalist ambitions who hope to avoid bloodshed in their quest for independence. Alternatively, we may seek to deny that the "miracle" of Slovenia happened at all. Or we may confront the Slovenian peace movement for its collaboration in the destruction of the Yugoslav state. These views, typical of the response to what happened in Slovenia, need to be reassessed.

First, we must begin with a question that does not lead to a simplistic answer about what happened in Slovenia last year: "How can we apply what we have learned in Slovenia to other situations?" Unlike the first question, which inevitably leads to the conclusion that reproducing what happened (or "what we think happened") in Slovenia "can't be done" elsewhere, the second leads us to struggle. If pacifists and civil defense planners examine the Slovenian example carefully, they will undoubtably find elements which can be transferred to other conflicts. (We will also find that what happened in Slovenia wasn't a completely nonviolent struggle. Nevertheless, nonviolence played a key role in Slovenia's defense.) Croatia and Bosnia are different places, but I do not think that they are beyond nonviolence.

This assertion is based on my second point and that is that the ability to effect nonviolence depends on commitment to a belief. A few weeks ago, I told a young Croatian man how I thought someone could be nonviolent in the face of enemy attack. I said to him:

"Perhaps at some time, there was something you told yourself that you could not do, like ride a bicycle. And, of course, you could not do it because everytime you tried, you told yourself that this thing could not be done. But then one day you got tired of all this -- you saw other children riding their bicycles -- and you said something different to yourself. You said to yourself 'I have had enough of all this. I am going to tell myself that I can do it.' And what happened?"

"I rode the bicycle."

"Yes. And so it is with nonviolence. We tell ourselves over and over again that we cannot be nonviolent. But one day, all this fighting and killing will go nowhere. You will have enough of it. You will say 'I can be nonviolent.' And the way to be nonviolent will become apparent to you, because deep in your struggling heart, you will have already found the way."

The miracle, therefore, had nothing to do with ethnicity. India is more demographically diverse than Slovenia and yet Gandhi united the peoples of that peninsula to make continued British colonialism impossible. A well-established Slovenian peace movement, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, did help. The Slovenes chose to believe that nonviolent resistance was possible. They rode the bicycle.

Even peace activists have a hard time believing this. One way which they try to hide from the reality is to criticize the Slovenian peace movement for its advisory goal in the Slovenian struggle for independence. It saddens me when my fellow pacifists sometimes join in criticizing the Slovenes. Milan Kuchan may be no Gandhi, but neither is he Jefferson Davis. He is a politician who chose to listen (for once) to the peace movement and included nonviolence in his plan of defense.

We activists have existed for so long in an adversarial relationship to government that working with officials to nonviolently challenge an aggressor comes as a shock. We must, I think, resist our long-bred tendency to oppose for the sake of opposition. When we act as we are accustomed in the face of new realities, then we surrender our power to effect positive social change to those who would prevent it, those who live by and profit by the continued reliance upon war as a tool for resolving conflict.

What happened in Slovenia was, ultimately, no miracle at all. Nonviolent operations, like military operations, require complex and detailed planning. Participants need to be trained. Equipment must be supplied. Everyone should be prepared to lay down their lives for their country. The Slovenes were prepared. It was no simple matter.

What would have happened had the Croats and the Bosnians similarly prepared themselves? Perhaps we would have seen another triumph. Perhaps it would have been a slaughter. Military campaigns pose similar risks. We are not yet past the point when diplomatic initiatives can stop the killing in the Balkans.

Nonviolent tactics, with properly trained participants, may still stand a chance for success. We do not know because we do not try. It is up to the Croats, the Bosnians, and most of the world to discover how.