Independence era seen as ideal worth aspiring to

A ceremony at the Presidential Palace marks the 30th anniversary of an agreement on the independence referendum signed by the then parliamentary parties. (Photo: STA)

Ljubljana – As Slovenia marks the 30th anniversary of the independence referendum, signatories to the cross-party agreement on the plebiscite say it should provide an inspiration to the leaders of today where the focus should be on dealing with the coronavirus epidemic.

Dušan Plut, the leader of the Greens 30 years ago, believes divisive projects and issues should be put on hold to focus all efforts on tackling the health crisis. “If we’re not capable of that it’s a betrayal of the ideals of all the 88.5% of the eligible voters who voted for independence then,” he has told the STA.

While the country has attained the two main goals with the plebiscite, independence and the change of political system, Plut believes there was later departure from many other goals set at the time.

“Most of all, there hasn’t been the level of prosperity that we wanted. It’s being satisfied with the level of prosperity that is key to people’s satisfaction and thus to the functioning of the state.”

His concern is that today “we don’t find the foundations or the inspiration for development priorities and democratic development as we did 30 years ago (…) At the time we were capable of freezing what divided us, while the incumbent government is using the crisis at the moment as an excuse to attack the foundations of democracy.”

Similarly, Ciril Ribičič, the leader of the then Party of Democratic Renewal, the reformed Communists and the precursor to today’s Social Democrats (SD), believes today’s leaders should seek inspiration in the pre-plebiscite agreement to reach a similar agreement now to cooperate in the fight against the epidemic.

As the second point of such an agreement, the government should renounce changes to the legal order which it is conducting by using the epidemic as an excuse for other purposes, and a third point should have the opposition committing to contribute its share to the combat against the virus and to bury the hatchet on other issues.

At the same time, Ribičič believes that a joint committee should be appointed in parliament to oversee the implementation of the agreement. “All that would help reduce distrust among parliamentary parties and their leaders,” he told the STA on the sidelines of the ceremony remembering the pre-referendum cross-party agreement.

Ribičič does not think such an agreement is unattainable. “Thirty years ago it seemed impossible DEMOS would sign an agreement with the opposition, but it did. That was what led to the greatest achievements.”

Roberto Battelli, the former MP for the Italian minority, believes Slovenia should seek a way out of its problems by relying on its constitution, which he does not think has been put into practice as it should have been due to the old mindset and biased media.

He signed on to the plebiscite accord because he understood the vote and independence as being in defence of democracy, and human rights and freedoms.

The constitution adopted at the time was good but a bigger problem was changing the mindset of the people, “who were used to totalitarian government, to give up the reins to someone else”.

He believes that 30 years on there has still not been a clean break with the old ways. “The proof is abuses of the judiciary, unclean dealings, tax heaven dealings and control of the media. It’s all related to old methods and mindset.”

However, the “constitution is good and we have the needed leverage and tools to put things on track to keep them in the letter and the spirit of the constitution” says Battelli, arguing the focus should be on “independence of the three branches of power, which does not exist, and the media space where only one, political approach prevails”.

Spomenka Hribar, an initiator of the agreement and one of the signatories as a representative of the Slovenian Democratic Union (SDZ) one of whose co-funders was incumbent PM Janez Janša, remembers the referendum time as a “time of great hope, happy expectations and national exultation”.

What followed was “a ‘normal’ life, which in many ways darkened the shine of the plebiscite day (…) I have a feeling that in an absurd sense we are no longer up to the deed we once performed from ourselves and for ourselves.

“This is why the memory of the plebiscite reminds us of a time when we all laid the foundations together for Slovenia and the outlook for creative, happy and free life of its people. When for just a short while we were capable of national reconciliation.”

Jožef Školč, who signed the accord as the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, would wish for those in power to perform their duties with “greater respect and more dedication”.

He would like for Slovenia and those who run it to be “much more open to broader, global issues, be it about the planet, poverty or the impact of the epidemic”.

He finds it important that Slovenia managed to join European organisations quite fast and adopt European standards.

However, he had certainly not imagined such “brutal polarisation” in politics and the application “of the many hard to describe procedures run by the authorities at the moment with respect to public life, the economy, education, science and culture”.

Viktor Žakelj, who 30 years ago headed the then Socialist Party, does not think it realistic or really necessary for politicians to sign a special cross-party agreement on the future.

“People are different, we think differently, have different backgrounds and the result of all those differences is politics of each time. At the given moment the politics is as Slovenia is capable of having and as Europe and the world will allow it,” Žakelj said.

However, he believes Slovenia must remain a member of international associations, in particular the EU. “Europe must be integrated because otherwise it cannot compete with major players such as Russia or the United States.”

Slovenia will always be part of Central Europe, he says. “There will be times when some seek closer alliances with the Hungarians, others with the Austrians and some with the Italians.” However, Slovenia has always sustained the pressure by the neighbours and responded correctly to it.