Independence protagonist Jože Pučnik remembered 20 years after death

A guard of honour saluting with a wreath in the middle.
A guard of honour lays a wreath at the grave of Jože Pučnik (1932-2003), a key figure of Slovenia's independence. Photo: STA

Jože Pučnik, a key protagonist of Slovenia’s democratisation and independence, was honoured on the 20th anniversary of his death on 11 January with President Nataša Pirc Musar describing him as a model statesman. The party that he used to lead organised a commemoration in Ljubljana.

Addressing the event in Republic Square, which was attended by some 150 people, Slovenia’s first Prime Minister Lojze Peterle said Pučnik was a big name, a victim of a totalitarian regime, but he was not retaliative.

Pučnik was the head of DEMOS, the coalition that won the first democratic election in Slovenia in 1990. Peterle, who formed the DEMOS government at the time, said Pučnik saw independence as a project that was to liberate and unite people, and offer them a new European future.

He was critical of the government’s attitude to Pučnik, noting that unlike the former head of the National Security Service, Janez Zemljarič, Pučnik was not buried with military honours despite the important role he played in Slovenia’s independence.

The same was pointed out by Janez Janša, who succeeded Pučnik as the leader of a party that is now called the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). When Pučnik died, Janša said it took effort to persuade the ruling majority for the National Assembly to hold a mourning session for Pučnik. However, Pučnik was not afforded the honours that a father of the Slovenian state should have received.

Slovenia’s main airport and several streets and squares bear Pučnik’s name but Janša urged mayors to use the name more often. When Pučnik died, it was said that one of the main squares will be named after him, he said, adding: “I believe a time will come in not so distant future when this will be achieved.”

President Nataša Pirc Musar released a statement saying that Pučnik remains a symbol and role model of a statesman who is aware that talking with those with whom you agree the least is the most important for a common future.

“As DEMOS leader, Jože Pučnik was one of the most important figures of contemporary Slovenian politics and its political spring,” she said in the statement. Despite what he suffered under the communist regime, “he preserved the prudence and patriotism to lead the nation to the plebiscite and on to independence”.

On behalf of the president, a guard of honour laid a wreath at Pučnik’s grave in his birth town of Črešnjevec near Slovenska Bistrica, and Pirc Musar’s adviser on political affairs Aleksej Skok attended the commemoration in Republic Square.

Former President Borut Pahor took to Twitter to praise Pučnik as the most important personality in Slovenian political history, but regretted that Slovenians failed to properly acknowledge his place in history.

The Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SAZU) remembered Pučnik with a lecture given by literary historian Janko Kos.

Pučnik was the head of the Social Democratic Union of Slovenia, or the Social Democratic Party of Slovenia, which later changed its name to the SDS.

He became involved with young intellectuals who wanted to publicly discuss the rigid Titoist regime while he studied sociology and philosophy in Ljubljana.

He was imprisoned twice for a total of seven years, and left for Germany in the 1960s after being unable to get a job following his release from prison. He earned a PhD in sociology and philosophy in Germany, and only started visiting his homeland in the 1980s.

He returned at the end of the 1980s to lead the DEMOS coalition of parties that formed opposition to the Communist Party and led the country on the path of democratisation and market economy reforms.

He served as a deputy prime minister in the first government of Janez Drnovšek in 1992. He handed over the party leadership to Janša in 1993 and retired from active politics in 1997 after becoming the SDS’s honorary president.