Milan Kucan (born 1941), first president of the independent Republic of Slovenia, has set the tone for democratic reform in the former Yugoslavian states.
The first president of an independent Slovenia, the northernmost former Yugoslavian state, Milan Kucan has led his new nation in economic and political progress unrivalled in eastern and central Europe in the period following the breakup of the Soviet Union. He is a popular politician who, according to the "Central Europe Online" website, believes in "supraparty politics" and encourages the participation of all the citizens of Slovenia. The first former Yugoslav state to enter negotiations for admittance to the European Union (EU) and one of the first considered for possible future admittance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Slovenia is western-oriented and free from the strong ethnic divisions of neighbors like Bosnia and Serbia. Kucan's leadership has helped to keep his country moving toward full participation in the new Europe.
Kucan was born January 14, 1941, in a Prekmurje village, the son of a teacher. He was raised a Protestant. During World War II, when Kucan was very young, his father was killed by the Nazis. After the war, Kucan attended grammar school in the town of Murska Sobota. Later he went to law school in Ljubljana, graduating in 1963. He married and had two children. His daughter Ana has a master's degree from Harvard University, while his other daughter Spela is studying ethnology and Spanish.
Early Political Career
Kucan's first political experience was in youth organizations in the old Communist-dominated Yugoslavia. He later held positions in other political organizations and in 1971 helped to prepare the Yugoslav constitutional amendments which brought about decentralization in the former Yugoslav federation. He became president of the Slovene Assembly in 1978 and held several more government positions following Marshall Josip Tito's death in 1980.
Kucan's experiences in government convinced him that the diverse ethnic groups in Yugoslavia needed better relations and that political power should be spread to more citizens. In 1986, after becoming president of the League of Communists of Slovenia (ZKS), he worked to make the organization more reformist. The ZKS soon initiated the multi-party system which brought more democracy to Slovenia. In several important speeches, Kucan spoke eloquently about individual freedom and democracy. He saw that the old system was doomed if people were not granted a political voice. "The freedoms of an individual are limited solely by the boundaries of equal rights and the freedoms of others, " he stated in a July 1986 political speech.
Kucan and the New Slovenia
By 1988, Slovenia was gaining a reputation as a forward-looking state with more political freedoms and more industrial base than most of its Slavic neighbors. The first multi-party elections were held in 1990, when Kucan became president of the Republic of Slovenia. In 1991, as the old Soviet Union was breaking up, Slovenia declared itself independent of Yugoslavia after a ten-day "war, " perpetrated mostly by Serbians who wished to dominate the region. Border posts were seized and some bombing raids were initiated, but relatively few people were killed or injured before a cease-fire was initiated. Slovenia soon became a new nation independent of Yugoslavia, with Kucan as its new president.
As Kucan commented to World Statesman, "Slovenia avoided … bloodshed … because, of all the former Yugoslav republics, it is the most ethnically homogeneous." He also cited the "special character" of his country, which he said had never really been a Balkan state like Bosnia or Croatia. Slovenia's border with Italy and Austria has always been one of the most open in Europe. Slovenia's interest in the European Union and its cooperation with western interests mark it as a central, not an eastern, European country, according to its president. No longer a Communist, Kucan was re-elected in 1997.
Independence for Slovenia did not come without frustration noted an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The United States and several other major western European states were slow to recognize Slovenia, fearing the instability brought about by the breakup of Yugoslavia. Widespread unrest in the other former Yugoslav states in fact brought over 100, 000 refugees to Slovenia; economic conditions deteriorated since more than 30 percent of Slovenia's industrial output had formerly gone to the Yugoslav federation; inflation soared; Slovenian assets in other former Yugoslav states were confiscated; and foreign investment and tourism slowed. With Kucan's leadership, however, inflation has been brought to a reasonable level, and economic growth has resumed through trade with the EU and other western countries.
Looking Toward the Future
Kucan continues to speak strongly for increased ties with the EU and with the United States and also favors cooperation with other central European states such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. In 1997, in a speech at the International Economic Conference on the 50th anniversary of the postwar Marshall Plan for European recovery, he warned against antidemocratic movements such as the one which has caused all the bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and said that leaders of the new Europe need to "realise the free community of European countries, which will be founded on social stability, competitive cooperation in the common economic area, the rule of human rights and other values of the Euro-American democratic tradition."
Seeking to allay fears in the West about increased trade with less prosperous eastern neighbors, Kucan became one of the most outspoken central European leaders, favoring opening western Europe more and more to central and eastern states. At the opening session of the World Economic Forum in 1996, Kucan asserted, "Cooperation has now become realistic because the countries of Europe are no longer committed to ideologies."
Several obstacles remain to be overcome, however. Kucan has spoken out strongly against the policy of neutrality maintained by many countries in the West regarding the "ethnic cleansing" by Serbian forces in Bosnia and other Balkan states over the last several years. "[This situation], " he commented to World Statesman in 1996, "began and unfolded as neither a civil nor as a religious conflict: it was an offensive war with a known aggressor, and a known victim…. If the Europeanisation of these states has not succeeded … by the end of the millennium, Europe will enter the next century with smouldering battlefields."
Another disappointment for Slovenia came in October 1997, when three other central European nations (Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic) were approved as prospective members of NATO, while Slovenia and Romania were rejected. Although the latter two countries were praised for their steps toward democracy, many NATO leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, felt that Slovenian and Romanian political systems were too new and untested. However in his 1997 speech at the International Economic Conference Kucan stated, "To leave anyone from Central Europe standing outside the gates to the EU and NATO means to maintain or renew the European divisions." By March of 1998, President Clinton in fact had begun to urge the U.S. Congress to look favorably on increased NATO expansion.
Slovenia has had better luck seeking involvement in the EU. Kucan argued that the European Union is no longer simply an economic community, but one which "represents the institutional framework" for the return of nations which had been isolated by the Iron Curtain following World War II. In June of 1996, Slovenia became an associate member of the EU. In December of 1997, at a summit of European leaders in Luxembourg, Slovenia and four other former communist countries-Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Estonia, along with the divided island of Cyprus-were invited to start entry negotiations toward full membership.
Although the EU is preoccupied with the question of a common currency rather than with admission of new members, the nations under consideration expect to be admitted within the next four to six years. Slovenia is first in line among the nations slated for admission. As Kucan commented to World Statesman in 1996, "Slovenian membership [in] the EU is not only in the interests of our economic, security, defence, cultural and other ties, but also in Europe's interests." Kucan has stressed the unifying and stabilizing result of including the new European states in an overall economic and political plan for European development.
More Work to Be Done
Despite Slovenia's forward strides on the world scene in its brief life as a nation, Kucan has many more goals to accomplish. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, he wants to continue to strengthen Slovenia's economy, increase tourism, and lead his country to more participation in European and world affairs. In the brief span of Slovenian democracy, the country has increased representative government dramatically, expanded human rights, and privatized more than ninety percent of its former socialist economy.
Kucan continues to be very popular among his constituents and also with western leaders. In his 1997 speech at the International Economic Conference, he maintained the hope that "Europe is destined to cooperation and not to division." If his brand of leadership, combining old-world realism with contemporary progressivism, prevails, the new nations of central and eastern Europe can hope to play important parts in what former U.S. President George Bush called the "new world order" which has followed the fall of communism.
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