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August 1990

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A House Much Divided,

Zagreb, capital of Croatia, is Yugoslavia’s economic and industrial leader. With its green parks, baroque 17th- and 18th-century buildings, and imposing boulevards rattling with streetcars, it smacks of yesteryear’s Vienna.

Last winter when Croatia announced its first free elections in 50 years, some 30 parties rushed into the fray. As students of Balkan history might have predicted, the most formidable opposition (winning a sweeping victory in this spring’s voting) was led by a man who had been imprisoned for Croatian nationalism.

Franjo Tudjman, 68, historian, author, and former Partisan general, ran his campaign out of a one-story wooden building beside Zagreb’s railroad tracks. I had to ask in several of the 15 small rooms before I found him.

“My earlier books led to a charge of espionage in 1972,” he said. “The judge wanted to put me in prison for 20 years, but Tito reduced it to two. He knew I was working against Serbian hegemony. Tito forbade all talk of ‘Great Serbia,’ but now it has become flagrant again. We have to do something about it or get out of Yugoslavia. We aren’t yet asking for independence. We want to try confederation; only with looser ties can we continue to live in Yugoslavia.”

In the mountainous heart of Yugoslavia hundreds of schoolchildren were walking long distances along the highway while their elders herded sheep and cattle. Several families creaked along in heavy wooden wagons, their horses plodding as if each lift of a hoof might be the last. The road climbed through thick forests and along rushing rivers. Every few miles a lamb turning on a spit outside advertised a gostionica, or roadhouse.

When I first began to travel in Yugoslavia, I was amazed by the number of unfinished houses. Then I came to accept them along with mosques, minarets, castles, and campaniles as part of the architectural landscape. Some are four stories high, as if their owners hope someday to shelter several generations and tourists too. Construction may go on for years, and many builders, despairing of ever completing them, put up a door and a few windows and move into only one part.

This is called divlja gradnja (wild building). Built without permits, officially these homes do not exist. Since the graft to get permits can cost more than materials, people go ahead, undeterred by the lack of streets and utilities. From time to time the police blow up a few of the places. Work soon resumes.

* * *

Nowadays Roman Catholics, at least, have a refuge that has little to do with race or politics. Seaward from Sarajevo, up in the scraggy hills not far from the historic town of Mostar, lies the phenomenon called Medjugorje.

A decade ago you’d have been lucky if anyone 20 miles away could have told you how to get there. No hotel bed was to be found in the entire village. Nobody would have sold you a meal, although they might have given you one, figuring you must be lost if you were in Medjugorje.

Then, on June 24, 1981, six teenagers came down from the hill where they had been tending goats. Excitedly they told of seeing the Virgin Mary. She soon promised to deliver ten secrets and other messages.

Word spread rapidly. Snack bars popped up. Local people found corners for extra beds. The establishment frowned and had the visionaries examined by a psychiatrist. The Vatican remained skeptical.

Still the legend grew. Mary continued to appear every day. She said she wanted peace on earth, and wept because she saw so little of it. Now there are 12,000 tourist beds in Medjugorje, where ten times as many taxis line up as you can find at the Belgrade airport.

The trail to the top of Apparition Hill begins beside the Podbrdo Pizzeria. The first 30 yards are lined with shops selling crucifixes, plastic images, and holy portraits on polyester.

The sun was low, so I hurried up the steep trail, past small white goats that nibbled at the thornbushes. Two boys sat amid the maquis, selling white candles.

Crosses studded the hilltop. The largest rose from a pile of stones on which about 50 candles burned. Black from smoke, and with wax smoldering, the stones looked aflame.

Few stones small enough to carry remain at the site. People were scooping sand into envelopes. A group of Germans stood before the largest cross singing softly, “Maria.” As the sun melted behind the mountains and the faraway church towers glowed, 10,000 people were kneeling in worship.

I drove northward into the Alpine heights of Slovenia, the most westernized region in Yugoslavia. The Slovenes recently dropped “Socialist” from their name, to become simply the Republic of Slovenia. And the Slovenian communists decided they couldn’t tolerate the federal party and pulled out.

* * *

Refreshingly, the most popular plaza in Ljubljana was named for a poet, a sometimes bawdy one. A statue of France Preseren beams down on Preseren Square, hard by three interlocked bridges that span the willow-shaded Ljubljanica River. Rustic stalls and bright cafés radiate in all directions.

Amid Ljubljana’s air of solid accomplishment few enjoy playing rich uncle to poor relatives in the south. Rudi Tavcar, 31, with the Slovenian Chamber of the Economy, told me why he scorns the national economic system: “With only 8 percent of the population, Slovenia makes 20 percent of Yugoslavia’s gross national product and a third of its exports to the West. But we have been forced to turn over to the federation most of the hard currency we earn, with no control over how it is used. We provide 27 percent of the federal budget—just ‘floating money down the Sava.”’

Slovenia’s bad relations with Serbia came to a head last winter. Riled because Slovenes didn’t seem to understand their actions in Kosovo, the Serbs and their brothers in Montenegro organized caravans of thousands to go to Ljubljana and “educate” the Slovenes. The Slovenian leadership, fearing street battles and a coup d’état, set up roadblocks. Serbs then backed down, calling the blockade violent, uncivilized, and “aggression against basic human rights and freedoms.” Two Yugoslav republics were behaving like foreign belligerents.

A Serbian boycott against Slovenian companies and products followed with more than 500 orders and contracts canceled. The boycott, harming many companies, proved convenient for others: Serbian firms reneged on 225 million dollars owed to Slovenian manufacturers; Slovenes retaliated by canceling 48 million in unpaid debts to Serbs.

One of the most successful companies in Slovenia is Adria Airways, which has broken the old communist mold and challenged JAT, the national airline. “We have made a profit for 20 years by being better than the competition,” said Janez Kocijancic, the president of Adria. Technically his airline is “socially owned,” but it operates on a free-enterprise standard of service.

Kocijancic is, remarkably, not only a businessman but also a high-ranking Communist Party official. As Slovenia approached its most important election day ever—Yugoslavia’s first free multiparty elections since World War II—Kocijancic explained why his party, which today appears enthusiastically noncommunist, decided to keep its old name, “League of Communists of Slovenia,” while adding a mollifier, “Party for Democratic Renewal,” and a new slogan, “Europe Now!”.

“We didn’t want to avoid our responsibility for the past,” he said. “We know communism has a bad image today, especially after China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, Romania’s Timisoara, and incidents here in Yugoslavia, and that it is identified with Stalinism. We don’t want people to say we cheated to win.”

They didn’t cheat, and they didn’t win. Voters in April elected a democratic parliament, while awarding the largely ceremonial office of president to a maverick communist, Milan Kucan.

“Yugoslavia today is undemocratic and on the brink of civil war,” said Kucan, one of Yugoslavia’s most liberal politicians and a man who courageously fostered an atmosphere of freedom in Slovenia. “We are out of line with developments in Europe. We need to join the European Community, but that’s impossible as long as the Serbian policy in Kosovo persists. Kosovo is the touchstone that will mark Yugoslavia’s readiness to be a modern, progressive, democratic state. Only if we cannot achieve democracy would Slovenia consider secession.”

It struck me that many of the people I met in Yugoslavia had spent time in prison for airing their opinions. One circulated a petition asking amnesty for political prisoners and thereby joined their ranks. Another wrote about the long-gone monarchy in such a way that present leaders saw a reflection of their own shortcomings.

Joze Pucnik, chairman of the Democratic Opposition of Slovenia (DEMOS), was jailed seven years for writing psychological literature with a political twist. Returning from 23 years of teaching in West Germany to test the newly opened political process in Slovenia, he soon emerged as leader of a six-party coalition.

“People don’t want to hear anything more about communism,” he said. “It doesn’t work. It isn’t compatible with freedom. But this year, after years of stealing from the people, the communists suddenly embraced free elections!”

Pucnik explained the empty shelves in his two-room party headquarters in a run-down apartment building: “We just moved here from a cellar.” Yet, from such a humble base, his DEMOS mounted a successful challenge to the tax-supported establishment.

“We are for confederation, the only possibility for Yugoslavia,” Pucnik told me a few weeks before DEMOS swept most of the communists out of parliament. “People are afraid of military intervention. If it comes, Yugoslavia is dead! The army can occupy our homes, but they can never make an economy. They can never make a life for us.”

* * *

One of the few roads across the Julian Alps winds upward through a forest of larch and over Vrsic Pass at 5,285 feet (1,611 meters). I climbed through melting snow, with high peaks all around, to the tiny tavern called Postarski Dom. I sat outside on a split-log bench and felt the sun on my back. After months of trying to cram a beautiful and bewildering country into small notebooks, I was ready for pensive distance.

I looked across a chasm to pockets of snow on the cliffs. Around me, in sunny spots where knobs of limestone held the heat, patches of short grass had emerged. I listened to the breeze blowing through knee-high conifers. It was glorious up here. I wished such tranquillity could flow down across the plains and span the abyss that divides these troubled but likable peoples.

As I turned to leave, I noticed on a promontory above me a concrete bunker with gun slits. The Italian border was just over the peaks. The South Slavs no longer have to worry about foreigners. Their demons dwell within. As do their hopes.

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