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How a Slovenian Magazine Found Yugoslavia’s Weak Spot

Journalists for a Communist Party organ pushed on the boundaries until they started to fall down. From Aktualne.cz.

by Tomas Rakos 11 August 2011

Throughout the next month, Transitions will present a series of articles marking the anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

 

 

LJUBLJANA | The Eastern bloc was on its last legs. He was 16, listening to rock ’n’ roll, and taking home a huge paycheck every month. Making a good living by writing for a local party’s youth magazine that matched its Western counterparts for quality was unheard of in communist Europe.

 

But what would elsewhere sound like fiction was reality in Slovenia.

 

“Don’t forget that Slovenia has always been a bit different,” says Grega Repovz, editor in chief of Mladina magazine, smiling as he recalls his experiences as a journalist at the magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

 

Some in the Balkans still remember the role Mladina played in bringing down Yugoslavia, and its name still means something, even if sales have plummeted since those days.

 

mladina2_400_long

 

FROM PARTY MEETING TO PARIS

 

While life behind the Iron Curtain was hell for many, Yugoslavs lived a different story. They could travel freely to the East or West and small businesses were common. Among the six republics of the former federation, Slovenia – with its business and cultural links to Italy and Austria – stood out. As the only ethnically homogeneous Yugoslav republic, “We have never had to face the core problems of the Balkans,” says Repovz, who spent his high school summers in Paris.

 

Slovenian intellectuals took advantage of the situation. Tito had been dead for only a couple of years when they transformed the local communist youth’s magazine into a forum for plain speaking. In its pages, students called for democracy and their professors dreamed of independence. Mladina took particular aim at the corrupt army of Yugoslavia, drew attention to human rights issues, and addressed painful historical topics. Even the Communist Party was a target, as its reporters wrote openly on just about everything.

 

“We tested the limits and tried to push everything further and further,” Franci Zavrl, a former editor, recalled for the BBC documentary The Death of Yugoslavia in 1995.

 

RED BUSINESS IN THE BLACK

 

Zavrl and fellow editor David Tasic, sociologist Gregor Tomc, writers Robert Botteri and Vlado Miheljak, and Janez Jansa, who would later become prime minister, along with many others helped to change public opinion in Slovenia through the pages of Mladina. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, however, they did not face mass arrests, beatings, or persecution. In this republic of 2 million, where everyone knows everyone, people kept their cool.

 

“Maybe someone asked you to join him for lunch, where you, the troublemaker, would be urged not to cross some invisible line again, but that was basically it,” Repovz says, describing a typical “warning” meeting with Communist Party officials.

 

The main reason for Mladina’s survival, however, was rather prosaic: through the 1980s, it became hugely profitable. With an edgy political cartoon shouting out from its cover each week, it became a cult favorite for university students in Belgrade as well as young villagers in Bosnia.

 

“What was the salary like? It was amazing; I truly lived like a pig in shit, as we say here,” Repovz says, laughing.

 

JANSA THE HERO

 

Mladina faced its first major crisis in 1988, when it went too far. The magazine published an article by Jansa about the Yugoslav army’s plans for Slovenia’s occupation. If an ethnically charged atmosphere hadn’t hung over the federation, as Serb communist leader and newfound nationalist Slobodan Milosevic waged opened war with Milan Kucan, chief of the communists in Ljubljana and future Slovene president, maybe nothing would have happened.

 

Instead, the army’s military intelligence unit arrested Tasic, Zavrl, and Jansa, along with one army officer. The legendary Proces proti cetverici – Trial of the Four – started. The journalists were able to exploit errors committed during the trial and the support of tens of thousands of Slovenes demonstrating in the streets. Belgrade called for Mladina to shut down. But Kucan and other party leaders stood behind the magazine. Slovenia was on its way to independence, a year before revolutions spread across the rest of Eastern Europe.

 

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JANSA THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS

 

With independence and the strengthening of democracy came a new fight, typical of the post-communist countries: the new enemies were elites from the left and right sides of the political spectrum, even though they had fought together for regime change.

 

The Mladina veterans were no exception. Jansa threw in his lot with the right, many of his former colleagues stayed left. The Slovenian left even gave him a new nickname: the prince of darkness.  

 

Jansa became defense minister in 1990 and Repovz says his role during the fight for independence and the Ten Day War between Slovenia and the Yugoslav army “was huge and unimpeachable.”

 

But Jansa’s years as defense minister and, later, prime minister were controversial and plagued by corruption scandals. Former co-workers from Mladina became his bitter enemies. Jansa even sued columnist and university professor Miheljak repeatedly.

 

“He has become a Machiavellian politician and populist. He’s a demagogue. Of course, we don’t make things any easier for him,” Repovz says.

 

According to Repovz, under the Jansa government the prime minister tried to control the domestic media, including Mladina. "Not long ago Mladina was owned by about 20 people, who were not hard to influence and made the life of the magazine really hard,” Repovz says. “Jansa cut us off from the ad agencies connected to the government, and that can be deadly in such a small country.”

 

Mladina eventually found new investors in a holding company owned by Slovene immigrants in Italy, although the magazine’s revenues today hardly compare with those in the communist era. “After that we really started to feel independent,” Repovz says.

 

MLADINA IN THE 21ST CENTURY

 

Twenty years after the so-called Slovenian Spring, Mladina hasn’t changed its intellectual and rather radical style, drawing inspiration from serious and analytical periodicals like Spiegel and Die Zeit. It continues to defend minority rights – thanks in part to the work of its journalists, a new mosque will open soon in Ljubljana – and to criticize the powerful, including the Catholic Church and corrupt politicians.

 

The 70,000 weekly print-runs of the 1980s are gone. These days, it’s more like 13,000, and you can no longer find it on every other street corner in Croatia or Montenegro. Affairs in the other former Yugoslav republics don’t  concern Mladina’s editors as much as they used to.

 

But Repovz is certain about the magazine’s continuing mission. It still tilts at the prevailing orthodoxy, even as that orthodoxy has shifted.

 

“When I see how the so-called free market works, I get a bit angry. Nothing is free. Slovenia is the perfect example. We’re too small to compete with the Italian and Austrian economies. On the other hand we do the same thing in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” preying on that country’s smaller and weaker businesses, he says.

 

“What is Mladina like today? It certainly isn’t neoliberal.”

Tomas Rakos is a writer with the Czech news website Aktualne.cz, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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