This article first appeared on the “Let’s feel Slovenia” blog.
Most political revolutions produce their own heroes, from Poland’s Lech Wałęsa to the Czech “poet president” Václav Havel. In this exclusive group, few have travelled further ideologically than Slovenia’s Milan Kučan. Once a high-ranking Communist, he led his country into independence after having become its first democratically elected president. A political realist, on the eve of Slovenian independence he declared that “tonight, dreams are allowed,” only to quickly note that “tomorrow is a new day” on which the work of building a new nation would begin in earnest.
Before Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s amongst war and genocide, the soft-spoken Kučan led a relatively conformist life. Born in 1941 in the small town of Križevci, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. He became speaker of the Slovenian Assembly and the state’s representative to the central party leadership in Belgrade from 1982 to 1986. After his return to his native Slovenia, the changes affecting Yugoslavia during the 1980’s after Tito’s death changed Kučan’s political outlook dramatically.
While Serbia continued to refuse democratic reforms in Yugoslavia, Kučan not only oversaw the creation of small businesses but also allowed the formation of an unofficial opposition in his one-party republic. As early as 1988, when Serbia’s Slobodan Miloševic used nationalism as a political tool to foster his own political ambitions, Time magazine noted that Kučan called Serbia out for “deliberately fanning nationalist passions.”
In mid-1991, Slovenia joined Croatia and threatened to break away if Serbia did not agree to a federation of sovereign states. By that point, Slovenia had already held its first multiparty elections in which Kučan won as the Communist candidate for president despite his party’s trouncing in the parliamentary elections. He was one of the first and certainly the most respected of Slovenia’s leaders to call for independence, responding to international critics that Yugoslavia was already falling apart anyways: “Whenever foreign partners try to convince me that I should stay within Yugoslavia, I offer them the opportunity to trade places with us.”
After a referendum in which almost nine out of then Slovenes opted for cutting ties with Belgrade, it fell to Kučan to steer Slovenia to independence and gain recognition for the new country. His task was complicated by a raging Serbia which vowed to militarily prevent Yugoslavia from falling apart.
It was Milan Kučan’s speech on the eve of independence that came to define his country’s way to independence. He did not just address his fellow countrymen, rightly warning them of tough times ahead (while Slovenia was not at the center of the Balkans wars during the 1990’s, it was still affected). In a speech remarkable for its eloquence, he also called for the support of Slovenia’s independence by the rest of the world.
In a surprising act of leadership, and largely as a result of Kučan’s careful and moderate leadership, Germany was one of the first countries to formally recognize Slovenia. Miloševic understood Kučan’s importance in the collapse of Yugoslavia, and remained bitter about the role his former comrade played. When he finally faced justice at the criminal court in The Hague in 2003, the former Serbian president told Kučan in an almost comical distortion of reality, “You opted for violence, you personally played the decisive role.”
Kučan stepped down in 2002, having easily been reelected five years earlier when he ran as an independent. Now a well-respected elder statesman, he remains both popular and active in Slovenian politics (as opposed to, say, the now largely unpopular Wałęsa). For a long time, he and his country remained a calm rarity among the often heated political upheavals in Central Europe. Milan Kučan will rightly be remembered as the man who led his country into independence when the circumstances were right and Slovenians ready to take the risk.