The path from the birth of the self-determination of a nation to its realisation is long. A nation must first shape itself and then assert its right to self-determination. This is a process that generally, but not always …
… and not necessarily leads to an independent state. This was also the case of the Slovenian nation. The beginning of the process of the shaping of the Slovenian nation goes back into the ancient days, when during the times of Carantania, a community started to emerge from loosely interconnected tribal groups, a community with its own language, ethnic specifics, beliefs, faith and traditions from which a common culture evolved, and with it – which is very important – language.
Political ripening of the Slovenian nation
On the basis of a common, related, even if only spoken language, a part of Europe was formed in the area between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, populated by an ethnically Slovenian population and its own Slovenian language. The influence of the Reformation, the ideas of the European Enlightenment, which also reached our area, the enlightenment role of the Church, the influence of other European currents of ideas, including those that emerged from the French Revolution, and from other happenings in Europe in the 19th century, led to what is most important for self-determination, which is the emergence of the Slovenian nation as a political entity, which was already symbolised in the political programme of the “Unified Slovenia”. For the creation and preservation of the Slovenian nation, it was particularly important that the people in this ethnically and linguistically Slovenian area did not succumb to Germanisation and, later, to Illyrianism and Yugoslavism. In the 19th century, especially in its second half, the nation became the foundation of statehood in Europe, while multinational empires and kingdoms based on the legitimacy of the ruling houses were exposed to national movements. In the Slovenian-populated area in this period, the idea of the Slovenian nation as a political entity and a political subject came to the fore. The “Unified Slovenia” programme already aimed at self-determination, or that the Slovenian nation should decide its own destiny.
The era at the end of WW1 was a time of rising national demands in Europe, but also of the emergence of demands for self-determination in the non-European world. It is a time when the right of nations to self-determination became a fundamental political principle on which the nations of the collapsing empires in Europe based their demands. It was also a time when the right to self-determination of the Slovenian nation began to be asserted, as symbolised by the May Declaration of that time. However, in the extremely unfavourable international situation of that time, there was neither the possibility, nor any serious demand for the realisation of the self-determination of the Slovenian nation with its own state. Especially on the northern and western borders, Slovenians were also confronted with the aggressive nationalism of the two great European nations, and at the same time, with a lack of understanding of our legitimate demands and expectations in the establishment of the post-war international order in this part of Europe.
In the Yugoslavian national community
Due to the reality of the international situation of the time, as well as naive expectations of the Yugoslav fraternity, the only realistic option for self-determination of the Slovenian nation was to join the Yugoslav state community. The Slovenian nation entered into it, not only as a linguistic and cultural community, but also as a political entity, with its own economic power and creativity in all spheres of social life. The Slovenian nation was already formed as a nation in the true, complete sense of the word.
After the bloody disintegration of the essentially unitaristically organised Kingdom of Yugoslavia, there was no possibility, even in the post-WW2 situation, to exercise the self-determination of peoples, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, nor even for the self-determination of the Slovenian nation. In the situation with the two ideological and military blocs, there was no room for the self-determination of nations, nor was there any possibility for independent actions by the formally sovereign states. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, had neither the right nor the possibility to decide their own fate, their own political, economic, cultural and other aspects, which are the essence of the right to self-determination. The bloc division of Europe in the Cold War did not allow for the possibility of asserting any Slovenian claim for a state of their own. What prevailed – with the victory of the revolution, which took place at the same time as the resistance against the foreign occupation – was an approach to the national question in the lines of the Soviet Union: a formally federal state, but at the same time a one-party authoritarian state with a decisive role for one and only one party, the Party.
Demand for self-determination with a vision to have our own state
In fact, from its very beginning, Yugoslavia was a misunderstanding between those who saw it as a guarantee of their own national existence in an equal federation, and those who saw in the Serbian dominated Yugoslavia a means to create a new “Yugoslav” nation by merging different nations together, which therefore did not have long term conditions for their existence. As democratic aspirations for freedom, democracy and even self-determination of nations began to take hold, its previously often predicted disintegration gradually became more possible. The changes in Europe after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the bloc divisions also included demands for self-determination, especially from the peoples embedded in the multinational Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The Slovenian nation faced it prepared and with a clear demand for self-determination and democracy. My scientific monograph on the right of peoples to self-determination, written with an aim to give international legal justification to the demand of the Slovenian nation, also originates from that time.
After the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall, the Slovenian nation was not unprepared. In the post-1945 period, the idea of self-determination for the Slovenian nation was present mainly among the Slovenian emigrants. In Slovenia, embedded in an authoritarian Yugoslavia, it was mainly an aspiration for a more autonomous position within the Yugoslav socialist federation. By the end of the 1980s, however, the demand to self-determination with a vision of a state of its own had become a clear public programme of the new political forces with vast public support. The Slovenian National Programme, presented in the well-known 57th issue of the Nova revija journal, clearly showed the real path towards an independent state and a democratic social order. In other words, a return to the circle of Western constitutional democracies. What followed were the events we celebrate every year. The formation of Demos, its victory in the elections, its victory in the plebiscite, its proclamation, its victory in the war to preserve independence were, among other things, steps towards the realisation of the right of our people to self-determination, and the result of this process, and of these events, was the independent Republic of Slovenia.
The birth of a new State of the Republic of Slovenia
The proclamation of the Republic of Slovenia on 25 June 1991 was, in reality and by law, the birth of a new country. Then came its transformation into a constitutional democracy, and the quest for international recognition. Recognition is not a decisive factor for determining whether a new state is a state or not. If the new state has a territory and a population with a sovereign, independent authority, then it is a new state. The creation of a state is therefore an issue of fulfilment of factual conditions, not of recognition by other states. Recognition is, however, relevant to the international status of the new state. Recognition by other states opens up the way for normal relations with other countries, and a path into international organisations. Slovenia had already secured its recognition by the majority of countries, by all EU members and by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council in spring 1992. This opened the door to the UN membership. The Republic of Slovenia thus became an equal member of the international community of sovereign states.
The plebiscite decision, however, was not only intended to establish an independent state. It was also about its essence, the content of the new state. In the most important international instruments, and indisputably in the doctrine of international law, the basic of the right of a nation to self-determination is understood as the right of each nation to determine its own political, economic and cultural status, and its policies. In other words, to decide for itself the organisation of its own state and its own international status. Our plebiscitary decision was, in fact, also a decision for a new social order, for a democratic state, for constitutional democracy and for its future integration into European and transatlantic connections. With independence, a process of social change began, through which the essence of self-determination was to be expressed: a democratic political order based on respect and protection of human rights, including social rights, and the rule of law. The process of integration into the Western democratic world, which successfully brought the Republic of Slovenia into the EU and NATO, was underway. The process of establishing the institutions of constitutional democracy was successfully underway, and the normative frameworks for its functioning were established.
Establishing a real constitutional democracy
Looking at our reality, it would be hard to say that the process of realising the content of self-determination, of establishing a new social order in substantive, and not just formal terms, is complete. The essence of democracy, as it has become known in the Western world, is the respect for plurality, the coexistence of differences, political concepts and visions, for all that pluralism that defines a human society. The essence of democracy is the respect of plurality and the awareness that the coexistence of diversity is necessary, as well as the co-responsibility for the good of the people and for the destiny of the country. For all the differences that a democratic system makes possible and guarantees, the essence of democracy is also awareness, responsibility and action for the common good. Political competition between political parties is legitimate, but shared responsibility is also important. In a constitutional democracy, free and fair elections allow for the transfer of power between different political options in accordance with the Constitution. The substantive objective has always been constitutional democracy, which is to be derived from the realised right to self-determination and is to be guaranteed by the Republic of Slovenia. The road to this goal is neither simple nor short, as it requires a democratic maturation of a society and a firm belief in democracy, a belief in the dignity and freedom of human beings. It seems that we have not yet fully traversed this path, the realisation of self-determination through the establishment of a genuine constitutional democracy.
About Author: Dr. Ernest Petrič is a Slovenian politician, lawyer, political scientist and a diplomat. He was also the President of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Slovenia.