We talked with the independence activist Igor Bavčar, Minister of the Interior in the Demos government, who was previously the leader of the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights in the Janša, Borštner, Tasič, and Zavrl process, about the independence process, the war of independence and the time until the last soldier left Slovenia. He told us the following about what he took over at the ministry: “Tomaž Ertl organised a trade union revolt against my colleagues and I, silenced the collection of weapons of the Territorial Defence, and I have to thank my youthful self-confidence, I was 34 years old, for immediately starting to work, without paying attention to it.”
DEMOKRACIJA: This year, Slovenia is celebrating the 30th anniversary of independence, of which you were also an important creator. How do you assess the independence process?
Bavčar: If by this question you mean only independence, the establishment of one’s own state in 1991, then today I must conclude that this is the result of unrepeatable historical circumstances, which the Demos coalition was able to recognise as an opportunity on the one hand, and was able to realise it on the other. History tells us that it is not enough to know how to analyse the circumstances of such a venture well, it takes the ability and determination of people to carry it out. Many things went our way as the order established at the end of WW2 began to collapse, it was the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the unification of Germany, and the Yugoslav antagonism had reached its climax. In those circumstances, it was crucial that the levers of power in Slovenia were taken over by a team that also knew how to use them, and this could only be achieved on the basis of a plebiscite decision by Slovenians. From here on, it was the end of romantic notions of the will of the people, which always win. History tells us that this is not true at all, it had to be fought for, and we were also able to do that.
DEMOKRACIJA: Independence aspirations had been apparent for some time before that. When did you notice that things were going in that direction? Was May 1988 a turning point for this, when the Yugoslav People’s Army, with the help of the UDBA (State Security Administration), arrested the Four – Janša, Borštner, Tasič, and Zavrl?
Bavčar: The 1980s in Yugoslavia, after Tito’s death, marked the beginning of a search for new power relations between the Party elites of the republics, a strong federal administration backed by the military, with the undisputed international support of the European Union, the United States, and Russia. The Slovenian Communists were caught between their pro-Yugoslav orientation, which they idealistically portrayed in the colours of the equality of the Yugoslav republics, and the growing opposition at home, which was aware that Slovenia had always been part of Western Europe and its values. In search of its survival, the Slovenian Party, led by Kučan, flirted with the opposition on the one hand, and played against it on the other. The arrest of Janša, Borštner and Tasič must be understood in this context. Kučan sacrificed the Four for his vision of Yugoslavia, and intended to wash his hands of responsibility by arranging for UDBA to hand over the arrested to the army, which in one way or another was constantly criticising Slovenia and its Party leadership. Kučan cleverly calculated that he would get enough support at home in this conflict to maintain his rating, and that, at the same time, by sacrificing the Four in this Yugoslav story, he would get the support of General Kadijević, who was not yet Milosević’s. In fact, he almost succeeded, the League of Communists won the most votes as an individual party in the first elections, it maintained its position, to this day it controls some subsystems, especially the judiciary, key media, and it is financially secure. But the emergence of the Committee and then the first democratic parties led to a process of independence, which was not his wish, but he adapted perfectly to it. He is the undisputed winner after all, the only Party boss to actually retain power and authority.
DEMOKRACIJA: Following the arrests in June 1988, you co-founded and chaired the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights. What led you to do this?
Bavčar: In fact, at first only my friendship with Janez Janša. Within a few days, this grew into a movement, I immediately understood that it was a matter of the authorities sacrificing people for their own goals, and this was quickly seen by many people of different political and ideological beliefs. The arrest had become a turning point, qualitative analyses and our assessments of the situation had jumped into quantity, a categorical apparatus of dialectics, if you will. The committee stirred the masses and demanded not only a release of those arrested, but a change in the system. The people of the Committee – Bučar, Hribar, Rupel, Tomšič, Oman, Peterle, Školč, Gantar – were people of new political parties that also found inspiration in the Committee, the Democratic Party, Social Democrats, Liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats and the People’s Party. Due to the issues of human rights and freedom and the Slovenian national question, all of which came to the fore again, the socialist one party system began to collapse.
DEMOKRACIJA: The work of the Committee was very resounding and also decisive. How did you perceive that time, how did you feel, how did it go, what were the burdens and the challenges?
Bavčar: Ha, I felt good, like a man doing something big and useful feels. I have always done great things, I have made great social changes with the Committee, created a new Slovenian constitution, negotiated with the authorities about the transition to a new social order and liberated falsely accused people. In the government, I led both the government’s independence project and the headquarters of the Slovene Armed Forces in the war for Slovenia, then I led Slovenia’s integration into the European Union, most recently a company that had 1,200 people when I arrived and 5,000 when I was replaced, earning an original 120 million in revenue, eventually generating almost 800. I succeeded in all the projects, except for the last one; otherwise, none of the 5,000 employees lost their jobs, no company went bankrupt, they all work successfully and are developing, but because I did not succeed, they preferred to liquidate me judicially and sell the companies to Serbs and Croats.
The Committee was, of course, a special challenge, and coordination of such a politically and ideologically diverse society – from communists, church representatives, liberals and conservatives to Slovenians themselves – was not easy. Repression also hung over our heads constantly, for example, today we know that the key people of the Committee were very close to being arrested in February 1989.
DEMOKRACIJA: In 1989, you also coordinated the Assembly for the Constitution, the umbrella civil society network that connected initiatives for the new Slovenian Constitution. What was the task of this assembly and you personally?
Bavčar: My experience with the Committee, especially the ability to lead people who were otherwise not at all similar, let alone of the same opinion, probably qualified me for this coordination. Writing a constitution is something fundamental for every nation; initially, the democratic opposition intended to base the whole process on the Constituent Assembly, and only a combination of circumstances and Demos’ assessment that it was necessary to hurry led to a change in the decision.
DEMOKRACIJA: It is also interesting and perhaps less well known that in 1989 and 1990 you were the editor-in-chief of the weekly publication Demokracija, which was closely associated with the pre-election coalition Demos.
Bavčar: The media, as we see it today, are important agents of change or for preserving the situation. In those circumstances, the relationship between Party-controlled media and the new, free media was markedly on the side of the former. This relationship, despite all the changes with minor corrections, has been maintained to this day. Demokracija magazine was, therefore, a very important medium at the time. You should know that at that time, Mladina, Radio Študent, Katedra, Tribuna, periodicals, Nova revija, and Journal for Critique of Science were certainly on the side of change, whereas key media were not. I myself had edited Student Tribune, ČKZ, book editions KRT, etc., so I was not unfamiliar with this.
DEMOKRACIJA: Before that, together with Janez Janša, you edited the book Dnevnik and memoirs of Stane Kavčič. Can you say more about this, perhaps reveal things that the public did not know much about so far?
Bavčar: New revelations? Perhaps, but nothing so essential as to be able to assess the significance of our edition of Kavčič’s memoirs differently today. Today, I know that at that time the authorities knew that we were preparing for this, some believe that even Kučan arranged with Niko Kavčič for this to happen. I do not know, maybe it was true, but Kavčič’s Dnevnik is a document of time that is valuable; if anyone thought that Kavčič’s affection for Kučan would help with anything else than perhaps his confrontation with the tyrant, Popit, etc., he was wrong. Stanovnik’s sympathy with the Committee, as he claimed to me during the meetings with him, was also full of criticism at the expense of Popit. So what; in the beginning this may have even impressed me, but the closer we were to decisive dilemmas, it was less important, and finally, who persuaded Pier Fassino not to give the independent state to the right, Popit? No, Kučan!
DEMOKRACIJA: In the first parliamentary elections in Slovenia in April 1990, the Demos coalition won with 54%. The government was led by Lojze Peterle, and you were appointed Minister of the Interior. As such, you then participated in the independence process of the country, you were also one of the main architects, so to speak, of the Slovenian path to independence from Yugoslavia. Can you tell us more about the beginnings?
Bavčar: Today I would say it was to be expected, however, back then it seemed shocking. I did not take over the department, Tomaž Ertl did not show up at the office. He organised a trade union revolt against me and my colleagues, silenced the collection of weapons of the Territorial Defence, and I have to thank my youthful self-confidence, I was 34 years old, for immediately starting to work, without paying attention to it. In this, I was helped by a few people from the system that I knew and a few that I did not. Milan Domadenik, who as the head of UJV Ljubljana revealed during the Committee that the arrests were made by UDBA members and not by criminologists, Pavle Čelik, who was an opportunist but also a professional police officer, and Vinko Beznik, later also Jože Kolenc, some of my classmates, Pozvek, Bešker, Štriker, who later almost all ran to Tomaž Čas, who was always putting spanners in the works, so that we had to transfer him to the faculty during independence. There was also Franci Kosi, a key person in the police armament, the first to file a criminal complaint against Drago Kos – very quickly- and some others. Action had to be taken quickly; I placed the special unit directly under my command, I administratively retired several hundred UDBA members, mostly those working on internal affairs, I disarmed the SDV and took away its police powers, I banned the use of eavesdropping centres at Slovenian post offices, I initiated the procedure for a judicial investigation into wiretapping and so forth. An effective takeover means that you know exactly what is going on and that you have the resources to take action. Well, we did not know everything and we still do not know today, but it is no coincidence that I am at Dob today.
DEMOKRACIJA: Together with the then Minister of Defence Janez Janša, you organised the Slovenian defence during the ten-day war in June and July 1991. How do you assess that time, what did you take on, what was most challenging?
Bavčar: We took over the defence and the security system of the state, which, when we enabled it, functioned. Otherwise, it was much better in capabilities than the time when the YPA disarmed the TO, in organisation, less in armaments perhaps, but with a better organised police force, also militarily speaking, but far below the level of armaments and numbers of the YPA. The YPA surpassed us in everything except leadership. Here we had the advantage, we were on our own and determined to secure the process of independence. We were flexible, we included many civilian structures in the defence, from firefighters, municipal services, civil protection, customs, even hunters and amateur radio operators.
DEMOKRACIJA: At a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Military Duty Act on 19 April this year, Prime Minister Janez Janša emphasised that nothing could relativize the key contribution of the Slovenian Armed Forces, consisting of the Slovenian Territorial Defence and the Slovenian Police, in the formation of the Slovenian state. Do you agree with that?
Bavčar: Yes, I agree with him.
DEMOKRACIJA: In October 1991, we witnessed the departure of the last YPA soldier from Slovenia. Were you relieved?
Bavčar: An important period was behind us, and ahead of us were efforts for international recognition and, of course, the security of the young Slovenian state. It was a very critical period when we were truly alone. Historically, we have always been part of large state formations, even empires, Austria-Hungary, both Yugoslavias, which, despite the problems we had, also provided us with conditions for development and security. We managed to preserve the national consciousness, the language, we developed economically, but suddenly we were exposed and completely alone. Only accession to the European Union and NATO has given us back that security. Experiences teach us that there are no eternal enemies or friends between countries, ultimately only interests and also the system of European values on which the European Union and NATO are based, and for the sake of countries this may change, even significantly. This must not find us unprepared, so we have made the country know how to act in accordance with its interests in this situation.
Slovenian politician and independence activist, today 65-year-old Igor Bavčar, was chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights during the Slovenian spring. Between 1990 and 1992, during the Demos government, he was the first democratically elected Minister of the Interior of the Republic of Slovenia. During the Slovenian War of Independence in June and July 1991, he coordinated the Slovenian Defence Forces together with the Minister of Defence Janez Janša. Together, with great wisdom, efficiency and audacity, they brought Belgrade generals to their knees, who commanded the Federal Army, which in a completely socialist way was called the Yugoslav People’s Army. Among other things, he was a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, a minister without portfolio responsible for European affairs, and an important and influential businessman.
By: Vida Kocjan