You don’t often find a person who can say he made his country independent. Milan Kučan is one of the few living politicians who can show a curriculum that says that he proclaimed the independence of his nation, Slovenia. He has been through what Catalonia wants now, and therefore has a view that is privileged for us.
Ljubljana has changed a lot over these years. The bridges blocked with barricades of the days of independence have given way to elegant terraces where people seek to enjoy the scarce sun of the Alpine spring. But not everything is different; the Parliament, where Kučan had to fight his toughest battles, remains intact with that strange and imposing door full of meaning.
When we greet the president, we show him the journalist credentials that the Slovenian government gave out at the time. The old politician looks at it curiously and mentions to his assistant that it was from the ministry ‘before independence’, as if he were talking about a century ago. ‘We were all very young then’, says Kučan, a man now seventy-six years old who when they proclaimed the independent Republic of Slovenia was just fifty, four years younger than today’s president Puigdemont.
— If you could give three pieces of advice to president Puigdemont, what would they be?
— Based on our experience, the most important thing now is to know whether Madrid is willing to talk with Barcelona over Catalonia’s position inside Spain, that is important; and also to see whether there is a will to promote democratic processes or not. Clearing this up could bring forth other decisions.
— Everything leads us to believe that Madrid does not want to talk …
— It is very difficult for me to take up a position because this is an internal affair of the Spanish state, a question between Madrid and Barcelona. But I know that what is important is that the politicians should take responsibility for their actions, whatever they might be. In must be known whether Spain has any proposal and Catalonia, in any case, must be very clear in answering the key question: Why now? What does Catalonia have to gain? What could Spain lose with a decision of this kind?
— At what time is an internal affair no longer internal?
— [He laughs.] This is and is not, at the same time, a question of international policy, but I believe that once the decision is taken to hold a referendum on independence, the situation becomes an affair of the international community.
— You say that the most important thing is that Catalonia should clearly explain why now is the time for independence. What do you think the world will be looking for in the answer?
— First of all you have to explain the whole of your economic and social position. Secondly, your level of democracy inside Spain, with regard to seeking the interests of Catalonia. And thirdly, the development of the Catalan identity within the Spanish constitutional system. You should try to explain it in simple terms, even though it is a very complex affair; the question is how you could manage to inculcate a feeling of responsibility amongst the majority of Spanish citizens regarding the equality of Catalonia and the Catalans in the Spanish state. What’s more, you should also try to clarify how the new Catalan majority would treat the Spanish, who would become a minority in an independent Catalonia.
— What is your impression of what is happening in our country?
— It is difficult to judge from outside, but I do believe it is very important to know how to defend a potential referendum over self-determination and independence. What arguments could be used to convince the central government in Madrid, the Catalans and the international community that it is necessary? Given the current state of uncertainty in the European Union, I would say that the present situation is not so much in favour of changes as it was in our time, but I say again: the key argument is that you should be able to answer the question of why now? Why a referendum on the self-determination of Catalonia right now? Let me also add that, in comparison with our situation, Spain is perceived as a democratic country with a parliamentary system that is not in crisis. Spain is at the heart of the EU and in this sense, it will not be easy for you.
— Can you imagine, therefore, that Catalonia proclaims its independence and nobody recognises it?
— This will depend a lot on what arguments Catalonia makes to the EU and the rest of the international community to convince it that the decision is inevitable.
— In this case, Slovenia will be in the position of Germany or France, when the Slovenians declared their own independence. At some time Slovenia will have to decide whether or not to recognise an independent Catalonia …
— In principle, there is no reason why Slovenia should oppose anyone’s right to self-determination, but there are historical and political circumstances alongside this. Morally speaking, I can see no problem in principle. In the formal and institutional ambit, I do see potential great problems, first of all because we have the EU, and Slovenia will have to act in accordance with the EU and the decisions taken in Brussels. We have the experience of the recognition of Palestine. It is true that a few European countries have recognised the Palestinian state, but Slovenia has maintained the common position of the EU, which is used as a kind of excuse not to recognise them.
— You also found yourselves at a time like this. James Baker, the then North American Secretary of State, and the European Community said that the unilateral independence of Slovenia would not be recognised, but this did not stop you going ahead with it.
— I remember Baker’s words, and they were not the only threats we received. But our decisions had already gone too far for us to change our mind simply because they said they would not recognise us. Even though someone might wish to stop the process of independence, it was already too late for us. There was obviously a risk, and we didn’t know how the international community would react, but we were sure that we had legitimacy and legality.
— Didn’t you ever think ‘and what if no one recognises us …’?
— When the Yugoslavian army attacked Slovenia on the day after the proclamation of independence, the world already realised that Yugoslavia was no longer viable, and everything changed.
— To what extent did you and your team doubt or suffer over whether anyone would recognise you?
— Once you take a decision, above all a decision like that of proclaiming independence, there is no way back. You have to muster all of your intellectual capacity to apply the decision, and not just say it. If you ask me about my personal responsibility, I will say I did feel it, I really did! But in the end, this depends on each person’s character and I considered myself capable of applying the people’s will.
— Do you agree that international politics is very cynical? They want to maintain the status quo, but when something new happens, they are quick to get used to it. For example, in Catalonia they tell us that we have no right to be independent, that we will remain outside the EU. But if we declare our independence, it is very likely that they will look for a quick solution.
— That’s right. The great global politics is always cynical and international politics wants no changes. But it is also important to remember the principles on which international politics is based. If you are capable of inserting your decision in this context and using these principles, then you have a better chance of their accepting the decision and you winning. For example, the right to self-determination; if you are capable of demonstrating the legality and legitimacy of your decision and making it clear that you are doing what you do at no one’s expense, then you might gain support from the international community.
— At what point were you when you won? How do you know you have won?
— Regarding the legitimacy of invoking the right to self-determination, it is firstly very important that you should have a very convincing majority in your favour. Secondly, the legal basis of the steps you want to take must be very clear, both those constitutional and those of international law. Thirdly, you must be very sure that you are not trespassing on rights of other nations or on those of your immediate neighbours or the nations living in the same state as you. And fourthly, you need a profound analysis and idea of the possibilities of international recognition. In the referendum we called, all citizens residing in Slovenia, and not just the Slovene ethnic groups, were entitled to vote; and 93% voted with 85% in favour. It was very clear.
— Despite this, the Yugoslav authorities did not recognise the referendum and denied its validity …
— The federal authorities gave two alternatives to the referendum on independence. One was a referendum for the whole of Yugoslavia, asking whether the Slovenians had the right to self-determination. Obviously we opposed this because here we were talking about our right to self-determination. The second option was for the National Assembly to adopt a secession law by majority, and obviously this majority were the Serbians, we were a minority in the state. We went against this because our position is that Yugoslavia was a common state, that it belonged to us all and that we decided voluntarily to form a part of it one day and that voluntarily we could leave. And at the time we were leaving, Yugoslavia was ceasing to exist, and all of the republics, once Yugoslavia had ceased to exist, would inherit their countries on an equal standing. We could not accept what they were proposing.
— In Catalonia we often wonder whether Spain’s mistakes are more important than Catalonia’s right decisions. What influence did Yugoslavia’s mistakes have on the independence of Slovenia?
— We knew that in the event of an attack from the Yugoslav army, the responsibility of the international community over Slovenia would be triggered, and that is what actually happened.
— Might we say that independence was a combination of the legitimacy of the referendum and the intransigence of the Serbian authorities, who made any alternative impossible?
— Not in the final stages, but this opposition from the Serbian authorities was very important in the preparation of the referendum. Now it must be known that we at no time tried to force another Republic to invoke the right to self-determination, the only thing we wanted was for us to be recognised that right and for the process to be taken forward peacefully.
— Internally it wasn’t easy either, there was a considerable battle between the parties. How can one politician deal with such important decisions while handling the day-to-day politics?
— You have to seek a common denominator, because once the decision on independence has been taken there is no longer so much common terrain and the individual interests are diversified. You have to have a lot of energy and patience and be sure that you have the right arguments.
— Some of your colleagues of the time said that it would be better to back down. Was the unity of the independence movement solid or were there people with doubts?
— You have to remember that at that time we not only wanted to become independent, but we also wanted an absolute change in the socio-economic and political system. We changed from a single party system to a multi-party system, from a socialist system to capitalism, and that is why still today there are people who make artificial differences between the true democratic forces that emerged from the first democratic elections and the forces emanating from the previous socialist Slovenia. This is an artificial difference that always appears when the other arguments fail.
— Did you never tire of these kinds of partidist arguments? How important is patience for a leader?
— They were really unpleasant conflicts because they were not based on solid arguments but rather personal accusations, and this always ends up with the question of who is the true hero of independence. Is it the country, the people who voted, those who withstood the aggression, those who bore the burden of the political economic and social transition? Or is it one person or a group of people? This is a debate which appears time and time again here in Slovenia.
— And what is your answer?
— I have no answer to this! Today in Europe and in the world, I don’t think this discussion is useful because it does no good to the positive role that Slovenia has to play in the world. I believe that the situation in Slovenia today is worrying, I am no longer part of it, but that does not mean that I am not worried about the direction in which Slovenia is going, and I think that we have to see what we believed in when we achieved independence and what we have become. This is an important question I have in my heart.
— Are you disappointed?
— I cannot say I am happy. Yes I am happy, but happy to see that young people want to take responsibilities for the country and not what is happening here. At the end of the day, they will live far longer than all of us, the players who were at its creation.
— One last curiosity. You were in Barcelona with President Pujol at that such complicated time. What memory do you have of that?
— Yes. We visited Barcelona specifically to see Pujol. We had met before when he had visited what was then the Socialist Republic of Slovenia. Pujol’s personal experience of Spain after Franco was very important to us, and how Catalonia recovered part of the economy it had lost when Franco came to power. And I particularly remember that they said that when there is a historical moment for independence, the chance has to be taken, because the window of opportunity will not necessarily open again. But that is off the record.
— Pujol already said that. Everyone in Catalonia knows …
— Ah! So it doesn’t have to be off the record! [He laughs.]