To Understand Slovenia’s Post-Soviet Success, Look Beyond Lustration

By: Will Chim, Columnist

Photo Credit: DW

At the end of the Cold War, the countries that emerged from communist regimes rushed to forge new futures for themselves. Some have struggled to implement meaningful reform. Others have developed burgeoning democracies. Slovenia, which left the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, is often considered one of the success stories of post-Cold War Europe. It embarked on a path toward sovereignty, democratic institutions, and a market economy with few obstacles, and today is ranked the least corrupt Balkan country by Transparency International.[1] It is the only country previously a part of the former Yugoslavia to not formally purge Communist-affiliated officials, a process known as lustration.[2] While it may be easy to identify Slovenia’s lack of lustration as a key component of this development, the reality is more complex.

Lustration occurred widely throughout Europe as former Soviet states transitioned in the 1990s.[3] Germany, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Poland all believed it necessary to remove any communist remnants in their new governments. The benefits of lustration are clear—the previous regimes of these states often lacked legitimacy due to their authoritarian nature and human rights abuses. It was paramount for the new governments to distance themselves from their predecessors by removing or shaming those associated with it.[4] This process offers a clean break and allows the new state to heal and begin a new era with a clean slate. However, executing lustration is challenging. Post-Soviet states often used lustration policies unwisely—for example, through broad laws that entangled innocent people by using often-apocryphal communist-era records to identify communist holdovers. Poland’s lustration laws, for example, are still a source of distress for the country today, and are used for political mudslinging.[5] Slovenian politicians attempted and failed several times to introduce lustration bills as the country sought EU and NATO membership, but calls diminished over time as the country moved further from the Soviet era.[6] But even this strong rejection of lustration is indicative of a deeper political legacy in Slovenia.

A few unique factors preceded Slovenia’s successful transition to democracy and away from the legacy of Yugoslavia. Notably, Slovenia’s communist regime differed markedly from those of the other Balkan states. The breakdown of communist dominance in Yugoslavia produced ripple effects throughout the constituent states as nationalist sentiment grew. But in Slovenia, authorities deflected rising nationalist sentiment toward federal authorities in Serbia and in particular the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA).[7] Communist leadership in Slovenia tolerated opposition views and public criticism and used them as a political tool against Serbia. This created a dynamic in which the post-Soviet transition in Slovenia resulted in conflict along ethnonational lines between Slovenia and Serbia, rather than confrontation between reformists and communist rulers.[8] The existence of an external antagonistic force (Serbia) served as a unifying force and driving motivation for both the dissenting opposition and sitting leadership in Slovenia.

Slovenia’s communist regime was relatively popular and accountable compared to other Soviet regimes, which likely played a large role in its smoother transition in the 1990s. It also may be one major reason why lustration was not seen by Slovenia’s transitioning authorities as especially necessary—there was less of a bitter memory of corrupt communist officials dominating the Slovenian government. In fact, because the communist leadership of Slovenia did play some role in Slovenia’s independence movement, it is likely that public perception of the communist elite was less negative than in other post-Soviet countries, which may explain to some degree the absence of substantive lustration or even calls for it.[9]

Due to gradual political and social changes in Slovenia through the 1980s, the country was simply one of the best prepared for the upheaval of the post-Cold War world—economic reforms, including privatization, and a strong export orientation toward the EU began at the end of this decade.[10] Slovenia benefited from having a closer relationship to the West, both politically, economically, and geographically. Slovenia also enjoyed greater decentralization and autonomy; the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution allowed each constituent republic more direct control over their internal political affairs, setting the stage for the League of Communists of Slovenia (the sole party of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia) to confirm in 1989 Slovenia’s right to secede from Yugoslavia.[11] In 1990, the League of Communists of Slovenia in turn changed its name to the Party of Democratic Reform and began negotiations to develop a multiparty political system in Slovenia.[12]

The country also dealt with the public debt issues that plagued many transitioning European countries. Slovenia was able to solve these issues with the help of international financial institutions, and thereby avoiding potentially destabilizing radical privatization.[13] Ultimately, Slovenia luckily pursued many arguably necessary conditions for successful transition long before it gained its independence from Yugoslavia and shed its communist affiliation. The question of lustration was arguably a foregone conclusion before the discussion began.

Slovenia’s shunning of lustration certainly was not the main factor in its successful transition, but does serve as a data point for understanding the major factors allowing it to do so. Slovenia serves as both an inspiring example of the ability of states to reform and transition out of authoritarian pasts and potentially as a blueprint for other countries seeking brighter futures. Reform in Slovenia continues today, and there is still much to be done—the country does have political and economic corruption issues that it must still address. Additionally, it is still a nascent democracy and must consolidate its gains and guarantee the long-term well-being of its political and financial institutions. Most importantly, Slovenia demonstrates that political transition is a considerably complex process that cannot be reduced to a catch-all solution. Reform and change are arduous, uphill battles, and there is no silver bullet for corruption.

[1] Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2016,”

[2] Slovenia – Freedom House.

[3] Eric Brahm, “Lustration.” Beyond Intractability. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. June 2004.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Laisve Linkute, “Is It Possible to Devise a Fair System of Lustration?” E-International Relations, 2012.

[7] Anton Bebler, “Slovenia’s Smooth Transition,” Journal of Democracy 13 (2002): 129.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rozic, 138.

[10] C. Dallara, “Smoother Judicial Reforms in Slovenia and Croatia: Does the Legacy of the Past Matter?,” in Democracy and Judicial Reforms in South-East Europe (2014): 34.

[11] Slovenia timeline – BBC News.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Miroslav Stanojevic, “Conditions for a neoliberal turn: The cases of Hungary and Slovenia,” European Journal of Industrial Relations 20 (2014): 100-103.

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