Slovenia’s Vanishing Act

The former Yugoslav republic made 18,000 people disappear in the blink of an eye. Now it wants the world to forget its experiment in ethnic cleansing.

Photo: Chris Colin


It should be strange talking to someone who doesn’t exist. But Zoran Ili?, stubbing out a cigarette in my Ljubljana apartment, is disappointingly ordinary: watery blue eyes, a refrigerator’s physique, likable laugh lines across his face. For all that’s happened to the amiable middle-aged locksmith, what’s hardest to comprehend lies over his right shoulder, around the sparkling river and polished cobblestone outside my kitchen window. Modern, thriving, and lovely, 21st-century Slovenia is increasingly hailed as an enlightened jewel in Europe’s crown. How could such a place do what it did to Ili??

If you’re picturing snipers and bombed-out buildings, you’re thinking old Balkans. Slovenia prides itself on being a safe, prosperous, sophisticated exception — a peaceful place where you can have breakfast under a palm tree in Piran and lunch atop the Julian Alps in Bovec. “God’s blessing on all nations,” its big hearted national anthem begins. The national hero isn’t a general but a poet. The euro was adopted in January. These days the newly hip country spends its days polishing its vanilla image; in the offing are the presidency of the European Union and a general luxuriating in global capitalism.

Ignorance of Slovenia is a forgivable sin — President Bush once confused it with Slovakia — and anyway, it’s generally a good thing if you’re a former Yugoslav republic that’s stayed out of the headlines. Slovenia seceded from the failing socialist federation in 1991 with scarcely a murmur. After a crisp little 10-day war, the country made a quick shimmy toward Europe, pointing out to anyone listening that it had always belonged in that more civilized association anyway. In the 15 years since independence, Slovenia has reinvented itself as the sole Balkan “success story,” as the breathless write-ups routinely put it; a pearl squeezed forth from the frictions of communism and capitalism, East and West, ancient and modern. Balkanism, with all its grim complexity and bloodshed, has become a shelled facade receding in the rearview mirror.

But objects in the mirror are sometimes closer than they appear. Which brings us to Ili?’s nightmare. He moved to Ljubljana in 1969, leaving his tiny Serbian village for “the big city.” A Yugoslav could move about freely then, and Ili? loved his new home immediately. He began a career as a locksmith, married a Slovene, started a family, and embarked on a pleasantly ordinary life.

In 1992, Ili? was at a municipal office, filling out some form or other. From behind the counter came an odd reply: Not only was Ili? not a Slovenian resident, the cheery official informed him; there was no record of his existence whatsoever. This would have been merely aggravating, in a head-slapping, DMV kind of way, were it not for the dawning dread: Ili?’s pension, health insurance, driver’s license, and right to legal employment had all disappeared with his identity — he couldn’t even check out a library book. Any hope of this being a computer glitch vanished when he returned to the office a few days later. A similar fate had apparently befallen others, and he stared as the armfuls of documents they’d brought in were shredded before their eyes.

“I was watching them put holes in people’s paperwork,” Ili? recalls. “Everyone was crying and screaming; some women fainted. Later, the suicides. We were told we didn’t exist anymore, by these people behind the counter we’d gone to school with.” The consequences went beyond red tape. “Suddenly at block parties, our neighbors would have a little to drink and then start telling me to ‘go home.’ Even my wife’s family told her to ‘leave this guy.’ Everything had been fine before.” He shakes his head. “It’s like that glass there,” he says, pointing to my kitchen counter. “One day you just bring it down to the basement.”

Ili? was one of more than 18,000 nonethnic Slovenes who awoke one day to find they’d been completely deleted from the country’s registry of permanent residents. (For proportion’s sake, that’s the equivalent of 2.6 million people in the United States.) The “Erased,” as they came to be known, were almost exclusively “new foreigners” from other ex-Yugoslav republics — Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Kosovars, and Roma (not to be confused with “old foreigners” such as Italians or Hungarians). Many had called Slovenia home all their lives, and ethnic distinctions had been effectively meaningless under the Yugoslav umbrella. Their crime? Failing to gain citizenship in the chaotic first months after Slovenia’s declaration of independence, when, in what seemed like an obscure bit of bureaucracy, as many as 200,000 minorities were asked to register as citizens in the newly formed country — a requirement waived for their Slovenian-born neighbors.

The Slovene government has maintained that the Erased were victims of their own failure to turn in their paperwork — a failure reflecting their hostility toward Slovene independence, their allegiance to Yugoslavia, and so on. “Why should those who hoped for the Yugoslav Army to return be given certain privileges?” Andrej Umek, a senior member of the Slovene People’s Party, asked the New York Times. But Matevz Krivic, a former constitutional court judge and now an advocate for the Erased, believes the registration issue is a red herring. “With 80 to 90 percent I’ve interviewed, I say, ‘For God’s sake, why didn’t you apply?,’ and they answer, ‘I did!'”

Most of the Erased did eventually acquire citizenship, but for the 18,305 who didn’t, it’s been a miserable and often untenable existence — the product of what the human-rights group Helsinki Monitor has called “administrative genocide.” Families have been forced into poverty, pensions canceled, children denied schooling or informed their parents don’t exist. It’s unknown how many Erased have died from lack of medical care, though human rights groups have documented many instances. Some were deported, others driven to leave on their own. Twice, in 1999 and 2003, the country’s constitutional court has ruled the mass denationalization to have been illegal, but the government has ignored these rulings.

A number of recent developments may force the Slovenian government to finally resolve the matter, though considerable political leverage evaporated once the country was admitted to the EU. In March 2006, the outgoing commissioner for human rights for the Council of Europe reiterated his call for Slovenia to restore full rights to the thousands still without legal status. In July 2005, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on Slovenia to seek similar resolution, and four months later Amnesty International urged full reparation for the Erased and guarantees they wouldn’t face future persecution. Last July, a group of Italian and Slovenian lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Erased at the European Court of Human Rights.

There’s also been a change among the Erased themselves. Though the vast majority still keep their identities hidden — deportation’s always a possibility, public disdain a certainty—a growing number are coming out of the shadows to participate in the loosely knit Association of the Erased. For all the suffering he’s seen, Aleksandar “Aco” Todorovi?, the association’s founder, tells me the most difficult part has been watching his nation so successfully convince itself and the outside world of Slovenia’s general virtuousness. This February marks the 15th anniversary of the country’s illegal act of denationalization, and the matter will be thrust into the spotlight again, possibly forcing an old term back into circulation at this unlikely moment in Slovenia’s history: ethnic cleansing.

But to make any headway, the Erased first must combat a number of myths, most significantly that they themselves were responsible for what happened. “I don’t think we can talk about 3,000 kids being ‘opposed to Slovenia,'” Todorovi? says, referring to the estimated number of children who were taken off the books. For him, it’s a no-brainer that Erasure was intentional. Ili?, whose son was erased when he was six, concurs: “Of course we never had a choice! We have a child — what parent would knowingly disregard their child’s well being? Then they say I opposed independence — I voted for independence! They don’t even care if their lies make sense!”

But the Erased still have to convince the general public that the country’s been duped. In April 2004 a controversial referendum put support for restoration of the Erased’s rights at less than 6 percent. Even after a newspaper published documents indicating erasure was deliberate and premeditated, little changed. The government’s defense remains a one-two punch of obstinacy and obfuscation. “Nobody was erased, nobody was erased,” mutters Bojan Trnovšek, director general for the Internal Administrative Affairs Directorate at the Ministry of the Interior — the office responsible for erasure — as he stacks a mountain of papers on his desk. “They are ‘persons without status in Slovenia,'” Nina Gregori, the undersecretary at the ministry, tells me hastily. “It’s very complicated.”

To spend time in Slovenia’s pristine, hospitable towns is to wonder: How does such a thing happen here, a place where so-called outsiders have often intermarried with native Slovenes? Ironically, part of the impetus seems to have come from a wish among Slovenes to distance themselves from the nationalist madness elsewhere in the Balkans — it just so happened that purging some of its residents looked like the best way to get that distance. But at an even deeper level, there lies a genuine fear of extinction.

Slovenia has always belonged to someone else, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Habsburgs to Tito’s Yugoslavia. Finally on its own after so many centuries, it finds itself vanishing. Its tiny population has the lowest fertility rate in the EU, and a weak economy pushes its young people abroad. People over 80 are expected to be the single largest demographic group by 2050. Coupled with the anxiety of adopting capitalism, these worries lead to troubling conversations about purity. “We’re a peaceful country and we’re disappearing,” a New Agey young artist named Gregor tells me, before blaming “the vulgar Croats and Bosnians” for filling the void. “They gave Slovenia loud music and curse words. It used to be ‘400 devils’ was the worst you could say here.”

Slovenia’s version of nationalism was downright charming compared to Milosevi?’s butchery just over the border. But as John Dalhuisen of the Council of Europe’s Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights suggests, charming is how you wind up in the EU rather than the Hague. “How did they get away with this? Compare them to their neighbors,” he says. “Anyone who hasn’t fired too many bullets in the area in the last 15 years looks pretty good.”

On a cold, bright day last February, the ragtag Association of the Erased descends nervously on Ljubljana’s parliament building for a peaceful sit-in at a National Assembly session. For many, this is their first time publicly identifying themselves, much less risking confrontation. When they arrive, the building is uncharacteristically flanked by police, who inform Todorovi? it has been closed to the public for the day.

Todorovi? huddles with the two dozen novice activists and an alternate plan soon materializes. One by one, they march back and forth across a nearby crosswalk, Abbey Road-style, as traffic builds up behind them. The hastily conceived strategy is meant to draw attention to the cause, and to the fact of the cause. Indeed, Todorovi? tells me later, he sees the association as standing up against the country’s broader slide toward exclusionism — as evidenced by bizarrely repressive new asylum laws, a long-running ban on building a mosque in Ljubljana, institutional homophobia, and what Dalhuisen describes as “a certain reactionary core.” If opposing the Erased can be populist political shorthand for proving one’s Slovene patriotism, Todorovi? says, the Erased themselves can be shorthand for opposition to all Slovene intolerance. In December, when the Slovene government made international headlines for forcibly evicting a Roma settlement after a mob made death threats and torched one of the homes, many Erased activists rushed to protest the action.

Back at the parliament building, half the drivers honk angrily, while the other half just stare at the gray-haired and rural protesters. “At least it slows the final transition to global capitalism by a few minutes,” sighs Andrej Kurnik, an activist and political science professor. Two hours and one near-scuffle with the police later, the Erased trickle back to their cloistered lives; a kind of shrugging is in the air. Todorovi? seems to sense it, but the wispy former archaeologist says he’ll keep fighting: “Slovenia created this wonderful stereotype of itself to get where it wants to go, this exclusive place far from Yugoslavia. I have to register the truth.”

As for Zoran Ili?, it’s hard to say whether his goals are more or less ambitious in the end. “What do I want?” he asks. “I lived here 36 years and put so much energy into this country. They say I want all the money that’s owed to me, all the wages and insurance and pension they took. But that money comes from my kids’ futures, and my kids have already suffered enough. I just want my citizenship.”

Like many, Ili? was told his only hope was in returning to war-torn Serbia to find documentation of his and his son’s existence. But Serbia had no papers for the boy, as he’d been born in Slovenia. “Good,” Ili? recalls thinking at the time. “Now we can move to the moon.” Ili?’s son’s status was quietly restored after a lengthy fight. (Roughly 12,000 of the Erased have been “regularized” as new permanent residents, thereby keeping pensions and reparations out of reach.) “We had to get a divorce, on paper anyway, so my wife wouldn’t have my last name,” he adds. “It’s been horrible, but at the same time I’m blessed, because my family is strong. Not all are so lucky.”

Indeed, a number have found the strain unbearable. A few weeks after the parliament protest, Todorovi? tells me about recruiting a fellow Erased named Dragan when the association was first coming together. Dragan was Todorovi?’s neighbor — a “calm and peaceful” father of two who’d “lost everything, like all of us.” The last time Todorovi? saw him, a decade of extreme poverty and shame had caught up with him; he could no longer bear to eat a single piece of bread, as he considered it food from his daughters’ mouths. Two days later, he threw himself under a train. Todorovi? lingers quietly on this memory for a moment, and then he pushes back from our cafe table. “More to do,” he says, and he’s gone.