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Slovenes set reform pace. In Yugoslavia, there is a group for nearly every cause as activists test limits of one-party state

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When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited this Alpine republic earlier this year, his hosts were not impressed. ``Perestroika and glasnost, that's old stuff here,'' said Mita Mersol, an editor of the daily Delo. ``We don't compare ourselves with Russia, we compare ourselves with the West.''

If the statement sounds a bit arrogant, well the Slovenes have a right to be a bit arrogant. More than anywhere else in the communist world, Slovenia has become a laboratory for democracy.

Slovene newspapers exhibit a Western-style diversity. Trade unions lead strikes. And the Socialist Alliance even sees itself as an ``opposition party within the party,'' with the role of representing alternative viewpoints.

Slovenes and other East Europeans credit their growing freedom to a process called ``Civil Society.'' In Mr. Gorbachev's Soviet Union or Deng Xiaoping's China, reform comes from above, and both leaders have a deep mistrust of anything not initiated or controlled by the Communist Party. In Slovenia, changes are coming from below.

``The idea of our Civil Society is to control the state's power by making sure the party no longer can dictate decisions to a passive public,'' said Tamas Mastnak, sociologist and spokesman for the independent Ljubljana Peace Group. ``People must be able to choose among several different points of view.''

This Slovene model took form in unique circumstances. Most of what is now Yugoslavia languished under Ottoman rule; the Roman Catholic Slovenes prospered under rule from Vienna. This heritage, Slovenes say, accounts for their Western orientation and work habits.

In 1948, Josip Broz Tito took Yugoslavia out of the Soviet orbit, opening its borders, injecting market forces into its economy, and decentralizing its political structure. Today, the ruling Communist Party in Belgrade can no longer control local leaderships in each of the six republics and two autonomous provinces.

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