06/26/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

We Were So Close to Preventing Genocide

In 1990, when I was in Romania, inter-ethnic conflicts broke out in Transylvania. Although the cause of the conflict in March 1990 in Targu Mures is disputed, the most likely story concerns a bilingual sign -- in Hungarian as well as in Romanian -- that a pharmacist put up on a shop in the city. There was a protest. Various wild rumors spread. Tensions escalated, and a full-scale riot broke out. Several people died, and hundreds were injured.

Today, there are bilingual signs all over Targu Mures. Relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians are quite peaceable. Sure, there are plenty of things to complain about in Romania today. But the country certainly did not go the way of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia. The very word conjures up images of war, fratricide, and genocide. But imagine if what happened in Romania -- a very literal dodging of a bullet -- happened in Yugoslavia, if the tensions that escalated between Serbs and Croats in 1990 were somehow addressed and war averted.

Marko Hren has spent a lot of time thinking about this "what if." He believes that peace activists were "so close" to preventing the slaughter that spread through the region in the 1990s.

"We still need research about that time between November 1990 and June 1991," Hren told me over coffee in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana last October. "Was an opportunity missed? What I can prove is that various things were converging: we had a good setting, a local Peace Institute, a strong intellectual group in Ljubljana with links to people in power in Slovenia, and with connections to the European platform including the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The CSCE process at that time was promising: early warning systems were designed, conflict prevention mechanisms agreed-upon. We were so close to preventing genocide. That's been my obsession for 20 years. We were so close. We can learn from that. We should learn."

I met Marko Hren back in 1990 when he was a computer programmer turned peace activist. He later became a leading force behind the most successful squat in the region -- Metelkova in Ljubljana. He has also worked in the business world and in government.

He thinks a lot about lessons learned -- and not just concerning the war in Yugoslavia. He is dissatisfied with how Metelkova has turned out. He's critical of the failure of NGOs to make needs assessments. He's disappointed with the general knowledge of democracy in Slovenia today. That is one of his principle preoccupations: learning from failure.

But he also retains the same curiosity and drive that I encountered in him more than two decades ago. Whether talking about organic food production or the transformative nature of the Internet, Marko Hren remains a passionate activist.

The Interview

What fascinates me in the history of the Slovenian peace movement is how strong it became in a relatively short period of time. By the time of the late 1980s, early 1990s, it has become so influential that the possibility of turning Slovenia into a demilitarized zone and the spreading peace education throughout the curriculum was a politically feasible program.

I think the power of that group was that it was cross-generational and cross-professional. It included people like sociologist Pavel Gantar and philosopher Tomaž Mastnak a renowned poet Neža Maurer, some war veterans, and a number of students. It was great to work in such an ad hoc think tank. I was a mathematician at that time employed in a computer programming R&D enterprise, and I learned that I needed to obtain the skills of a social scientist. Tomaž Mastnak was by my side correcting everything that I wrote. It was a pleasure to work with these people. That's where the power was. It was a fusion of very diverse people from different parts of the mental globe. This was catalytic for the ideas we had..

It seemed much stronger than peace movements in other countries at that time.

It was definitely comparable to all the strong peace and human rights nucleuses in Eastern Europe. We took part in all the major events such as the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) conferences. We quickly linked up with East-West dialogue. The common denominator of all our actions was our international scope. We got connected to existing networks on the planet at every level: European, regional (Alpine-Adriatic), international/global. Each and every campaign we did was immediately plugged into regional, European, and global contexts. We were spontaneously thinking globally and acting locally. But we did invest a lot into international activity. We travelled extensively. That's why, somehow naturally in 1988 when the transition was at its peak, the peace movement took over the coordination of the informal foreign diplomacy of the opposition here for an initial period of time.

But you also were ambitious in terms of your program for Slovenia. Many peace movements are marginal and think marginally.

Yes, the place where we are sitting is the proof of our ambition. We are at the present cultural center on Metelkova Street, which used to be the Yugoslav Army headquarters but has been turned into an open agora through a grassroots action. It's a living monument to the Slovenian spring. The project was led by hundreds of groups and individuals that were active in the 1980s locally in Slovenia. It's a result of a project that began before the war and which symbolically speaks to that period of time. I was an initiator and a head of the project here.

But we did not fight against the communists with this project, as you have written elsewhere. On the contrary, the squat of the military barracks happened because the right wing after transition took power in the city and we fought the right-wing post-transition elite who had plans other than the plans that our movement has agreed upon with -- at that time, in 1993 -- a left-wing government. Before the transition, before the war, we agreed that this military facility would be passed to the art and social movements. I was fighting everyone in the case of the campaign for the Metelkova cultural center. In a way, this campaign was an epilogue to our fight against the Yugoslav army.

Our ambition was to revitalize the urban structures. And now here in Metelkova, we've got the biggest NGO cluster in Europe, the biggest urban infrastructure for NGOs and artists in Europe.

But I must underline that this and other projects were not our innovation. All this has been implemented elsewhere. For instance, the Rote Fabrik, the Red Factory in Zurich, was a sort of best practice that I was looking at when I was designing the "Metelkova military barracks reconversion campaign." Even our demilitarization project was copied from the Switzerland Without an Army campaign. We were campaigning in 1989 at the same time as the referendum in Switzerland to abolish the army. Andreas Gross, from the Direct Democracy group in Zurich, was my very good friend and was very influential in my political formation. I spent a lot of time in Zurich. We learned good ideas and projects and immediately implemented them locally. We write everywhere in our papers that these Swiss and other projects influenced our reality.

Have other groups in turn followed Metelkova's example? Lots of people come here and say this is great, but has anyone gone back to reproduce it in their society?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.