In late October 1991, the last remaining units of the Yugoslav People’s Army withdrew from Slovenia peacefully and almost unnoticed. The army officers and conscripts, mostly from Bosnia, Montenegro, [North] Macedonia and Serbia, were evacuated by sea, due to the escalation of war in neighbouring Croatia. While the world watched in horror the destruction of the Croatian town of Vukovar, home before the war to a mixed Croat and Serb population, and the shelling of the historic city of Dubrovnik by the army and reservists, Ljubljana celebrated its departure from a dissolving Yugoslav federation. Slovenian and Croatian independence would be recognised by the EU in January 1992, following diplomatic pressure from Austria and the recently reunited Germany.
Barely six months earlier, the first of the Yugoslav Wars had begun in Slovenia, following its declaration of independence on 25 June 1991. Croatia declared its independence on the same day, but things initially remained relatively quiet there. By contrast, an armed conflict between the Yugoslav People’s Army and Slovenia’s Territorial Defence (until then also part of the Yugoslav armed forces) over the control of border posts broke out immediately. The Slovenian war lasted just ten days in total, but at the time it sent shockwaves across the world. Yugoslavia had been hailed globally as a model of multi-ethnic and multi-religious coexistence, even when following President Tito’s death in 1980 the country experienced a series of crises.
The beginning of the end of Yugoslavia
In comparison to what came later in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, the war in Slovenia was both short and relatively bloodless, although 44 Yugoslav Army soldiers and officers (including Slovenes) and 18 Slovene territorials lost their lives. The real tragedy of the Slovenian war was that it made the preservation of a Yugoslav state or its peaceful dissolution highly improbable. After the collapse of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in January 1990, the People’s Army was ostensibly the last Yugoslav institution. While a number of Slovenian officers continued to serve in the army in 1991, it would soon cease to be Yugoslav. By early 1992, it had become de facto a Serbian army.
The Slovenian war marked the beginning of the external intervention in the Yugoslav crisis; the international presence in parts of the former Yugoslavia continues to this day. A troika of European Community ministers met with leaders of the Yugoslav republics and the army on the Croatian island of Brijuni on 7 July 1991. Under the agreed three-month ceasefire, the Slovenians were to end their siege of army barracks and other military posts and restore electricity, water and food supplies. Meanwhile, all army units were to return to barracks.
However, within days the army unexpectedly began withdrawing from Slovenia, mostly to garrisons in Bosnia and Serbia. This withdrawal, which was completed by late October, was not envisaged by the Brijuni Agreement. The Serbian leadership under Slobodan Milošević had decided around this time to ‘give up’ Slovenia and Croatia, except for Croatia’s Serb-populated regions. A Serb-dominated smaller Yugoslav federation would, in theory, have included Bosnia-Herzegovina and possibly Macedonia, but by now the Serbian leadership had decided that Serbs would be better off living in one state rather than as minorities in Yugoslav successor states. Yet ultimately, even a Serbian-Montenegrin federation, which continued until 2003 as the ‘Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’, fell apart in 2006. Two years later, Serbia’s then southern province of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence – and has yet to be recognised by all EU member-states.
The long arm of the past
I was among the last Yugoslav soldiers to remain in Slovenia, as a member of a military police battalion stationed in Ljubljana. Because my 12-month military service was up, I was allowed to leave in mid-September 1991. I flew from Ljubljana to Belgrade, taking advantage of a brief resumption of flights between the two cities. This August, I returned to Ljubljana to visit ‘places of memory’ as part of my current research project. Today, Slovenia is a relatively prosperous EU member state, which has seemingly put the ‘Balkan’ conflict behind it. Although several museum exhibitions were dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence, other stories were deemed more newsworthy. Some of the exhibitions emphasised the role played in the war of independence by Janez Janša, Slovenia’s current right-wing prime minister, while largely ignoring Milan Kučan, a former communist leader and the first president of independent Slovenia.
Indeed, Slovenia’s recent past still looms large in the political sphere. Janša, one of the leaders of the war of independence 30 years ago (when his nationalism was apparently more acceptable to then EC), has been behind a populist agenda that has seen, among other things, a push for a state-controlled public history. Earlier this year, a ‘non-paper’ proposed the redrawing of borders in the Balkans as a way of ‘resolving’ political instability in Bosnia and Kosovo. Janša, who has forged a close relationship with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán, has been unofficially linked to this document. The irony, of course, is that Janša was a central figure in a war that broke out over the redrawing of Yugoslavia’s borders in late June 1991.
After a week in Ljubljana, I flew to Belgrade, ‘repeating’ the journey I made in 1991. As I landed in Serbia, where right-wing populist president Aleksandar Vučić – ideologically allied to both Janša and Orbán – is also engaged in the production of official historical knowledge, I wondered whether the Serbian and Slovenian leaderships are closer today than 30 years ago, when both republics were technically still part of Yugoslavia.
Dejan Djokić is a professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London and a guest professor in South-East European History at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His project ‘Tito’s Last Soldiers’ is funded by the British Academy and The Leverhulme Trust, UK.