Slovenia’s path towards independence: a different process than the Catalan way

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Slovenia’s path towards independence: a different process than the Catalan way

Slovenia’s path towards independence: a different process than the Catalan way

Marc Gafarot Monjó Catalonia, Europe 26/04/2018 Comments


Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Slovenia joined the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later called Yugoslavia. Very few at that time could not expect what would happen decades after: the dissolution of that new political enterprise then envisaged by many as a sort of a new and successful political Babylon, in contrast with the old fashioned “age of empires”. In this regard, the current established view that there was a ceaseless, atavistic hate between the nations of the former Yugoslavia is not accurate. Certainly, there are many examples that would support this premise. On the other hand, there are many others that would prove that coexistence was possible, such as the uncountable of intermarriages and cultural, economic and political ties and social relations.

As for independence, June 25, 1991 was a key date in the history of Slovenia. This was six months after the national referendum on independence, held on the 23 of December 1990. As a consequence of this vote, Slovenia proclaimed its independence. Then, the former Yugoslav Republic started its way for international recognition, which, according to the opinion of some politicians and foreign affairs experts, was not to take place earlier than “50 years of time”. Indeed, it didn’t take half a century for its international recognition. On the contrary, it happened only 17 months after the moment of the country’s decision to moving towards independence, when Slovenia was finally integrated as a full member in the United Nation system. In those 17 crucial months, the complete dismantlement of Yugoslavia took place in the wake of a bloody and vicious war.

Prior to these events and with the aim of keeping Yugoslavia’s national project alive, the federal authorities gave two alternatives to the referendum on independence. The first one was a referendum for the whole of Yugoslavia, asking whether the Slovenians had the right to self-determination. The Slovenes clearly opposed this offer considering that it was perceived as an scenario in which the people’s right to self-determination was not duly applied. The second option was for the National Assembly –a federal body- to adopt a secession law by majority, and obviously the Serbians in that case were the majority and the Slovenes a tiny little minority in the state of Yugoslavia.

Once again, the Slovenes rejected this proposal. From their point of view, Yugoslavia was a common state that it belonged to all its inhabitants, but they had decided voluntarily to join it in the wake of the outcome of the First World War. Thus, they argued that one day they could have the right to leave. In this way, it does not seem a coincidence that at the time Slovenia was seceded from the State, Yugoslavia along with its Communist system were ceasing to exist, and all of the Republics, when Yugoslavia had vanished, would inherit their countries on an equal position. Hence, it was too hard for the Slovenes to accept what the supporters of a united Yugoslavia were proposing. A desire of acting on their own –nationalism- was a powerful idea for leaving a “new country” ruled by Serbian elite now without a communist façade, more than a decade after the death of Tito.



In 1980, Tito was out of the play and, especially from the second half of the 1980s, a significant number of factors changed in the country. Those proved to be crucial on the path to the independence, particularly, the critical writing of intellectuals in the circle of the so-called Nova Revija magazine. Thus, one issue of the magazine -number 57- was focused for the first time on Slovenia’s independence. It reflected a sentiment that was echoing beyond their borders and, at the same time, in the Soviet Union a renewed national movement supporting both, the independence of the soviet republics and contesting communism, was gaining ground. Getting back to Slovenia, in 1988 and 1989 the first political opposition parties emerged and in the 1989 May Declaration they demanded a sovereign state for the Slovenian nation. In April 1990, the first democratic elections in Slovenia took place and were clearly won by DEMOS, the united opposition movement, led by Jože Pučnik. In the same year, more than 88% of the electorate voted for a sovereign and independent Slovenia followed by the declaration of independence in the 25 June 1991. Just one day later, this declaration prompted the attack of the Yugoslav Army to the newly-born state. After a ten-day war, a truce was reached by both parts and the last soldier of the Yugoslav Army left Slovenia in October 1991. During the Ten-Day War, 63 people were killed, several hundred wounded, and more elevated number of prisoners were made, although it did not take them long to be freed following the Brioni Accords.

However, as the Catalans in their pro-independence bid should have learnt from past experiences, for a country, one thing is to declare the independence, and another is to get the recognition of it from the international community. In this way and in the case of Slovenia, the crucial recognition came after the July 1991 Brioni agreement, which ended the Ten-Day War and was the first international agreement between Slovenia and the European Community –plus Yugoslavia and Croatia-. After that, the integration of Slovenia into the international community was followed by recognitions from all around the world. Finally, in May 1991 Slovenia was already admitted as an official member to the United Nations. Coming back to the process of recognition, the first country to do it was neighbouring Croatia in the 26 of June 1991, which it also declared its independence on the same day. Nevertheless, Croatia experienced a completely different transition towards independence with a brutal war with Serbia –the remains of Yugoslavia-. After Croatia, some of the former Soviet states followed the petition in the second half of the year. Then, Iceland, Sweden and Germany, under the auspices of the Vatican acting behind the scenes, recognised Slovenia in the 19 of December 1991, though Sweden and Germany’s recognition taking effect in the 15 January of the next year. Finally, Russia gave the green light to Slovenia in the 14 of February 1992, while the US, which was initially very reluctant about Slovenia’s independence, formalised his acceptance in the 7 of April 1992.

Regarding the European Union, after Lord Carrington’s failed conference on Yugoslavia in autumn 1991, the EU took an unanimous decision to recognise the former Yugoslav republics. Most effort was invested by Germany, although the former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher claimed that they would have never taken the step without the agreement of its European partners. That statement was, as they say, a bit economical with the truth, but very polite in pure diplomatic terms. On the opposite side, the position of France was quite different: The French President Mitterrand believed in the preservation of Yugoslavia for a long time, but in order to keep Europe unified and with the prospect of not being able to contain other member states, he finally supported the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991.

In fact, it was not until mid-1991, half a year after the national referendum in Slovenia, when Europe finally understood that Yugoslavia’s disintegration was unavoidable; and it started taking pragmatic decisions in order to protect Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; especially when the so-called Badinter’s Commission asserted in autumn 1991 that the Yugoslav case was an example of disintegration and not of secession. As a matter of fact, the Catalan case was rather different, since independence was never duly applied and, therefore, there was no real and practical prospect for recognition. Who, in the international community, would bother to recognise a territory that does not show a realistic will to become an independent nation? And yet again, who would dare to disturb a country, like Spain, for supporting Catalonia that only half-hearted expresses its desire to be independent and after the declaration of its independence, the Catalan government decided to suspend it, immediately? The answer is nobody on their right state of mind.


Back to Slovenia, the European Community finally recognised it and Croatia, on January 15, 1992 and four months later the United States did so as the author mentioned above, as well. Washington called upon the Republics to stay united for a long time, but later took the decision to recognise Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to protect peace in the last country, which was inevitably sliding into war. At that time, the international community still underestimated Milošević’s role and interests, since they saw him as a politician striving to preserve Yugoslavia. For this reason, his endeavours were not opposed by force and arms until the mid-nineties.

Considering the notion of recognition of a new State, the American Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmermann, stated at a press conference prior to the declaration of Slovenian independence: “The United States is strongly opposed to the separation of Slovenia from Yugoslavia.” His opinions also included the following comments: “I am not sure Slovenia will or can secede. I doubt that it can, unless it has reached some kind of negotiated settlement with the Federal Government, including with the Yugoslav Popular Army.” In another statement, President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, himself a Frenchman, took the French line and dared to say that “in the unlikely event of independence, Croatia and Slovenia should know that they will never be part of the European Union”. Reality, as time went by has shown a slightly different account.


On the dubious side, it has been argued that a pact against Yugoslavia was prepared by Slovenian president Milan Kučan and Serbian president Slobodan Milošević on January 24, 1991. Therefore, five months before the first military clashes, Milošević agreed that Slovenia was free to secede from Yugoslavia, and Slovenia, in return, agreed that Serbs had the right to live in one country: the Greater Serbia. Obviously, this agreement harmed Croats and Bosnians who lived intermixed with Serbs in the region for centuries. Although this was reported by foreign media and analysts, this critical piece of history has never reached the Slovenian public. It is, in many respects, a forbidden topic. Moreover, the cynical role of Slovenia’s leadership was showed when their leaders took the decision to sell weapons to Croatia and Bosnia – in other words, to the victims of their own pact with Milošević. During the nineties, when the killing on the Balkans reached its peak, Slovenia was often blamed of having triggered off the avalanche rolling over Yugoslavia pulling the area into tragedy.

However, when the Yugoslavian army attacked Slovenia, which came about on the day following the proclamation of independence, it is also right to assert that the world already realised that Yugoslavia was no longer viable. As mentioned before at the EU level, there were differing and conflicting views; whereas French president François Mitterrand was an advocate of the unity of the Yugoslavian federation, Helmut Kohl was a promoter of the principle of self-determination and thus, he stated: “the main principle guiding my decision regarding the recognition was (that) The Slovenians themselves wish for it and was obvious that the splitting up of Yugoslavia will be difficult, if we don’t protect at least one of its parts.” Slovenia made the right choice at the right time, finding herself as a country in the best possible location and under the best possible circumstances. And so, the independence proceed.

Marc Gafarot Monjó


Photo 1: Ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the declaration of independence of Slovenia, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 24/06/2016 (Source: Government Communication Office of Slovenia).

Photo 2: Slovenian soldier and a seized tank of JLA (Jugoslovenska Ljudska Armada) in Vrhnika, Slovenia, 29/06/1991 (Source: Zmaga.com).

Photo 3: The National Memorial in honour to the fallen in the Ten-Day War of 1991, Zale Central Cementery, Ljubljana, Slovenia (Source: Traces of War).