Remembering the birth of Slovenia

Yugoslavian Army tank in Slovenia (file image dating from 1991)
Image caption Slovenia's declaration of independence in 1991 prompted Yugoslav Army intervention

Twenty years ago this weekend Slovenia held its independence ceremony. The sound of jets roaring overhead and the defiant jeers of the celebrating crowds in Ljubljana's Republic Square marked the start of more than four years of conflict as Socialist Yugoslavia collapsed.

Hundreds of thousands would lose their lives. Even today, that Yugoslav War stands only at a ceasefire. In Bosnia and Kosovo, people still fear a return to violence.

There were not many foreign journalists in Republic Square that warm June night in 1991.

I went because I believed Slovenia would become a successful new European nation at the other end of the scale from the new united Germany, whose birth I had also witnessed a few months earlier.

I thought I should be there to record it and that would be all. None of the editors I approached to pitch the story were much interested.

Dynamic republic

The majority of the Slovenes I spoke to were not confident, either, that declaring independence would make a big difference.

Perhaps it might force the Yugoslav government in Belgrade to abandon central planning and allow Slovenia, the most dynamic republic in the federation, more economic autonomy.

Image caption Milan Kucan, Slovenia's first president, says Slovenes fought hard for the chance of their own country

Then came the jets, MIG-21s of the Yugoslav Airforce, buzzing overhead as the new flag with its stars and mountain emblem was raised above the romantic capital of the new nation. Maybe trouble was coming?

Only hours later, I was driven into a ditch near Ljubljana's airport as a Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA) tank forced me off the road on its way towards the airport at Brnik.

The JNA had responded to its standing orders in the case of "counter-revolution" - seize the borders and secure all means of communication.

Fighting had already started in the hills around JNA barracks.

Using weapons bought secretly from Singapore and with troops trained secretly on the orders of the independence-minded Home Defence Minister Janez Jansa, Slovenia put up tough resistance that Belgrade was not expecting.

The JNA was the glue holding together the fragile federation of nations and ethnicities that Tito and his partisans had forged into the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia - of South Slavs - at the end of World War II, and which had been slowly breaking up since his death in 1980.

'Not Soviet Serbs!

As I learned just recently, in a conversation with Milan Kucan, the man who led his Slovene Communists away from Yugoslavia and became Slovenia's first president, the response of the JNA was like a rusty robot - it did what it was programmed to do but its machinery did not work right anymore.

"They didn't ask the politicians, they just moved into action," he told me.

Janez Fajfar, now mayor of the tourist town of Bled and in 1991 in charge of turning one of Tito's villas into a luxury hotel, watched the machine breaking down.

"By then, all the young men who could avoid conscription had done so. They got their parents to say they were students. The only ones left in the army round here were poor Albanian kids from the south."

Janez Fajfar saw a group of about 100 conscripts, looking bewildered, herded by their Serbian officer, marching towards the gates of the villa, which was still on the JNA's map as a strategic installation.

"After a while, they all ran away. They'd been told they were defending Socialism but it didn't take them long to realise that was nonsense!"

The war was far less comical elsewhere. A helicopter was brought down, its pilots killed. Unarmed civilians were caught in crossfire. In all, around 40 people died - a fraction of the deadly cost of the war as it spread to Croatia, then Bosnia and Kosovo.

How did Slovenia escape the greater bloodshed?

As Mr Kucan told me, there were three main reasons: "Only 40,000 well-integrated Serbs in a nation of 2 million Slovenes, so Milosevic [the Serbian leader in Belgrade] had few willing helpers; Slovenes had been a nation with a culture and language for centuries, but we had never had a country, now we had that chance; and we fought, which brings me great joy even now, but great sadness too... families left without fathers."

There may be a further reasons. I've been talking over old times with independent Slovenia's first Prime Minister Alojz Peterle, now a member of the European parliament.

He told me a story I had not heard before. He described his nerve-wracking visit to Moscow to solicit support from the then Russian leader, the unpredictable Boris Yeltsin. "Yeltsin told me: 'We are not Soviet Serbs!'"

The European Union negotiated a ceasefire and a three-month cooling-off period, in effect a rubber-stamp for Slovenia to go it alone.

Twenty years later, Slovenia's national project is achieved, with memberships of the EU, Nato, the eurozone and the OECD.

Would Russian backing for Serbia have changed the outcome for Slovenia?

Probably not, because fighting had already begun in Croatia, where there was a much larger Serbian minority. I had already filmed them putting up barricades and searching tourist buses at gunpoint. Milosevic had more scope in the rest of Yugoslavia.

Skirmishes in Croatia flared up into full-scale war during that summer of 1991. The Serb bombardment of Vukovar was the first of many brutal examples of that phenomenon the Yugoslav Wars contributed to the political lexicon - ethnic cleansing.

As I watched Slovenia struggling towards independence, I simply could not imagine what was to come.

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