From Independence to Europe: What Comes Next?

European Council via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the years 2019/20, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom reminded of the “peaceful freedom revolutions” (H.-D. Genscher), which took place 30 years ago and which were most symbolically manifested in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification, in the form of various events and publications. However, this revolutionary democratic change did not spread across the whole continent.

While some were able to begin their “return to Europe”  immediately by setting in motion and shaping the necessary and complicated transformation processes in politics, economy, and society, the Southeastern part of the continent experienced a tragedy of an epic dimension.

Between 1991 and 1995 and again in the years 1998/99, the former Yugoslavia suffered from a catastrophe, which one neither expected nor considered possible at the end of the 20th century. Only after a military intervention by the NATO and subsequent massive ongoing support by the international community, at least the basis for lasting peaceful development could be built in the region. Memories of the extreme acts of violence of the recent past are still overly present in the collective memory of the former-Yugoslavian peoples, and ethnic conflicts are contained but far from being resolved.

All these events and circumstances should be taken into consideration when commemorating the 30th anniversary of the independence of Croatia and Slovenia. Today, Slovenia celebrates its national holiday and 30 years of independence. This official holiday, also known as Statehood Day (Dan Državnosti in Slovenian), marks Slovenia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

On June 25, 1991, independence was already written down in the “Basic Constitutional Charter on Independence and Autonomy” and the “Declaration of Independence”, which later officially became part of the Constitution of Slovenia. However, it was not until the following day, June 26, that independence was publicly proclaimed to the Slovenian people in their capital, Ljubljana.

The constitutional amendment was preceded by a referendum held on December 26, 1990. On this special day, which is also celebrated as Independence Day and Slovenian Unity Day, an overwhelming majority – 94.8% of the total electorate – voted in favor of Slovenian independence.

The proclamation of Slovenian independence by the parliament in June 1991 provoked an immediate 10-day war with Yugoslavia, the Slovenian War of Independence. This conflict, which ended on July 7, 1991, marked the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars, which eventually led to the disintegration of the country. At that time, however, Slovenia’s independence had already been concluded and secured by the successful signing of the Bironi Accord.

The situation and other developments in Croatia were much more complex. In this country, independence was also proclaimed in the “Sabor”, the Croatian parliament, on June 25, 1991. Similarly, Croatia’s proclamation of independence had been preceded by a referendum in May, with over 90 percent of the electorate in favor of Croatian independence. The subsequent longer lasting war, which involved the temporary occupation of large parts of the country and continued in Bosnia and Herzegovina, set the country’s nascent political and economic transformation process back by many years.

The Role of Germany and the European Community

With the proclamations of independence in June 1991, the disintegration of the Yugoslavian state was inevitable. After the first armed conflicts, violence in the struggle for Yugoslavia’s heritage escalated and the war gradually involved all the constituent republics. At the core of the wars was the question of the future territorial order in the region, as well as the rights of the former state’s ethnic groups.

The decision of the European foreign ministers in December 1991 to recognize the former republics of Slovenia and Croatia as independent states from January 15, 1992, onwards, provided that these states guaranteed human and minority rights, respected the existing borders, and introduced democratic principles, has kept the debate about the extent, to which such recognition exacerbated the crisis at the time or contributed to its solution, alive to the present day. Germany’s part in this development is repeatedly emphasized.

In his memoirs and on public occasions, the then German Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans-Dietrich Genscher made this point clear on several occasions. Germany was very interested in the cohesion of the state of Yugoslavia, Genscher said. However, it had to be recognized that President Slobodan Milošević pursued a different path with his objectives, which no longer adhered to the basic principles of a federation.

Furthermore, the question of recognition did not only bother the Germans. Within the European Community, the “Badinter Arbitration Commission” was set up specifically for this purpose, in order to define conditions for the recognition of independent states.

For Germany, there existed two basic principles guiding the state’s action: Firstly, any solution was to be found only by peaceful means. Secondly, a joint and unanimous decision within the European Community was to be sought under all circumstances. This way, the discussion and subsequent voting process resulted in a unanimous decision in the early hours of December 17, 1991.

Genscher replied to the ongoing discussion about whether this recognition rather aggravated the crisis or constituted a contribution to its solution unequivocally: “Milošević declared the end of the war at the beginning of 1992. In this connection, it was a decision that brought peace.” It should not be forgotten that the decisions on state independence had already been preceded by a lengthy process of paralyzing the entirety of Yugoslav institutions, a politicization of ethnic differences, and conflicts about economic distributions.

2021 – 30 Years Later

In fact, Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav republic to join the European Union in May 2004, shortly after joining NATO. The country also found the transition from a state economy to a free market economy easier than most of its newly established neighbors.

The Slovenian government will celebrate these achievements, 30 years of Slovenia’s independence and the commencement of its Presidency of the Council of the EU at the Square of the Republic in Ljubljana today. Foreign guests are also expected to attend the festive celebration, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, at the invitation of Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša.

Over the past decades, Janša has politically evolved from a young communist, to an imprisoned dissident, and eventually to a right-wing populist hardliner. After Slovenia had declared independence in 1991, Janša, as defense minister, led the country through the 10-day War to secede from Yugoslavia.

Today, Janša is known for his illiberal, nationalist and conspiratorial positions, and especially for his attacks against the press. He is accused of smear campaigns and verbal assaults on journalists, and his presence on Twitter is often compared to that of former U.S. President Trump. Therefore, the key question for Slovenia and the EU is to what extent Janša will follow Orbán’s playbook, who is considered his closest ally. This is not a good omen for the country that joined the European community of values so swiftly after its independence.

For Croatia, the road to the European Union was more burdensome and tedious. This was particularly true of the negotiation process with the EU, which became more difficult and complex after the accession waves of 2004 and 2007, as the impression intensified within the EU that the organization might have undertaken too much with its eastward enlargement. After six years of negotiation, in 2013, the time has finally come for Croatia to become the 28th member of the EU.

In recent times, the country, with its nearly four million inhabitants, has been subjected to several severe challenges: In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the collapse of the tourism sector, the country was hit by two earthquakes in the course of one year. Growing disenchantment with politics has also been an issue for years.

In regard to the general satisfaction with one’s life, which the European Union’s statistical office Eurostat measures for all the EU countries every year, Croatia regularly ranks among the last. Ongoing emigration, low birth rates, and low voter turnout, especially among young people, are additional indicators of little existing trust in the political system and a lack of confidence.

But as is so often the case, the well-known Hölderlin sentence proves true: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” Unexpected successes of new political forces – at least in Croatia’s larger cities – in the recent local elections of May 2021, ranging from left-green to liberal, point to a deep-seated desire for change among parts of the population and a desire for fundamental transformation.

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