After Tito’s death, Yugoslavia was ruled by an eight-member council called the Presidency, in which each of the six republics and two autonomous regions was represented. Executive leadership (the Presidency of the Presidency) rotated among the members, changing every six months; whoever was President at the time was head of the Yugoslav state and commander-in-chief of its armed forces.

The country’s economic condition deteriorated during the early 1980s as oil prices rose and foreign debt accumulated. Prosperous Western Europe, preparing for the coming European Union, was anticipating an age of even greater prosperity, while the socialist countries of Eastern Europe — up to and including the Soviet Union itself — looked on enviously. As the 1990s drew near, the Communist system proved unable to withstand the pressure, and the walls began to come down.

In Kosovo, Albanians were demanding the full status of a republic, which would free them completely from Serbian control. There were demonstrations, riots, and occasional violence between the Serbian and Albanian communities there — the population was by this time 90% Albanian and 10% Serbian. Slobodan Milošević, a relatively minor official in the Communist government of Serbia, took up the cause of the minority and built it into a nationalist political movement that soon gave him control of the Serbian government. Packing the assemblies of Kosovo and Vojvodina with political cronies, he forced through legislation limiting the autonomy of both regions, and giving Milošević, by now president of Serbia, control of their votes as well as Serbia’s in the federal Presidency. The universities of Priština (in Kosovo) and Novi Sad (in Vojvodina) were put under Serbian control, and Albanian faculty and courses were purged from the former. Given their disadvantage in numbers, it’s likely enough that Kosovo’s Serbs suffered more abuse than Albanians in the turmoil of the 1980s, but it couldn’t have been sufficient to justify such measures as these.

Milošević at Kosovo Polje in 1989
On June 28, 1989, the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje, Yugoslavia’s new de facto leader addressed a gathering of million Serbs at the battle site, evoking all the most heroic myths about Serbia’s glorious past.

Other republics were looking on anxiously at the upsurge of Serbian patriotism, and the first opposition to Milošević’s treatment of the Kosovo Albanians came from, of all places, Slovenia. Though the Slovenes had had their grievances — like the Croats, they resented serving as a cash cow for the rest of Yugoslavia — they had never demanded independence. But now they were increasingly concerned that their language and culture might be drowned in a tidal wave of Greater Serbianism, and that their political autonomy might suffer the fate of Kosovo’s and Vojvodina’s.

One product of nationalist sentiment in Serbia (published in 1986, even before Milošević began stirring the pot) was a “memorandum” issued by the Serbian Academy of Sciences. It declared that Serbia’s economic problems were the product of a deliberate policy on the part of the Croat/Slovene Tito and the Slovene Kardelj, which these two had pursued since 1945 with the express object of keeping the Serbs politically divided and economically underdeveloped.

Cover of the notorious issue of Nova Revija
The following year, Slovene intellectuals responded by devoting issue 57 of the journal Nova Revija to a collection of articles entitled “Contributions to a Slovene National Program.” Although the preface was careful to say that the essays that followed were not meant to advocate an explicit political program, the contents implied that Yugoslavia, as a national concept, was breaking down, and that Slovene human rights, culture, and national sovereignty were mutually dependent. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav government did not take this well, and in 1988 four Slovenes were accused of betraying state military secrets and tried by the Army in Ljubljana — in Serbo-Croatian rather than their own language. Slovenian resentment increased when it became known that the so-called military secrets involved a plan to crack down on Slovene “separatists.”

In the circumstances, Slovenes had little difficulty seeing themselves in the position of the Kosovo Albanians, and their representatives in national bodies became defenders of the Albanians’ human rights, opposing a Yugoslav government that was more and more an instrument of Milošević’s policies. Not only did Slovenia refuse to fall in line on the subject of Kosovo, but in 1989 a group of intellectuals there issued a declaration in favor of independence and democracy.

In January, 1990, there was a confrontation at the 14th Congress of the League of Yugoslav Communists, the country’s sole official political party. (Tito had changed its name from Communist Party of Yugoslavia at the time of his break with Stalin.) The Slovenes proposed party reforms, all of which were rejected by Milošević’s majority, and finally the Slovene delegation walked out — followed by the Croats.

Milošević had expected the Slovene delegation to walk out of the party congress. He even joked that they had checked out of their hotel rooms that morning to avoid paying for an extra night, playing on a stereotype of Slovenes as comical tightwads. But when the Croatians joined them, it became impossible for him to isolate Slovenia as a disloyal republic within Yugoslavia. A general breakup was now inevitable, although there were many who didn’t want it — those who still believed in the vision of a united Yugoslavia, those who feared what rampant nationalism might lead to (a group that included not only loyal Communists but also many citizens of mixed nationality), and, significantly, the Yugoslav National Army (or JNA, its initials in Serbo-Croatian).

Slovenia and Croatia began planning popular referenda on independence, and new political parties began to spring up in Ljubljana and Zagreb. The country of Yugoslavia and its sole ruling party were both breaking up along national lines, and it was clear that every republic would have to deal with the question of independence. An even more troublesome question was how republics should be defined — on the basis of geography or ethnicity? This was fairly easy for the Slovenes; almost all of them lived within their republic’s official borders. But not all Croats lived in Croatia, and not all Serbs in Serbia.

The republics of Serbia and Montenegro were almost uniformly Serbian in ethnicity (an identity defined more by language and affiliation with the Orthodox Church than by geography), but Croatia had a large Serbian population: the Krajina settlements established under the Austrian emperors three centuries previously. Serbs were now 12% of Croatia’s population. Bosnia was divided among Muslims (44%), Serbs (33%), and Croats (17%). Defining national identity would obviously be a thornier problem for these republics, and for Macedonia as well, which had a majority population claimed by both Serbia and Bulgaria — in fact, although the language they spoke was closer to Bulgarian than Serbian, it was identical to neither — as well as Serbian colonies planted there after the acquisition of Macedonia in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. Macedonia also contained a large and growing Albanian Muslim population, and other groups as well.

Milošević decided to solve the problem of ethnicity versus geography by having it both ways. Serbs would control Serbia, including both Kosovo (at this time 90% Albanian) and Vojvodina (with a large non-Serb minority, most of whom were Hungarians), all of which were, he could argue, within the official borders of Serbia. In addition, however, all Serbs who lived outside these borders would be given the right of national self-determination, and republican boundaries would be redrawn to contain all who wished to be Serbs. This solution would greatly enlarge Serbia, if it could be accomplished at all: a doubtful proposition because ethnic populations were thoroughly intermixed, especially in Bosnia. (But a way of dealing with this inconvenience would shortly be at hand: ethnic cleansing.)

Milan Kučan
All Yugoslavia’s republics held elections during 1990. To run its government, Slovenia elected a coalition of six center-to-right parties. It defeated the former Communists (renamed the Party of Democratic Renewal), but as President they chose Milan Kučan, who, although a long-time Communist, had strongly opposed Milošević, and had led the Slovenian walkout from the League of Communists congress. He was as committed to a freedom, democracy, and national independence as any other Slovene.

Franjo Tudjman
Croatia went heavily for a pro-independence party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ for short, standing for Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica), led by an ultranationalist named Franjo Tudjman. Although the party’s campaign had reminded some people of the Ustaše’s ideological excesses during World War II, it got 60% of the vote. Once in power, Tudjman engineered changes in Croatia’s new constitution, particularly the part that guaranteed the status of the country’s Serbs — many of whom soon lost their jobs not only in the civil service and police, but in the media and the factories as well. The fear and anger provoked among the Serb population made them all the readier to listen to Milošević’s siren songs about a Greater Serbia.

Tudjman’s frequent invocations of Croatia’s “historic and natural boundaries” didn’t help relations with other republics, either, since he was clearly thinking of the large number of Croats who lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina. (This republic’s hyphenated name goes back to the 19th century, when the two formerly Turkish provinces were put under Austrian administration and treated as a single district.) Most of the Croats lived in western Herzegovina, a southern district some distance from the border with Croatia, but Tudjman’s occasional respectful references to the wartime Independent State of Croatia suggested that it was the geographic borders of that state, taking in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, that he had in mind when he spoke of historic and natural boundaries.

Although Tudjman, once a fervent Communist Partisan and later an army general, had written a book on guerilla warfare, he seems not to have expected any resistance to his rearrangements within Croatia. According to the British journalist Misha Glenny, Croatia gave little thought to military matters in the early days of independence; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Tudjman that in displacing the Croatian Serbs politically and economically, asserting that Croatian nationality was based on Roman Catholicism, adopting a national flag that looked ominously similar to that of the Independent State of Croatia, and describing the latter as perhaps the best government Croats had lived under in the past, he was making enemies of 12% of his country’s population — enemies who might prove dangerous. As a Partisan, Tudjman had fought the Ustaše, but in 1960 he resigned from the JNA (in which he had reached the rank of general) and became a specialist in Croatian history. In time he came to embrace a nationalistic and revisionist viewpoint in which the number of Serbs killed by the Ustaše was in fact quite modest, and Serbia was responsible for most if not all of Croatia’s problems throughout the 20th century.

In Serbia, the 1990 elections made Milošević president and put his Serbian Communist Party in charge of the legislature. This was expected, but the vote wasn’t decided entirely on nationalistic grounds. The Serbian economy was shaky, and many people were afraid that if the country converted to a market economy (as was happening elsewhere in post-Communist Eastern Europe) they’d lose their jobs. This fear worked in the Communists’ favor. Just to make sure, however, Miloševic secretly commandeered $1.8 billion from the federal central bank to subsidize his supporters and keep the economy humming. (This became known to his critics as “The Great Serbian Bank Robbery.”)

In Bosnia, the three major ethnic groups elected deputies to the parliament in approximate proportion to their numbers, and a Muslim, Alija Izetbegović, became president. Macedonia elected a non-Communist government and a president who, like Slovenia’s, was a former Communist. Apart from Serbia, only Montenegro elected a Communist government — its president, Momir Bulatović, was an ally of Milošević who stuck with Serbia when all the other republics seceded from Yugoslavia. (Later, over the course of a decade beginning in 1996, Montenegro separated itself from the rump Yugoslavian state, and eventually declared itself fully independent in 2006.)

In 1991, the state of Yugoslavia still existed officially, but it had effectively ceased to function. Each republic, plus the two allegedly autonomous regions, had according to the constitution, one vote in the joint Presidency. Milošević now controlled the votes of Serbia, Kosovo, and Vojvodina, and could also count on Montenegro’s support. So virtually every significant vote was now a 4–4 deadlock.

Gen. Kadijević, Minister of Defense, and Col.-Gen. Adžić, JNA Chief of Staff
The Yugoslav National Army (the JNA) was on its way to becoming, in effect, a Serbian army — not only because the officer corps (as in the prewar Yugoslav kingdom) was mostly Serbian, and susceptible to the idea that Yugoslavia and Greater Serbia meant more or less the same thing, but also because, in opposing the secession of Slovenia and Croatia they would be acting in defense of the Yugoslav nation. Milošević cynically supported this interpretation for his own purposes: publicly, he supported the central Yugoslav state institutions, but with the intention of bringing them under his own control to make Yugoslavia in actual fact a synonym for Greater Serbia. This was not made clear to the JNA’s commanders until hostilities were well under way in Croatia. The Defense Minister, General Veljko Kadijević, the son of a Serbian father and a Croatian mother, classified himself ethnically as a Yugoslav; Colonel-General Blagoje Adžić was a Serb from Bosnia. This picture was taken at the fateful 14th Congress of the League of Communists in January, 1990, when Milošević had already decided privately to let Slovenia go and to carve out the Serb portions of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Since the 1960s, each republic, besides supplying draftees to the JNA, had had a small “territorial self-defense force” under its own control. These lightly armed troops were intended to support the JNA in the event Yugoslavia was invaded, and if necessary to take advantage of their familiarity with local terrain and fight as guerillas,,. At the end of 1990, when a Slovenian referendum on independence voted 88% in favor, the JNA announced that all territorial forces would now be brought under its centralized command, and ordered them to turn in their arms.

But Slovenia had known this would happen and had actively prepared for it. Without the JNA’s knowledge, they had (starting in 1990, well before the country voted for independence) set up a secret parallel command structure that integrated the territorial force with the police. On the pretext of replacing faulty or outdated equipment, the territorial force bought enough extra weapons so that, after handing arms over to the JNA, they were still at least partially equipped. The secret command, with some assistance from Slovenes inside the JNA, who passed them useful but classified information, prepared detailed plans for dealing with whatever attack might come. They knew, however, that none of their preparations would enable their small country, with a population of less than two million, to resist the full power of the JNA for more than a few days.

A media campaign was laid out to ensure that, during those few days, the world would see what happened as much as possible from the Slovene point of view. The civil and military planners went even farther: judging what social and administrative services the central government might try to hinder or control in the event of a confrontation, they surreptitiously created an elaborate duplicate system that could take over if necessary.

Slovenia also sent representatives to several countries asking their governments for help in negotiating a peaceful breakup of Yugoslavia. The Slovenes got a mixed reception: the United States and the European Union (at least, the majority thereof) wanted the Yugoslav state to remain united. They were not moved — at this time — by the argument that the central government’s obvious lack of interest in democratic values made independence Slovenia’s only hope.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Kohl, 1990
Austria, which had cultural and historic affinities with Slovenia, and Germany — less closely involved than Austria but obviously a much bigger player on the European scene — were inclined to be sympathetic, however. Helmut Kohl and Hans Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s Prime and Foreign Ministers, took Slovenia’s cause to their hearts. They were accused by Serbian and Yugoslav critics of trying to reestablish Germany’s World War II hegemony in the region, but they were influenced more by support for the cause of independence on the part of the German press and electorate (which included some 200,000 Croatian immigrants) and by a genuine desire that Germany should stand in support of national self-determination — the basis on which their country had been reunified only a year before.