The political temperature rose quickly in the spring of 1991. The Yugoslav presidency was due to rotate from Serbia to Croatia, but the Serbian president, Borislav Jović, refused to yield to his scheduled replacement, the Croatian Stipe Mešić, and the voting deadlock prevented a resolution. Croatia quickly held a referendum and voted to become independent and form a national guard.

Milan Kučan on June 25, 1991
Slovenia had announced that it would declare its independence on June 26. Croatia decided to declare its own independence on the same day. But, in a move to wrong-foot the expected response by the JNA, the Slovene parliament surprised everyone by passing the legislation that established independence on June 25 instead, rightly guessing that the JNA would have planned its response for the 27th. A Slovenian government website says that independence was formally declared by President Kučan in Revolution Square (now Republic Square) on the 26th, but other sources say that he spoke on the 25th. The picture, clearly taken after dark, is labeled June 25, but he may have spoken the next day as well. At all events, by the end of the 26th, Slovenia had seized the Ljubljana airport and all the border crossings into Italy. (Since nearly all the personnel were Slovene, no force was required — in most cases, just a change of uniform and insignia.) Posts were also established along the border with Croatia, where of course they hadn’t existed before.

Yugoslavia’s military authorities were divided about what action to take. The JNA’s chief of staff, Colonel-General Blagoje Adžić, wanted a large-scale military operation, leading to a full suppression of the rebellion, trials and execution of the leading insurgents, and so on. But the Minister of Defense, Veljko Kadijević, argued for a much more cautious effort — something more on the order of a show of strength — in the expectation that the Slovenian leadership would back down quickly. This view prevailed.

Although a few troops left their base in the Croatian port of Rijeka on the 26th, headed for the border crossings between Slovenia and Italy (provoking some angry demonstrations, but nothing worse), the JNA wasn’t able to get many of its pieces onto the table until the next day, when numerous units based in Croatia and in Slovenia (which, as a constituent Yugoslav republic, obviously had its share of military installations) went into action. They retook the airport and most of the border crossings.

Janez Janša, Minister of Defense, 1991
But Slovenian guerilla tactics soon began to take effect. JNA troops holding isolated positions, and those still on base in Slovenia, were surrounded and besieged. Some units surrendered. Tank columns trying to move along narrow roads through the deeply forested country were ambushed and stalled. Slovenia’s war plan had been prepared under the leadership of Janez Janša, the country’s Minister of Defense. He was one of the four Slovenes the JNA had put on trial and jailed in 1988, an honor he earned by writing magazine articles that criticized the Army. Janša’s university degree in defense studies (Ljubljana, 1982) had clearly not been a waste of time. By the end of the second day of actual hostilities, June 28, the JNA was losing ground, and its situation continued to grow worse.

JNA tank column in Slovenia, 1991
Many JNA soldiers had not been told that they were going into actual combat — they thought it was a mere exercise until people began shooting at them. And many had no interest in defeating Slovenia. Although most of their officers were Serbs or Montenegrins, the soldiers came from all the republics. According to Wikipedia, the enlisted ranks of the 5th military district, which was in action in Slovenia, were in 1990 (the year before this war) 30% Albanian, 20% Croatian, 15 to 20% Serbian and Montenegrin, 10% Bosnian Muslim and 8% Slovene. Most of the latter changed sides, and the rest just wanted to get home.

The Slovene media campaign went according to plan. The armed forces had been equipped with antitank weapons and rockets capable of bringing down helicopters, and their success against such “big army” weapons produced the David-and-Goliath impression that the leadership was hoping for. The European Community began putting pressure on Yugoslavia to call off the troops. The JNA lost one position after another; stranded units continued to surrender, and when the Chief of Staff and Defense Minister asked for authorization to use greater force, they were shocked when the commander-in-chief, Borislav Jović, told them that Serbia did not support further military efforts against Slovenia. Milošević — unwilling to pay a high military price to hold onto a republic that, lacking a significant population of Serbs, could contribute nothing to his vision of a Greater Serbia — had long since decided not to fight.

So the Army’s effort to suppress Slovenian independence was abandoned. The JNA signed a cease-fire late on July 3, and over the next three days all of its units withdrew to their original bases in Slovenia or Croatia. (Counting from June 27, when the first hostilities occurred, through July 6, the last of these three days of disengagement, the length of the war comes to ten days.)

The business was settled formally on July 7 by the Brioni Agreement, signed on a Croatian island by the heads of the Yugoslavian republics and representatives of the European Community (EC), the predecessor of today’s European Union. In return for an essentially meaningless three-month “moratorium” on independence, Slovenian armed forces and police were recognized as sovereign within their territory, and it was agreed that all JNA forces would be out of Slovenia by October 26. Slovenia insisted on setting the terms for this withdrawal, and required the JNA to leave much of its heavy equipment behind. (What Slovenia did not use, it sold to other Yugoslav republics or on the international market.)

Slovenia celebrates 15 years of independence, June 2006
Because the war was so short, and most combat involved relatively small groups, casualties were notably light. Wikipedia cites Slovenian estimates that “the JNA suffered 44 fatalities and 146 wounded, while the Slovenians had 18 killed and 182 wounded.” 12 foreign nationals lost their lives in bombing raids by the Yugoslav Air Force. They included two Austrian journalists at the international airport, and ten truck drivers, most of them Bulgarian, whose trucks had been commandeered to form massive highway barricades against JNA tanks.

The authors of Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation refer to the ten-day conflict as “Slovenia’s phoney war.” This is true in at least one sense, given that the Slovenes’ objective was not to win an impossible military victory but rather to make a usefully favorable impression on international opinion. The book quotes Slovenian President Milan Kučan’s report of a meeting with Milošević in January, 1991, five months before Slovenia declared independence:

It was obvious at that meeting that the Serbs would not insist on keeping Slovenia within Yugoslavia... We Slovenes said that we wanted the right to have our own state. Milošević said the Serbs wanted the recognition of this right for themselves, too — that is, all Serbs in Yugoslavia in one state. My reply, of course, was that the Serbs also had this right, but in the same way as all Slovenes, without hurting the rights of other nations. Milošević replied ‘Yes of course, this is clear,’ and with that we flew home to Ljubljana.

It’s unlikely that Kučan considered Milošević’s last statement completely sincere, but the authors’ implication that he was in some sense a co-conspirator does him less than justice. Slovenia had no way to prevent Serbia from doing what it wanted, and Kučan’s first responsibility, after all, was to his own country and its citizens. Remaining in Yugoslavia would have been pointless by this time, given that Milošević was able to keep the federal Presidency in a state of permanent paralysis. I think Kučan concluded, reasonably enough, that the best and safest course for Slovenia was to get out of what critics were already calling “Serboslavia.” The conditions necessary for putting Yugoslavia back together without force did not exist in the spring of 1991.