The bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, once one of the world’s most prosperous socialist countries, resulted in more than 130,000 deaths, millions of refugees, and systematic rapes and ethnic cleansing. The wars of the 1990s also sparked massive arms smuggling during an arms embargo by the United Nations, and left the countries that emerged riddled with corruption and organized crime twenty years later.
Each of these countries built their own national mythologies about wartime events. These narratives hail their political and military leaders at the time of the conflict as national heroes and strengthen nationalist sentiment.
My recent investigation, published simultaneously on February 22 in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, showed why the dominant historical narrative in Slovenia is a myth based on false foundations. The ugly truth is that secret deals among the emerging republics’ leaders, war profiteering and other shabby business schemes were common during the Yugoslav conflict.
Investigating this issue and breaking taboos is still a difficult assignment. I faced many pressures and threats not to finish this investigation.
The main topic of my report, a fact that has been hidden from Slovenian audiences for two decades, was the pact against federal Yugoslavia that was concocted by Slovenian president Milan Kučan and Serbian president Slobodan Milošević on January 24, 1991. Five months before the first military clashes, Milošević agreed that Slovenia was free to secede from Yugoslavia, and Slovenia agreed that Serbs had a right to live in one country, thus to the Greater Serbia.
This agreement harmed Croats and Bosniaks, who lived intermixed with Serbs in the region for centuries. Although this was reported by foreign media such as the BBC and has been cited by historians, this crucial piece of history has never reached the Slovenian public. It was a forbidden topic.
Moreover, the cynical role of Slovenia's leadership was demonstrated by the decision by Slovenian heads of state to sell weapons to Croatia and Bosnia – in other words, to the victims of their own pact with Milošević.
De-classified minutes of a secret meeting of Slovenia's Council of Defense held on June 9, 1992, only two weeks after Slovenia joined the United Nations, reveal that Kučan, the Slovenian president, and other top officials unanimously approved a decision for Slovenia to sell weapons to Bosnian soldiers and even train them on Slovenian territory. The other officials present included chairperson of the Parliament France Bučar, the Prime Minister Janez Drnovšek, minister of Defense Janez Janša, minister of Interior Igor Bavčar, foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel and Chief of General Staff major-general Janez Slapar.
Janša, the defense minister, was responsible for carrying out this decision, as well as for previous sales of hundreds of tons of weapons and ammunition to Croatia in 1991. But later it was discovered that tens of millions of dollars of war profits in cash disappeared from the Ministry of Defense and never reached the state budget. Slovenia's official explanation has always been that the arms shipments were given away to Croatia and Bosnia as assistance. In reality, it was a profitable business.
This initiated a major scandal in this tiny Alpine nation, which has continued for the last 20 years. More than 21 civil servants and others have been charged in Slovenia for arms smuggling, but none has been convicted. All of these cases have now passed the statute of limitations.
Contrary to the Chilean and Argentinian statesmen who sold arms to Croatia – Chile convicted top generals and Argentinean president Carlos Menem was sentenced to seven years in prison – Slovenia's politicians enjoyed different fate.
Milan Kučan was re-elected as president for two additional terms (1992-2002). Janša, then the defense minister, became prime minister for two terms (2004–2008, 2012-2013) and even led the Council of the European Union in 2008. However, Janša was sentenced to two years in prison in June 2013 for corruption related to arms dealing. His appeal is still unresolved.
In response to my inquiries about his conduct, Kučan said that Slovenia's position was that the right to self-determination of any nation cannot be achieved by denying other nations the same rights. If Slovenia wanted its independence, he maintained, it needed to recognize that Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and other republics were entitled to the same.
“Slovenia only wanted a peaceful and consensual implementation of its plebiscite decision. No arguments for violent changes of borders can be found in our principles,” he said.
Regarding the approval of arms sales, he answered that both the Slovenian Presidency (a five person council led by Kučan) and the Council on Defense unanimously approved assistance in arms for Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. “I have no reasons to add anything to this statement,” he said.
My article, entitled Who helped to open the gate of hell and profited from it?, illustrated the Slovenian role in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In addition to its publication in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro on February 22, Kosovo followed on February 24.
Subscribe to The ICIJ Global Muckraker by email or get the RSS feed
Find out first! Receive ICIJ's investigations by email