A free Croatia and Slovenia and a broken Yugoslavia

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

As Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991, a Germany newly put back together dared to unilaterally take action and recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia independence. Was Germany overstepping its authority?
In 1991, the European Economic Community (EEC), as the precursor to the EU was known, consisted of only 12 member states, each with its own currency. Yugoslavia, after years of internal strife, was on the brink of imploding. Slovenia and Croatia wanted to leave the Balkan federation and become independent.

In Bonn, the capital of Germany at the time, the territories’ proposal to separate went over well. The right of people’s self-determination was undisputed in Bonn and within the EEC – at least theoretically. After all, Europeans had gladly supported Baltic states in their efforts to leave the Soviet Union. Yet, in the case of Yugoslavia, the EEC was tinkering with restoration plans. Bonn in particular distanced itself from the idea of keeping together the multinational state at any price.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher (pictured), Germany’s foreign minister at the time, wanted to avoid forcing Slovenia and Croatia to stay in the federation against their will. His was a highly controversial opinion at the time. Since World War II, German foreign policy had been marked by restraint. Yet Genscher swam against the current with regard to the EEC’s general line on Yugoslavia.

His was also a psychological gamble. Hadn’t Germans distinguished themselves ingloriously in the Balkans twice in recent world wars? The country’s most important partners – France, Great Britain and the US – were against recognizing the new ex-Yugoslav states.

And so Germany became the first country to openly express what would become the global majority view by the end of 1991.

A bloody war

In 1991, Serbian snipers took aim across Croatia. Innumerable truces were violated, and diplomats from the EEC were made fools of. Frustrated by their powerlessness, they devised a plan on how to recognize Slovenia and Croatia in a coordinated, step-by-step plan. In the meantime, the EEC no longer had problems deciding whom to blame: Serbian volunteer armies, backed by Belgrade, were identified as the aggressors.

On August 27, 1991, EEC foreign ministers condemned attacks by Serbian Chetniks on Croatians. Serbia was threatened with consequences if it broke a ceasefire and thwarted peace talks in The Hague. When negotiations at The Hague conference broke down anyway, the United Kingdom and France began to seriously consider recognizing Croatia. Even Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek changed course, eventually announcing that the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia was a done deal – although it would take some time before that became official.

Though the EEC was slowly coming around, Germany’s initial going it alone became a provocative topic in the media. British and French officials criticized Germany harshly, insinuating that the hasty decision had led to the war in Yugoslavia. Foreign Minister Genscher’s policy even polarized Germany. Yet, at the same time, the EEC did create conditions for the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia: the Badinter Arbitration Committee headed by French constitutional judge Robert Badinter.

In the beginning of November 1991, when the last peace plan mediated by the British negotiator Lord Peter Carrington was rejected by Serbia, Genscher remembered that a three-month moratorium had been placed on the decision, regardless of peace talks. Otherwise, Germany kept a low profile on this panel, aside from one subject: The government aimed to compel Croatia to recognize the rights of other ethnic groups in the new country – including Serbs. At the beginning of December 1991, Genscher released a report that certified Croatia’s adherence to minority protection rights; it went beyond the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a meeting in Brussels on December 17, 1991, British foreign minister jumped to Genscher’s side and made it clear that it was time for the EEC to take a stand. And it did, unanimously recognizing Croatia and Slovenia.

Two days later, the German government approved the recognition, to take effect on January 15. But the overall decision had been made together with EEC members. Some say it was too late and not too early, as the recognition had by no means fueled the escalation of violence in Slovenia and Croatia. Serbia had already attacked Croatia in the summer and autumn. Dubrovnik was encircled from October on, and Vukovar’s fate was sealed on November 18. “The recognition of Slovenia and Croatia forced Slobodan Milosevic to end the war between the two states,” Genscher would later say.

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