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Interview: Aleš Hojs: »We were determined to get our own country«

»We were the first generation to go to the army after secondary school, we went to university only after completing our military service,« recalls the current Minister of the Interior, Aleš Hojs, who was drafted into the Territorial Defence several times during his studies to participate in military exercises. He was drafted during the war for Slovenia, but as he points out, he more or less spent it waiting and did not take up arms, as there were not enough weapons because Slovenia had been disarmed. »It was then that we actually experienced how the whole nation, both those who were under arms and those who were not, stood up to get their own country,« he added.

Aleš Hojs

Minister of the Interior, Aleš Hojs. | Author Nebojša Tejić/STA

Mister Minister, where were you at the time of the independence efforts?

Those years, 1990 and 1991 in particular, were very special to me, and not only because we gained independence. I also got married in that period and in October 1991 we had our first daughter, so it was then when the most important changes happened in my life. In the days when the war broke out, I was activated as a member of the Territorial Defence. Members of the other side, meaning intelligence officers of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), also looked for me at home, because it was very important which side you picked, and the JNA was pretty much active at the time. At the beginning and during the war, I was on a sort of stand-by in the former municipality of Ljubljana Šiška. The Territorial Defence had its headquarters there, and all its members came there. Unfortunately, we didn’t have arms that we could use. At that time, I didn’t participate in direct military operations; we were a special military engineering unit that would, if needed, blow up a bridge or something similar.

Is there an event from the independence war that you remember particularly?

During the Ten-Day War, I was at home one day, as I was "waiting to be called up", when I heard a sudden and violent explosion relatively close to me. We all went outside, and I even climbed to the roof of my home, to see a huge cloud of smoke some 400 metres away. We learned later that a helicopter had been shot down as it was flying over Rožna Dolina. It had actually first flown over the presidential and government palaces and, because it failed to observe the no-fly zone, it was shot down and fell 400 metres away from our home in Rožna Dolina, unfortunately there were fatalities.

Those were indeed very uncertain times. What did you think the end result of all those events would be?

The fact is that I wasn’t a part of the command or other structures. I was actually a completely ordinary soldier, as I had been in the Yugoslav People's Army before that. Of course, I didn’t think that the JNA would actually mount an attack. I have to say this openly. I think that the only ones who knew this at the time were our wise leaders, including the defence and interior ministers, and commander Tone Krkovič, for instance, who had actually been prepared for that possibility. I didn’t think, though, that the JNA would disintegrate so quickly. I was very surprised by how quickly this large machine fell apart. But if I take a look back at the years when I served in the JNA, this doesn’t actually seem so unusual, as everything was on shaky foundations even then. This is to say that everything was just a big façade, there was a lot of talk and a lot of money, but there was no sense of affiliation or desire for such an army to be protected and to survive.

For the last five years you have chaired the Association for the Values of Slovenian independence, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Can you tell us something about the association?

The association has certainly contributed to clarifying certain historical facts from the period of our independence efforts, and in particular, to giving certain events from that period due credibility and importance. Let me mention only three events that were kept quiet at the time. The first happened in Poljče, when the MPs of the DEMOS coalition decided to hold an independence plebiscite. Before the association was established, this event was not celebrated, or if it was, it was done quietly. Another important event that the association started to mark is connected with the region of Primorska and is called The Day Before. It marks the occasion when Slovenians from Vrhpolje threw their bodies in front of tanks to prevent them from exiting barracks and going to our southern borders. It was an event that was known locally at the time, but was not recognised at the national level. The third event is also one of the key events, and our association was not actually the first to start marking it, because it had been emphasised earlier by the association, MORiS Kočevska Reka, established by Tone Krkovič. It marks the lining up of the special forces brigade, called MORiS, in Kočevska Reka. If it weren’t for the association’s support, this event wouldn’t be celebrated at such a high level, with the President of the Republic attending the 30th anniversary of the event and thereby emphasising its exceptional importance, also with his keynote address. The event is important from two aspects, one of them being a demonstration of our power, as our new weapons were presented there for the first time, so the JNA could see that the Slovenian Territorial Defence was adequately prepared. But, what was even more important is that the event was held at the right moment, a few days before the independence plebiscite. Citizens also saw that we were prepared militarily or that we would be prepared, and it was an additional incentive for people to opt FOR independence in the plebiscite with such a large majority. There is also a series of other, smaller events, which are just as important, both locally and regionally, and I think that in these ten years our association has developed from initial anonymity into a civil society organisation that is strong enough to be recognised throughout the entire country.

Do young people who were born after that period know enough about how an independent Slovenia was created?

I am convinced that the Slovenian education system has completely failed in this respect. Today, children aren’t being raised in a spirit that celebrates the fact that we have achieved our independence, that we have our own state, what this actually means, how it was created in the first place, and with what effort … After all, it doesn’t even occur to people that in the middle of Europe there is a province much larger and with many more people than Slovenia – Catalonia – which is not likely to become an independent state in the next 100 years, while we have our own state. It’s true that a part of this responsibility lies with civil society organisations, including our association, but such organisations cannot be a substitute for the education process that should take place in schools.

Are Slovenians today sufficiently aware of the great importance of the independence events and the fact that they have a country of their own? Is there enough of a historical memory remaining concerning the creation of our state?

Absolutely too little! We are indeed in an unusual time, when we are very restricted, but if I take a look at the preparations for the 30th anniversary of independence made by the previous government, which was in office until last March, I must say that practically nothing had been done. Our government jumped into action immediately. I believe that we will manage to appropriately mark at least some of the events, with a broader programme that will cover all Slovenia, including municipalities and, in particular, the education process, either with a new publication or something else. Members of the organising committee and the Education Minister are expected to talk about precisely that matter this week.

I would also like to point to the gap between those who still emphasise or glorify the former state by excessively extolling the socialist system, and whose number in our society is not negligible, and those who are "on the other side". This gap, and the spanners that are being thrown in the works by those who have never come to terms with us having our own country or our breaking away from our former country, and even by their descendants, are still so large that it will probably take a generation or two for us to arrive at a point when the celebration of our independence will be the largest national holiday. People in the USA, France and other countries have a much different attitude to the date when they mark the creation of their country.

For this reason, what I wish is that all our citizens, in the year of the 30th anniversary of independence, will have a great deal of pride in having an independent state and, of course, I would like for all of us to be aware of how privileged a generation we were to be able to achieve this in our lifetime, that we were there, so to speak. I also urge us all, and in particular the younger generation, to always cherish and nurture this value so that it will grow with us.

Author: Vesna Žarkovič