Slovenia in turmoil

In the last months, a wave of protest and anger has swept through Slovenia, as thousands of people challenge the corrupt and out-of-touch political elite of a country that was once considered the wunderkind of democratic transition in the region.

Marko Bucik
4 February 2013
An anti-government protester burns a sign in Kranj, Slovenia. Luka Dakskobler. All rights reserved.

An anti-government protester burns a sign in Kranj, Slovenia. Luka Dakskobler. All rights reserved.

Slovenia is currently sailing the roughest seas since it gained independence more than twenty years ago. The country that was once considered a wunderkind of democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe, registering solid economic growth and political stability, joining the European Union (EU) and NATO in 2004, adopting the Euro in 2007, is now enmeshed in a political paralysis of significant proportion, with no clear end in sight.

Before the crisis hit Europe's economy, Slovenia had already confidently climbed the ladder and reached 91 percent of the average GDP per capita in the EU. Things were good. Unemployment was at historically lowest levels, just above 6 percent, prosperity was tangible. Shopping malls were full, real estate prices booming, the average car on the street was a solid German Volkswagen. A kind of Slovenian Dream was there, for everyone. Then reality hit.

Since 2008 almost 60 thousand people have lost their jobs, doubling the level of unemployment. 120 thousand in total are now out of work - in a tiny country of two million this is no small amount. Amid the EU-wide slump, Slovenia's economy has contracted disproportionally. The banking sector, still largely state owned, remains fragile and companies are going bust by the day. The construction sector, which previously provided much of the inflated growth, has been wiped out almost in its entirety. Public finances have deteriorated and more recently rumours about a possible Greece-like EU-IMF bailout have grown louder.

Corruption and defiance

As if the dire economic conditions would not suffice, accounts of greed, corruption and defiance among the political and economic elites hit the headlines. The current Prime Minister Janez Janša, leader of the centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party (Slovenska demokratska stranka, SDS), is under investigation on corruption charges stemming from a multimillion defence contract signed during his previous stint as Prime Minister. Zoran Janković, the leader of the largest centre-left opposition party Positive Slovenia (Pozitivna Slovenija, PS) and mayor of the capital city Ljubljana, is under criminal investigation for corruption linked to the construction of a new sports stadium.

In October 2010, the head of cabinet of the then social-democrat Prime Minister Borut Pahor was forced to resign when blatant irregularities were uncovered in the process of the remodelling of her private home. In 2010 also a member of parliament was sentenced to jail for extortion and illegal possession of arms.

In the last year alone, four members of parliament have been discovered to have falsified their educational credentials. Several prominent managers were exposed while trying to buy entire companies through dubious financial maneuvers, while others led their previously prominent companies into bankruptcy. The costs for large infrastructural projects – highways, tunnels, power plants – were continuously expanding, with taxpayers footing the bill. In one case, the contracted cost of a tunnel connecting two sections of highway around the capital Ljubljana, grew from an initial 48 million Euros to a staggering 135 million (link in Slovenian).

With few exceptions, no court case had been brought to a successful conclusion, creating the impression that impunity reigns. Yet despite shameless embezzlement of public funds for private profit, organized public resistance was rare. Slovenians remained largely passive bystanders. Only when one ventured into bars and student clubs, the feeling that something had been rotten all along was palpable. While the selected few were allegedly having a party, the majority was scraping together their last savings and minding their own business.

'Enough is enough!' in Maribor 

Then came November 2012 and the straw that finally broke the camel's back. When a disproportionately large network of speed cameras around Slovenia's second largest city Maribor was put into operation, people lost it.

Two issues infuriated them in particular. First, within a few days more than 70 thousand fines were issued to drivers that live in one of the economically most depressed regions in the country. Sure, this means that many of them ignored speed limits. But in reality, the measure was primarily seen as a cunning way to fill the depleted coffers of the municipality at the expense of the working poor. Not surprisingly, nine out of thirty installed speed radars were burned down. Second, the public-private partnership through which the system was installed ( and worth 30 million Euros) was based on contracts of questionable legality. 

An otherwise seemingly innocent attempt at improving road safety soon resulted in the so-called “Maribor uprising” that over the course of the next weeks brought at times more than ten thousand people out on the streets, protesting against the corrupt practices of the city mayor Franc Kangler and demanding his immediate departure. Kangler had at that point already been charged with corruption on several accounts. In a sign of complete denial, he not only refused to step down as mayor, he even ran as candidate to the country's higher parliamentary chamber, the State Council.

To the surprise of many, he managed to get elected, at the very same moment that thousands were out on the streets asking for justice to be done. The movement against Kangler – appropriately named “Gotof si!” (You're done!) - grew and amidst general disaffection and frustration it generated similar sentiments across Slovenia. Protests began spreading beyond Maribor.

Protests go nationwide 

Thus came 3 December when more than ten thousand people gathered in Ljubljana in protest against a political elite that has lost legitimacy and respect. The largely peaceful protests that brought together young and old of all political colours then turned violent, leading to arrests and the first-ever use of a water cannon in Slovenia since independence. Contrary to the (cynical) wishes of many, the protests persisted, bringing music and arts to numerous squares beyond Ljubljana and Maribor. They managed to instill feelings of solidarity and shared anger in a society that had over recent years largely grown isolated one from the other and passive.

Amidst the somewhat chaotic, yet creative, social movement, demands began to take shape. What was initially a protest targeting the corrupt behaviour of individuals became a vast mobilization denouncing politics-as-usual and the austerity measures promoted by the centre-right coalition government. Isolated cries for cleaning up politics turned into a chorus seeking more fundamental systemic changes, as well as greater social justice in the face of declining prosperity for many and the blatant opportunism of the few.

Yet, the political establishment had not grasped the momentous build up of frustration within Slovenian society and had remained distant and dismissive. In a show of majestic refusal to recognize reality, the spokesperson of the governing party, SDS, even likened the protests to an “uprising of zombies” (link in Slovenian), only adding fuel to the fire.

Fast forward to today, the political crisis has got considerably worse. In the first days of January, the Commission for the prevention of corruption (KPK) published a report (full text, in Slovenian) that accused both the Prime Minister Janša, as well as Janković of being unable to fully explain the source of some of their income and assets accrued in recent years. In the case of Janša, the report revealed that he had potentially benefited from real estate transactions to the tune of more than 200,000 Euros, while also failing to explain large cash transactions.

In the case of Janković, the sum was significantly higher. He has so far failed to fully account for transactions amounting to more than 2,000,000 Euros and the anti-graft commission found vast potential for conflict of interest and corruption, since many of the transactions led to companies that had large construction contracts with the city of Ljubljana. No surprise then that in the hours that followed the publication of the report, all hell broke loose.

The party-political reactions differed. Prime Minister Janša at first admitted some omissions on his part, but decidedly rejected calls for his resignation and went on the counteroffensive. His party has since stood strongly behind him and launched attempts to discredit the work and leadership of the anti-graft commission. In his efforts Janša went as far as to, rather primitively, accuse Goran Klemenčič, the head of the commission, of driving a better car than him - tying the report to a communist conspiracy. Janković took a slightly more nuanced approach. He also refused to stand down as mayor of Ljubljana and rejected the accusations in the report as false, yet he refrained from discrediting the anti-graft commission, froze his party presidency and announced that he will clear his name in the courts.

The three political parties that are part of Janša's current governing coalition have demanded the Prime Minister's resignation. One of them – the Civic List (Državljanska lista, DL) - has since left the government. The remaining two are expected to follow suit. The opposition Social Democrats (Socialni Demokrati, SD) that have recently grown in strength have demanded Janša's resignation and called for early elections. As a side note, Borut Pahor, the former Prime Minister whose government collapsed in late 2011 was elected President in the midst of the turmoil, but has largely remained silent on the whole affair.

Dire consequences

All this has pushed Slovenia towards ever greater political polarization and into a state of political paralysis that is unlikely to end anytime soon. It also appears unlikely that Janša will resign on his own, yet his government will certainly not survive longer than a few more weeks, at best months. Early elections might result in a reshuffling of political power, but give little hope that trust and confidence in the political system will be regained. In the meantime, the economic and social conditions in the country continue to deteriorate, further reinforcing the need for Slovenia to seek external financial help. 

However, apart from the political logistics that will need to be sorted out over the coming weeks, there are several general points worth making in light of the growing disaffection and anger among Slovenians.

First, the protests are unlikely to disappear as long as the core issue of impunity remains unresolved. True, Kangler resigned as mayor of Maribor at the end of last year and a separate court case of corruption among the largest construction companies has resulted in convictions. But everything else pretty much remains the same. So while Slovenians are being asked to shoulder much of the hardship, they have yet to see justice done. In fact, a recent study has shown that trust in institutions has markedly eroded during the economic crisis and currently stands at historical lows (link in Slovenian). In order to turn things around, this must change.

Steingrímur Sigfusson, the Icelandic minister of industry, recently offered a simple piece of advice, saying that while his country has “no magic solution” it "managed to push through unpopular cuts in spending in part because it managed to curb public anger by pushing for the prosecution of its bankers.” The fact that the Slovenian judicial system is riddled with inefficiencies and has so far failed to charge, let alone convict, anyone within the collapsing banking sector – the source of many accounts of favouritism and mismanagement – is a source of legitimate frustration. Add to this the new corruption scandals that are making headlines daily. Unless a solid track-record of convictions – or absolutions – is established, legitimacy will remain elusive.

Second, the sheer number of unresolved corruption cases and scale of mismanagement of state funds, shows that the current institutional setup fails to ensure accountability. While Slovenians have for many years believed that they live in a well functioning modern state, this has proven not to be the case. State institutions have underperformed and expecting that they will soon do better, is wishful thinking. A stronger civic engagement is needed through which the population will increase their scrutiny of those holding public offices. Only in this way will things improve over time.

Third, old political and economic elites have for long monopolized power, reinforcing each other through a closed network of camaraderie and favouritism. People have grown tired of seeing the same faces promising change, while in fact the country has been brought to its knees. Some of the leading politicians have been around for more than twenty years, Janša and Pahor being two examples to hand. The younger generation has little tolerance of personal political fiefdoms and unproductive political polarization that rests on conflicts dating back to the Second World War. Yet, it is precisely up to this generation to fight for greater access to political and economic power, along with greater accountability and changes in political culture.

Fourth, the current paralysis is to a large extent a product of declining moral standards. Slovenians used to rate highly honesty, decency, perseverance and hard work. Over the last years, however, the benchmark for success became a large house with an Audi parked in front. A wider introspection with respect to values is needed, one that returns to praising qualities that earned Slovenia the title of wunderkind it once was. At the same time, the political culture in the country needs to adjust to standards seen elsewhere in the EU, especially in its northern member states. This will of course take time, but now is a good moment to start. If serious accusations are voiced by a legitimate constituent state institution, then politicians should be consequential and assume responsibility first, while seeking to defend the honour of their names through established legal procedures later. Just like everybody else.

Fifth, protests in Slovenia are not unlike protests in other countries where the crisis has hit hard. The worsening economic conditions have brought hardship and exposed failures of the economic and political systems in Europe and beyond. As elsewhere, worsening economic conditions have led Slovenians to demand a greater measure of social justice, not the opposite. They rightfully expect from those in public offices policy measures that ensure that burdens of recovery are equally shared. Further insulation of the political and economic elites thus certainly will not help. Self-criticism, honesty and openness to alternative economic thinking will.

Sixth, Slovenia is bound to remain a small state. Its population will do better by recognizing its inherent limitations and dealing with them. True, nepotism and favouritism among the elites abound, yet this is a normal tendency in a country of two million and it shows itself in all the traits of life. The real challenge is how to establish a society that learns to counter them, at all levels. This might just mean that everyone needs to assume greater responsibility in creating a more open, transparent and competitive environment, in which people are judged by merits, not familial or friendship ties.

Finally, Slovenians are not alone in this. German ministers have been as prolific (in Slovenian) in plagiarizing their PhDs as were Slovenian Members of Parliament in faking their graduation certificates. Irish banks have been as badly run as Slovenian ones. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, has as many questions to answer over corruption allegations as Janez Janša has. It would be a mistake to believe that the Slovenian case is, at its core, entirely different.

Yet, the question is how society deals with problems when they arise. Protesting is part of the solution, although many have recently claimed the opposite. However, real decisions need to be made within the democratic political framework Slovenians chose when opting for independence in 1991. True, it requires adjustments, rejuvenation and greater engagement by everyone. But ignoring its fundamental strengths and discrediting its institutions will only drag the country down a highly dangerous and unpredictable path.

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