SLOVENIA: ‘The government has taken advantage of the pandemic to restrict protest’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent right-wing shift in Slovenia with Brankica Petković, a researcher and project manager at the Peace Institute in Ljubljana. Founded in 1991, the Peace Institute-Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies is an independent, non-profit research institution that uses research and advocacy to promote the principles and practices of an open society, critical thought, equality, responsibility, solidarity, human rights and the rule of law. It works in partnership with other organisations and citizens at the local, regional and international levels.

Brankica Petkovic

What were the circumstances that led to the change of government in early 2020?

This is the third time that Janez Janša has become prime minister; he is very persistent and sees himself as destined to save Slovenia from leftist and liberal values. This year Slovenia will celebrate 30 years of independence since the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and for most of those years we have been under centre-left governments. These dynamics have been particularly frustrating for Janša and his party, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), who tend to blame the media, which they see as left-leaning and controlled by former communists, for the fact that they are not able to gain power more often. Janša has a conspiratorial mindset and has claimed that he was arbitrarily sent to prison so that the elections could be stolen from him. In fact he was in prison because of a judicial verdict in a corruption case, which the Constitutional Court eventually revoked on appeal, mainly on the grounds that there wasn’t sufficient evidence against him.

The SDS used to be a right-wing party but is increasingly considered, especially by external, European observers, to be a far-right party. We have not yet accommodated to this shift, because we’ve historically identified it as a right-wing party, but they have indeed gradually moved further to the right, becoming more radical, over the past years, possibly in reaction to Janša being in prison. The values they advocate are strongly against migrants’ rights and promote racist ideology, and the methods they use increasingly place them on the far right of the political spectrum.

The SDS is far from having a majority in parliament: its share of the vote has consistently been between 20 to 30 per cent. It gains such a big share of the vote because its members are highly motivated, while a lot of people who don’t feel strongly about politics do not even bother to vote. In terms of its membership, it is in fact the biggest party, and even when it is in the opposition, it has maintained a substantial parliamentary bloc.

Before the pandemic, we had a centre-left minority government, that is, a government that did not hold the majority of the parliamentary seats, so it was quite unstable. The centre-left political block in general is unstable: we have had many centre-left governments, but after the collapse of Liberal Democratic Party, which was the ruling party between 1996 and 2004, more often than not the parties in those centre-left governments have been new parties that kept appearing and disappearing from the political scene, and their members of parliament and office holders tended to be quite inexperienced. The SDS on the other hand is constant, stable, guided by party discipline and Janša’s incontestable leadership, and has a number of experienced politicians, particularly members of parliament.

What are the implications of this political change for civil society?

For years, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been under attacks from Janša, the SDS and their affiliated media, which consider NGOs and mainstream media as their enemies. As they blamed the media for their political failure, they formed their own media group. This is not a cheap undertaking, so they ended up in a partnership with a Hungarian media businessman with close ties to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. The content the media in this group produce is highly biased and unprofessional. What they do is not journalism but propaganda, either to promote Janša or to run smear and character-assassination campaigns against figures of the opposition and civil society.

These media outlets treat human rights organisations, LGBTQI+ rights organisations and environmental organisations as enemies of the people, as ‘privileged’, and as ‘parasites’. About 15 years ago, the late Prime Minister and President of Slovenia, Janez Drnovšek, a very moderate and respected centrist, warned us about Janša, whom he referred to as ‘a prince of darkness’. So with the new Janša’s government we knew that the darkness was coming. Unfortunately, it came at just about the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated fear and additional restrictions.

After the change of government, we have suffered various types of attacks on a daily basis. Janša’s connection with Orbán is not limited to their common media business ally; they have strong political and personal connections as well. They celebrate each other, come to each other’s election rallies. They are very similar politically, and the strategies they use to attack NGOs and the media are also similar. Janša is using social media, particularly Twitter, for his political communication and attacks. He is obsessively and aggressively engaged in tweeting, day and night.

Besides smears on social media by leaders, officials and supporters of the ruling party, many measures have been taken against NGOs. Environmental NGOs have specifically been attacked. We used to have high standards of civil society participation in the processes surrounding the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. But the current government has infiltrated COVID-19-related legislation with measures aimed at obstructing participation. COVID-19 legislation should be used to fight the coronavirus, not to fight civil society. But we have a Minister of the Environment who was, before that, a manager at a state-owned hydroelectric plant and is expressing a lot more interest in promoting investment and building power plants than in taking care of the environment. He actually uses his current position in the government as a platform to stop environmental NGOs. Having introduced those restrictions on participation into emergency legislation, he is now trying to also enshrine them in regular environmental legislation.

There have also been financial restrictions. Several NGOs had contracts signed with previous governments, for projects promoting the equality of migrant children in schools and so on, but the current government has decided not to honour those contracts. As soon as it came to power, it sent letters to the concerned NGOs, including the Peace Institute, stating its intention to annul those contracts, and when NGOs refused to sign, they simply withheld the funds. These are small grants, up to €10,000 (approx. US$12,200), but they are vital for human rights NGOs to do their work.

The government also tried to obstruct other funding channels. The previous government established an NGO Fund to support the professionalisation of NGOs and increase the availability of project funding. The NGO Fund is made up of the allocation of 0.5 per cent of income tax. Every citizen can earmark that contribution, for instance, to support a specific NGO with public interest status; however, many citizens don’t declare where they want their money to go, and all these undeclared funds go into the NGO Fund. This fund was the result of many years of advocacy by the national civil society umbrella organisation, but about two years after it was established, the new government tried to dismantle it through provisions included in a COVID-19 emergency legislative package. Again, this came as no surprise, because it is what SDS had promised during the electoral campaign.

The government is also withdrawing other forms of support for civil society. For instance, the building where we have our offices at Metelkova 6 in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, is owned by the Ministry of Culture and has been home to 20 NGOs working in the fields of human rights and independent culture since 1997. The building was a part of a military barracks, but was given to us for use as a gesture of demilitarisation when the Yugoslav army left, and artists and activists campaigned for the use of the barracks for culture and civil society. Its southern half is now an area of national museums and its northern half an area for alternative culture, and our building stands between these and in many ways connects and works with both. After 23 years, they want to evict us, change the purpose of the building, and renovate it to house the Natural History Museum. Prime Minister Janša, his party and their media are, on a daily basis, portraying the organisations in this building as privileged and as parasites, and they openly claim they will deprive us of offices and public funds. We were requested by the Ministry to leave the building by the end of January, and we didn’t because we have legal rights, so we are now being threatened with court action leading to forced eviction.

What is civil society doing in the face of these attacks?

Regarding the restrictions on their participation that were introduced, environmental NGOs brought a complaint and the Constitutional Court put those provisions on hold. For the time being, they have litigated successfully to preserve their rights, but the government has continued to insert similar restrictions in other bills that are now up for parliamentary consideration.

One thing that we do is take advantage of the fact that the SDS is not ruling alone; there are three other smaller parties in the ruling coalition. If they don’t all vote together, they cannot pass legislation. Therefore, the advocacy strategy focuses on influencing coalition partners, and it sometimes works. Environmental NGOs face systemic restrictions: they really don’t have a lot of friends in politics, because except for the Left, other parties tend to side with corporations and investors. But it was through advocacy with smaller coalition partners that the civil society umbrella organisation has so far been able to protect the NGO Fund. However, we will see whether there will actually be a call for project proposals to distribute the funds from the NGO Fund, and how it will be organised, since we can see in some other thematic areas of public funding to projects of independent culture and NGOs that the criteria and decision-making bodies have been changed under this government to incline towards the ruling party ideology and to prevent project applications from progressive groups.

What protests have mobilised, and what challenges have they faced – including as a result of the pandemic?

Restrictions on citizen protest have increased. The government has taken advantage of the pandemic to restrict protest. Discontent abounds because the government not only attacks civil society and the media, but also has made shady dealings related to the acquisition of personal protective equipment and other COVID-19-related supplies and has attacked a whistleblower and investigators denouncing these deals. It has also arbitrarily dismissed officials heading respected institutions and replaced them with its own people.

When people go out to protest, the government, particularly the Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, not only dismisses them and portrays them as criminals – it even uses people’s personal data to smear them – but also polices them excessively and obstructs their gatherings. On Friday evening, a typical day for protests in Slovenia, streets and squares are surrounded by police vehicles and horses, with helicopters hovering above, in an attempt to intimidate people. To those who still go out to protest, they issue fine after fine for violating pandemic measures. Legislative packages meant to fight the pandemic introduced steep increases in fines to individuals to €400 euros (approx. US$490) for ‘gathering’. Repeat protesters have had to pay thousands of euros in fines already.

Despite all of this, protests have continued, particularly between April and October 2020, when the weather was still warm and we didn’t have so many COVID-19 infections. Thousands of people – 5,000, 10,000 – mobilised in Ljubljana, with smaller numbers in other cities. Most people went out to protest in indignation in the face of corruption allegations. Many also protested against the restrictions faced by environmentalists, the attacks on journalists and media, the dire situation of cultural workers and civil society, and judicial independence. So in broad terms, these were protests in defence of democracy.

Starting in October, however, a second wave of COVID-19 infections was declared and a 9pm to 6am curfew was imposed, schools closed and public life became almost non-existent. People are scared because of the spike in infections and deaths, so protest organisers announced the end of massive protests, while encouraging individual actions instead. There have been public performances on Fridays, demonstrations by small groups of people and car demonstrations. Bicycles are a symbol of our protests, so some people put a bicycle on top of their car, or even giant stickers with images of bicycles, and drive around in protest. But this makes them easy targets, because police stop these cars and fine the drivers. People who have been fined are now disputing the fines and bringing the police to court on discrimination grounds, as the police are quite selective: they only stop and fine the people who are driving in protest. Clearly, none of this is about stopping COVID-19 – it is about stopping people from protesting.

Do you see a process of increasing political polarisation?

I would say polarisation is the modus operandi of Janša and the SDS. Polarising the electorate is how they obtain support. Janša is a defence expert by training, and he has occupied the position of Minister of Defence on various occasions. He is now running the party and the country as if we were in a war.

Fortunately, I have the impression that his polarising discourse won’t get him too far. For the time being, it only appeals to his core supporters, so he has not made much progress beyond those who were already quite radicalised.

However, given the fragmentation of our party landscape on the centre-left of the political spectrum, polls are still giving him the biggest share of the vote – nothing close to a majority, but bigger than any other party individually considered. On top of this there is the pandemic, which is putting more and more people in a difficult situation, jobless and scared, which could provide fertile ground for radicalisation. At some point people may want to have someone to blame, and hate discourse may start making some sense to them.

For instance, the Peace Institute has worked on the empowerment of women in Rwanda for 15 years, and over the years we have received approximately €300,000 (approx. US$365,00) from the development aid programmes of the Foreign Ministry that we have used in these projects. The campaigns against our institute from the ruling party present this work as waste of public money. Through such discourse, telling cash-strapped people that the Peace Institute is spending their money overseas, they could eventually reach beyond core supporters, into the bigger circle of dissatisfied citizens.

Fortunately, this discourse does not circulate much in mainstream media – newspapers, public and commercial radio and television, and their respective websites – which are mostly professional in their reporting. The government has tried to snatch control of the public broadcasting company and to starve the national press agency, but has so far failed. This may change if Janša stays in power long enough. There are also some possible scenarios for taking control of some commercial mainstream media by the ruling party if the owners agree to enter into such deals in exchange for some big government contracts or other business opportunities. But for the time being hate and propaganda are, apart from social media, restricted mostly to fringe media outlets directly controlled by the ruling party. These propaganda media are however becoming more popular because the Prime Minister appears there and shares their content, and the mainstream media cover what the Prime Minister does and says, so in that way they are entering the news cycle.

What is civil society doing to resist the government’s aggressive anti-migrant stance?

The government is making constant attempts to limit the rights of asylum seekers to enter the country and submit their applications. When the pandemic was declared, they stopped all asylum-seeking procedures altogether. They have even tried to change legal provisions to limit the rights of asylum seekers further and militarise the border with Croatia. Luckily, some coalition partners do not support these proposals, so they did not pass.

Human rights NGOs and organisations focusing on migrant and refugee rights have been working in informal coalitions for years, and we have jointly advocated against these proposals. Some, notably the Legal and Information Centre, work directly with asylum seekers, providing them with legal support and information; however, they are experiencing difficulties because they used to have a project funded by the European Union and administered by the Ministry of the Interior, which the new government has not renewed. They have just obtained some funding from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees so they can keep providing at least a basic level of legal advice.

The Peace Institute also has a support programme for migrants and refugees. We have a staff member who is a Syrian refugee and who works as a cultural mediator. We empower people with refugee status to find jobs and to find their way around the bureaucracy. We organise workshops for female refugees. As we are also a research institute, we monitor migration rights for various European bodies and are the national focal point for the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency.

What support does Slovenia’s civil society now need to play its role of promoting democracy and defending rights?

I think the reports that come out of CIVICUS and other international civil society organisations, which monitor civic space and citizen action, are a powerful tool to create awareness. When these reports come out and speak about Slovenia, they have media repercussions. They help raise awareness among citizens that we are backsliding in terms of respect for civic space and democratic freedoms. It is a very important message when an impartial observer expresses concerns about the state of democracy in our country, particularly because people in Slovenia pride themselves as being part of a quite open and progressive country.

Support may also take the form of endorsement when we raise issues with our government, as well as the form of funding – among other things, to conduct litigation. This has been a productive strategy to stop regressive policies so far, but it is costly. A network of lawyers has formed to support civil society in these struggles, but they lack sufficient funding. Finally, we are very weak in communications skills, and it would be very helpful if we could get support to produce and disseminate a counter-narrative highlighting the value of what we do and providing an alternative to hate-based discourse in this increasingly hostile environment.

Civic space in Slovenia is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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