States of Emergency in Europe: Slovenia

The virus will go, but what could stay?

On 13 March, simultaneously with the announcement of the Covid-19 pandemic, Slovenia got a new government. Four political parties led by the anti-migrant right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) had already agreed to form a coalition government on 25 February, following the resignation of PM Marjan Šarec, who resigned on 27 January after failing to implement reforms he had been striving for. He was leading a minority government of five small parties, formed after the last elections, when despite the SDS being the largest parliamentary party other parties refused to form a coalition with the party’s leader Janez Janša due to his right-wing policies. Šarec wanted his resignation to open the way for early elections, but instead three parties, two of which were his former coalition partners that had basically switched sides, decided to form a coalition with the SDS: the Modern Centre Party (SMC), New Slovenia (NSi) and the Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS), all clearly afraid of midterm elections, the outcome of which might have cost them their parliamentary seats.

Janša had previously served as Prime Minister from 2004 to 2008 and again from 2012 to 2013. One of the most controversial figures in Slovenian politics since the country gained independence in the 1990s, he spent six months in prison after having been successfully convicted of receiving bribes during a deal with the Finnish defence company Patria. His conviction was later overturned by the constitutional court, allegedly due to insufficient evidence. In 2018 he was also given a three-month suspended sentence for insulting two journalists by calling them prostitutes.

His party is known for its racism and for of its closeness to Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán. In the last few years, reports have emerged that Hungarian media businessmen close to Orbán have been financing Slovenian Janša-related media companies.

In March, a number of issues have accompanied the new government’s measures dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. First, the government quickly started replacing the heads of many national institutions, including medical ones such as the National Institute of Public Health. Several replacements were made after officials failed to agree with the government’s decisions during the crisis or after having criticised them. It soon became clear that these decisions were political, and thus the new appointed heads have not been able to gain the full trust of the public.

In the week after the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Slovenia, the news conferences were a stage for experts to talk and for journalists to pose questions. As soon as the new government came to power, official communication was reduced to a single public speaker and, allegedly due to health concerns, journalists have been prevented from attending news conferences or even posing questions in advance, meaning that the statements issued were pre-recorded. After public outcry over this restriction of freedom of the press , journalists were allowed to pose questions via video. However, at the same time the new government and the SDS party-related media launched a series of public attacks against journalists. First, a smear campaign targeted investigative journalist Blaž Zgaga. After Zgaga sent a freedom of information request to the Government’s Secretary-General to obtain information on the functioning and structure of the newly founded Crisis Headquarters of the Republic of Slovenia charged with combating the pandemic, he was targeted by a tweet from the official account of the same Crisis Headquarters, which declared Zgaga part of a group of ‘four patients who escaped quarantine’ and who suffer from ‘the Covid-Marx/Lenin virus’. He was later harassed by SDS-related media as ‘a pseudo journalist of the deep state’ and has even received death threats, which have led international press organisations to call on the Slovenian government to stop harassing him.

The attacks on the media continue to this day, with government officials openly bashing various journalists, and even the National Radio Television. After a guest on National Television station criticised the government’s decision to raise their own salaries after only a week in power while many have been left without income in this crisis, the Prime Minister tweeted that the national television is spreading lies, even claiming, ‘You are too well paid and there are too many of you’, which was understood as a direct threat to the National Television journalists, prompting the general director of the station, Igor Kadunc, to issue a statement that they will not accept any kind of censorship.

Another major issue in the past month has been people left without income due to Covid-19. On 2 April the government introduced measures to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic with a stimulus package worth some 2 billion euros called the ‘Anti-corona Mega Law’. The act, intended to help, amongst others, people keep their jobs, establishes salary compensation for individuals unable to perform work due to the pandemic, the exemption from payment of some social security contributions, and includes many other measures. However, the act either does not help the several already vulnerable social groups or helps them insufficiently.

The conditions for receiving government aid for the self-employed, whose work was already the most precarious, seem to have been designed to make as few people as possible eligible for it. If all conditions are not met, the aid would have to be repaid with interest, meaning that a lot of people will be afraid to even apply, since they cannot know whether their earnings at the end of the year will meet the government’s conditions. A large number of the self-employed are cultural workers whose work has been severely affected by the pandemic. The adopted measures not only make it difficult for them to get help, but recently, the Ministry of Culture has also ordered the Slovenian Book Agency and National Film Centre to suspend their projects, additionally affecting workers.

The act has also overlooked partially self-employed parents, who have been left without any income. Several NGOs, including our Institute, have initiated fundraising for both cultural workers and other self-employed who are now in financial distress and facing poverty (initiative Pomoč staršem v stiski, Slovenian). Similarly, the state has decided to help all students with a one-off cash payment of 150 euros, which some do not need, while for others who are forced to work and study at the same time to provide for themselves and pay exorbitantly high rents, the amount does almost nothing to help. While NGOs are the ones who have stepped up to help the most vulnerable in our country during this pandemic, last week the government also decided to decrease their funding as much as possible.

The last issue that needs to be highlighted is the government attempts to invoke Article 37a of the Defence Act. It is clear that the leading government party is openly anti-immigrant, therefore acts racist, and it has even tried and will continue to try to use the pandemic as a pretext to enforce harsher politics aimed at immigrants and to present them as our country’s enemies. The activation of this Article would give the Slovenian Army police-like powers for protecting the wider border area.

Considering that the Army is already assisting border police, the fear is that the Article would last for an indefinite period of time and be used to institute martial law across the country. Furthermore, since the closure of the Balkan corridor in 2016, Slovenian police have reportedly pushed back more than 16,000 people into Croatia, from where they were most often violently returned to Bosnia where the number of migrants is steadily growing and a humanitarian disaster is already taking place. If the Army were to be granted police powers, this would prevent more people from applying for the international protection that is their human right. Several organisations sent an appeal about this issue to EU institutions.

In past months, the response to many of these issues has been quite strong. It is clear that if people had not been forced by the pandemic to stay inside and be legally prevented from gathering, protests against the new government would have already erupted, as they already did in February when the first signs of the right-wing SDS party forming a coalition became visible. People have taken to social media to express their discontent, and actions have been continuously occurring, with people displaying banners on their windows and balconies, solo protesters declaring their opposition in front of parliament, people making noise from their windows and balconies every Friday afternoon, and more. Due to the social crisis caused by the pandemic, many have been actively doing everything they can to show solidarity and help others. It could be argued that many people are not anxious because of Covid-19, but because of what the new government might try and implement during this pandemic. As a popular banner from last month’s protest reads, ‘the virus will leave, but the dictatorship might stay’.

The 8th of March Institute