Julija Sardelić
Slovenian protests

Slovenia has often been portrayed as an idyllic alpine state, home to hardworking and diligent people. This positive (but somewhat stereotypical) media image was already present when Slovenia was a part of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (as can be seen, for example, in this 1986 TV advertisement). This kind of portrayal of Slovenia has also been seen in the European Union, where, according to Marko Bucik’s article on the Open Democracy website, Slovenia was considered to be a wunderkind of democratic transition in the region.” In view of such representations of Slovenia, it may seem puzzling how it can be possible that from November 2012 there have been many protests throughout different cities and towns on almost a weekly basis. What began as a spontaneous voicing of opinion on the streets has grown into a grand manifestation of active citizenry through numerous peaceful and culturally creative protests against the established political elite (of both the right and left). Such manifestations show, to paraphrase the political scientist Tomaž Deželan, that the citizenship of Slovenia cannot be perceived as having only one face, but that it has instead multiple faces. One of these is active citizenship that originates from a diverse body of citizens (and also ‘non-citizens’) of Slovenia. The ongoing protests, which summa summarum have already brought more than 100,000 people onto the streets, show that this face of Slovenian citizenship can no longer be ignored.

The concept of active citizenship as well as its manifestations are not a great novelty in the context of Slovenia. As Ksenija Vidmar Horvat, a sociologist and a professor at the Faculty of Arts in the University of Ljubljana, remarks in her article in the daily Večer (Evening), at a time when EU bureaucrats are promoting the idea of active citizenship and have proclaimed 2013 to be the European Year of Citizens, active citizens in Slovenia are expressing themselves on the streets as well as on the internet. Furthermore, she writes that active citizenship was not invented in the offices of the EU, but was known in Slovenia, and hence in Yugoslavia, already during the socialist years, both in theory (in written documents) and in practice.  In addition, many analytical commentaries in the media in Slovenia are comparing contemporary civic uprisings with the diverse civic movements in Slovenia in the 1980s, the last decade of the socialist Yugoslavia. As it is becoming clear today, only a superficial analysis could deduce that all these social movements had only one single goal, i.e. establishing an independent state for the Slovenian (ethnic) nation. On the contrary, many of them were oriented toward universalist goals such as respect for human rights and a pluralistic society with heterogeneous ideas as they were also promoted by alternative media such as Radio Študent and the magazine Mladina (Youth) which was often censored.

One of the dissidents affiliated with Mladina at the time was Janez Janša.  Janša’s imprisonment due to his critical writings about the Yugoslav army in Mladina (along with three others) in the well known military trial against the Four (or proces proti četverici which took place in 1988) sparked one of the largest protests in Slovenia in support of human rights and freedom of speech. Today, Janša is the Prime Minister in what is now a minority government, and most of the protesters that took part in the 3 all–Slovenian uprisings, which have occurred so far (a 4th all-Slovenian uprising is planned for 9 March) perceive him as only the very peak of the corrupt political elite whose resignation they demand. In his comment for Al Jazeera Balkans, Robert Botteri, the editor of Mladina in the 1980s and its current creative editor, said that Janša went through a complete metamorphosis after Slovenia became an independent state. In reference to this metamorphosis, the philosopher Samo Tomšič, compares the orientation of both processes, quoting Marx’s 18th Brumaire, which says that history repeats itself twice: first as tragedy, and second as farce. However, Tomšič notes in a Žižekian manner that Janša himself is not the main reason for the uprisings in Slovenia as he is only a symptom “of a much more fundamental dissolution of the Slovenian political space, and the embodiment of alienation of politics from the people.” Similarly, in one of the most prominent speeches at a conference on the alternatives to the current political regime  organized by the Slovenian Writers’ Association and held on 31 January 2013 at the Cankarjev dom,  cultural and congress centre, the sociologist Ksenija Vidmar Horvat named the people/protesters rather than high-profile personalities such as Janša, as the most prominent historical actors (both in the 1980s protests and in the 2012/2013 uprisings).

Furthermore, it is also important to understand that the current and ongoing protests, described by many as the Slovenian uprisings, cannot be reduced to anti-austerity protests similar to those in other parts of the European Union. The uprisings in Slovenia should be seen as a protest through which people living in Slovenia are manifesting their mistrust and resentment toward the political elites and are stating their decision to take the future into their own hands. However, the uprisings in Slovenia did not begin as a protest against state political elites, and had more localised and specific beginnings. Namely, the introduction of speed cameras through an allegedly corrupt public-private partnership, along with disproportionate new fines, in the second largest city of Slovenia, Maribor. This started a revolt against the city council, and especially the former Mayor, Franc Kangler. At first, many of the cameras were burnt at night, but then people organized themselves through social networks (mostly Facebook) and started protesting in front of the city hall demanding the Mayor resign and chanting “He is finished!” in Styrian dialect (Gotof je!”, which later became the most popular slogan in all the protests to follow). After the second uprising in Maribor, with around 10,000 people (approximately 10 percent of Maribor’s population) demonstrating, the mayor resigned. The protests in Maribor were important not only because they proved to be successful, but also because they introduced the methods of organization (based on social media) as well as the rhetoric of the oppressed, which were adopted by the all-Slovenian uprisings that followed.

On 21 December 2012 the first all-Slovenian uprising against the political elite with 10,000 peaceful protesters took place. Many of the protesters were singing revolutionary songs such as the Internationale. This prompted the ruling Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), which is led by Janša, to tweet that the protests were an uprising of communist zombies. This evoked very fruitful and culturally creative reactions at the second uprising in Slovenia on 11 January 2013, where many of the protesters came wearing zombie masks. One of the most important triggers of the people’s revolt was a report of the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, which suspected both Prime Minister Janša and the leader of the largest opposition party, Zoran Janković, of corruption.  Following this report and the second All-Slovenian Uprising (as it was named by the anonymous organizer on Facebook with the nickname ‘Screamer’, Kričač in Slovenian), most of the parties in the ruling coalition demanded that both Janša and Janković resign. Since Janša refused to resign from his office, most of the parties left (or are in the process of leaving) the ruling coalition, which has made Janša’s government a minority one.

On 8 February 2013, the Slovenian holiday known as Prešeren Day, the pro-government Rally for the Republic organised a protest in support of Janša’s policy. This protest was characterised by signs with such slogans as “I cannot live without Janša”, “Janša, don’t give up; we are with you”, “Janša, save our Slovenia” and the waving of Slovenian flags.  The high point of this rally was a large video projection of Janša’s speech from Brussels, in which he was explicitly addressing only the ethnic Slovenian nation, and not all the citizens. Moreover, he further added to the extreme nature of his rhetoric by claiming that the protesters in the Slovenian uprisings are being coordinated by ex-communist uncles and godfathers from behind the scenes, are using methods similar to the ones used at the beginning of the Holocaust, and are aiming to undermine the legitimacy of representative democracy by advocating for the rule of “left fascism”.

This speech was not so much aimed at the 9,000 participants (according to police estimates, most media estimates were lower) of the pro-Janša rally, as it was at the participants of the third Slovenian uprising, which was about to start two hours later. According to police estimates, there were more than 20,000 participants protesting against the ruling political elite. These protesters were not there to support or establish a leader, according to Vidmar Horvat. With their very diverse but distinctly heterogeneous demonstrations (from slogans written with crayons to complex theatre plays and music concerts), they were there to represent what it means to be an active citizen in Slovenia today. Although many representatives of the political elite are disputing the legitimacy of these uprisings, more and more people perceive them as legitimate and are joining them for a variety of reasons, which according to these people casts doubts on whether Slovenia can still be considered to be a success story, the way it was after it became independent.  On the one hand, many actions of the political elite as well as the austerity measures do cast a shadow on the representation of Slovenia. However on the other hand the manifestations of active citizenry can be considered as a success story since they show that a critical mass of people is present, who can not only make political elites accountable for their deeds, but also take action into their own hands.