Since November last year, the former Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia has been gripped by social protest and widespread disillusionment with the political elite. Protests in January have reinforced a sense that this is a country in turmoil. According to local sources, the police believe they haven’t had to confront public disorder on this scale since the dissolution of Yugoslavia during the early 1990s.
Slovenia is a small country, covering some 20,000 square kilometres. It’s bordered by Italy and Austria to the north, Hungary to the northeast, and Croatia to the south. It’s population of about two million people is largely made up of ethnic Slovenes (83 per cent).
For centuries, it has been at the crossroads of European trade and cultural exchange. Thanks to its strategic location, it has formed part of the Roman, Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires. It wasn’t until 1918, in the aftermath of the First World War, that Slovenes enjoyed any kind of self-determination.
The unrecognised Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. During the Second World War, Slovenian territory was annexed and occupied by a number of Allied and Axis powers. Such experiences might explain why the country has been so determined to pursue its land and sea border disputes with Croatia.
The country became independent on 25 June 1991, and one doesn’t readily associate post-Yugoslav Slovenia with disorder and protest. This may be due, in part, to its ethnic make-up, recent history and regional geography. Unlike some of the other Yugoslav republics, it wasn’t caught up in the extraordinary violence that gripped the region during the 1990s.
Thanks to its proximity to Austria and Italy, Slovenia tends to be portrayed in the European media as the most pacific and sophisticated part of the former Yugoslavia. The republic appeared to sit well within Central Europe, transforming itself into an EU member state (in 2004, the same year it joined NATO) with a thriving capitalist economy. This appeared to be further consolidated by membership of the Eurozone in 2007 and the OECD in 2010.
In the past six months, however, public protests have increased as Slovenia has struggled to cope with the economic crisis that has gripped Europe since 2008. The country’s economy is dependent on the services sector, and related industries such as tourism. The economic downturn has been severe: in 2009, GDP per capita shrank by 7.9 per cent, the biggest fall in the EU after the Baltic countries and Finland, national banks were exposed as being significantly indebted and the country’s credit rating fell.
Successive periods of recession have also contributed to the idea that the post- 1991 bubble has burst. The recent election of President Borut Pahor, a former prime minister, hasn’t appeased the public mood. Voter turnout was low and his campaign didn’t articulate a clear path for recovery.
In the city of Maribor, public protests have focused on corruption, which is seen to be endemic among those who have prospered in the post-1991 era. One case involves the installation of traffic cameras and a €5million contract paid for by public funds in Maribor. The cost soon rose to €30million and questions arose about how the resulting fines would be split between the municipal government and the company installing the cameras. Maribor’s mayor, who has been the subject of a number of criminal investigations, has been the focus of much anger, but there’s a wider sense that the political elite has benefited from government contracts.
The protests have spread to the capital city, Ljubljana, and the country’s youth is strongly represented. Local newspapers have declared that the current government under Janez Jansa is doomed as its coalition partners have jumped ship. Jansa has had to take over the position of the finance minister following the latter’s resignation. New elections seem likely, as does an international bailout.
The recent protests have damaged Slovenia’s reputation, which had already suffered after it obstructed Croatia’s applications to the EU and NATO and failed to address the plight of non-Slovenes in the country, who were stripped of their residency rights during the 1990s. There’s also a warning here to other states in the region. Slovenia’s economic woes aren’t insubstantial, but unemployment is far lower than it is in Croatia and Bosnia. Anti-austerity protests are now also taking place in Croatia, and the regional unrest will raise doubts about the EU’s willingness to allow Croatia to join the union in July.
This isn’t just about Slovenia, but about whether the EU integration project was misguided and overlooked the possibility that the northern European countries would be unable to cope when their less developed partners ran into trouble.