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The Uprising in Slovenia: Europe's Latest Popular Challenge to Austerity and Corruption

The Uprising in Slovenia: Europe's Latest Popular Challenge to Austerity and Corruption
Thu, 2/14/2013 - by Pawel Wita

During the crisis in Europe we've seen democracy harmed by the power of financial markets. Take Greece and Italy, where investors essentially decided who would become those countries' banker-prime ministers without so much as consulting the citizenry. In this kind of anti-democratic climate, protesters despite their growing numbers remained unheard.

This time, though, as mass demonstrations grow into the tens of thousands in recent weeks, people in Slovenia have a chance to make a difference.

This small country of 2 million, lodged in the middle of Europe, belonged to Yugoslavia until 1989 though today it is more similar economically to its northern neighbor Austria than to other post-Yugoslav republics. Slovenians joined the European Union in 2004 and the Euro-zone in 2007.

With an export-oriented economy that has done quite well, Slovenia became something of an example for other countries to follow. It inherited certain social characteristics from the former Yugoslavia, which enabled it to share common goods relatively equally and keep the income gap small; meanwhile, its solidly democratic foundations provided wide legislative representation.

But the dark days arrived here too after September 15, 2008 and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Slovenia's export-driven economy couldn't protect itself against the recession that hit other European countries, and many companies went bankrupt. According to the National Bank of Slovenia, the percentage of all unpaid credits as a result of companies which sank and failed to pay back loans is 13%; other economists say the number could be as high as 25%.

In short, Slovenia may soon be the next EU member in need of a bailout.

This comes at a time when the situation for ordinary people is worsening as the unemployment rate has climbed to 12.2%. Meanwhile, a political impasse over the last year enabled Janez Janša and his right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party to form a government that subsequently started to decrease public spending.

Social programs that help the unemployed, students and retirees have started, like elsewhere, to be cut. Under the growing pressure of austerity, vocal groups of protestors are now appearing in the streets -- most recently, from an unexpected turn of events.

Last October, Franc Kangler, the mayor of Maribor, Slovenia's second largest city, decided to build a speed camera system throughout the city and its neighborhoods. Speed traps were imposed by a private-public partnership, and within the first few days the system detected 25,000 traffic offenses. People were outraged -- even more so when they discovered that only 8% of the fines were transferred to the city budget. The rest, 92%, went to the private company.

The Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, an independent state body, accused Kangler of violating the law and began an investigation into the speed camera contract. Meanwhile, 10 of the city's 30 speed traps were physically destroyed during protests -- the biggest of which took place on December 3, when 20,000 people amassed and demanded Kangler's resignation.

Three days later, amid ongoing protests and unyielding accusations of corruption, Kangler stepped down as mayor. But that was only a beginning.

Since then, allegations of corruption have been leveled against Slovenia's Prime Minister, Janez Janša, and against Zoran Janković, the mayor of the capital Ljubljana and leader of the biggest opposition party, Positive Slovenia.

On January 8, the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption affirmed that Janković and Janša “systematically and repeatedly violated the law.” Prime Minister Janša, who was already on trial for corruption, is now being forced to report how he earned -- and why he did not previously report earning -- more then 200,000 euros in income.

For his part, Mayor Janković is in the position of explaining why companies that cooperated with the city of Ljubljana also transferred money into his private account.

The success of the demonstrations in Maribor has encouraged Slovenians nationwide now to enter into the streets in protests that are loud and growing louder. “People simply can't stand having corrupted politicians using people's hard earned money for their own corrupted interests any more,” said one Slovenian woman protester.

The impacts of increased austerity policies are fanning the fire, and protests continued over the past month with Slovenians demanding the resignations of both Janša and Janković. On January 8, 8,000 people turned out to march in Ljubljana. Then, last Friday, February 8, some 20,000 demonstrators filled the streets of the capital, which has about 280,000 residents.

Due to the wave of protests, the governing coalition has lost its majority in parliament. Zoran Janković has stepped down as his party's leader, though he remains the mayor of Ljubljana. Meanwhile, all signs point to early Slovenian elections.

What is happening right now in Slovenia is extraordinary: people are exercising their power in the streets to peacefully shift authority away from corrupt elected officials. Some have called the movement an uprising.

The real challenge, however, and the bigger question still to be answered, is how to rebuild a political and economic landscape after the hurricane sweeps through.

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