In Ljubljana

Matthew Porges

In a pandemic, some common-sense policies can closely resemble authoritarianism. Banning large public gatherings, for instance, is both a classic authoritarian move and a reasonable strategy to control the spread of the virus. This tension opens up an opportunity for would-be authoritarians to exploit the situation, using the pandemic as cover for implementing policies that would otherwise result in a lot more pushback, domestically and internationally. While the population is staying home and the media are distracted, there is time and space for political shifts that would otherwise be impossible.

In Slovenia, a new right-wing government is testing this theory to its limits. On 13 March, following the collapse of a fragile centre-left governing coalition, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) leader, Janez Janša, was given a mandate in parliament to serve a third (non-consecutive) term as prime minister. The SDS is a nationalist, anti-immigrant party of a familiar type; Janša is a close friend and ally of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. Janša’s base – mostly older, rural and Catholic, animated by cultural grievances and animosity towards the Yugoslav past – is not large, but, in the typical mould, it is large enough to keep him in power while the opposition is fragmented. No other party reached more than 13 per cent support nationally in the last election.

Janša rose to prominence in the 1980s, writing for the left-wing magazine Mladina, criticising the Yugoslav government from a moderate centre-left perspective. At one point involved with the pacifist movement, he was briefly imprisoned for leaking military secrets. His activism, and targeting by the government, made him a national hero just as support for independence was gathering momentum. In 1989 he entered electoral politics, and between 1990 and 1994 was Slovenia’s first minister of defence. Subsequently, in opposition, he embarked on a voyage to the right, and after becoming prime minister in 2004 pursued an aggressive programme of privatisation and public spending cuts, along with an extremely antagonistic relationship with the media.

Voted out in 2008, he returned to power in 2012, having reinvented himself again, this time as a patriotic culture-warrior. His second term lasted only a year, as his unpopular government was confronted with a series of massive protests. Continuing as a member of parliament while working as a writer and lobbyist, Janša got into trouble for allegedly accepting bribes related to the procurement of military vehicles. Briefly imprisoned again, he was escorted to jail by hundreds of his supporters, having achieved the rare feat of becoming a martyr for both progressives and conservatives over the course of his career. Following his release from prison, Janša returned to front-line politics, having completed his transition from moderate critic of the Yugoslav government to authoritarian right-wing populist. Returning to prominence at the time of the European migration crisis, in a country at the edge of the Schengen Area, Janša and the SDS adopted hostility to immigration as a key ideological plank, absorbing lessons from Hungary and elsewhere.

Janša’s first moves since resuming office this year have shown the lessons of his previous terms. Wary of a repeat of the 2012-13 protests, he moved quickly to replace the heads of the military, police and security services with personal allies. Journalists at press briefings are only allowed to ask questions that have been submitted in advance (this, too, is justified in terms of social distancing). A key anti-corruption commission, which played a role in Janša’s second imprisonment, was curtailed. He has called for the return of military conscription, and suggested augmenting the army with volunteer paramilitaries. The public budget was reduced by about 30 per cent, ostensibly to fight the pandemic; but, in the sudden absence of standard budgetary reporting mechanisms, it was temporarily impossible to know where this money is going. And, most important, the pandemic has allowed the government to ban all large gatherings, including the sorts of protest that led to Janša’s downfall in 2013. All this was done within his first two weeks in office.

One of Janša’s early moves involved setting up a crisis commission to co-ordinate Slovenia’s pandemic response. The commission’s Twitter account quickly became a propaganda tool, retweeting right-wing accounts and conflating the virus with communism. Calls for expanding the army (but not health services) hinted at a militarisation of the crisis response. The speed with which all this happened in a country frequently described as a post-communist success story is jarring. The path to Hungary-style ‘democratic backsliding’ looks fairly gradual, until the timeframe is suddenly compressed. A friend of mine in Ljubljana described the situation as ‘Orbellian’.

There is a long history of diseases being used as pretexts for political projects. Long before Slovenia was the edge of the Schengen Area, it lay near the Habsburg Monarchy’s Military Frontier, a cordon sanitaire created partly to defend the empire against diseases from the Ottoman east; later on, it simply became the border, militarised and normalised. The SDS is now conflating the need to protect Slovenia from the virus with its desire to keep out immigrants. A razor-wire fence along the border with Croatia, built in 2016 by the centre-left government of Miro Cerar in a doomed attempt to head off a challenge from the right, is likely to be expanded, and Janša’s call for military volunteers seems designed to play well with the far-right militias that have formed anti-immigrant patrols along the border.

The SDS benefits not only from a strong grassroots operation, but also from the backing of Nova24TV, a right-wing media outlet that models itself on Fox News. Orban, whose allies have partially funded the channel, granted Nova24TV an exclusive interview; the network has dabbled in Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories about George Soros. The network’s director, Aleš Hojs, a long-time Janša ally, has been made interior minister. One Slovenian journalist described this to me as comparable to Steve Bannon becoming secretary of state.

The existence and activities of Nova24TV raise an important question about what a political party actually consists of. Slovenian law prohibits the funding of political parties by foreign entities. Nova24TV is, quite clearly, a vessel for SDS messaging; it is also majority-owned and funded by Hungarian companies. Since Nova24TV is not formally part of the SDS, it is exempt from the law on party funding; but it is, like Janša himself, a fairly explicit vehicle for Orban’s regional ambitions. Those ambitions extend to the EU, and Slovenia is set to hold a share of the EU Council presidency in the second half of 2021. The SDS is not a Eurosceptic party, in the sense that it does not aspire to take Slovenia out of the Union; but the consolidation of Orban-aligned votes in the European People’s Party (the SDS toyed with the idea of quitting the EPP if Fidesz was kicked out) will make it even harder to hold illiberal European governments to account.

Yet even in the absence of public protests, Janša’s government has encountered significant pushback. By the third week of his premiership, the SDS had begun to reverse some of its earlier positions. Budgetary and anti-corruption reporting resumed, pay increases for cabinet ministers were frozen, and the crisis commission was dissolved overnight. A running battle over whether Janša could extend policing powers to the military has been, so far, a stalemate with the opposition. Slovenia’s response to the pandemic is falling in line with responses seen elsewhere in the EU. As the centripetalising effects of reality take hold, massive technocratic interventions are suddenly palatable.

Between now and Slovenia’s next elections, scheduled for 2022, a substantial reset of the country’s institutions along ‘Orbellian’ lines is easy to imagine. Yet there are reasons for optimism, too. Slovenia’s institutions are, for now, more robust and independent than Hungary’s, and its membership in the Eurozone constrains the government somewhat. Although the opposition parties are fragmented and lack grassroots strength, Janša’s radical programme may focus the minds of those on the centre and the left. It may also be that Janša has overplayed his hand; there is not much mystery left about what he is trying to do, and he may find it harder to get away with as he goes forward.

The situation is moving fast, and the government’s policies and tactics are changing rapidly, a dynamic response to resistance from the public and opposition parties. In the wake of Janša’s initial aggressive moves, a longer game is taking shape. In the absence of public gatherings, creative forms of protest have proliferated in Ljubljana. Last week, protesters left candles outside parliament, arriving one at a time in order to respect social distancing requirements, proclaiming: ‘After corona, there will be elections.’