Missed Signals in Slovenia

Protestors burn a poster picturing the mayor of Maribor, Franc Kangler, who has been indicted on corruption-related charges in 10 criminal cases. / BOBO / Milos Vujinovic

In the beginning, there were speed cameras.

On October 16, the municipal government in Maribor, a formerly successful, now down-at-its heels industrial city in Slovenia, started using cameras to manage traffic. Overnight, Orwellian towers appeared at key crossroads in Maribor, clocking speeds every day, at all hours.

In its first 36 hours alone, the new system slammed drivers with more than 5,000 traffic tickets, each backed with Draconian fines. Driving 6 miles over the speed limit carried a penalty of  â‚¬300, or nearly $400—roughly a third of the average worker’s monthly salary. Exceeding the speed limit by 12 miles an hour brought an $800 fine.

The reaction was swift, ferocious and volatile. Protestors burned the first camera system within days. A week later, nearly half of 30 cameras installed in Maribor had been torched.

News reports of recent weeks have cast the unrest in Slovenia as yet another instance of citizens rejecting the bitter medicine of austerity and long-overdue fiscal discipline. But a closer examination of events on the ground suggests that the discontent in this part of the world is deeper and more complex, with popular disgust over corruption and a culture of impunity among the nation’s political elite stirring a deep well of fury.

For thousands of protestors, the traffic cameras with their onerous fines crystallized all that was going wrong in Maribor, where thousands fell jobless as privatization of state assets gained momentum.

One of the new traffic cameras that went up in Maribor, Slovenia, recently, sparking massive protests. / BOBO / Milos Vujinovic /

Their outrage soon brought demonstrators to City Hall. There, Mayor Franc Kangler, a former police officer currently facing charges of corruption in more than 10 criminal cases, refused to cancel the city’s partnership with the company that installed the traffic cameras. Under the city’s contract, 90 percent of the fines collected go to the private company, Iskra Sistemi, that put up the cameras.

“The time has come for us to show we have had enough of taunting and underestimating the people,” said Ksenja Pucher, 49, a businesswoman. Politicians, she said, “behave like we are marionettes.

“They think we don’t know what is really going on. But our protests are sending a message, that it is finished,” Pucher said.

Initial protests that drew dozens of people in the beginning of November grew and spread, attracting hundreds and later thousands of citizens chanting, “You are done!”

Faced with the growing fury and scrutiny, the mayor succeeded in getting himself elected to Slovenia’s national parliament, winning legal immunity from criminal prosecution.

In response, more than 6,000 people gathered in Maribor’s main square to demand the mayor’s resignation. The violent response from police, carried on television, stunned people across this small nation.

Tear Gas and Attack Dogs

The violence erupted after a gang of several dozen football hooligans and extremists mixed with peaceful protesters, hurling stones and granite cubes and setting off fireworks. Police on horseback and in helicopters used tear gas and dogs against the demonstrators, turning Maribor into an urban battlefield. Some suggested that the rioters had been planted to justify an official crackdown.

Either way, the police reaction only served to incite further protests. Some 10,000 people turned out in the capital, with smaller protests in seven other cities.

Spreading under the rallying cry, “You are done!” the movement appears to be growing. New protests are being announced on Facebook with people gathering on squares within hours. On 21 December, protestors are planning “the first all-Slovene national uprising against authority.”

“We are attempting to change something, at least,” said Borut Pečar, 30, a researcher. Pečar cited “the government, police violence, and Janez JanÅ¡a,” Slovenia’s unpopular prime minister, as his reasons for turning out.

ÄŒrtomir Lorenčič, 20, a student, named the “government and the overall situation in Slovenia,” as driving him to protest. “Actually, we have already made a big change,” he said. “The nation that was servile for a long time woke up for the first time in the last 20 years.”

Slovenia is often described as a role-model of the Balkan region. Here, the government privatized state assets only gradually, protecting the country’s banks and national economy from a sudden influx of speculative capital from abroad. Slovenia achieved stable economic growth of 4 percent a year. It was among the first of Yugoslavia’s breakaway states to join the European Union and NATO.

In 2004, Slovenia was still a lender of money to foreign countries, but four years later its net foreign debt reached  â‚¬11 billion, or $14.5 billion.

“In Slovenia, ‘transition sickness’ crept in with a long delay,” said Franček Drenovec, an economist. “It was only in the last decade that we’ve seen the absolute reorientation of our elites to their own well-being, covered by the neo-liberal assumption that in capitalism it’s the market that takes care of everything .

“The ensuing productive, economic, social and political disintegration was masked for a while by extensive foreign borrowing,” Drenovec added. “Only when this bubble burst in 2008 did people begin to feel the full impact of these past developments. In the past, say, year and a half, you could already see this turning into anger, and then it was only a matter of time before something would trigger off an outburst.”

Niko ToÅ¡, a sociology professor at the University of Ljubljana, traced popular discontent to political crises that began in 2007. “But the vehemence of the protests is surprising,” ToÅ¡ said, noting that the absence of leadership shows the protestors are not driven by party politics.

The demonstrations “are an expression of deep distress” over the actions of a political elite and the state, ToÅ¡ said. The revolt, he added, “is focused against the erosion of the welfare state and against corruption.”

Below the surface of Slovenia’s image as a success of post-Communist integration on the international stage, corruption is seen as a longstanding problem, with deep roots. In the 1990s, Slovenia illegally sold thousands of tons of arms during the United Nations embargo to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Secret state operations were led by then-Minister of Defense Janez JanÅ¡a, the current prime minister. However, dozens of millions of dollars in war profits disappeared into foreign banks. Simultaneously, many suspicious privatizations occurred, in which former communist managers became owners of massive new companies for little or no money.

Government officials have also used their influence to halt criminal investigations and prosecution of their cronies and business associates. The moves undermined public confidence in the judicial system, which itself came to be seen as ineffective and corrupt.

“The biggest victims of systemic corruption in Slovenia are middle and small sized companies,” said Urban Vehovar, a researcher at the University of Primorska, who prepared a report for the national Commission for the Prevention of Corruption  “Hidden networks, which are operating behind the scenes, behave like organized crime. Through misuse of political and economic power, they pushed honest actors out of the economy.”

“A very narrow and limited elite appropriated the whole society and the economy. We need to break this connection if we wish to have a normal life,” he said, and compared Slovenia’s situation to Egypt, where few families owned almost all properties.

Elites Under Suspicion

The public here has long tolerated corruption among senior officials.

JanÅ¡a, the premier, has been indicted  on charges of bribery. His political party allegedly received bribes in exchange for a government contract to purchase armored vehicles from the Finnish company Patria. In an unusual step, the Finnish prosecutor, who filed charges against Patria on Tuesday,  named the Slovenian prime minister for his alleged involvement in the scheme. Jansa denies the charges.

A raft of other ministers are charged or indicted for corruption. Several mayors are facing criminal charges and indictments. At least one, Alojzij Kastelic, has been convicted, but remains in office.  The leader of Slovenia’s major opposition party and the mayor the capital, Zoran Janković, has also been indicted for abuse of position or rights in business activity. Even the archdiocese in Maribor has been caught earning cash through a  pornographic TV channel, and through secret investments.

Despite public revelations, officials remain unpunished. Even where police investigations are successful, they seldom lead to convictions. Statutes of limitation often expire without charges being filed.  Sometimes, Slovene judges refuse to admit evidence of corruption collected abroad.

Prosecutors, who are close to the executive branch, are a major source of systemic judicial failure.  In arms smuggling cases in the 1990s that involved the military intelligence service, for example, police charged 21 people over 25 separate crimes, but not a single reached a trial. All were dropped by the prosecutors.

Additionally, four Slovene judges and prosecutors were arrested by the police for corruption in recent years. So far, only one has been convicted. He was found guilty for receiving €25,000, or $32,700, in kickbacks to drop one criminal case. The prosecutor received a conditional sentence of 18 months in prison. Under a conditional sentence, the prosecutor will serve time only if he committed the same offense over the ensuing three years.

Political pressure on the judicial system is widely presumed.  JanÅ¡a’s second term began with a move to transfer the Prosecutor’s Office from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Interior.

So dire is the concern that Supreme Court President Branko MasleÅ¡a has spoken openly of the threat to judicial independence .

Noting that government officials and lawmakers had taken to singling out the courts when they complain about the “rule of law,” Maslesa said, “They are only diverting attention, but their real goal is to subordinate judiciary to the politics. Courts are feeling this problem.

“Important individuals who are in criminal proceedings are retaining their power, and have even announced the radical reshaping of judicial branch,” MasleÅ¡a warned at the press conference this month.

Prime Minister Janez Janša, who denies allegations of corruption, sees the reasons for protests in inequality between regions and injustice in courts. He describes recent demonstrations as a conspiracy of political opponents.

However, Slovenes are holding a referendum of a different kind on squares and streets these weeks. Protests against corrupt officials are gaining ground. Nobody knows how far the avalanche will reach that began with a traffic camera in Maribor.

The above story has been modified to reflect corrections to the name of Mayor Alojzij Kastelic, and to note that a prosecutor, not a judge, received a conditional sentence on corruption charges.

Blaz Zgaga

Blaz Zgaga

Blaz Zgaga, a member of 100Reporters, is an investigative journalist focusing on arms trafficking, intelligence, and the politics of security and defense, and co-author, with Matej Surc, of In the Name of the State, their trilogy about arms smuggling in Slovenia. The series won the Central European Initiative/South East Europe Media Organization award for investigative journalism in 2011.
Blaz Zgaga

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  1. Privatization is the only real requirement to be a good government it seems. Sell off the state assets to your cronies and retire to the Riviera. This is called financial planning and meets with the approval of the IMF and the World Bank. Moody’s Investor Service too.

  2. Privatization is the only real requirement to be a good government it seems. Sell off the state assets to your cronies and retire to the Riviera. This is called financial planning and meets with the approval of the IMF and the World Bank. Moody’s Investor Service