Slovenia Joins Euro Zone Anti-Austerity Protests


Since the New Year, anti-austerity strikes and protests have become the norm in Slovenia. It seems that the culture of protest and resistance, increasingly prevalent and consistently developing since the beginning of the euro zone crisis in 2008, is continuing to spread across Europe. Protests are now reaching those corners of the EU that many had failed to suspect of revolutionary tendencies. As the bailouts in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain forced governments to implement despised austerity measures, cities across Europe have witnessed examples of both brutal police repression and populist rage. Contrary to the more volatile southern European countries, however, Slovenia has been continuously upheld as a stable nation and a model of successful EU integration. As protests swept from Maribor to Ljubljana this December, this perception of the small green country situated on the Adriatic coast changed.

Throughout Europe, as 2012 comes to a close, frustration with politicians deemed corrupt and detached from the reality of their countries' populations is mounting. People of all ages and from all walks of life are beginning to fear for their security and their futures, as state funding for education, pensions and health care are cut. The crisis has succeeded in changing the face of Europe as we know it, and the situation is especially visible among the EU's youth. Young people from the south, once content to study and seek employment in their countries of origin, are now heading north in search of any opportunity they might be lucky enough to encounter. Meanwhile, those who choose to stay home are unable to find employment and obligated to make the demoralizing move back into their parents' homes. Luckily for them, many northern European economies are still able to absorb the excess labor power streaming in from the south. In Slovenia, dissatisfaction among the country's youth has become widespread, as unemployment soared by 2% up to 17.5 % in the last year alone.

Unemployment, however, was not the only reason for the recent bouts of unrest in Slovenia. The turmoil began in the city of Maribor with the installation of high-tech radars around the city. The city’s mayor, Franc Kangler, approved the installation of these radars, well known throughout Europe as a means of regulating traffic offenses. The problem arose as the population became aware that the radar's installation was paid for with €5 million ($6.6million) of public funds. To add insult to injury, the project is to be run on a for-profit basis and managed by a private company. The population of Maribor decided that it was not going to sit back and accept paying €1 million ($1.3 million) per radar just so that a private company could reap the benefit. Disconcerted citizens expressed their displeasure by attacking the radars, destroying 11 of them in the process. Kangler, a politician who has already had allegations laid against him for 12 counts of corruption, has now been branded a public enemy.

The resentment towards politicians who are considered both corrupt and excessively supportive of the rights of private companies, soon spread to the country's capital, Ljubljana. In late November, nearly 5,000 protesters clashed with police, while others chanted "thieves" in front of the parliamentary building. The protesters were both multi-generational and heterogeneous, demonstrating the widespread nature of the dissatisfaction with the political class and the way it has responded to the crisis. According to the popular Slovenian daily Delo, the current government is "clinically dead." While many are speculating over the possibility of the current prime minister's resignation, Tomaz Saunik, a Slovenian political analyst, has been quoted claiming that with or without a formal resignation, Janez Jansa "will fall."

These protests can be read as a sign of the dissatisfaction with the Slovenian political class, which is now considered illegitimate. Currently, both the country's prime minister and its main opposition leader (who is also the capital's mayor) are under investigation for allegations of corruption. Many fear that Slovenia will be the next EU country forced to ask for financial aid. Recent events have made it evident that if the same austerity measures are imposed on Slovenia as were imposed on other European countries, the now familiar resistance and violence will also follow.

While this scenario may be unsurprising to many observers of the euro zone crisis, it is significant because it demonstrates the inability of EU enlargement to provide stability, even to small and compliant countries. Since its declaration of independence from socialist Yugoslavia, Slovenia has followed EU guidelines and been hailed as a success story. The country's GDP is currently 88% of the EU average, it has enjoyed membership of the OECD (Organization of Europe for Cooperation and Development) since 2010, and it was the only country of the newest EU members permitted to adopt the euro. If Slovenia is forced to ask for a fiscal bailout, it will be the first formerly communist country to do so, signaling to the world that the EU is unable to solve the economic problems of its new members.

It remains to be seen whether the protests in Maribor and Ljubljana will grow into a coherent anti-austerity movement in Slovenia, and whether the population will succeed in holding the country's politicians accountable. What does seem apparent, however, is that people across Europe are saying "enough" to a failing financial system that benefits the elite few while leaving the majority in an increasingly precarious position. As the new European culture of protest and resistance spreads to Slovenia and takes hold, one can't help but wonder how many other countries will be forced to take the same path before EU member states decide to turn their back on austerity and make fundamental policy changes.