JON NIGHSWANDER, VIENNA, AND TOMAŽ ZANIUK, LJUBLJANA
Slovenian PM Janez Janša, a stalwart standard of the illiberal right, is poised to take over the six-month presidency of a major EU body. It is a test for the EU’s principles. If it still has any.
At the turn of the 21st century, the weight of scholarly and public opinion favored the idea that the European Union was not merely a project for economic integration, but an engine for expanding liberal values. A plethora of optimistic voices suggested the EU accession process would bring peace, democracy, and good governance to the countries on its periphery. By signing the Treaty on European Union, which in its preamble appeals to “the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law,” new signatories were understood to signal their ironclad and irreversible commitment to the liberal project.
The European Charter of Fundamental Rights, too, was understood as a binding commitment. “Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage,” the Charter begins,
the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities; by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice.
Article 11 of the charter specifically treats freedom of expression and information:
- Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
- The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.
In parts of the European Union today, these principles are under profound threat. Illiberalism has made a striking comeback in Europe, and the EU has proven itself unwilling or unable to enforce the commitments made by its signatories. The upcoming leadership of the European Council by Slovenia’s prime minister Janez Janša—the archetype of an illiberal and demagogic populist—should prompt the EU to ask itself whether it still stands for anything at all.
The Council of the EU is one of three core EU institutions, the others being the European Commission and the European Parliament. The presidency of the council rotates among EU member states every six months. In June, it will be Slovenia’s turn, and thus Janez Janša will lead the Council. He will be the first significant office holder of a major EU body who, demonstrably, believes in none of the EU’s founding values.
Janša is not alone. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who has boasted of creating an illiberal democracy in the heart of Europe, led the way in demonstrating that an EU state could suppress freedom of expression, undermine judicial independence, crush civil society, promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, run a government on the principles of cronyism and corruption, and silence his opponents without facing any serious repercussions from the EU. Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, who directs Poland’s far right movement from his perch as the leader of the parliamentary majority party, has eagerly studied his example.
The EU has tried to reign in the duo’s authoritarian excesses by linking payments from the EU budgets to the restoration of rule of law. In response, Hungary and Poland blockaded both Europe’s seven-year budget and its emergency coronavirus recovery package. It required the full political weight of Germany’s Angela Merkel to save the budget process; the compromise that ensued deferred the clause that would make EU funds conditional on rule-of-law criteria pending litigation before the European Court of Justice.
A FAR-RIGHT OPPORTUNIST
Janša is of special interest, given the role he is soon to assume. To Americans, Janša is known as the first and only world leader to congratulate Donald Trump on his 2020 electoral victory. To Europe, he is a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. To much of Slovenia, he is an embarrassment. To the political party he leads, however, he is the supreme leader and unquestioned authority.
The Janša phenomenon involves paradoxes common to a cluster of post-communist cases. In his youth, Janša was by turns a member of the League of Communists, a dissident, a pacifist, and an environmentalist. He then performed an ideological volte-face, nimbly leaping from prong to prong of the red-brown horseshoe to earn pride of place in the taxonomy of Slovenia’s far right.
Janša has long led the Social Democratic Party of Slovenia, or the SDS, a party many have likened to an authoritarian cult. He demands fanatical loyalty from his associates and tolerates no dissent. The SDS has been among Slovenia’s top three political parties for two decades, but it has never won more than 30 percent of the country’s parliamentary seats.
After Slovenia’s independence, Janša became its defense minister. He demonstrated, in this role, an especial enthusiasm and talent for blackmail. Accused of using his position illegally to traffic arms to the former Yugoslavia, he was dismissed as the defence minister after a civilian was brutally beaten by members of Janša’s paramilitary group, the MORiS brigade.
He was imprisoned on corruption charges after his second term as prime minister. After he was elected to parliament from prison, the Constitutional Court released him. The statute of limitations on the case expired. He was never found not guilty. He denounces the charges as purely political.
During the 1990s, while the Slovenian government sought to join the EU and NATO, Janša was sidelined. Since then, however, he has risen to the position of prime minister three times. With each term in power, his program has moved further from the pro-Europe, free-market views he once espoused.
This time, Janša managed to cobble together a minority government by including two political parties from the previous coalition, both of whom had promised, prior to the election, not to form a government with his party. Janša resisted calls for a snap election to legitimize the resulting four-party coalition, infuriating the opposition. Last February, his coalition survived a heated no-confidence vote. Janša seems confident he can hold on until the next scheduled election, in 2022.
Politics in Slovenia since Janša’s ascent have become sharply polarized. Janša has defended his relatively weak political position by aggressively attacking the opposition. The opposition’s inability to remove him—or propose a program that consists of something beyond anti-Janša sentiment—has fueled growing anger and frustration on the left.
Like Trump, Janša is devoted to his Twitter account. His core media strategy, however, comes from the populist playbook pioneered by Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and perfected in Eastern Europe by Orbán and Kaczyński. He seeks to control state media; failing that, to build a rival private media empire, all while decrying the independent media as fake news.
Janša’s intolerance—indeed loathing—of criticism was on display last month during his first presentation to EU parliamentarians. The EU Parliament’s monitoring group on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights had organized a debate on media freedom in Slovenia. Dutch MP Sophie in ‘t Veld, who leads the group, asked Janša to refrain from showing a video attacking the Slovenian media until the debate was finished, as parliamentary custom and order dictated. Janša accused the group of censorship, stormed out of the conference, and demanded in ‘t Veld’s resignation.
REINING IN THE MEDIA
Although he failed to finish the task, Janša began laying the groundwork for subordinating the Slovenian state media to his political party during his first term as prime minister. The Law on National Television he passed during that term remains in force; political influence on major hiring decisions at RTV Slovenia is a fact of life. Upon returning to power in March 2020, he followed Orbán’s example. His ruling coalition proposed new legislation to give his government another lever to use against the national Slovenian Press Agency, whose funding he has already cut off. His supporters created an alternative press agency in its place; it conveys party propaganda.
Frustrated by the ability of Slovenian state media to maintain a measure of independence, Janša and his allies have begun building a conservative media empire along the lines of Fox News. In 2016, his party’s members founded Nova 24 TV, a media conglomerate that according to its director, Boris Tomašič, “shares the values of the European right.” It doesn’t share the values of Europe’s traditional right-wing parties, however, such as the Christian Democrats. The organ faithfully transmits an alternative reality familiar to anyone who has watched Polish state television, Magyar Televízió, or Fox News—a view familiar, too, to anyone who remembers mimeographed John Birch society newsletters.
The Slovenian opposition claims Nova 24 is financed by Orbán’s cronies. Last year, Telekom Slovenije—the quasi-monopolist, state-owned telecoms provider—sold its unprofitable Planet TV channel to TV2 Media, a Hungarian media company owned by businessman Jozef Vida, who has close ties to Orbán’s Fidesz.
Janša abuses any Slovenian or foreign journalists with the temerity to cross him. Epithets he favors include “worn-out prostitutes for 30 or 35 euros,” “liars,” and of course, “fake news.” When Reporters without Borders, or RSF, complained of this, Janša dismissed the group on Twitter as “Liars without borders.” Last February, Politico’s Brussels correspondent, Lili Bayer, wrote a piece criticizing the Slovene government’s hostility to the media. In response, Janša tweeted:
Well, @liliebayer was instructed not to tell the truth, so she quoted mainly “unknown” sources from the extreme left and purposely neglected sources with names and integrity. That’s @POLITICOEurope, unfortunately. Laying for living. https://t.co/AvVrI5mmn3
— Janez Janša (@JJansaSDS) February 16, 2021
To judge from his Twitter feed, Marshall Tweeto, as he’s known, will use the presidency of the EU Council to harangue the other delegates about the dangers of radical socialism and to catalogue horrific crimes committed by Muslim immigrants. Then he will dilate upon Slovenia’s amazing accomplishments at fighting Covid19 (a success not in evidence in any statistics the Cosmopolitan Globalists have seen) and lament the persecution he’s suffered at the hands the left-wing mainstream media, which amounts, in his view, to an attack on Christianity itself.
The irony of 21st-century populist nationalism—it is unpopular, and its leaders take direction from abroad—is even more starkly obvious in Slovenia than elsewhere. The rest of Europe may be tempted to dismiss Slovenia as yet one more dreary post-communist backwater with no talent for liberal democracy, but it would be wrong. If it can happen to Slovenia, it can happen anywhere. Slovenia is the most western of the Slavic countries, geographically and culturally. Bumping up against Italy and Austria, it is culturally part of Western Europe. Once a prosperous region of the Habsburg Empire, then the richest republic in Yugoslavia, its economy is now comprised of a healthy mix of mid- and high-end manufacturing, processing industries, and tourism. Casual visitors to Ljubljana might think they had stumbled upon an Adriatic annex of Scandinavia. Slovenians are healthy and athletic, well-educated, and fond of nature; they speak better English than their Austrian or Italian neighbors. Long gone are the days when one had to make an hour-long trip to Gorizia for a decent espresso.
Slovenians will tell you their country is Europe in miniature, with beautiful beaches, Alpine peaks, pristine lakes, and rolling farmland tucked into a country the size of New Hampshire—a European model village. If Slovenia can slide toward Orbánism, so can any European country. If EU member states fail to deal with Orbánism in Slovenia—or for, that matter, in Hungary—they will deprive themselves of the precedents and tools they need when their own Orbáns come to power, as very well they may. Recall that the resurgence of the far-right in recent months is not confined to Central Europe. Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, and the AfD in Germany have all seen a resurgence in popularity at the expense of the center-right.
The good news is that in the short term, Slovenia is not apt to be dominated by the SDS in quite the way Hungary is by Fidesz or Poland by the PiS. Slovenia’s election system is proportional, and the SDS holds only 26 of its 90 parliamentary seats. Janša is more dependent on coalition partners and opposition allies to remain in power than Orbán or Kaczynski.
The bad news is that exactly as the EU’s inability to function in a coordinated manner during a grave emergency has been dramatically demonstrated, an anti-integration nationalist and populist—a stalwart standard of the illiberal right—will take over the EU presidency.
Janša is sure to have strong foreign support in his new vocation, too. Hungary’s search for greater influence in the Balkans will become more energetic as Orbán finds himself increasingly isolated from the Christian Democratic mainstream of European conservatism, to say nothing of the United States.
Last March, facing suspension, Fidesz withdrew from the European People’s Party, or EPP, the biggest conservative and center-right political group in the European Parliament. Orbán and his Polish counterpart quickly met with Salvini to announce the formation of a far-right nationalist bloc—the so-called European Renaissance. The SDS remains part of the EPP, but it could well withdraw and formally join the far right.
Considering this prospect, MEP Guy Verhofstadt asked, “Can the EU Commission and EU Council act before Slovenia takes the EU presidency and becomes the third anti-democratic spoiler after Poland and Hungary?”
A good question. It is not clear that it can, which is an ominous sign for the EU experiment.
Jon Nighswander is a Vienna-based investment advisor for Central and Eastern Europe, and has provided advisory services to World Bank and USAID projects across the region. Tomaž Zaniuk is a journalist and expert on cultural advocacy in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and writes about laws and regulations related to the third media sector.