Elections, “Patria”, and border dispute with Croatia

Slovenia
Centre of International Relations
 
In Slovenia the second half of 2008 was predominantly characterized by the parliamentary elections which took place on 21 September. Other issues involved an alleged corruption case in the purchase of a large quantity of military vehicles from a Finnish company “Patria”, involving ministers and officials from the government, the continuing border dispute with Croatia, and the introduction of controversial vignettes on Slovenian highways. All issues are discussed separately in the following paragraphs.
 
Victory of the centre-left in the elections to the National Assembly
 
The most comprehensive public opinion poll, “Politbarometer”, which had been last conducted three months before the actual elections (end of June), indicated prospects for the centre-left. The poll showed that only 33 percent interviewed were supportive of the government of then Prime Minister, Janez Janša. Moreover, the party-inclination diagram indicated that Social Democrats[1] could receive much higher support than Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party[2].[3] As the elections drew closer, other privately commissioned polls showed this difference diminishing, with the above mentioned parties constantly exchanging the leading position. Topics such as the “Patria” corruption issue, corporate tycoons, and ideological polarization dominated the election campaign, while the most pressing questions such as the reform of the pension system, the privatisation mode of health services, the stimulation of entrepreneurship, and long term supply with cheaper energy sources, remained largely unaddressed.[4]

The result of the elections brought about the victory of the centre-left coalition and a consequent change of government. The official results showed that Social Democrats won 30.45 percent of the votes, closely followed by Slovenian Democratic Party with 29.26 percent. Borut Pahor, the president of the Social Democrats, was given the mandate to form the government. The government coalition formed by the Social Democrats, New Politics,[5] Liberal Democracy of Slovenia[6] and Democratic Party of Pensioners[7] was confirmed in the national assembly two months after the elections were held.[8]
 
Parallel to elections and government formation, the President of the Republic of Slovenia, Danilo Türk, heated up Slovenian politics by a decision to wait with the appointment of candidates for empty ambassadorial posts until after the elections. After the elections, he refused to appoint a number of candidates, all of course nominated by the former government advocating his decision by candidates’ non-fulfilment of the legally required criteria. Especially contestable cases were the ones of Matjaž Šinkovec (potential ambassador to Washington) and former Minister for Foreign Affairs Dimitrij Rupel (potential ambassador to Vienna). While President Türk insisted on his right to an independent decision guaranteed by the constitution, legal experts were not unanimous about the interpretation of president’s competences deriving from the constitution and there were voices stressing that lack of cooperation between president and the government could damage Slovenia’s international reputation.[9] After being denied the position of an ambassador to Vienna, Rupel was appointed Prime Minister’s special envoy for foreign policy by Pahor himself. Despite Rupel’s many years of experience in the field of diplomacy, Pahor’s decision was heavily criticised by his coalition partners as well as the general public.[10]
 
Government officials accused of corruption in the “Patria” case
 
The corruption plot surrounding the purchase of armoured personnel carriers by the Slovenian army was connected to the highest officials and ministers in the 2004-2008 Slovenian government. The affair dates back to 2006 when the Slovenian army signed a contract for the purchase of carriers from the Finnish company “Patria”. The purchase was legitimised as acquisition was claimed to be a part of obligations of the Slovenian Army in respect to NATO, namely on the requirements for participation in the organization’s military operations. The purchase, which represents the biggest arms deal in Slovenia since its independence, contradicts with the Resolution of the Slovenian national assembly on the general long-term program of development and equipment of the Slovenian Army. Since 2006 the scandal acquired an international dimension. It involved questions on Slovenia’s government’s interpretation of freedom of media and the efficiency of the Slovenian judiciary system when it comes to alleged corruption by the government.[11]
 
The controversy was once again sparked by the broadcasting of the Finish TV show titled “The truth about Patria” during the campaign for Slovenian parliamentary elections. In this show, aired on the Finish national television “YLE”, the reporter Magnus Berglund accused Slovenian government officials of corruption. The most prominent suspect implicated with the scandal was then Prime Minister Janez Janša.[12] The Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with a diplomatic note of protest addressed to the Finnish embassy in Slovenia. In the note the Ministry demanded explanations and proof for the allegations made in the show. Finnish Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, reacted with a strong defence of media freedom in Finland and said that his government will not interfere in the work of journalists.[13] The note was also met with strong criticism from the “International Press Institute”. The latter expressed concern about the use of diplomatic pressure for the purpose of limiting media freedom.[14]
 
So far there were no charges made in connection with the case. The Slovenian prosecution came under severe public criticism and the Finnish “National Bureau of Investigation” exposed its slow response in the matter. The new Minister of Defense Ljubica Jelušič also became a target of criticism for covering up the mistakes of the former Minister of Defence. So far there has been no public disclosure of any kind of evidence.[15]
 
No progress regarding the border dispute with Croatia
 
Relations between Slovenia and Croatia remain very turbulent, with a border issue largely unresolved. In July 2008, another incident occurred when the Croatian authorities posted signs allowing hunting on supposedly Slovenian territory. The Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs objected not only against signs put up by Croatian authorities, but also because the territory in question was protected against hunting under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands to which Slovenia and Croatia are both contracting parties.[16] Another problem arose when then Prime Minister, Janez Janša, indicated in a speech in mid September that the border dispute ought to be resolved according to ‘ex aequo et bono’ principle. Croatia objected and denoted this move as a politicization of the border dispute for pre-election purposes.[17]
 
The European Commission has had a consistent position on the dispute throughout its duration. It claims that the border issue is a matter of bilateral relations between the countries and that it is not a subject of negotiations regarding Croatia’s accession to the EU. Then Foreign Minister, Dimitrij Rupel, was sceptical about the Commission’s position. He stressed that Croatia during the negotiation process submitted materials containing maps which prejudged the border with Slovenia. Rupel demanded that such materials be excluded from the negotiation process.[18] The French EU-Presidency attempted to speed up the dispute settlement with two fast-track proposals but none of them were satisfactory to both of the parties.[19]
 
In December, the border issue was marked by the ‘red light’ discourse. The government announced that it was going to block Croatia’s progress in the EU accession negotiations due to the fact that it was still using highly disputed documentation prejudging the national border. Prime Minister, Borut Pahor, explained that the government was only protecting the national interest and was trying to avoid even greater problems that might arise when Croatia becomes a member of the EU.[20] Despite the severely disinclined Slovenian public opinion and oppositional political parties towards Croatian membership in the EU, the government still strongly supports Croatia’s participation in Euro-Atlantic integration. In January 2009, the EU institutions once again invited the parties to resolve the dispute. While the European Parliament called for a solution at the International Court of Justice, the Commission proposed a solution to the dispute via mediation. Although Pahor welcomed the suggestions, he stressed that “the government’s position on this issue will not change, unless the circumstances which had brought about the Slovenian blockade of further Croatia’s negotiations with the EU would change in the first place.”[21]
 
Introduction of controversial highway vignettes
 
In the beginning of July 2008, Slovenia introduced a new system of highway vignettes which replaced the previous road toll system. As stated by then, Minister of Transport, Radovan Žerjav, the vignettes only represent a temporary measure which would later on be replaced by a satellite road toll system. The fact that Slovenia only issued one-year- and half-year-vignettes especially upset neighbouring Croatia[22] and Austria.
 
In September, Eurostat issued a warning to Slovenia that the “Motorway Company in the Republic of Slovenia” (DARS) would statistically be placed in the public sector, if there was no introduction of short-term vignettes. Without these, DARS’ incomes from the sale of vignettes would be regarded as tax revenue instead of payment of services. If DARS’ external debt was to be regarded as public debt, the latter would amount to almost 10 percent, and Slovenia could find itself in a serious violation of the Stability and Growth Pact.[23]
 
In October 2008, the European Commission issued a formal warning to Slovenia, stating that its current system of vignettes is discriminatory to other citizens of the EU. The Slovenian government denied any such accusation, explaining the new road toll system has no direct or indirect discriminatory effects with regard to nationality. The argument in defence used by the government was that there are many Slovenian citizens who also use highways very seldom thus being put in the same position as other infrequent users from the EU.[24] The European Commission was not satisfied with the answer and consequently, in accordance with EU regulation, suspended further procedures for financing the construction of a part of Slovenia’s highway network.[25]


 



[1] Socialni Demokrati.


[2] Slovenska demokratska stranka.


[3] Center za raziskovanje javnega mnenja: Politbarometer 6/2008: Javnomnenjske raziskave o odnosu javnosti do aktualnih razmer in dogajanj v Sloveniji (Public opinion surveys on the attitude of the public towards current affairs and developments in Slovenia), available at: http://www.cjm.si/sites/cjm.si/files/file/raziskava_pb/PB6_08.pdf (last access: 13 January 2009).


[4] Miroslav Končina: Predvolilna soočenja – režija vsiljenih in jalovih tem? (Pre-election debates – directed by imposed and fruitless topics?), Dnevnik, 13 September 2008, available at: http://www.dnevnik.si/debate/komentarji/1042206517 (last access: 12 January 2009).


[5] Zares, a new liberal political party, with the central personalities largely drawn from the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia.


[6] Liberalna demokracija Slovenije.


[7] Demokratična stranka upokojencev Slovenije.


[8] STA: Državni zbor imenoval novo vlado (National assembly appoints the new government), 21 November 2008, available at: http://www.sta.si/vest.php?s=s&id=1339946&q (last access: 2 January 2009).


[9] RTV Slovenija: Nered, Marjetka: Veleposlaniška vročica – grožnja ugledu države? (Ambassadorial fever – a menace to national reputation?), 27 October 2008, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 2 January 2009).


[10] Erna Strniša: Rupel posebni odposlanec premiera (Rupel appointed Special envoy of the Prime Minister), RTV Slovenija, 27 November 2008, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 5 January 2009).


[11] Rok Praprotnik: Ekskluzivno o aferi Patria (Exclusively on Patria affair), Dnevnik, 20 November 2008, available at: http://www.dnevnik.si/novice/slovenija/1042223612 (last access: 15 January 2009).


[12] Dnevnik.si: Objavljamo slovenski prepis odmevne oddaje finske televizije (Publication of the Slovenian transcript of the notorious Finnish television show), 2 September 2008, available at: http://www.dnevnik.si/novice/slovenija/1042203958 (last access: 15 January 2009).


[13] STA/Dnevnik: Finski premier sporočil Janši, da se vlada ne more vmešavati v delo televizije (Finnish Prime Minister informs Janša that the government cannot interfere in the work of television), 4 September 2008, available at: http://www.dnevnik.si/novice/slovenija/1042204550 (last access: 15 January 2009).


[14] STA/Dnevnik.si: Mednarodni inštitut za tisk kritizira odziv slovenske vlade na finski dokumentarec o Patrii (International Press Institute criticizes Slovenian government’s response to the Finnish documentary on Patria), 11 September 2008, available at: http://www.dnevnik.si/novice/slovenija/1042206250 (last access: 15 January 2009).


[15] Dnevnik.si: Finski nacionalni urad za preiskave ostro kritizira slovensko policijo (Finnish National Bureau of Investigation aims sharp criticism at Slovenian police), 9 September 2008, available at: http://www.dnevnik.si/novice/slovenija/1042205417 (last access: 15 January 2009).


[16] STA: Hrvaška odpravnica poslov na MZZ zaradi tabel v krajinskem parku Sečovlje (Croatian chargée d’affaires at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs due to the signs in the landscape park Sečovlje), 25 July 2008, available at: http://www.sta.si/vest.php?s=s&id=1305585 (last access: 6 January 2009).


[17] STA: Hrvaška zavrnila Janševe izjave o ‘načelu pravičnosti’ glede meje (Croatia rejects Janša’s statements on the ‘ex aequo et bono’ principle regarding the border), 15 September 2008, available at: http://www.sta.si/vest.php?s=s&id=132044 (last access: 6 January 2009).


[18] RTV Slovenija: EU zavrnil Ruplove izjave (EU rejects statements by Rupel), 14 October 2008, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 10 January 2009).


[19] RTV Slovenija: Na mizi nov francoski predlog (New French proposal on the table), 16 December 2008, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 28 January 2009).


[20] RTV Slovenija: Tudi vlada prižgala rdečo luč (The government turns on the red light as well), 18 December 2008, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 8 January 2009).


[21] STA/Reuters/RTV Slovenija: Blokada vsaj do prvega premika (Blockade at least until the first shift), 26 January 2009, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 26 January 2009).


[22] RTV Slovenija: Vinjete ostajajo trn v peti Hrvaške (Vignettes remain a thorn in Croatia’s side), 2 July 2008, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 4 January 2009).


[23] RTV Slovenija: Zaradi vinjet ob stabilnost javnih financ? (Losing public finance stability at the expense of vignettes?), 30 September 2008, available at: http://www.rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mod=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_me... (last access: 5 January 2009).


[24] STA: Vlada v uradnem odgovoru zavrača očitke Bruslja glede vinjet (In an official answer the government rejects Brussels’ reproaches regarding vignettes), 28 October 2008, available at: http://www.sta.si/vest.php?s=s&id=1332883 (last access: 5 January 2009).


[25] Cirman, Primož: Zaradi vinjet v zraku tudi evropsko financiranje dolenjke (European financing of ‘dolenjka highway’ uncertain because of vignettes), Poslovni Dnevnik, 6 November 2008, available at: http://www.dnevnik.si/poslovni_dnevnik/1042219909 (last access: 5 January 2009).