Dispatch

In Slovenia, a Trumpian Populist Assumes a Key European Post

Janez Jansa is increasingly seen as one of the continent’s most illiberal leaders.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
Prime Minister of Slovenia Janez Jansa
Prime Minister of Slovenia Janez Jansa (center) attends a NATO summit in Chicago on May 21, 2012. SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia—Sara Stiglic is still a novice at journalism, but she has already experienced the kind of online intimidation that has become standard for reporters working in countries led by populists in the mold of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Stiglic, a journalism student at the University of Ljubljana, criticized Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa during a rally in May for his increasing hostility toward the country’s media. Jansa has spearheaded smear campaigns against journalists and withheld funding for the state-run news agency STA.

The response to her remarks came quickly: widespread trolling on her social media accounts that included lewd sexual comments.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia—Sara Stiglic is still a novice at journalism, but she has already experienced the kind of online intimidation that has become standard for reporters working in countries led by populists in the mold of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Stiglic, a journalism student at the University of Ljubljana, criticized Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa during a rally in May for his increasing hostility toward the country’s media. Jansa has spearheaded smear campaigns against journalists and withheld funding for the state-run news agency STA.

The response to her remarks came quickly: widespread trolling on her social media accounts that included lewd sexual comments.

“There were many posts and when I deleted them on Facebook, more would quickly reappear,” Stiglic told Foreign Policy in central Ljubljana this month. “But I’m not afraid, because I’m standing up for what is right: We need to protect independent media in this country.”

Jansa’s rantings against the press are only part of his anti-democratic leadership style. Since returning to power in March of last year, he has questioned the integrity of the country’s constitutional court, held up key legal appointments, and lashed out against migrants. Increasingly, he is seen as one of Europe’s most illiberal political figures—alongside Viktor Orban of Hungary and leaders of Poland’s Law and Justice party.

Though Slovenia plays a smaller role than Poland and Hungary in European politics and has a population of just 2 million people, Jansa’s leadership will come under increasing scrutiny when Ljubljana assumes the rotating European Council presidency this week for a six-month period.

The concern among liberals is that Jansa’s tilt toward the illiberal powers of Central Europe will stall the European Union’s burgeoning attempts to push back against the undermining of EU laws and freedoms.

On Friday, Slovenia and Poland were the only two members of the union to side with Hungary in Brussels as Orban came under fire from EU leaders after the Hungarian parliament passed a law that would limit LGTBQ rights.

“This is not only an issue of LGBT rights, but a strategic issue of Central European EU states,” Milan Zver, a member of the European Parliament and vice president of Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party, told Foreign Policy by email. “LGBT rights have been a matter that belongs into each EU state responsibility.”

When Slovenia last held the rotating presidency in January 2008 it was a fairly newly minted member of the EU. In fact, it was the first member state that entered the union in the 2004 enlargement to hold the title. It was Jansa’s first term as prime minister, and the nation was hopeful that membership could bring Slovenia more standing in Europe.

Later that year, the 2008 economic crisis rocked much of the world and shifted the European Union’s dynamic. The crisis exposed shortcomings in the decision-making processes in Brussels and bolstered those illiberal leaders seeking to undermine it—including some who are now Jansa’s closest allies.

“Slovenia was the model kid when it joined the EU,” says Aljaz Pengov Bitenc, a prominent Slovenian political analyst and commentator. “But Janez Jansa was still Janez Jansa. … At his core, he aligns with illiberal values, and he has been in conflict with democracy and its institutions for a while, especially if it fits his political needs.”

Jansa’s rise has paralleled Orban’s. Both were communist-youth members who became dissidents. Both came to prominence in the late 1980s. As political leaders, both have pulled their parties to the right, lashed out at the media, and taken aim at the rule of law.

But Jansa has not had quite the same political success as Orban, even as he swung in and out of government as premier since 2004. His shift to the right failed to raise his public support for his party, which hovers between 20 and 30 percent. Jansa’s anti-immigration position has proved popular, but pandemic mismanagement has resulted in widespread anger throughout the country.

Jansa’s approach to the media has resembled Trump’s: a delegitimizing of news outlets and an aggressive response to any criticism. Also as with Trump, Twitter is his social media of choice.

The criticism has become so fierce that in early June, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights called on “Slovenian authorities to put a stop to the marked deterioration of freedom of expression and of the media in the country.” Jansa responded on Twitter by saying that the commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, was “part of [the] #fakenews network.”

In response to a query from Foreign Policy, Mitja Irsic, a public relations officer at the Ministry of Culture, denied the government intimidates the media or restricts its press freedoms: “Slovenian media are free to report on whatever they desire.”

Slovenia’s top prosecutor, Drago Sketa, has also been on the receiving end of Jansa’s ire. In June 2020, the prime minister sent him a letter alleging he was “neglecting his legal role” by failing to prosecute anti-government demonstrators—the letter warned that the prosecutor would be directly responsible for “any possible victim of organized violence” as a result of the demonstrations. The correspondence sent a shudder through the ranks of the prosecutor’s office.

But what really keeps Sketa up at night is the fact that 14 state prosecutors have not been confirmed by the government, keeping the total number at just 200. “We don’t have problems with professional work due to this government, but we have a real problem with the number of prosecutors … a few managed to get through normally but many are waiting and waiting,” he said.

Slovenia has also failed to appoint two delegated prosecutors to the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which was designed to fight misuse of EU funds, causing considerable concern among the organization’s leadership in Luxembourg.

In a recent interview with a French television station, Foreign Minister Anze Logar said Slovenia would focus during its European Commission presidency on preemptive crisis management. “We always search for answers after the crisis arises,” he said, referring to the 2008 economic downturn, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Europe’s migration crisis.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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