The Gunfight At PS Corral

There are many angles to the aftermath of the real-estate-tax debacle and the ruling coalition sought to close the fiscal one last weekend when they plugged a 200-million gaping hole in the budget. The deal, a combo of public-sector cuts and excise-hikes is not yet entirely done and is already drawing criticism from both labour unions and the Chamber of Commerce. But the dash to find two hundred big ones was soon eclipsed by what for all intents and purposes is turning out to be a showdown between PM Alenka Bratušek and Ljubljana mayor Zoran Janković.

20140411 blog The Gunfight At PS Corral

Namely, only a few days after the Constitutional Court struck down the real estate tax (with one of the judges resorting to Hayek as he did so), the interpelation of interior minister and leader of DL Gregor Virant was on the books.

Now, Virant is in his own set of omnishambles, apparently getting the soft treatment by the anti-graft commission over cheap(ish) airline tickets he was buying at Adria Airways. While the price of the tickets, which was the main sticking issue, apparently is not all that problematic, he first claimed he didn’t have anything to do with it, saying his wife handled the tickets, only to see emails emerge (via Dnevnik newspaper) that he did in fact handle at least some tickets himself. Which basically boils down to whether he lied or not.

Virant and Janković playing hardball

Be that as it may, his position as the kingmaker was becoming ever more fluid as a result. Which in turn caused a low-level rift between pro-Bratušek and pro-Janković factions inside the Positive Slovenia to explode suddenly. Namely, the way Virant played hardball with regard to government policies (derailing VAT hike as a way to mitigate the real-estate fallout, to pick an example at random) built up quite a lot of resentment within the PS. Which was a signal Zoran Janković was waiting for to make his move and reclaim some political ground he is consistently losing since the party threw him under the bus in March last year, not in the least because Virant made that a precondition to ditch Janez Janša and join a PS-led government.

Thus Janković had a little chat with several PS MPs and lit a fire under the anti-Virant sentiment, inciting a bit of a revolt and persuading several MPs to support the SDS-sponsored bid to remove Virant as minister of interior. This was of course a direct challenge to PM Bratušek who faced a similar scenario last summer and autumn, when Janković attempted a comeback and announced he wants to settle the question of party leadership, considering himself to have only “frozen” his presidency.

Tables turning

But back then Bratušek was being bombarded from all sides. Public finances were going south, so was the economy, the Troika was getting ready to deploy its drones against Slovenia, the opposition was rabid over having lost power only months earlier and the government itself wasn’t exactly ship-shape.

Today, the tables have turned somewhat. The government itself is still struggling somewhat, case in point being ministry of silly walks health where Alenka Trop Skaza lasted less than a month. But the interest on Slovenian debt went down somewhat, we appear to be out of recession (technically, at least, not that anyone noticed) and despite a major setback with the real-estate tax the government pulled its act together and cobbled up a 200-or-so million revenue plan mostly by cutting subsidies and raising excise on alcohol and tobacco. On the whole, in April 2014 PM Bratušek is much more in charge than she was in July 2013.

On the other hand, Zoran Janković was starting to see the results of various investigations opened against him, with charges being filed in at least two cases pertaining to his activities as mayor of Ljubljana while in a third case, about a deal while he was still CEO of Mercator, he was indicted and will stand trial. Additionally, Janković feels – not wholly unjustified – that he was used by several key PS people, helping them to re-emerge politically, only to find himself being thrown under the bus when push came to a shove.

But be this a case of bruised ego, an attempt to stay afloat politically at any cost or, as Janković claims, a perfectly normal, if loud, clash of different visions, fact of the matter is that the rift between Bratušek and Janković is apparently complete and – unlike the last time, when it was avoided by postponing the congress – this time around a full-blown gunfight between the prime minister and the mayor is almost inevitable. And unless one of them blinks until 25 April when PS congress is to be held, it’s bound to get real ugly.

Who will draw faster

The fact that Alenka Bratušek is preparing for a (political) shoot-out suggests that either she doesn’t give a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys about the outcome and whatever happens, happens, or that the outcome of the congress is a foregone conclusion and that Bratušek will win hands-down.

A number of not-so-subtle signs suggest the latter to be the case. First of all, only a day after this particular political zit exploded Bratušek sent a letter to party members, basically saying that enough is enough. But more importantly, several days before that former president Milan Kučan met with Alenka Bratušek. Supposedly, they were talking about whether or not to raise VAT after the real estate debacle. But subject of the meet is secondary to the fact that it took place. Namely, Kučan was long seen as a key Janković ally and allowing himself to be seen meeting the PM, acknowledging her both as head of the government as well as head of the party, first and foremost sends a message to Jay-Z.

But Bratušek is sending a message of her own. She announced she will seek a vote of confidence and will not tie it to a specific measure, opting instead for a simple yes-or-no vote (not like the last time around), refusing the rebelious MPs, four or five of them, apparently, all of them from her own party, the luxury of a political cover along the lines of “I voted for the [insert specific measure] and not necesarily for the PM”. This, too, sends a message to Janković that she considers her position much stronger and believes she has a better set of cards in hand than Ljubljana mayor.

The shootout

Whether or not he gets the message, remains to be seen. Both he and Bratušek have until Monday to formally confirm their leadership bids and although rumours are aplently that Zoki will withdraw his bid at the eleventh hour, this is highly unlikely. Much more likely that he and Bratušek fight it out on open stage on 25 April.

But if he wins, Janković will find the coalition going tits-up and see early elections called, most likely bringing SDS and Janez Janša back to power in one form or another. That much is a given.

April 11th, 2014, posted by pengovsky

Real-Estate Tax, The Third Rail Of Slovenian Politics

The government of Alenka Bratušek suffered a major blow Friday with the Constitutional Court shooting down the recently adopted real-estate tax and leaving a gaping hole in this year’s budget, just south of 200 million. In a unanimous 9-0 vote the judges unreservedly struck down the law on real-estate tax passed together with 2014 budget late ast year as well as a crucial piece of legislation allowing for mass-valuation of real estate passed in 2006 under Janša administration 1.0.

20140402 blog Real Estate Tax, The Third Rail Of Slovenian Politics
AB is probably a bit worried these days (source)

The ruling is a resounding slap-in-the-face for Bratušek administration and has repercussion across the board. Remarkably, few of those repercussions are directly political. A number of factor come into play here, making the end result much less clear than the pundits will have you think.

Namely, immediately after the ruling was announced, the dominant political and media line was that “the constitutional court passed a no-confidence vote against the government” with the implication being that the PM should resign sooner rather than later. Even more, the trouncing of – admittedly – a key piece of legislation caused a furore of tweets, soundbites and articles about how AB lost her legitimacy as head of the government, especially since she tied her own confidence vote to passing of the real-estate tax. All of which is, of course, a load of bullshit and at the same time a nice example of pack-hunting.

Namely, the idea that a negative ruling should result in a government dismissal is flawed both from a legal as well as political sciences perspectives. Under current legal system the only scenario where the constitutional court has *any* say in the political fate of the executive branch is in an impeachment procedure and even that requires a 2/3 majority in the parliament beforehand.

Which brings us to the political sciences angle. The concept of checks and balances is based on the legislative, executive and legal branch being independent of each other whilst equipping each to curb excesses of another. In this case, legal instruments lie with (and were exercised by) the constitutional court, while the instruments of political control lie solely with the parliament.

Additionally, while the measure was a part of the 2014 Budget, to which AB tied her vote of confidence, she did not do so specifically for the real-estate tax. And even if she did, the ruling would have in no way implied the vote of confidence is now somehow overturned. Therefore, if any political fallout were to follow government’s routing in the courtroom it would require a new and unequivocal act by the parliament

Alternatively, the PM could, technically, resign of her own accord. And this is what the opposition and the pundits want her to do, knowing there is no new majority in the parliament to replace her. Now, if Slovenia were a country with a high level of political culture, that might even be a valid expectation. Taken solely by itself, the real-estate tax is the so-called Third Rail of Slovenian politics and governments much stronger that the Bratušek administration got burnt on the issue. But there is a world of difference between attempts of the Pahor or (partly) Janša administrations to enact a policy decision and a dash to close the budget by any means possible.

And in a country where constitutional court rulings go ignored for years on end, where the constitutional court itself reneges on its own precedent time and again and where and where politicos refuse to resign even after being sentenced in a court of law (appeal pending), expecting a PM whom few people deem capable of doing her job to adhere to the highest political standard is hypocritical at best.

So, what happens next? The immediate task of Bratušek and finance minister Uroš Čufer is to close the leak in the budget. Čufer proposed a VAT hike but hit a slightly unexpected roadblock in the form of Gregor Virant and his DL. The interior minister is facing an interpelation (no-confidence vote) courtesy of the SDS. But Virant was in a lot of hot water lately and his political standing is starting to follow his party’s ratings, i.e. going south. Which is probably why he’s upping the ante, most likely trying to trade budget measures for votes in his favour on Friday.

The fact that EU elections are only six weeks away does not help the issue, the same for rumours about Zoran Janković trying to re-take the party. EU elections will soon be followed by local elections in Autumn and parliamentary elections in 2015 if not sooner. Point being that there will be precious little room to pass any meaningful measures as more time passes.

Third rail or not, it might very well be that the real-estate tax might soon prove to be the least of Bratušek’s problems.

April 2nd, 2014, posted by pengovsky

Intimidating A Journo, Secret Service Admits More Than It Wants To

Years ago, while pengovsky was doing a stint at a small privately owned press agency, a funny thing happened. The owner, an old-school journo, had good contacts in the Balkans and was approached by one of the many media emerging in post-Milošević Serbia on the issue of human trafficking in Slovenia. The man did some preliminary research, arranged interviews, provided support, stuff like that. He’s a nice guy, although cranky at times. But then, all of a sudden, interviews were being cancelled. Government officials remembered they’ve urgent stuff to do, press officers started stalling and out of a three-days-worth of field work he was left with one NGO, still willing to talk to them.

20140312 delic Intimidating A Journo, Secret Service Admits More Than It Wants To
Anuška Delić of Delo newspaper. SOVA has a thing for her.

After the interview, with the Serbs already on their way back home, the offices of his press agency were burglarized. This was in a complex where CCTV surveillance was in operation 24/7 and where security guards make rounds as well. But that night, outdoor lightning suddenly went and the camera which could have caught the perps in plain view was malfunctioning. In a three-office business, loaded with technology, the only thing they took was the owner’s laptop and just ransacked the place. A person was arrested for the theft but he later wrote a letter to my boss saying he was just a scape-goat since he did burglarize a couple of other places that night. To this day the owner of the press agency says the incident reeks af a spook job, a “shot across the bow” by SOVA, Slovenian secret service, aimed at frightening him into playing nice and stop asking the wrong kinds of questions.

The case of Anuška Delić

Fast forward ten years and Anuška Delić, a Delo journalist is under investigation for allegedly publishing classified material. Charges were brought against her by none other than SOVA, the prosecution apparently agreed and wrote up an indictment and filed it with the court where it lay for almost a year. But now for the fun part: Delić was writing about Neo-Nazis in Slovenian Army and am alleged connection between Slovenian branch of Blood & Honour and Slovene Democratic Party of Janez Janša which. Published in 2011, just prior parliamentary elections, her series of articles sent shock waves through the political arena.

Now, Slovenian Neo-Nazis are a curious bunch. Pengovsky still likes to tell a story (supposedly true) from their sorry beginnings when they applied for membership of the international Blood & Honour organisation in London but were refused on account of Untermensch status of Slavic peoples in general. Well, times have changed and although beaten into submission by punkers during 1999 anti-Haider protest in Ljubljana, they’ve regrouped enough to star afresh. This time much more organised. In fact, by some accounts they were so organised that the only thing that prevented them from starting to make trouble in the open was the fall of Borut Pahor’s government in 2011. And it was at that time allegations of connections between Neo-Nazis, Slovenian Army and SDS emerged, sending Delić to do the thing she does.

Shameless plug: At that time Pengovsky also wrote a column on SDS drawing parallels between their own ideology and Neo Nazi mantra “you’ve got law on your side, we’ve got justice on ours”.

A pattern

Anyhoo, after some political wrangling Janez Janša took power in 2012 and (logically) replaced head of SOVA, the latter files charges against Delić fairly soon. This of course is nothing but a politically motivated intimidation of the most repulsive sort. But most importantly, it re-establishes a pattern of abuse power.

Namely, SOVA legaly does not have the authority to go after Slovenian citizens and must leave any such case to the CrimPolice. Curiously enough, in 2000, during Andrej Bajuk government where Janez Janša served as defence minister, Blaž Zgaga of Večer daily and later of Patria Affair fame, was given a similar treatment for leaking military secrets (cooperation between US and Slovenian military intelligence). While his appartement was searched by the police, personnel from military intelligence reportedly took active part in the investigation which should not have been the case, since military services can only busy themselves with military personel. Point being that every so often in Slovenia journos are subject to various (semi)clandestine services throwing the book at them – or worse.

OSCE gets interested

But what of Anuška Delić? Pengovsky and Nataša Briški did a podcast with her for metinalista.si where she explained how things went down. The podcast is in Slovenian, but here’s a decent interview she gave to Lawyer Herald in English. There’s been enough commotion internationally for the OSCE to start asking questions.

Now, on one hand this reeks of attempts at curtailing media freedom. Demanding that a journo reveal his/her sources is just wrong. But on the other hand, this is more of a psychological warfare than anything else. Despite what the SDS will have you think this still is a democracy. Journalists don’t disappear, they aren’t beaten up by masked thugs and save an occasional threat they can pretty much do their job. Indeed, the main threat to media oversight in Slovenia is not state control or threats of physical violence but journalists’ social security. Much easier to have a “cooperative” journo if he or she finds it hard to put bread on the table. But I digress…

SOVA admits more than it wants to

At the end of the day, the whole thing is hugely embarrassing both for SOVA (which went from a respectable service to a joke, mostly by abusing it for political needs of Janez Janša and the SDS – that included blowing a cover of its safe house in Ljubljana and derailing a joint SOVA-BND operation) as well as for the state in general. Which is probably why the indictment was put in a bottom drawer and almost forgotten until now. Because if it was thrown out, all hell would break loose about judiciary being infested with “left-wing fascists” or some other derivative of SDS propaganda. But if the case went forward it would constitute an implicit admission that reporting of Anuška Delić was spot on and that the documents she used, regardless of their nature, do indeed prove a link exists (or did exist at the time) between Slovenian army, the SDS and the Neo-Nazi element.

Awkward.

March 13th, 2014, posted by pengovsky

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