OK people, this has got to stop. Seriously. I can’t leave this country alone for five minutes without shit happening (EDIT: on second thought, it is probably her fault 😈 ). To cut a long story short, last week agents of the newly minted National Bureau of Investigation (yes, think FBI) detained minister of agriculture Milan Pogačnik, leader of Slovene National Party (SNS) Zmago Jelinčič and an SNS MP Srečko Prijatelj. As you would imagine, all hell broke loose, especially after it emerged that this was a result of a four-months-long sting operation, whose primary target was Prijatelj, whereas Jelinčič and Pogačnik got caught in it en passant. As a result, minister Pogačnik (already heavily wounded because of the canine affair) resigned, Jelinčič is fighting some seriously bad press and is inventing ever more wild conspiracy theories, whereas Prijatelj was put under arrest on charges of extortion as he was picked up after receiving some 320.000 EUR in what was allegedly blackmail money. He remains in custody.
Srečko Prijatelj befriending cops (source)
It was a bombshell. There I was, entertaining happy troubles about whether go up the Empire State Building or The Rockefeller Center (The Rock won, thanks Adriaan), and the very next moment I read – or rather, am alerted to the fact – that the sky is falling down back home. So, what exactly happened?
According to various media reports Prijatelj was under surveillance for suspicion of blackmail and extortion in some real-estate mumbo-jumbo, where allegedly he, his friend (now somewhat alienated) Marijan Mikuž and former CEO of Slovenia’s main port Luka Koper Robert Časar divided profits from a scheme where state-owned Luka Koper sold some real-estate cheap to Mikuž’s firm (co-owned by Prijatelj’s wife), whereas the firm then leased that same real estate back to the port at double the price. The story goes that the trio supposedly worked well together, since Časar had access to some prime real estate out there, Prijatelj had some leverage as an MP, whereas Mikuž’s firms were used as a front for what was is fact a classic swindle. Until, apparently, Prijatelj started claiming that Mikuž owed his some serious money (whether or not that is true remains to be seen) and started threatening him and his family. Mikuž even claims that Prijatelj gave him the “kiss of death” and pulled a gun on him at which point he went to the cops. They put a wire on him, provided him with 320k EUR (amount Prijatelj is said to have demanded from Mikuž) and picked the MP up as the transfer was made.
Now, Srečko Prijatelj (whose surname literally translates as “Friend”. Go figure) is a generally disagreeable character. His hate speech is even more vulgar and below-the-belt than that of his party boss Zmago Jelinčič. To astonishment of many, he even won a law suit against a journalsit of Mladina weekly who labelled him as “cerebrally bankrupt” after he mimicked and stereotyped speech and body language of homosexuals. The ruling is now being appealed in Strassbourg, after a it got a somewhat unexpected nod by the Slovene Constitutional Court. The fact that he is disagreeable does of cource not make him inherently criminal and it has to be said that the investigation is ongoing and that charges against him have yet to be proven. However, this thing will have serious (if not huge) implications for the immediate political future. Not just that of Srečko Prijatelj, but that of Zmago Jelinčič as well as – possibly – the political right as a whole.
Namely, we are dealing with several overlapping stories. First, there is the investigation of alleged malpractice and abuse of power by former CEO of Luka Koper Robert Časar, who was appointed to this position by the government of Janez Janša. Allegedly tens of millions of euros evaporated as a result of his actions. While the police were investigating (even before NBI was formed), apparently Srečko Prijatelj popped up as actively involved in a part of this enterprise, so they put a tab on his communications as well. And in this way the cops learned about the deal SNS boss Zmago Jelinčič and now-ex minister Milan Pogačnik made. Pogačnik was to secure transfer or some 40 acres of farming land in Prekmurje region to municipality of Murska Sobota, which would in turn decree this become building land, where Zmago Jenlinčič would be able to build Aeronautics Museum, a project he lobbied for vigorously for the last ten years. In turn, SNS would support Pogačnik in a looming interpelation vote.
Since Pogačnik was a huge liability ever since the canine scandal, this latest revelation provided just that final merciful shot which killed off his mortally wounded political life. Although it must be said that – despite the overwhelming public and media outcry – there is nothing particularly wrong with that Jelinčič and Pogačnik were up to. True, the museum is Jelinčič’s pet project and he probably had as much to gain from it as did the municipality where it would have been built. But that is the way politics is being made. I’ll support you if you support my project. It may not be the most beautiful or the most exciting side of politics, but there you go. This is precisely the way budget funds are appropriated and policies crafted. Most of them, anyway.
When Janez Janša needed those extra six votes of DeSUS to build his ruling coalition in 2004, he heeded to a demand by Karl Erjavec that pensions should be raised at the same rate as salaries are. This bought Erjavec a lot of stock with the older population (my pensioners, he used to say), while it bought Janša his parliamentary majority. The fact that it nudged the pension fund even closer to insolvency as it already was, didn’t matter.
But since public and media reactions bear only scant relation to reality (as we’ve seen recently) the damage is done and political heads have rolled. Pogačnik is down and out, while Prijatelj claims innocence and refuses to step down as MP. But he is detained at the moment which makes SNS one MP short. Not that the party and its leader Zmago Jelinčič have a lot to look forward to. Having been comfortably well off poll-wise, Jelinčič was eyeing becomng even more mainstream. And he had a lot of help especially from SDS and SLS who are rapidly becoming ever more nationalistic and radical themselves, therefore making SNS even more politically acceptable to right-wing voters.
Jelinčič aimed to ride that trend, which showed in the way he piggybacked on SDS proposal that the Law on Capital City be declared unconstitutional. The law is a sort-of-but-not-quite thank you note to Ljubljana mayor Zoran Janković, who campaigned hard for the ruling coalition prior 2008 elections, mostly on the grounds that the government of Janez Janša deprived Ljubljana of some 60 million euros of budget money, and arguably delivered the victory to Borut Pahor. He fully expected the new government to give the money back, but was to be bitterly disappointed and got only 16 million, plus a promise that certain project can be funded directly from state budget. But as this is a year for municipal elections, SDS needs to strengthen its position on non-Ljubljana areas, which is achieved the easiest by claiming that the new government prefers the capital over other regions.
However, this move, led by Janša’s chief parliamentary hawk Branko Grims (a Kranj native. Figures) more or less fucked Ljubljana SDS, by putting them in an awkward position. If they support the party central, they’ve more or less already lost the elections in Ljubljana, as mayor Janković will beat them to death with a mantra of “first-you-took-60-million-and-now-you-want-to-take-16-as-well”, whereas they can’t really afford to oppose the move either, as the branch just got new leadership, after the old leadership was described as too doveish by Janša himself.
Anyways, Jelinčič wanted to piggyback on this SDS blunder, looking to pick up enough votes in Ljubljana municipal elections to enable him and/or his party to return to the city council. He probably figured that anti-Janković voters would be just confused enough to vote for him, the master of short and sizzly sentences and quick solutions. But as he is now being painted just as corrupt as he is usually painting others, this master plan might not bear fruit.
Which then leaves just a question of whether all of this is a result of a months-long criminal investigation, or – as Jelinčič claims a left-wing conspiracy, led by Interior Minister Katarina Kresal and aimed to divert the public from scandals she herself is embroiled in.
Pengovsky says the first option is more likely, especially since four months ago the only thing nagging the coalition was the economic crisis and Katarina Kresal was at the top of her game. But as we have noted several times before: public opinion and media reports need not necessary be based on reality. And the same goes for politicians’ statements.