[UPDATED] Will Thursday Finally See The End Of The Border Dispute Between Slovenia And Croatia?

UPDATE 29/06/2016 @ 1630 CET: The Tribunal has announced its decision which (at least in part) goes along the lines argued in the post. See the end of the post for details.

Once for a change, Slovenia and Croatia have every right to feel like the centre of the world. It’s not as if they don’t feel like that most of time, but with the final decision of the arbitration tribunal on the border between the two former Yugoslav republics due on Thursday, the attention of much of the continent (if not the world) will be upon them. And it shows.


The disputed maritime border between Slovenia and Croatia

The story of the Slovenia-Croatia border dispute is as long as the independence of the two countries and has in the past quarter-century gone from practically non-existent to near-armed-conflict and back again, with everything in between. It has been used time and again for scoring cheap political points, divert attention from other problems or even (allegedly) coordinated by players on both sides of the borders to swing elections. But in reality it was nothing more than a neighbourly dispute over a few patches of land that got out of hand.

Continue reading [UPDATED] Will Thursday Finally See The End Of The Border Dispute Between Slovenia And Croatia?

Wag The Thompson

This sorry little excuse for a country spent much of the past week (and then some) fretting over a seemingly minor issue which – as per usual in this part of the world – was blown way out of proportion. We are, of course, referring to one Marko Perković – Thompson who was scheduled to give a concert in Maribor today but was banned only days ago over security concerns.


Marko Perković – Thompson being all patriotic and shit. (source)

When the concert was announced, everybody freaked out. The charge was led by local press, most notably Maribor-based Večer daily which has national coverage and soon half of the country was in overdrive.

Continue reading Wag The Thompson

Playing To Lose, Cerar Goes About Saving Private Mramor

Yesterday, finance minister Dušan Mramor offered to resign over a bonuses scandal that’s been overflowing for about two weeks now. In what was a somewhat unexpected move, PM Cerar did not accept the resignation. Instead he subjected Mramor to a mere slap on the wrist and then proceeded to extol Mramor’s track record at the ministry. Although the affair involved relatively modest amounts, the public and the media were indignant and the pundits were near-unanimous that Cerar will let Mramor go. Since he didn’t, the overall sentiment is that Cerar committed political suicide and will never be re-elected again. The truth, in pengovsky’s view, is somewhat different: Cerar has long since become unelectable, most likely on Day 2 of his tenure. It just took him over a year and two pan-european structural crises to come to that conclusion. Thus in terms of his own political future he has little to lose. He can, however, make the remaining three-and-a-half years count. And for that, he needs Mrarmor more than Mramor needs him.

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Miro The Man and Dušan The Man’s Man, some time ago. (source)

The gist of the story is that Mramor, while serving as dean of the Faculty of Economics in 2008, OK’ed use of special clause in labour legislation that provided for a 24/7 standby bonus. The clause was meant to be used to augment paychecks to various branches of first responders and similar services, but in mid-2008, apparently to circumvent the havoc wrought by the across-the-board austerity at the time, the faculty came up with this clause and, well, bent over backwards to expand its interpretation to cover university professors as well. The move worked so well that it was copied by nine out of eleven faculties, members of University of Ljubljana (Faculty of Theology and Faculty of Law being the notable exceptions).

Unmitigated disaster

Now, ever since the story broke, it has been an unmitigated PR disaster for Mramor and everyone else involved. This includes Minster of Education Maja Makovec Brenčič, former SD heavyweight and incumbent dean of the Faculty of Economics Metka Tekavčič and several other public personae. Especially daft was the feeble defence mounted by the faculty, now with Tekavčič at the helm, which only reinforced the perception of entitlement on the part of the academic elite. The fact that the whole issue centered on about half a million euros across nine faculties, did little to ausage the problem. Quite to the contrary. It is a known quirk of the Slovenian voter that the more he or she can relate to a number, the more emotional their response will be.

Case in point being Mramor who, over the years, accumulated around 45k euros in “standby bonuses”. 45,000 euros is not an unreachable amount of money. It’s about three-years-worth of average Slovenian wage. To put it another way, 45k will buy you an mid-to-upper-range BMW. Which is what makes the people so mad. They have an approximate idea about how much 45k euros actually is and they base their judgements on that. To put in perspective, only about a week ago, Slovenia was forced to pay 42 million euros (almost a thousand times more) to Croatia as damages for electricity not delivered from Krško nuclear plant between 2002 and 2003, when a political decision was taken to punitively and unilaterally withhold electricity from Croatia, even though the neighbouring country owns a 50% stake in the plant. Point being that the voters will more likely and more furiously take issue with smaller amounts of money. Doubly so if the payouts are legally dubious, as they are in this case.

Now, in the end Mramor has promised to pay back the whole amount, but only after being prodded by the media and – presumably – by the PM himself. Before that he somehow came to the conclusion that he would only pay back some 3000 euros. As if we learned nothing from the case of Gregor Virant in 2011.

Do-Goodnik becomes unelectable

But enough about Mramor. What he did was wrong, regardless of the motives. And while he’s not off the hook just yet, he does get to live another day or so and in politics a week is a lifetime. What is equally interesting, however, is why Cerar bailed Mramor out in the first place and squandered what little remained of the ethical platform the SMC ran on in 2014.

First, the already mentioned fact that Cerar has, in fact, been unelectable for some time. At the very least from the onset of the refugee crisis where he alienated a substantial part of the progressive vote by raising a razor-wire fence on the border with Croatia and empowering the military to police civilians. On the other hand, he only infuriated the right-wing which – although clamouring for these measures – predictably deemed them to little, too late, when finally passed. But in all likelihood, Cerar’s political demise began soon after he began his term, when the high-flying ethical do-goodnik platform met the bleak politcal and economic reality of Slovenia. After kicking ministers out for much smaller transgressions and having seen himself and Mramor brush with a similar affair, Cerar finally realized that it was in effect he himself who was pulling the rug from under his feet. Others were just helping.

Not that there was any lack of help. During yesterday’s press conference, Cerar took a swipe at SDS and SD, more or less saying that he will not have the composition of this government being dictated to him. That the SDS is making life difficult for Cerar is hardly news. After all, they’re the opposition, even if they’re being strangely blunt about that as of late. Namely, according to one source, the party openly threatened the SMC with making their life a living hell if the largest party does not support the SDS nominee for a vacant post at the European Court of Human Rights. The SMS refused to oblige. Hell did in fact commence.

SD ante portas

But the slap across the face of the SD was much more telling. The party, although still in relative ruin after its electoral flop, was given a new lease of life by Cerar’s strategic mistake of making them coalition partners. It soon started to re-establish its economic base and soon enough found itself in a massive brawl with the SMC over the sale of Telekom Slovenije. The SD lost that particular battle but stalled the whole thing just enough to derail the sale. Then came the beheading of the bad bank where SD gained a whole new range of informal power and – not unimportant – where Mramor lost. Which sort of made him the next target. And since he was apparently vunerable in the bonuses department… well, you now know the story.

From this point of view, had Cerar accepted Mramor’s resignation, the SD would have practically owned the government. They’ve squeezed a number of consessions out of Cerar as it is. The latest one being a shamelessly brazen creation of a party fief. officially known as the State Forest Company, it centralizes forestry management and falls under the purview of – yup, you guessed it – minister of agriculture, forestry and food, headed by leader of the SD Dejan Židan. Had Cerar allowed them to go any further, he would relinquish what little control he has on the home front.

Bond…. Sovereign bond

Ditto for the foreign front. Had Cerar relieved Mramor of his duties, Slovenia would in all likelihood start raising many-an-eyebrow of various investors all over the world. Until now, these were more or less happy to buy Slovenian debt precisely because Mramor and his predecessor Čufer handled the post-bailout situation adroitly and took the country of various watch-lists in Brussels, Berlin and Washington, even though (in all honesty) the pace of reforms and privatization has been glacial, at best. Bottom line, with the to-do list still being more or less the same as it was under Bratušek tenure, Mramor is Cerar’s best insurance against the possibility that the humanitarian and political crisis (in terms of EU issues) is joined by a resurgent financial crisis, too.

Thus, by protecting finance minister Mramor, Cerar conceded that he’ll lose the next elections. ironically, to win them, he probably has to play to lose, anyhow.

6 Lessons Of Fence Erection

It took less than twelve hours for Miro Cerar‘s “temporary technical obstacles” to hit their first, well, obstacle. And, boy, did they hit it. While Miro the Man is trying to find his way through the minefield of domestic political ill-wishers, the Mid-East burning and own good intentions paving the road to hell, a familiar monster came from under the bed and bit him right in the ass: the border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia.

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(source)

That erecting the fence tehnical obstacles will be anything but a walk in the park was more or less clear. But even though the government did take the precaution of notifying the Arbitration Court as well as the government in Zagreb, the latter claimed that parts of the fence crossed into its territory and threatened to remove it of its own accord. Needless to say that Croatian special police immediately appeared in the area already teeming with Slovenian police and army personnel. Which provided for some nice throwbacks to 2007 when then-PM Janez Janša sent special police units on the bank of the Mura where Croatia was up to, ironically, technical work on levees and railroads.

Only this time around it was Slovenian authorities who were putting up fence technical installations and the Croatians who are going apeshit about it. To their credit, Zagreb thusfar only issued a strong protest to the Slovenian charge d’affaires, but this is the sort of situation where things can go very wrong very quickly.

A few things need to be noted at this stage:

1) For the second time in as many months, the situation on the border between two EU member states has flared up dramatically. Weeks ago, Hungarian security services disarmed a number of Croatian policemen on a train full of refugees supposedly on Hungarian territory. So far these are isolated incidents in an altogether precarious situation. But mistakes do happen and when people are tired and/or scared, they tend to see patterns that don’t exist. They also tend to overreact. Then all hell breaks loose.

2) The pull-back-or-else tactic employed by Croatia is additionally complicated by the fact that it was that same approach that caused Slovenia to relocate its border checkpoint on the Dragonja river a few hundred metres north in 1991, thereby writing the opening chapter of the still-running border dispute.

3) Both governments, especially the one in Ljubljana should remember there are idiots aplenty on both sides of the border. Sometimes they’re even elected. And that they will inevitably try to foment trouble to advance their own agenda.

4) Speaking of fomenting trouble, it should now be clear (once again) that politics is not linear and that introducing a new variable changes the entire environment and has unpredictable consequences.

5) Which is exactly what Cerar’s opponents, both within the coalition and without, are counting on. Apart from expecting the new influx of refugees (which has yet to materialise) everyone is on the lookout for a scuffle between the two neighbouring countries. And to top it off (and as predicted) the hardcore proponents of the fence are claiming it is too little too late and that Cerar should resign immediately while the fervent among those opposing the fence are already calling Cerar a Fascist anyhow. Talk about losing friends and alienating people.

6) The Pandora’s box is now open and instead of managing one particularly demanding crisis, Cerar now has at least two more on his hands: a crisis in relations with Croatia (not that we were all that chummy to begin with) as well as a political crisis which will explode right in his face the very moment this thing with refugees will start showing signs of abating.

Howgh.

 

The Army Is A Broad Sword, Not A Scalpel

Following a surge in influx of refugees which apparently stretched Slovenian personnel and housing resources to their limits, the government of Miro Cerar came up with amendments to Defence Act granting the Slovenian army policing powers and rushed them through the parliament in a rarely used emergency legislative procedure. The move, backed by both the coalition and most of the opposition is aimed to provide relief to the overstretched police and Civil defence force. But in reality it opens a Pandora’s box of the military spilling over into the civilian sphere.

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“The army will perform its duty.” Bruce Willis/William Deveraux in The Siege (source)

Admittedly, the numbers Slovenian authorities were dealing with are staggering in terms of the country’s size and its resources. More than 20.000 refugees came to the Slovenian border via the “West Balkan route” through Croatia in the last couple of days. Quite a substantial number of them, as per Slovenian government, without any notification from their Croatian counterparts who reportedly transported the refugees somewhere in the vicinity of theborder rather than to the actual border crossings and then cut them loose, leaving them to make their way across the river, fields and marshes into Slovenia.

And since Slovenia, trying to be European to a fault, insists on an orderly processing and transfer of refugees from Croatia through its several refugee centres onwards to Austria, things got tricky at the Slovenia/Croatia border, prompting the government in Ljubljana to employ the army as a policing force.

Which is a big fucking mistake.

The problem is, of course, many-fold. First, the mere fact that with this, the firewall between the civilian and the military sphere is being, albeit slightly and temporarily, torn down. Giving the army powers over the civilian population is a big no-no. Unless a state of emergency was declared and last time pengovsky checked, that wasn’t the case. Although some people act as if it were. And this is the problem number two.

A lot of what we were seeing these past few days were knee-jerk reactions to events that were and are apparently getting the better of people at the top of the food chain whose primary role is to keep things strategically in check. As if deploying the military was the only alternative to using police forces.

There’s the old adage that if a hammer is all you know how to use, everything looks like a nail. But this is not a case of trigger-happy politicos jumping the gun (literally) and launching a scenario not unlike in The Siege. No, a more proper parallel would be that of a first-time plane passengers on a very bumpy ride, already reaching for their life jackets while the flight crew is still serving drinks.

A number of those alternatives came to light as the parliament was debating the amendments to the Law on Defence. These include aid by the European frontier agency Frontex as well as bilateral help from other EU states’ police forces, most notably Austria and Germany. These options are now being considered and reportedly about to be enacted.

Problemo numero tres is the actual scope of powers granted to the military. While members of the Slovenian army apparently have some crowd control training, there is serious concern as to whether Slovenian soldiers have the (legal) knowledge and experience to execute these powers with necessary restraint and respect for human rights. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Slovenian Army are prone to human rights violations. What I’m saying is that the army – any army – was not designed with this in mind. Simple as that. And by the time enough military units are trained in the nuances of policing civilians and equipped to do that effectively, this crisis will have long passed.

Which brings us to the fourth and the biggest problem. This, too, shall pass. And after it does, we’ll be left with army units with a shitload of equipment they won’t need anymore and training that does not correspond to their basic mission. A waste of resources, if I ever saw one. But not only that. The most worrisome leftover will be the legislation itself.

Because if you think that the provision granting policing powers to the army is going to go away after this is over, you’re sorely mistaken. It is here to stay, for ever and ever. Just like increased political meddling with the public television or the fiscal rule.

And even if the government plans to repeal the provision after the crisis abates, someone should tell them they will fail to secure the necessary two-thirds majority. Because the right-wing parties which supported the provision practically without dissent (customary political bickering, gloating and we-told-you-so’s not withstanding) and who find Victor Orban a rather appealing character, were long clamouring for something like this. And now they got it, they’re not going to let go of it that easily.

There will be other governments and there will be other crises. And bringing in the army has suddenly become much easier. All that is needed now is a technical request by the government to the parliament and – poof! – the army suddenly has policing powers again.

Luckily, yesterday cooler heads prevailed and the bar for approving special powers was raised to a two-thirds rather than just a simple majority as originally proposed by the government. Also, the amended law provides a sunset clause for these powers which expire after three months if not revoked sooner. They can, however, be extended, too, pending a re-vote. Meaning that this is not really a strong safeguard against abuse.

Fear of abuse was present in the subtext of the presentation by the Chief of the General Staff, Maj. Gen. Andrej Osterman, when he addressed the parliament yesterday. Namely, among other things, Osterman said Slovenian army neither wants nor has asked for policing powers, but will perform the duty as instructed.

It was Bruce Willis in the role of General William Deveraux in The Siege who said that the army is a broad sword, not a scalpel.

And yet, here we are. What could possibly go wrong?