Storm In A Populist Teacup

For a few long moments on Thursday it seemed as if the government of Miro Cerar drew its last breath. The issue at hand was an agreement between the minister of health Milojka Kolar Celarc and the FIDES, the medical doctors’ trade union (not to be confused with Victor Orban’s Fidesz) which ostensibly put an end to the MDs’ week-long strike. The thing is that at the same time the other public sector unions were negotiating with the government on rolling back austerity measures and getting what they see is their due. On top of that the doctors, unusually, weren’t getting a pass by the public opinion which normally forgave their antics regardless of how baseless they may have been (because doctors and shit). All of this while the government was about to unveil a much-anticipated draft of health-sector reform, a move which by definition makes a lot of players with plenty of vested interest, mighty nervous. But in the end, it all amounted to nothing.

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The Three Amigos (source, source and source)

Namely, while Karl Erjavec of DeSUS and Dejan Židan of SD were raising hell in the last couple of days on account of minister Kolar Celarc supposedly agreeing to exempt the doctors from a mechanism that regulates wages across the entire public sector, the true reasons for the entire circus were purely political and aimed at obscuring the fact that both junior coalition parties can ill afford parliamentary elections right now, for reasons both political and financial. And this, more or less goes for all political parties with the possible exception of the SMC.

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Accountant-In-Chief

The term “hot political Autumn” is a staple of post-holiday media diet in Slovenia. It’s supposed to represent the exact opposite of the Silly season and signal re-entry of many-a-player into political orbit. Only that the Silly season was not really happening the past few years. In fact, until this Summer, Slovenia has been experiencing one long, drawn-out political and economic re-alignment, making the period between 2010 and 2016 one big political blur. Just think about it: four governments, just as many elections (on national level only) and seven referendums, with one being a 3-in-1 special. And then there was the euro-crisis and the migrant crisis and the Patria affair and a whole range of clusterfucks large and small. Thus many people were befuddled when the government of Miro Cerar declared a collective holiday and got the hell out of Dodge for most of August. Maybe it was the Olympics, maybe it was real, but no one really missed them, except for a few warning shots from the media and the opposition, but most of those were catching a few extra z’s around that time, too.

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Mateja Vraničar Erman, FinMin-to-be (source)

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Axing Minister Of Culture Threatens To Disrupt Coalition Balance Of Power

Culture minister Julijana Bizjak Mlakar (DeSUS) is about to get the can. PM Cerar said so (although not in as many words) when he asked her to resign no later than noon yesterday lest he initiates demission procedures. And since Bizjak Mlakar told the PM to go fuck himself (not in as many words, either), the scene is set for yet another ruffling of the proverbial feathers in full view of the public.

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Julijana Bizjak Mlakar (source: The Firm™)

All things being equal, the government would be in a state of mid-level panic right now. Bizjak Mlakar is a part of the DeSUS contingent of ministers and Karl Erjavec, leader of the second-to-senior coalition party as a rule doesn’t look kindly on his people being treated this way. At the very least, he’d threaten to walk out of the coalition and get a raise in pensions out of it. You know, just to stay on the good side of his core constituency. That nothing of the kind is taking place, is speaking volumes.

A shit job if there ever was one

You see, culture is a shit portfolio to run. At least in Slovenia, where people working in culture industry are a-dime-a-dozen and that’s excluding the media, archives, religion and heritage, all of which fall under the purview of the said ministry. In fact, back in the day then-minister of culture Sergij Pelhan was even slapped by a hot-blooded director Vinci Anžlovar over some financing disagreement. So on one hand you’ve got all of these people telling you how to do your job and on the other a lot of brainiacs who scoff at culture and creative industries in general as a waste pf taxpayer’s money. Unless, of course, they can claim a tax deduction. Despite evidence that investment in culture industries can create as much as four-fold return.

Anyhoo, it is against this climate that the individual at the helm of the ministry at any given time must fight for a slice of the country’s EUR 9.5 billion budget. Currently, that’s EUR 146 million, of which 50 million is spent on maintaining heritage sites and 85 million on financing various programmes. And when the going gets tough (as it tends to do in this day and age) the ministry of culture is among the first ones getting squeezed.

Pengovsky told you it’s a shit job. And yet, Julijana Bizjak Mlakar was (technically still is) spectacularly inept at doing it.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was management and financing of restoration of the Idrija Mercury Mine, a UNESCO heritage site. The nuts and bolts of it a rather boring and not really pertinent for the entire picture, so suffice it to say that the whole project requires the cooperation of many state, local and non-government players. (link in Slovene). But this Idrija Mercury Mine thing, where Bizjak Mlakar obstinately refused to execute a decision by the government charging her ministry to attend to the urgent situation is only the latest in a series of gaffes and misfires that have plagued the department almost from the day she took it over.

Media law fiasco

Chief among these was the media law fiasco, which started last summer and ended a month or so ago. Back then the already embattled minister proposed to amend the existing media law which (this needs to be said) is hopelessly outdated, does not address the situation in the industry nor does it tackle the issues with which both content producers and content consumers are faced with on a daily basis. But the first draft law was so poorly done that not only did it not address the pressing issues of the industry, it even fucked up those tiny bits that sort of worked. Like the quota system for Slovenian music. As a result, the draft has had such a hostile reception (pengovsky included)  that it was withdrawn, completely revamped and tabled again. The redux fared only slightly better, however (both links in Slovene). In the end, the watered-down provisions were passed but only after the national radio received assurances by the SMC that an additional amendment will be passed soon, providing for some leeway regarding the new and harsher quota system. And lo-behold, within weeks, the ministry of culture launches a series of public debates aimed at creating a strategy for developing and regulating the media sector.

That’s right: after it had already spent a considerable amount of energy and political capital (of which it had precious little to begin with) at shoving an amended media law down everyone’s throat, they went about putting together a media sector strategy. Aren’t these things usually done the other way around? Anyway, the point is that things are a bit chaotic over there. Which is why state secretary (minister’s second-in-command and chief operative) Tone Peršak, himself an accomplished writer and a former mayor of Trzin, was on the verge of quitting his post, reportedly citing impossibility to work with Bizjak Mlakar.

So how was it that a person who is uniquely ill-suited for the post end up handling the culture portfolio? Well, the way her party boss Karl Erjavec threw her under the bus may provide a hint or two. You see, Bizjak Mlakar was elected to parliament in 2014 which was somewhat of a surprise even for the party insiders and her maverick attitude was not exactly what DeSUS’ big kahunas had in mind for the party’s parliamentary group. So she was “promoted” to minister of culture where she could do the least damage. Or so the party leadership thought. The actual result was more akin to a slow-moving traffic accident, where the onlookers couldn’t really believe what we were seeing but couldn’t avert our eyes, either. Case in point being the issue of financing of KSEVT (Cultural Centre of Space Technologies), where the ministry demanded that the museum returned some wrongly attributed funds. The manager Miha Turšič refused, claiming everything was in order and although a subsequent audit proved ministry of culture right, Bizjak Mlakar handling of the issue only escalated tensions with Turšič at one point embarking on a lengthy hunger-strike.

Going down in flames

To put it succinctly, the politics of Julijana Bizjak Mlakar are grief no one really needs. And rather than adjusting the tone and the pace (if not the course) of her actions, she keeps doubling-down on her positions, surrounds herself with yes-men and dubious PR specialists, as if she wanted to go down in flames.

And so she will. The problem (for DeSUS and potentially for PM Cerar, too) is that she will land right back in the parliament and oust her replacement Jana Jenko. And since DeSUS parliamentary group is expected to support demission of Bizjak Mlakar, she would then have to work with the very same people who helped shoot her down. Rather awkward.

One way out of this conundrum is that Bizjak Mlakar forefits her MP seat and exits top-tier politics completely. This would be the preffered outcome for both Erjavec and Cerar, as the former would keep his parliamentary group intact while the latter would – by extention – get to keep his parliamentary majority of 52 votes intact.

The more probable outcome, however, is that the soon-to-be-ex minister of culture returns to the parliament as an MP and declares herself independent. After all, the MP’s monthly salary is nothing to scoff at. Apart from the opposition, this scenarion would probably be welcomed by the most junior of coalition partners, the Social Democrats who, incidentally, used to be Bizjak Mlakar’s former political home. Namely, with an independend Bizjak Mlakar, the SMC and DeSUS could only muster 45 votes in the parliament, a vote short of the absolute majority. With this, the SD would suddenly become a relevant coalition member once again and could again run the table against the coalition parties more aggressively.

A week is a very long time

So, while the case of Julijana Bizjak Mlakar at first glance seems like the Prime Minister is simply getting rid of some dead weight, a closer look uncovers a much more delicate picture. The MPs are expected to debate and vote on Bizjak Mlakar’s demission in begnning of May. That’s almost three weeks from now. And in politics, a week is a very long time.

 

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.