No More Highway Robbery on Slovene Roads

This might be of importance to all of you who were irked by the new vignette system for charging road tolls in Slovenia. As you will remember, the government of former PM Janez Janša introduced the system om 1 July 2008 amid cries of the move being politically motivated as elections were fast approaching and the goverment had promised to do something about ridiculously long queues at toll-booths on Slovenian highways during the summer tourist season. The introduction of vignette was partly overshadowed by the Šentvid Tunnel Fiasco, but the gist of the move was the introduction of 12-months vignette (priced at €55), intended for those who use Slovenian roads regularly and 6-months vignettes (priced at €35) for everyone else, including tourists who will only pass through Slovenia driving to and from their destinations.

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(source)

Naturally, a lot of people went apeshit. I mean, making people cough up 30 euros to use Slovenian roads twice in a year (going to and from a hotel in Croatia, for example) gives an entirely new meaning to the term highway robbery. The move did not go unnoticed in Brussels where the European Commission first asked nicely if Janša’s government could change the system into a more friendly one, but JJ and his minister of transportation Radovan Žerjav played dumb and said that there is still plenty of time to consider any changes.

Elections came, Janša lost and Patrick Vlačič, a protegee of the new PM Borut Pahor was installed as new minister of transportation. Somewhat surprisingly, he started playing dumb as well, saying that Slovenia will let itself first be dragged in front of the European Court, as to buy some time before changing the system. Nameyl, the trick is that introducing shorter-period vignettes means that less money will trickle into coffers of DARS (the state motorway company), probably forcing the government to back up loans taken by DARS with taxpayers’ money.

However, since an over-indebted DARS is not really the Commission’s problem, the muscles in Brussels told Slovenia that it will hold back on funds for completing the country’s highway system. Thus minister Patrick Vlačič announced, removing his foot from his mouth, that 6-months vignettes will be scrapped and 30- and 7-days vignettes will be introduced instead, The latter will be priced at 15 euros. priced at €35 and €15 respectively. Government of PM Pahor approved the new measure today and the parliament is expected to pass the changed law in an emergency session to speed up the process.

Whereas the rest of us, who use the yearly vignette, will now have to pay 95 euros for this luxury.

Trouble In Paradise

Ljubljana has been dubbed the most beautiful city in the world as well as the fifth most desirable place to live in Europe. It has even been declared the most honest city in the world, but there’s trouble in paradise.

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Dnevnik daily ran a story yesterday (followed up today) claiming that Ljubljana mayor Zoran Janković was indicted on fraud charges dating back to 2004 while he was still at the helm of Mercator retail chain. The article says that he or a member of his board signed a ficticious contract in with a security firm, owned by a CEO of Maximarket, a retail company Mercator took over that year. The contract, worth about 800k euros was supposedly a reward to management of Maximarket for being cooperative in the takeover bid, which was hotly contested by Tuš retail chain, the smallest but at the time the fastest developing of the big three retailors in Slovenia (the third being Swiss-owned Spar).

The problem is that – according to the article – SAS Group (the security firm in question) was a) unlicensed and b) didn’t hold up to its end of the bargain, but still kept the money, which no one seemed to mind. Problems obviously arose when balance sheets didn’t add up, at which point investigators became interested. Mayor Janković’s initial response to Dnevnik didn’t help either, as he first said that as far as he knows the money had been returned (a fact that was apparently confirmed by the current management of Mercator), but later added that he knows nothing about the whole thing.

There are many rough edges to this story, however. First and foremost is the nature of the deal. Ficticious (ghost) contracts are a national sport over here, especially when tax evasion and money laundering is concerned. From what I understand it usually involves at least three players which perform overpriced services for one another, thus balancing each other’s sheets. If you just sign a contract, hand over the cash and the other guy does nothing, it becomes too obvious too soon and the Tax Admin gets interested. But It seems unlikely that a top-level player like Janković would make such an obvious mistake. OK, so maybe the guy is not as cunning as he seems to be, but – if he really did what he is accused of – I’m pretty much certain that he knew to cover his tracks better.

Which brings us to the next problem. If pengovsky read the articles correctly, the cops and the Tax Admin got interested in this in 2007, just before the three-year limitation period (another curious habit of the local law enforcement). But in October 2006, as it became obvious that Zoran Janković will probably win the municipal elections in Ljubljana, Laško Brewery the then-new owner of Mercator (yes, it’s Boško Šrot again), in tow with government of then-PM Janez Janša, while Boško and Janez were still buddies, ran a smear campaing against Janković, trying to dig up dirt on him during his Mercator years – and all they could come up with was a dubiously paid bill for the wedding of Janković’s eldest son, and even that turned out to be a dud. So the question is, how come this didn’t come up earlier, when Janković was at total odds with just about everyone who ran the country in 2006?

And finally, could it be that after a string of investigation fiascos which include but are not limited to Operation Clean Shovel, Slovene law enforcement agencies (especially the prosecution) suddenly became über-efficient and dug up dirt on Zoran Janković which lay there unnoticed for at least three years?

This has the potential to get extremely interesting. After all, current General Prosecutor Barbara Brezigar is not exactly popular with the new government and if this blows into her face, her career might face a premature demise.