Code Name “Linguist”

POP TV seems to have stumbled across a whooper. Earlier today they ran a story claiming that Mitja Meršol, former editor-in-chief of Delo daily and now MP for Positive Slovenia of Zoran Janković was in fact an operative for Yugoslav secret service (SDV) while being a member of the Slovene desk at the BBC. Namely, documents produced by the POP TV namely show that the SDV ran an operative code-named “Linguist” who joined the Slovenian BBC desk in 1971 to cover culture, but was also tasked to report on Yugoslav immigration and internal BBC matters. Another document shown by POP TV then identifies Meršol as joining the Slovenian desk at the BBC in September 1971. Meršol refused to comment beyond saying that “most of the report is wrong” but also said that he will not provide details of his actions during the 1971-1984 period.

Mitja Meršol during the launch of his latest book (source: The Firm™)

This is more than just embarrassing. Although SDV (still commonly referred to as UDBa, after its predecessor) went through several transformations during the socialist regime and despite the fact that “working for SDV” could mean as little as unknowingly providing a piece of information (no matter how useless), documents provided by POP TV suggest that Meršol was recruited and knew full well what he was doing. That he continued in this role even after his BBC stint, when he became the London correspondent for Delo daily, only adds to the gravity of the situation.

At this point it needs to be said that a wise decision has been made twenty-or-so years ago, not go after everyone who worked for the socialist regime. The so-called “lustration” was – although often called for by the political right – luckily avoided and for two simple reasons. First, the last thing you need is a McCharty-style witch-hunt, and second, the Communist party and the socialist regime were so all-encompassing, that at some point in their lives almost everyone ended up working for them in one form or another. Be it a journalist, teacher, manager, deputy, you name it. Hell, even Janez Janša was a member of the Communist Party, until he was kicked out for being too hard-line. But avoiding lustration didn’t and doesn’t mean that people made a clean break with their personal histories. In fact, lack of lustration ensured that people can be held at least morally accountable for their past deeds. Sure, let bygones be bygones, but the past can still catch up with you.

The spook MP

Should Meršol resign? Probably yes. According to some reports he is thinking seriously about it, despite the party saying that the whole thing is his business. But the fact that he was apparently an SDV operative is not as important as the fact that he was in the spook business in the first place. Snitching ain’t kosher, no matter how you look at it. While being an elected representative of the people requires no special certificates save being of age, a certain moral standard is expected of people who run for office. Nothing much, just not too spotty-a-record. After all, we’re all human. But if you’re running for office, you really shouldn’t have the past haunt you too much. And a former spook – no matter which side he or she worked for – is in no position to take a stand, well, on anything, really. Because each and every time he or she will take a stand for something, the snitch-jacket will fall out of the closet. An elected representative with too much luggage is of little use to anyone, least of all to the citizens, regardless of how benign he or she is – and trust me, Mitja Meršol today is as nice and as benign a person as they come.

The Timing

But there’s another aspect which is also worth mentioning. The timing. Meršol, in addition to being an MP for Zoran Janković’s Positive Slovenia is aslo one of Janković’s Ljubljana city councilmen and as you very well know, Zoki is running for mayor in by-elections on March 25. With this in mind, the whole thing does get a wee bit more sinister.

Namely, the whole sifting-through-SDV-archives thing bears all the hallmarks of Janez Janša and his SDS. Just remember the Archivegate with President Danilo Türk at its centre. Only that the SDS seems to have nothing to do with it this time around. The Meršol-SDV connection was apparently discovered almost by accident by a POP TV journo, who was following another lead. Namely, some weeks ago, Veno Taufer, the new president of the Slovene Writers’ Association led one of many protests against abolishing the stand-alone ministry of culture and merging it with several other portfolios. In response, allegations were floated through media close to SDS that Taufer was an SDV operative. These allegations were false, naturally. Turns out, however, that Taufer too worked for the BBC Slovenian desk and – well, it was a relatively short walk from there.

Conspiracy Theories

But what if it wasn’t a coincidence? What if the POP TV journo found what he was supposed to find? Janković seems virtually unbeatable in Ljubljana, but dusting off an old spy story and selling it for more than it’s worth could be quite a coup. That and maybe chip off a couple of percentage points off his election result. As an added bonus, the whole thing could even out the fall-out from another scandal, pertaining to a DeSUS MP Ivan Simčič, who was found to have forged his high-school graduation certificate and is under heavy pressure from the media and the opposition to resign immediately (more on that in the coming days, it really is ugly). If both Simčič and Meršol resigned, two MP seats would be up for grabs in the near future, one on each side of the aisle, lessening the damage for Janša’s coalition a bit.

But pengovsky can’t shake a funny thought. Meršol was very adamant about how he will not go into details but said that most of the report (but not all of it) was wrong. You see, this was the Cold War and Yugoslavia was a founding member of the non-aligned movement, technically no-man’s land, although it was a nominally a part of the socialist camp. Back then it was common practice for journos on foreign posts to be at least vetted by the secret services of both country of origin as well as that of the recipient country. And in case of the BBC, both countries had to agree on every specific posting. This is pure speculation on my part, but what if SDV wasn’t the only service Meršol was working for? What if he was turned and worked both for SDV and – say – MI6? There’s not a shred of evidence to corroborate any of this, but it would be possible, given his relatively low-level posting and the thirteen-year-long stay in London.

Vetting process fail much?

But back to reality: until yesterday, Mitja Meršol was the Slovenian epitome of a gentleman journalist. Always wearing his trademark bow-tie, well versed in manners and protocol, of sharp and witty pen and all style, he was the definition of old-school journalism. As of yesterday, we know there’s a more sinister side to him as well. Which is not wrong in its own right. God knows what his reasons were. Patriotism? Naivete? Blackmail? Who knows. Today, it doesn’t really matter.

One would wish, however, that political parties would put take the vetting process seriously.

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Indecent Proposal (How Many Ways To Say “Fuck You”?)

The SDS of Janez Janša and DLGV of Gregor Virant had a bit of a fall-out in the past few days over the position of the State Prosecution office after the ongoing reshuffle of public administration. The whole thing escalated into a very public spat with DLGV saying that SDS made an unacceptable offer when they offered that the coalition agreement be suspended in the part which provided for the prosecution to be moved under the jurisdiction of the minister of interior, but under the condition that justice minister Senko Pličanič of DLGV resigns if no viable results are shown within a year.

Janša and Virant a month before the elections (photo: Borut Kranjc/Mladina)

Now, as you very well know, little love is lost between DLGV and pengovsky and truth be told, they’ve more or less themselves to blame for this latest cock-up. It all goes back to the time when Gregor Virant thought he has everyone by their balls and was trying to play both ends (Janković and Janša) against the middle during the coalition negotiations. Back then he demanded that the prosecution be moved under the interior portfolio, having already earmarked his man Jani Soršak for the post. But once Virant gave the finger to Zoran Janković, he was stuck with Janša no matter what and all of a sudden found that his ego was writing checks his body couldn’t cash. Janša came back hard, had Soršak move out of the arena via a quick-and-dirty smear campaign and had his very own Vinko Gorenak installed as minister of interior.

Naturally, DLGV had a very quick change of heart and demanded that the prosecution remain within the justice department “for reasons of political hygiene” (in other words, they saw the light). They were not heard and the government (including DLGV ministers) approved the reorganisation of the public administration, moving prosecution into the interior portfolio. Thus an SDS minister had within his sphere of influence both the police and the prosecution at the time when his party boss is being tried for charges of corruption and bribery.

Still, DLGV wouldn’t let go of it as Pličanič and Virant demanded the coalition agreement be amended and prosecution returned to the justice portfolio, which was part crying over spilt milk, part gutsy move. You see Janša and his SDS could have stonewalled the issue. The move was made, decision passed, case closed, et cetera. Instead they wanted to teach Virant a lesson, offering him to move the prosecution back to justice department, provided that minister Pličanič resigns his post if no results are shown within a year.

Yep, you read it right the first time. A senior coalition party said a minister of another coalition party must pack his bags should he not perform according to its expectations. This fact alone speaks volumes about how the SDS sees the coalition as its own backyard where everybody dances to their tune. The goal of the exercise was not just protecting political gains brought to them on the platter by way of Virant being overambitious early in the game, they had to humiliate DLGV as well. Had the latter accepted the deal, it would have thrown itself at Janša’s feet and Pličanič might as well have resigned immediately, because the SDS does not specify what exactly it means by “viable results of the prosecution”. Presumably shaping the justice after their own image.

Be that as it may, DLGV obviously had to turn down the offer if it wanted to keep some sort of a face. In fact, by saying that the offer insulting, DLGV came as close to a “fuck you” as humanly possible without them being carried out of the coalition legs-first. Whether or not this is a first real crack in the coalition remains to be seen. Sure enough, the SDS faithful went after Virant and Pličanič with full force when the news broke. But then again, they were praising DLGV as a god-send when Virant picked Janša over Janković, so their acid out-pour was to be expected. But since the end result equals zero and the prosecution remains with the ministry of the interior, you can be sure that neither side will soon forget the acts of one another. But at the very least, the DLGV managed to wash their hands of their foley and can now put the blame for any future cock-ups in this department squarely at the SDS. Oh, and one more thing: this is the final proof that Virant’s election adventure was not just a Janša spin-off, but rather the real deal.

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Administrative Reform Packages, pt. 2: On Fiscal Rule

Continuing the series on the sweeping constitutional changes proposed by SDS, SLS, NSi and DLGV, we turn our attention today to the so-called Golden (or fiscal) rule, where – broadly speaking – the constitution would be amended to limit the percentage of GDP up to which the state could borrow against or something along those lines. The idea is fairly simple. In order to keep public spending in check, a top limit of indebtedness should be set and anything above that would simply become impossible. The whole thing makes sense on a certain level, especially if you subscribe to the Thatcherian vision of having to run the economy the was you run home finances. The problem, however, is that should Article 148 of the Slovenian constitution be changed indeeed, we’re pretty much fucked.


Namely: the last draft does not specify the percentage of GDP against which the state can borrow money, but rather institutes the demand for a balanced budget. And – truth be said – even though it is the coalition which came up with this piece of Merkozy-induced crap (or is that Merkonti-induced crap), Positive Slovenia and Social Democrats happily went along with it. That much became clear after Monday’s huddle chez Janša, despite some reservations being voiced by the two opposition parties. The gist of it: a balanced budget would be mandatory, with an automatix tax increase the following year should a deficit be run in the current year. Lovely, innit?

First and most important of all, the constitution is no place for setting budgetary and tax policy. A budget is an annual thing, basically an elaborate accounting document which is part guess-work, part wishful thinking and all politics. A budget is a government’s primary policy tool, despite the fact that as much of 60 percent of any given Slovenian budget was, is and probably will go for funding various public, state and welfare services. Constitutionally setting the basic outlines of a budget would therefore unnecessarily restrict incumbent and future governments in their policy-making abilities, especially if a tax-hike loomed every time something didn’t go according to plan.

Second: Getting everyone to agree to a constitutional change requires time and energy that would power a small-sized city. This will become even more apparent as more details of constitutional changes emerge and people’s brains finally get in gear. If changes to Article 148 are rammed through and end up having negative effects (which they will) the enthusiasm for any other, perhaps more necessary constitutional changes will have disappeared faster than capital gains in Iceland.

Third: budgets do not exist to be balanced, they exist to be well spent and invested. Balancing the budget is fairly easy. You just slash everything on the spending side until it rhymes with the income side. The trick is to keep everything going while keeping public finances (that is to say, the budget, public debt and various non-budget funds) in some sort of an order in the long term. A balanced budget will do you no good if it means you can’t pay the teachers, cops or soldiers, can’t build new roads or can’t invest in R&D (to give some examples at random).

Fourth: What if the dictate from Berl… eeeer…. Brussels changes? What if suddenly Merkonti were to realise all of a sudden that what we actually need is not across the board austerity but cutting some spending cuts combined with some pragmatic economic policies and – not compulsory, but welcome nevertheless – finally open that can of whoop-ass on the financial and banking sector (not unlike what Sweden did in the 90s and what Iceland is doing today). Will we be changing the constitution yet again? And will we be doing it over and over, every time some economic zealot gets a hard-on for one approach or another?

And last but certainly not least: if and when the political landscape is once again redrawn and the SDS finds itself in the opposition once again, you can bet your ass they will not be exactly reaching out to whatever government will come up with its own set of constitutional changes.

What the government of Janez Janša set out to do could very well be achieved sans all the constitutional hassle, simply pass a few laws and stick to a few pledges. But since this would include having buckets of shit thrown at them, it is much more convenient to point at the constitution and go “look, it says we have to do it!”. Thus, what we are seeing here is nothing more than political parties (the whole parliamentarian lot of them) shying away from their responsibilities thus letting economic ideology become enshrined in the constitution.

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