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.
Karl Erjavec is one lucky sonofabitch. In fact, he is so lucky that his middle name could well be changed from Viktor to Felix. I mean, the lucky with this guy is so strong that if he’d been thrown out of an airlock in the middle of the universe, he’d beat the probability of survival of two to the power of 276,709 to one against. Because that’s how improbable it is that Karl Erjavec found himself at the epicentre of not one, but two political and diplomatic scandals in Slovenia and was told by PM Cerar that he will not seek his replacement.
SuperKarl and the Mystery of The Arbitration. Sounds like a film with Harrison Ford
You see, if this was a time like any other, Erjavec would be flying out of the ministry, legs first, over a scandal with Slovenian ambassador to France where she allegedly embezzled state funds, repeatedly went on unauthorised leaves and fabricated reports. Shit was apparently brewing for some time, while the wrongdoing was uncovered months ago by an internal audit results of which were then sat on by the foreign ministry. The report was released only yesterday after the Information Commissioner ordered the ministry to do so, following an apparently unusually long deliberation on the issue.
However, since Slovenia is momentarily embroiled in the Arbitration Agreement omnishambles which already claimed the two directly involved senior diplomats, PM Miro Cerar apparently decided against beheading the foreign ministry in what is shaping to be a crucial, all-hands-on-deck period in the arbitration on the Slovenia-Croatia border dispute. Not to mention the quite probable outbreak of a political crisis in Slovenia dismissing the leader of the second largest coalition party would probably incur. Thus SuperKarl lives to see another day.
Namely, after the initial panicky response to what is now dubbed PiranLeaks, Slovenian political class is finally getting its shit together. Thus a new national arbiter will be appointed soonest (probably today), circumventing the usually protracted process in the parliament, in the hope that the arbitration proceedings can continue and ultimately conclude. Which is precisely what Croatia wants to prevent.
The government of Zoran Milanović went into rapid-fire mode, upping the ante almost daily. Thus on Sunday FM Vesna Pusić was still writing a concerned letter to the Arbitration Tribunal, formally notifying it of what had happened, but on Monday PM Milanović already announced the government is considering withdrawing from the arbitration altogether. And when his Slovenian counterpart Cerar said neither country can quit the arbitration (as per agreement), Milanović retorted by saying that it can and it will.
This is the point where things start to get tricky indeed. For all its bravado (probably amplified by the de facto election campaign Croatia is in), the incumbent Croatian government has talked itself into a rather cramped corner. Not putting their money where their mouth is would mean certain ruin for Milanović and his fellow political travellers. But the signals they are receiving are anything but clear and/or encouraging. Namely, the European Commission stated in no unclear terms that it expects the rules of the agreement to be adhered to and for the tribunal to finish the job at hand. The tribunal itself demanded Slovenia explain its version of events. Whether or not this heralds a chastising of Slovenia or not remains to be seen, but it does suggest the tribunal sees itself fit to handle the current clusterfuck as well.
Point being that Croatia used up most of its ammo (provided there’s not another batch of phone-taps waiting to miraculously appear in Croatian media) while everyone else barely made a move. This, too, suggest the pace of Croatian moves is dictated by internal political dynamics (looming elections) rather than the arbitration itself. And while one can fully expect attempts at broadening the field (like Zagreb filing a complaint with the Int’l Maritime Tribunal in Hamburg), the fact is that the Arbitration Tribunal has it within its power to conclude the proceedings as per the agreement. Even if that means unilaterally appointing a new arbiter for Croatia, since Vukas is rumoured to be stepping down at the behest of the government in Zagreb which will not name a replacement, or so the wisdom goes.
Unless, of course, Slovenia has a trick or two up its sleeve, as well. That, at least, that was the translation of Branko Grims’ cryptic praise of SOVA, the Slovenian spook service yesterday. Namely, Gizmo (generally, a pretty undesirable character) said the country’s intelligence services had done an excellent job which led to speculations that Slovenia, too, had been listening in on Croatian convos (link in Slovenian).
If that really is the case, one can only hope no one is stupid enough to actually release the recordings. We’ve seen enough embarrassment these days to go around. Twice over.
This, via the STA
Slovenia names Ronny Abraham, president of the International Court of Justice, new member of the border arbitration tribunal
— Slovene Press Agency (@STA_English) July 28, 2015
in 1994, then-defence minister Janez Janša, refusing to quit office over Depala Vas Affair was removed from office by a parliamentary majority in what was probably one the most tense periods of Slovenian statehood. A defence minister using military spooks against civilians to his own needs is never a good idea, let alone in a fledgling democracy. And in an ironic fuck you by Mother History itself, twenty-one years later, almost to the day, Slovenia is again faced with a defence minister running amok and refusing to stand down. This time, however, it’s not Janez Janša, the now near-fallen leader of the SDS, but rather Janko Veber, of Social Democrats (SD) who directed OVS, the military intelligence service, to poke around the sale of Telekom Slovenije. Namely, he defied PM Miro Cerar and refused his calls to resign. AS a result, the PM will now ask the parliament to replace Veber.
Now, drawing parallels between Janša and Veber only goes so far, although a nasty one pops up on a seemingly unrelated question of handling the issue of Roma family Strojan some years ago. This time around, there is no danger of the select army units being deployed to “secure key installations”, no thousands of protesters in front of the parliament sporting pitchforks and shovels and threatening to do generally unpleasant things to deputies if defence minister goes. But one would think that the political class would have advanced both in style as well as content in the past twenty-odd years. Especially political veterans such as Veber who definitely have enough mileage to know better.
As a result, a clusterfuck of reasonable proportions is now brewing inside the ruling coalition. The SD is, for the moment, standing firm behind Veber with party boss Dejan Židan (who doubles as minister of agriculture) going on and on about Veber doing nothing inappropriate and that SD will defend ministers who do their work. On the other hand, Cerar’s demand Veber step down won him a round of applause from the opposition NSi and SDS, while coalition member DeSUS is
apparently still calculating how to profit from this as of today on the same boat with Cerar.
The thing is that although technically his boss, PM Cerar cannot simply dismiss Veber. Because constitution. The ground law namely states that ministers are nominated by the PM but appointed to office by the parliament, hence it is only the parliament which can dismiss them. This stipulation has caused trouble more than once, with mixed results. Amazingly, back in 1992, during his second administration, Janez Drnovšek tried to replace Jožica Puhar of what is now the SD (!) but failed. Puhar later resigned of her own accord, while Drnovšek went on to become one of Slovenia’s iconic political leaders.
The same conundrum, albeit with much more melodrama attached, was faced by PM Borut Pahor in 2010, when he demanded that DeSUS leader Karl Erjavec resign as minister of environment due to a damning report by the Court of Audit. Teflon Karl refused, forcing Pahor to call upon the parliament to remove Erjavec from office. Only then did the man give in and resigned, saying he wanted to spare the PM further embarrassment.
And this is quite possibly the scenario we are facing today. Not unlike DeSUS in 2010, the SD in 2015 can, despite reportedly a strong faction in the party to do so, ill afford to quit the ruling coalition. Because resources. You see, the party is but a mere shadow of its former self. It won 30 seats in the parliament in 2008. Six years later it hardly mustered six. And it fared only marginally better on municipal level. The only asset it really still has is its organisation and ground network. But that needs to be supported somehow, mostly by influence exerted on various levels to either bring in financing or to please the right people. Preferably both. And you can not do that when in opposition.
So while PM Cerar might be faced with an undesirable prospect of a single-vote majority in the parliament (SMC and DeSUS combined can put together 46 votes), going back to square one, reopen coalition negotiations and try to lure Alenka Bratušek’s ZaAB to join in on the fun or even give a shot to a minority government rule, the SD is faced with a much more fundamental question of its survival. Of the party as a whole, not just survival of its current leadership set and the gravy train attached to it. The on
The only thing going in favour of the SD is the vast amount of experience it can draw from. The SMC is still well-versed in the intricacies of political maneuvering and is prone to trip over things that need not being tripped over. One such thing is the SD trying to shift the blame for the current situation on the SMC, saying the PM is not adhering to the coalition agreement by speeding through the motions to replace Veber. But Cerar really doesn’t have any other option. Even before the whole thing escalated to boiling point it was clear the PM can not simply let this one slide. There he was, faced with a minister who clearly stepped is bending over backwards trying to explain why, of all the possible agencies, bureaus and directorates did he have to pick army spooks to assess the sale of Telekom. Furthermore, why the bleeping bleep did that he, while claiming to have acted in the interests of national security, exposed the inner communication of military intelligence which – if nothing else – showed that the service was just as divided on the issue as the rest of the country. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a security risk. And Veber trying to explain all that was a textbook definition of a shitty job.
If Cerar ignored the issue or even supported Veber, he would have not only condoned Veber’s actions but – just as importantly – empowered the SD to the point of near-invincibility, because if you can get away with abusing military intelligence for political purposes, you can get away with anything. And before the faithful jump citing Veber’s concern for national security, we should not forget his party chief Židan who yesterday more or less plainly told the newsmedia the true casus belli was not national security as such but rather control of the Telekom. And this evening, Veber upped the ante, echoing Židan and even implied that while he was working in the interests of the country, Cerar wasn’t. Which is stopping just short of accusing the prime minister of high treason. And that’s a statement that’s very hard to walk away from. So the question do jour is whether the SD will walk away from Veber or from the government.
If pengovsky were a betting man, he’d bet on the former. Especially since there are other big companies for sale as well and if the SD quits the government, they relinquish what little influence they will have over the issue after the dust settles.
Diplomatic incontinence strikes Slovenia too. Once again this sorry excuse for a country is front-and-centre on the international stage, courtesy of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks. OK, so we’re still just a comical sidekick, but there you go. Slovenia was put forward as prime example of US diplomacy bullying other countries into doing what Washington wanted. The story made the timing of my yesterday’s letter to PM Borut Pahor a bit unfortunate, as a plethora of issues was overshadowed by Cablegate – The Slovenian Edition. Well, there’s little use crying over spilled milk.. eerr… cables.
Obama: “Yo B., wassup?!” Pahor: “Make me an offer I can’t refuse” (source)
So, what’s the story (morning glory)? The esteemed New York Times (one of only a handful of media to have been granted advance access to 250k+ US State Department cables) reported that Slovenia was pressured by the current US administration to take in at least one Gitmo prisoner and that Slovenian leadership could look forward to some quality time with Barack Obama in return. The story was picked up by The Beeb and (naturally) every Slovene media. Big bad America picking on someone not even a tenth of it’s size. Not nice.
But then came the twist. Spanish El Pais, another paper with advance access to Cablegate material, posted the “problematic” cable (one of about 900 pertaining to Slovenia). Assuming that he cable is genuine, it was Slovenian PM Borut Pahor who floated the idea of Slovenia accepting a prisoner from Guantanamo in exchange for 20 minutes with President Obama.
And then, another twist. According to Der Spiegel, it was actually foreign minister Samuel Žbogar who was asking around what would the US give in return if Slovenia were to take over a Gitmo detainee. (link kindly provided by alcessa)
Yeah, I know. Embarrassing, to say the least. Naturally, all hell broke loose. Spineless begging. Sellout. Corruption. Ass-kissing. Those were prevailing reactions in Slovenia yesterday. However, there’s more to this than meets the eye. We’ll deal with differing versions of the story a bit later on, but for the sake of the argument let’s assume that the cable as published by El Pais is genuine.
The said cable was sent from US Embassy in Ljubljana on 5 January 2010 and detailed a visit by PM Pahor to the embassy on 30 December 2009, where he was hosted by Charge d’Affairs Bradley Freden, at the time the top-ranking US diplomat to Slovenia. The cable summarised the meeting (requested by Pahor) as follows:
CDA [charge d’affairs] and Pahor discussed political and economic priorities for 2010, including the relocation of Guantanamo detainees, stability and integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and NATO, and Westinghouse involvement in the planned second nuclear plant at Krsko.
At this point it should be noted that this was apparently the second such visit Pahor made to the US embassy which (obviously) did not go unnoticed by Freden and was interpreted as “the U.S.-Slovenian relationship [being] one he [Pahor] seeks to cultivate.“.
I won’t bother you with the actual cable, as you can read it here. Let us focus on analysis instead.
Borut Pahor goes shopping
In pengovsky’s opinion this cable shows (if anything) that Prime Minister Pahor, rather than spinelessly licking American ass, actually knows how to play the foreign policy game. Bear in mind that the meeting took place a little less than two months after Slovenia and Croatia signed the Arbitration Agreement on the border dispute, where apparently it was the US who manhandled Croatia into signing the paper which was decried as “high treason” on both sides of the border. Also bear in mind that Slovenia was in 2004 indeed bullied into the “Coalition of the Willing” by the Bush administration just prior to the illegal invasion of Iraq and there was plenty of (needless) embarrassment over a leaked Slovenian cable from Washington on how to handle the imminent declaration of independence of Kosovo. In short, Slovenia-US relations have not been entirely rosy, courtesy of both sides, and PM Pahor saw it fit to keep the current good streak going.
So what Pahor did, apart from going above and beyond the call of duty to show how important the US is (by visiting the embassy in person rather than having the charge d’affairs – then the top ranking US diplomat – come to see Pahor), was actually outlining how he saw US interests in Slovenia and the region. Broadly, these interests include security in the Balkans, a Westinghouse investment into Krško nuclear power plant and relocation of Guantanamo prisoners.
But things don’t just happen by themselves. To make these the above possible, Slovenia obviously wanted something in return. And rather than saying outright what Slovenia wanted, Pahor basically said: “Make me an offer I can’t refuse“. He was, in fact, shopping. With some strings attached. Case in point being Gitmo prisoner(s) where Pahor made it plain that his government was willing to consider the relocation “as long as ‘political’ and ‘financial’ obligations were considered separately“. Translation: show me the money.
The main problem, according to Slovene media was the fact that “PM gently – but unambiguously – linked success on detainee resettlement to a meeting with President Obama. He said that “a 20-minute meeting” with POTUS would allow him to frame the detainee question as an act of support for Slovenia’s most important ally and evidence of a newly-reinvigorated bilateral relationship.”
Shit. Fan. Aim. Fire
This is where the shit hit the fan. Outrage was almost unanimous, especially in the media. One of my favourites was the conclusion that for the PM and – by extension – his government “a life of a (possibly illegaly) detained Arab prisoner is worth 20 minutes with Barack Obama” (Delo, yesterday, in Slovene only)
It was as if everyone was oblivious to the fact that the cable says in no unclear terms that Pahor linked Gitmo and meeting with Obama “in a one-on-one pull-aside with CDA“. In other words, he did this after the meeting, unofficially. This was neither his not his government’s official position. He floated an idea. Hinted. Tested the waters, if you will. But he never made it a precondition.
Did Pahor make a mistake?
Yes and no. Foreign policy is a dirty business (and yes, someone’s got to do it). Most of it is trade, tit-for-tat. Taking in Gitmo prisoners is not peanuts. Not just because there is no legal grounds for Slovenia to do it (a law would have to be passed to do it), but also because a) it is a security risk and b) means a country (in this case Slovenia) is really going above and beyond the call of duty to help the US solve a human-rights disaster of their own making.
So Pahor felt he could play the table a bit against the Americans. Maybe he miscalculated. But the point is that he was trading. The trade, however, was not just “Gitmo prisoner for quality time with Obama”, but rather “Westinghouse deal, help in the Balkans and Gitmo prisoner in return for more US investments into Slovenia, (officially) recognising Slovenia as an important player in the Balkans, some plain old cash plus 20 minutes with the Big. O (the last one would help, but is optional).
However, the problem with these 20 minutes of Obama’s time is not that the idea had been floated, but how it was floated. As @DC43 said on Twitter, the other day, this is not something a PM does personally, but has someone from his cabinet talk to someone from the embassy. That way neither side loses face in case the idea is nixed, plus the whole thing is absolutely deniable in case of a leak such as this one.
The mistake Pahor did – and subsequent damage control he and foreign minister Žbogar are engaging in today – is more of an embarrassment than anything else. On the other hand the media, both Slovenian and international, made some serious errors.
As already noted, Slovene media were over the “Gitmo-for-time-with-Obama” thing faster than you can say WikiLeaks. But only 24 hours earlier, they were all over the “US-is-blackmailing-Slovenia” story with virtually the same gusto. While right now no-one disputes authenticity of the cable as published by El Pais, we have yet to see anyone retract their statements about “big bad US diplomacy treating everyone else like shit”. Right now it is as if the original version of the story (published by NY Times) never happened.
Three newspapers with advance access to 250k+ cables. All three of them saw it fit to point out a specific Slovenia-US cable. And every one of them came up with a significantly different interpretation of the cable. How is this possible? The cable is about as unambiguous as they come. This is what makes it interesting. And yet we have three totally different stories. Are interpretations of other cables subject to this “variation” as well? And – last but not least – are most of the cables so uninteresting that a relatively unproblematic Slovenia with its globally unimportant issues is the best they can do?
If any of the above is the case, are we to take Cablegate seriously in the first place?