Pahor-Obama: A Very Special Huddle (But Not All That Special)

So, Big O. met Lil’ B. regardless… Yesterday Prime Minister Borut Pahor concluded his visit the United States. This in itself would be of only mild importance had it not been for the infamous Wikileaks cable detailing how Pahor did some diplomatic tit-for-tat and, among other things, told the top ranking US diplomat in Slovenia that this country will consider taking in one Gitmo detainee, but he’d like to speak to President Barack Obama for 20-or-so minutes. And – somewhat surprisingly – did get what he asked for.


Big O. meets Lil’ B. (source: RTV SLO via STA)

Now, fair’s fair and it should be noted that Gitmo and quality-time with the Big O. were only part of a bigger package, much (if not all) of which was discussed with various US players by Slovene delegation which included foreign minister Samuel Žbogar and finance minister Franci Križanič. The fact that the latter was on the scene suggest that preliminary talks with J.P. Morgan over the bank possibly buying a stake in state-owned Nova Ljubljanska banka may actually yield results. Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath, although it seems that Slovenian delegation mostly got what it came for: pleading a case for US direct investments, American acknowledgement of Slovenia having clout in the Balkans and some face-time with Obama.

Truth be told, this wasn’t an Oval Office meeting. According to the infamous cable Pahor wanted a 20-minute private pow-wow with the US president, but instead got what appears to be a half-hour group huddle in the Roosevelt Room (adjacent to the Oval Office) where the two leaders were accompanied by their entourage.

Furthermore, it must be said that Pahor is not nearly the first Slovene leader to have met a US president. Way back in 1997 Slovenian President Milan Kučan had a private meeting with president Bill Clinton, which according to reports lasted about half an hour and every Slovene President and/or PM sice was either visiting or hosting the President of the United States of America. A year later Cliton was paid a visit by Slovene PM Janez Drnovšek. Then Clinton came to visit Slovenia in 1999 (co-hosted by PM Drnovšek and President Kučan), then we had the legendary Bush – Putin summit in Slovenia only months before 9/11 with Kučan and Drnovšek again playing co-hosts. A year later Drnovšek meets George W. Bush in the Oval office. Two years later, upon entry into NATO, Bush meets with Slovenian PM Tone Rop, whereas two years after that President Bush meets PM Janez Janša, who – again – two years later, in 2008, together with Slovenian president Danilo Türk plays co-host to President Bush while he visited Slovenia on his farewell tour in 2008. And now, two years later, Slovenian PM Borut Pahor visited US President Barack Obama.

Point being that starting with Clinton, Kučan and Drnovšek US presidents regularly met with Slovenian presidents and prime ministers. In this respect yesterday’s meeting is not really so much of a breakthrough as it is a continuation of Slovenia (again) punching above its weight in terms of regional diplomacy. While Slovenian politicos across the board consider themselves specialists on the Balkans issue, fact of the matter is that the moment the US realised that the endgame of Yugoslav wars will be played in Kosovo and took the Kosovar side, Slovenia was slowly but surely sidelined, although Kučan’s and Drnovše’s advice was much sought before the big boys decided to clear things up and finally kicked Milošević’s ass. Slovenia’s “special status” in the Balkans was of course confirmed by the 1999 Clinton visit.

Under Bush the US focused on their war on terror, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and since at than time Slovenia was still outside NATO looking in, it continued to curry the US favour, often in a less-than-tasteful form (i.e. by co-signing the Vilnius Letter). Fast forward to 2008 and Slovenia has virtually no more clout in the Balkans (economic expansion into the region notwithstanding). Not that we didn’t have information, insight or opinion, it was just that the border dispute with Croatia was becoming an ever bigger mess, often almost on the brink of a shooting war. And if you can’t solve a petty dispute on your border, how can you give advice in the region? But that was solved, courtesy of big case of cojones on the part of PM Pahor and his Croatian counterpart Jadranka Kosor (with a little arm-twisting from Brussels and Washington) and now Slovenia can have a serious go at regional diplomacy once again. And since it is the US which shuffles this particular deck of cards, Slovenia again has to curry their favour, this time in clearing up the human rights mess that is the Guantanamo Detention Camp. Bottom line: although at times it looked more like Slovenia was blowing American dick and a lot of people looked away in disgust, Slovenia always tried whisper into the Americans’ good ear and for the past twelve years it has more or less succeeded.

Having said that, despite heartwarming assurances that Slovenia is an equal partner and all that jazz, it is obvious that yesterday’s meet-up was not a culmination of a long and successful diplomatic streak but a sort of a re-start, which had some good karma to it. However there are things that were conspicuously missing, mostly the fact that Obama did not meet Pahor separately but sort of “invaded” meeting with VP Biden. However, it is plainly obvious that the whole thing was carefully planned, despite a tweet by foreign minister Samuel Žbogar couple of hours before the meeting asking himself whether or not Obama will drop by.

This has all the hallmarks of a diplomacy Pahor-style, where everyone is playing stupid, allowing everyone to get what they wanted. Something like this happened late in 2009 when Bill Clinton came to a Diners event and bored everyone to death for 45 minutes, but refused to meet with Slovene leadership officially, apparently because the State Department will not have him pissing in his wife’s pool. But Pahor being what he is, he engineered a “chance meeting” in downtown Ljubljana. You can imagine the scene: a former US president just happens to be strolling down Čopova Street and the incumbent Slovenian PM by pure chance happens to find himself on that particular street and you’ll never believe whom he met…

The Pahor-Obama huddle is special when viewed through the prism of the Wikileaks cable which caused plenty of embarrassment and produced some very ballsy denials both in Ljubljana as well as Washington. In terms of defying the public outcry which – although largely unwaranted – followed the release of the cable, the meeting is both an achievement as well as a strong commitment of both Slovenia as well as US. However, when viewed on a larger scale of things, it only shows that what we are seeing is a variation of a familiar tune. A pretty good variation, but nothing radically new.

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So, You Want To Amend The Constitution, Huh?

Lately, talk of amending Slovenian constitution is in vogue, it seems. Janez Janša‘s SDS announced it but failed to give it substance, Gregor Golobič‘s Zares presented their own version and gave it some substance and the government of Borut Pahor as a whole announced it is joining the fun as well. High time for pengovsky to chip as well, so try this on for size:


Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia (source)

Abolish the National Council. I mean, what’s with having special interest parliamentary representation in the first place? Sure, it’s nice to hear the voice of all walks of life when passing policy decisions, but there are ways to do it other than creating a second chamber and then amputating it from the start. Fourty-four representatives, all of them elected indirectly is an utterly failed attempt to mix the U.S. Senate with element of corporatism which serves no real purpose but to give give a group of people without a clear mandate the power to call a referendum and generally spend away taxpayer’s money. Cut the crap and create a true single-chamber parliament. Life will be much easier for everyone. After-all it is not as if people sitting in the National Council don’t have enough power as it is through various unions, industrial and commerce chambers and other pressure groups.

Increase number of MPs to 121. Not just because 121 is 11 squared (a nice number, ain’t it), which would make it possible for eleven MPs to be elected in each of the eleven voting units (an increase of three from the existing eight per voting unit). It would also decrease the number of voters per MP, thus increasing the relative representation of the people and – perhaps most importantly – give us an odd number of MPs, preventing the possibility of a 50/50 stalemate in the parliament. And you know how awkward that can be.

Institute a mayor/MP conflict of interest In fact, institute a conflict of interest between serving as an MP and serving as any other elected official, be it on municipal or regional level. Each and every MP represents the entire population of Slovenia. Not just his immediate voting precinct or unit. Mayors who also serve as MPs tend to a) support decisions which are in favour of their municipality and not necessarily in the interest of the entire country and b) have the possibility to indulge in pork-barrel politics, often at the expense of other parts of the country. This simply can not go on. There are municipalities running out of space for new state-funded infrastructure and highway-exits, while others still have problem stuff as basic as sewage.

And don’t forget, you can achieve this also by simply passing the appropriate law.

Amend election rules. This was done before, so it is nothing new, even though you could (as with previous item) get it done by amending the law and not necessarily the constitution itself. Specifically, what is needed is introducing an absolute preferential vote, whereby voters would vote for a specific candidate and thereby vote for candidate’s political party. Should the candidate not receive enough votes to be elected to the parliament, his votes would be added to the votes other candidates of the same party received within the same voting unit and then divided proportionally among those candidates, starting from the top of the list. Technically, this is called “proportional system with strong elements of majority system” and was actually called for by the Constitutional Court. So despite the fact that it is Gregor Golobič’s Zares which advocates this measure (and the one about conflict of interests), it should not be viewed as a party position but as a long-overdue and fundamentally necessary amendment to the constitution.

Create regions Six of them, with Ljubljana having special status as the capital city. True, you’d be creating yet another level of administration, but the advantages are numerous. You can strip the 210-or-so Slovene municipalities of most of their competences and transfer them to regional level. If you want equal access to things like health and education, you can not have municipalities handling it, because most of them don’t have enough money to provide either, let alone maintain their existing infrastructure (unless of course their mayors serve as MPs). This would also enable you to redistribute personal income tax revenue on a much more efficient level. As things stand now this revenue is directed to municipalities’ coffers, which is one of the main incentives for continuous creation of new municipalities (that and the notion that the state will chip in whatever monies the municipality is short on). This of course leads to a lot of municipalities handling minute amounts of cash. Do this on a regional level, however, and suddenly you can actually do stuff with that money. As a side-effect, less money will from central budget and municipalities will suddenly find that they will be better off if they unite rather than split up.

Oh, and why six regions? Because this is the numbers of dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church in Slovenia. People are used to this division. It is also a division which has stood the test of time plus the borders are already drawn. This is probably one of the few good ideas the Catholic Church had in this part of the world, so why not use it?

Simplify the procedure for establishing government As things stand now, the President nominates the candidate for prime minister, who must survive the vote in the parliament. He/she then assembles the cabinet, submits candidates for ministers to a parliamentary hearing process (which has no legal effects whatsoever) and then has to survive the vote again in order to have a fully empowered government. This is bullshit. It was fun while Slovenia still had the assembly system (three-chamber parliament, a delegate system without freedom of vote, the works), but in a liberal democracy things just don’t work well that way. First of all, why should the PM go through the same procedure twice in as many weeks? Why should it take two or more weeks to establish a government anyhow? And why shouldn’t the PM be able to fire ministers on the spot? He/she can’t do it under the existing system. Since the parliament appointed the minister it is only the parliament who can dismiss him/her, effectively tying the PM’s hands and possibly putting him in the position of having to work with an uncooperative minister. It has happened, you know.

If there is a clear parliamentary majority (which would always be at hand if we had an odd number of MPs), there really is no need for such a prolonged process. The power to nominate the candidate for PM would still be with the President and after the parliament appointed the prime minister he/she would simply assemble his cabinet and send the list to the president for approval. And if you really need a safeguard, you can empower the Prez do refuse the cabinet list, at which point the PM-in-waiting would have to ask the parliament to vote on his cabinet. The same would apply for dismissal of a particular minister. Or, if you want the really effective version, you can leave the power to appoint and dismiss ministers solely with the PM, once he is appointed by the parliament. In any case, you have a much more effective government and a much stronger leadership role by the PM. And most importantly, the loyalties of individual ministers can no longer be torn between the government in which they serve and the parliament this appointed them.

Don’t mess with referendum. Just because the opposition fucked you with referendum bids a couple of times, this doesn’t mean that you can go about limiting who can call a referendum. OK, so it might be prudent to increase the number of signatures needed to start the referendum bid in the first place, but you don’t have to change a constitution to achieve that. Always remember that the point of the referendum is to check moves and motives of an excessively autocratic government (or parliamentary majority).

The fact that referendum provisions are being abused to block legitimate policies on a daily basis is not a legal question but rather a question of political manners. Because as long as no punches are being pulled as long as playing hard-ball is the norm rather than the exception and as long as any end will justify any means, so long will legislation and rules and procedures continue to be abused to derail policy agendas just for the fun of it. There is no way you can limit the system of checks and balances in a manner that will be both democratic and prevent abuse. You just can’t do it. It simply isn’t possible.

And should you by any chance manage to institute such limitations, trust me, they will come to haunt you faster than you can say “election defeat” (if you catch my meaning).

This, basically, is it. Anything beyond the above will either result in fundamental restructuring of the republic or will simply be yet another abuse of democratic mechanism aimed at paving the way to power without presenting anything close to a viable political platform.

And this is the gist of it, methinks. What this country needs is not some sort of a new social contract or (God forbid) a Second Republic, but rather a common awareness among political players that destructive behaviour will only increase the amount of shit we all will have to deal with. Fact of the matter is that lately nothing is sacred any more. Even the legislative procedure is abused in order to facilitate a desired outcome, case in point being the last events on establishing municipality of Ankaran (more on that some other time). The problems this country is facing are real and institutional changes can only take you so far. Especially if you play around with the constitution, which is suppose to stand the test of time rather than be changed according to daily (political) needs.

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WikiLeaks Slovenia: Make Me An Offer I Can’t Refuse

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)

Wait. What!?

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.

More mistakes

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?

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Some Rights Are More Human Than Others

Remember Petition 571? A group of journos went wailing to the international community about the media onslaught Janez Janša and his government undertook during their tenure and PM Janša was really unhappy about it, saying that allegations of political influence over the media (the said petition) and human rights abuses (the Roma family Strojan and the Erased) should be dealt with on domestic scene as not to mar Slovenia’s reputation just prior to its taking over the EU presidency.


Part of what SDS was sending around the world

While SDS and its leader went apeshit when someone was dissing the family on their watch, they were happy to do it when it was their turn to sit in the back of the classroom (i.e.: lose the 2008 elections).

And they seem to have acquired a bit of a taste for it. Either that or some rights are more human than others as far as SDS is concerned. Because in the past few days this leading opposition party made a big show of tearing apart the nomination of Branko Masleša for President of the Supreme Court (not to be confused with the Constitutional Court). SDS went after Masleša for a number or reasons and saw it fit to go international with the story. And then some. And then some more.

In case you don’t want to sift through everything SDS threw at Masleša (although I strongly urge you to do so. Is a fun read. And is in English), here’s the basic beef: Masleša is unfit for President of Supreme Court because he:

a) Was the last Slovenian judge in Slovenia to sentence someone to death.
b) Took part in secret committees which inspected shootings of defectors across Yugoslav – Italian border as late as 1989.
c) SDS suspects he was opposed to Slovenian independence and allegedly claimed Yugoslav army will run Slovenia over.

Masleša in turn responded (Slovenian only), saying that:

a) Death penalty was legal in mid 80s and that it was a case of multiple homicide and that the sentence was commuted to a 20-year-imprisonment.
b) Those committees were not secret at all and that he was required to attend them as a judge at the District court in the border town of Nova Gorica.
c) Allegations of his “lukewarmness in the cause of independence” are false.

Now, pengovsky agrees that human rights are important. No. Scratch that. They are an infinitely important element of any society which even remotely wants to call itself democratic. And if SDS has a beef with human rights record of a candidate they have a duty to voice them. But it looks as if the issue is being abused for a tangible political goal which is only remotely connected to any (if any) human rights violations.

On one hand it’s bad form according to SDS and Mr. Janša to tell the world about how media is being pressured, how Roma people are being persecuted and how more than 20k people have no legal status whatsoever, but on the other mere allegations and suspicions are reason enough to sound the international general alarm thrice over. Secondly, it is more than just slightly worrying that a revolutionary mindset is being applied two decades after independence was achieved (and achieved it was with political, legal and military means). I mean “actively opposing Slovenian independence”? What is this? A search for the “enemy within?” The KGB was mighty good at that, you know…

But what is most bothersome is that thus far these allegations were not substantiated by anything other than more allegations by some of Masleša’s fellow judges (and a constitutional judge to boot). Which is more indicative of some seriously hurt egos rather than a systemic and continuous violation of human rights, the likes of which we’ve seen in the case of the Strojan Family and the Erased.

But since the power to nominate the President of the Supreme court lies with the Minister of Justice – in this case LDS’s very own Aleš Zalar (recently of Twitter fame) – the whole thing obviously has a huge political angle. Zalar already crashed and burned with his previous nominee for this post, as Marko Šorli did not get support of the parliament, which caused quite a few waves within the coalition. Secondly, the minister is for some time now pursuing ways to replace Attorney Prosecutor General Barbara Brezigar which is both dividing the coalition as well as freezing blood of some top SDS people. And lastly, prior to his entry into politics, Zalar was a highly profiled president of the Ljubljana District Court and reportedly stepped on about as many toes within the judiciary as possible (and took some ego bruising himself).

Which is why it comes as no surprise that SDS today in the afternoon started making noises about calling an extraordinary session of the parliament or even submit an interpelation against minister Zalar. Which is a classic manoeuvre. First you stir enough shit, then claim the whole issue is so unclear that extraordinary measures must be applied. All the while (ab)using human rights as a pretext. This will get dirtier by the day.

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