People of Slovenia took to the streets for over 20 consecutive weeks to protest against the right-wing government and its corruption scandals, which have erupted since it took office in March 2020. A group of citizens initiated cyclists’ protests early in March and suddenly, the protest spread across Slovenia. Each Friday, a special action was held in connection with the most recent developments. The main concerns included the actions of the government and growing social inequalities.
Interview with Nika Kovač, Inštitut 8. marec – Institute of the 8th March, conducted on 29 June 2020.
What sparked the protests and what messages did they initially want to convey?
Nika Kovač: In early March, during the lockdown, our Institute started protests called ‘Out of the window’. We invited people to put banners on their windows and send us photos. As an institute, our main focus is on women’s rights, but we also deal a lot with social and economic inequalities. What sparked our action was the fact that when the lockdown started in Slovenia, the Government decided not to help people who are self-employed and precarious workers. As elsewhere in Europe, many people lost their jobs, but the Government did not take care of them. Instead, soon after coming to power the Government decided to raise the salaries of the ministers by about 400€. The Government’s PR response was flat out denying this simple and verifiable fact.
On 23 April, the main public television’s investigative and political weekly TV show Tarča (The Target) made contact with whistleblower Ivan Gale, an employee at the Agency for Commodity Reserves, responsible for the purchase of masks and respirators, who exposed opaque and corrupted practices involving visible politicians part of the Government, including the Minister of Economy. The public outcry was huge but the Government was not shaken. People got very angry because the economic situation for many is extremely difficult. This is when the protests moved from the balconies to the bicycles.
Since then, every week on Friday there is a protest and so far, there have been fourteen in total. At the beginning, people were cycling around Ljubljana. But then the protests spread across Slovenia. Our Institute asked people to send pictures from their villages and cities, and we are getting them from around 20 towns every week. Other groups started contributing to the protests, each in their way. We say that the protests do not have organisers; they have initiators. Last week there was an action for women’ rights and there we were very involved.
The main concerns are the actions of the Government and growing social inequalities, but there are different formations and groups inside. For example, the culture sector is hugely represented because it has been harshly affected by the Governmental cuts. They organised protests in front of the Ministry of Culture under very different forms: once, they were clapping their hands; another time, artists brought things from theatre performances and concerts in front of the Ministry as a symbol of the death of culture in Slovenia. One of the most visible people in the protests is a street artist that during the quarantine was recording videos of himself running to the Parliament and doing sports activities as a form of protest because the Government said we could only do recreational activities. These videos became viral on social media, and now he is one of the animators of the protests. People are following him. Trade unions are also active in the protests. Every week the main protest is at 7 pm, but before there is always a special action connected with the most recent developments. So, at every protest, there is some new group emerging.
The Government is doing a lot of shady things right now. For instance, it decided to change the law in order to impede environmental organisations to take part in environmental assessment plans when building construction or in development plans. A group called ‘Balkan River Defence’ together with the national platform of NGOs, CNVOS started a huge movement called ‘We do not sell our nature’. They held a protest in front of the Government when the law was discussed in the Parliament. This was the beginning of this movement. They also did a petition and other actions, such a sit-in in front of the Ministry of environment. During that gathering, the police came, threw them in their cars, brought them away and arrested them. The people became very angry because these were peaceful protesters. So, the week after the protest was about the environment. Every week the protesters pick up some new content. That week there was a huge sign stating ‘we do not sell our nature’ and people were screaming this message as well.
Are there messages that are recurrent?
Yes, the main message is that we do not want this Government. It could be argued that many people are not anxious because of Covid-19, but because of what the new Government might do and implement under the cover of this pandemic. As a popular banner from one of the protests reads: ‘the virus will leave, but the dictatorship might stay’.
The second message of the protest is to end the corruption. Since the Government took office, there have been many scandals, the biggest one concerned the masks that the Government purchased.
The third main message is to end police repression. Until now, we never really saw police violence in Slovenia. This changed with these protests. There have been a few cases of police misbehaviour, although the protesters are very calm and very aware of the issue of social distancing. One day people were trying to enter the Parliament saying, ‘this is our house’ and the police were pushing them away quite roughly. Another time, there was an action in the main square against police repression: people were sitting in the square reading the Constitution for one hour. Then the police took them away. For the first time, they also put a fence around the square, and they wear anti-riot gear.
They are also giving penalties for silly things. For example, one of the first actions was to bring drawings of feet and to leave them in front of the Parliament to show how many people were angry. The Police officers were giving penalties, and when asked why they responded: it is not okay to voice their opinion. People got 400 Euro penalties for this. This never happened before. Once, protesters were painting on the streets with crayons, and the police started fining them. They said that it is forbidden in Slovenia unless it is performed by children.
Nevertheless, the people keep coming. We have a history of protest against right-wing governments in Slovenia. In 2012-2013, we had four huge demonstrations against the then right-wing Government. They were called ‘Rising up’. People managed to make the government fall. But what is unique about today’s protests is that people are coming to the streets every Friday. At the beginning, I thought that they would die down during the summer, but this did not happen.
What kept these protests alive?
The Government does not stop. Last week, for example, the Minister of Interior said that it is the victims’ fault if they are raped. Every week something like this happens. In addition, social inequalities are getting bigger and bigger, and people are seeing that some are getting richer while most of us are struggling. In Slovenia, we have a lot of self-employed people, and before COVID, one out of 4 of them lived under the poverty rate. Now, the numbers are getting higher and higher. Many had to close their shops. Many lost their contracts. Many have been out of work since March. In the beginning, the Government did not provide any funding to support them; then they did – 700 Euro per month. But now, not anymore, and people are still losing their jobs. I have a job in the public sector which means my salary was not affected. I could work from home and I was not afraid of the Coronavirus. I also managed to save some money. But self-employed people do not have this privilege, and the number of those experiencing economic hardship is growing.
Among the most affected groups are also NGOs because they lost a lot of funding during the lockdown. The cultural sector was also heavily affected. There were huge difficulties for those that kept working during the crisis: police officers, shops that remained open. They have low salaries and did not receive enough support. A lot of small businesses are closing. Just today on the news, it was announced that police officers would get 100% higher salaries during the lockdown period. However, only those in higher positions will get this money, while normal police officers only got a 20% increase. Now they are also angry. There was also a big problem in elderly homes: people there were the most affected and the Government did not take care of them.
Another good point is that many initiators are from the cultural sector and at every protest, they think about some special action. Thus, people come even out of curiosity to see what will happen. For example, one day, the Government said they would fly NATO airplanes across Slovenia to thank the health sector for their work. This was nonsense. People made paper airplanes and threw them at the Parliament.
How many people take part in the protests? What kind of constituencies do they mobilise?
In Ljubljana, there are usually between 3’000 and 10’000 people in each protest; it depends. But most of the time, there were about 10’000 people on the streets. In other cities, it also depends, in some cases 500 or 1000 people. In some small villages, it is 40-50 people. There are many young people from the group ‘Young people for environmental change’, but also elderly people. Another beautiful action: while we march across the city, elderly people from the balconies wave and support us. So, there are many different people. There are also political parties, from the liberal and left side of the political spectrum. And then there are people from the NGO sector. I think that most protesters are already politicised.
Though, some people take the streets because they lost their jobs and their income and did not receive support from the state. For example, the Institute works a lot with self-employed mothers. Many of them have beauty salons or are hairdressers. I asked them why they were marching, and they told me that they could not pay their bills.
Are there also far-right mobilisations in the streets?
Yes, there is a small neo-Nazi movement called “Yellow vests”. But it is really small, about 20 people. They were saying that they are just people who care about Slovenia and have nothing to do with the Nazi ideology. But then one NGO showed the connection, so they stopped going to the protests. They said they would keep monitoring them though. When they started coming to the protests, the whole square took up a big flag with a swastika crossed out to show that they do not want this movement in Slovenia.
Are these protests connected with other strategies in different fora to obtain change?
It is difficult to say because there are many different groups and each of them has its agenda. There are rumours that some groups want to build a new party, but I do not know anything concrete on this. It is good to see that different NGOs have started working together: there are new connections been made and new ways been used to call for change. For example, when there was an action for the protection of nature, the feminist groups – who are normally not involved on such topics – got very engaged. We thought it was important. We asked people to bring plants to the Parliament and walk around, in sign of protest. This action brought together NGOs working with nature and various groups. For example, there was a company making backpacks out of garbage. People are getting to know each other and doing things together. And I think that this will continue.
Is there a desire to get also organised transnationally in Europe?
I can only speak from our point of view. We do not have many international contacts, but I think that it will be important in the future. For example, our Minister commented on what is happening in Poland with the Istanbul Convention saying that we should also do the same. So, we should fight together. I think it would be important for us to get in touch with people organising protests in other countries and learn from their experience.
Do you think that the European Union can be an ally in your struggle? In what way?
I think that the European Union should intervene in much more concrete ways and punish States that do not respect human rights. For me, the EU is currently not really fighting this hard enough.
What lessons can be learned from this initiative that can potentially inform a post-COVID-19 institutional and societal response?
I think that we need to tackle the issue of social inequalities. The COVID crisis showed us how big they are, and it made them more prominent. People get angry when they do not have enough money for food and rent. We are not caring enough for the self-employed and the precarious workers. A lot of these mobilisations occurred because people are afraid of how they will live through this year. Governments need to take care of their people.