SLOVENIA: NGOs Facing Eviction From Metelkova Claim Jansa Wants Them Silenced

Article originally published in Balkan Insights with Civic Space Watch information on 28 October 2020.

But, moving all the NGOs out of the former barracks would “involve a lot of contacts”, he said, offering it as another clue that this was not “just a building issue”.

The organisations affected by the ministry’s decision have responded with a protest letter, informing the ministry and the government “that we have no intention of leaving Metelkova 6 and will resist with all possible means these attacks on civil society, independent culture, and democracy”.

More than 200 other NGOs have supported the letter. An online petition to stop their eviction was also launched and had collected almost 8,000 signatures by Tuesday.

Place of ‘diversity, solidarity and critical thinking’

The Peace Institute, Dance Theatre Ljubljana, the Isola Cinema, and the Legal Information centre, PIC, are some of 18 organisations currently housed in the building.

Iztok Sori, from Peace Institute, told BIRN that the termination of the lease came “completely unexpectedly”.

He said he detected a wider motivation, “in taking away our basic infrastructure and thus the foundation for our operations, with the goal of shutting down critical voices and independent cultural production”.

The organisations operating at Metelkova 6 pointed out in their protest letter that their work “derives from the heritage of the civil society movements that promoted the democratization and demilitarization of society in the 1980s, and thereby made a crucial contribution to the adoption of a democratic constitution after the country’s independence”.

It was back in 1993, they recalled, that “cultural workers, artists and activists occupied the former command headquarters of all Yugoslav National Army barracks in Slovenia, located on Metelkova Street.

“Since then, it has been a public space where diversity, solidarity, dialogue and critical thinking are respected and encouraged,” they added.

They accused the current ruling politicians of trying to erase these values, “even though the Prime Minister himself once counted himself among the peacekeepers”, back in the 1980s, when Slovenia was part of communist Yugoslavia.

Jansa, previously a senior member of the communist youth movement, emerged in that period into a liberal dissident and one of the most prominent activists of the Slovenian pacifist movement.

Now, however, the protesting groups said, his government was offering authoritarianism instead of democratization, and “following the example of Hungary and other Visegrad countries”.

According to Sori, “the government does not even hide that the Hungarian model of ‘illiberal democracy’ is its role model.

“Their exclusionary and nationalist politics targets non-governmental organisations in the same way that [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban does, portraying them as parasites and enemies of the nation, along with migrants, LGBTQ community, Roma, Muslims, the poor and other minorities.”

He continued: “This is a very worrying development, which might diminish several decades of striving by civil society to establish a culture of peace, tolerance, diversity and acceptance in Slovenia.”

Increasingly hostile language from the Right

Asked by BIRN to elaborate its recent decision on the former barracks and respond to the accusations made by the affected groups, the Slovenian Culture Ministry did not respond by the time of publication.

On October 20, it issued a press release claiming that the building was now the “only non-renovated state-owned building in Metelkova”, adding that renovation had already been planned by previous ministers.

The ministry did not rule out possible use of the premises in future by other NGOs, adding that the current users “do not pay any rent for these premises, and some do not even pay the costs”.

An MP from Jansa’s rightist Slovenian Democratic Party, SDS, Anja Bah Zibert, on Monday dismissed the value of the NGOs currently using the building on Twitter.

“To be precise. These are NGOs that take public money mainly for their salaries. Their only program is cycling on Friday,” she said.

Forbici said that such critics often try link the organisations with anti-government protesters who since April have staged anti-government bike rides every Friday.

He insisted that “no direct connection” existed between the bike protests and the NGOs in Metelkova Street, noting also that organisations like cinemas and art groups do not act politically.

Former Culture Minister Dejan Presicek, from the former centre-left government, said the NGOs have always been a useful force, even against left-wing authorities.

“For society to function, for a healthy society, voices are needed that remind you of things you may have overlooked,” Presicek said.

But while part of the public in Slovenia recognises the importance of non-governmental organisations in promoting the public good and human rights, the political Right increasingly challenges their benefit, claiming they consume too much public money.

Some also link them with Hungarian-born liberal billionaire and philanthropist George Soros whose foundation is a hate figure and bête noire for the Right in Hungary and Eastern Europe generally.

Jansa is among the anti-Soros obsessives. During the last election campaign, in February 2018, he stated that NGOs financed from the public budget, European funds and the Soros Foundation were “planning to attack and try to destroy the nation, family, private property and private education”.

During the same campaign, in the televised debate, another SDS politician, Branko Grims, said that if his party won the election, it would remove public funding for NGOs, saying that “300 million euros are wasted annually on NGOs like the Peace Institute and similar organizations from which Slovenia draws no real benefits”.

In the 2018 election the SDS in fact came first, winning 25 per cent of the votes cast, but its harsh anti-immigration rhetoric scared off smaller potential allies who instead joined a new centre-left government under Marjan Sarec.

But when Sarec’s government collapsed earlier this year amid disagreements over reforms, and as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in March, a new government led by Jansa was installed.

NGOs are already seeing their funding cut

Some critics have accused Jansa of using the pandemic to restrict rights and freedoms, sparking the current weekly protests.

Sori claimed that since Jansa came to power, “we have been witnessing the introduction of legal and financial restrictions towards NGOs, but also independent cultural sector and the media”.

The government has clearly moved to cut funding for NGOs. According to European Civic Space Watch, an online knowledge sharing tool powered by the European Civic Forum, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Government’s Communication Office told some 15 NGOs that their contracts for public grants for projects, signed under the previous government, had been terminated.

The government said the funding needed to be redirected to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These projects included dealing with civic education, media literacy, tackling disinformation and raising awareness about the situation of vulnerable groups, including refugees, migrant workers and victims of human-trafficking,” the Civic Space Watch report said.

In spring this year, other law changes affected environmental organizations, including an amendment to the nature conservation act that limits the ability of NGOs to take part in procedures representing the public interest.

Sori claimed that government “propaganda and smear campaigns have intensified”.

“NGOs engaged in defending human rights, independent cultural production, media freedom, migration and the environment are particularly targeted by the government’s restrictive measures and hostile rhetoric,” he said, adding that the judiciary and independent state bodies were also coming under attack.

“Finally, 18 non-government organisations from Metelkova Street 6 in Ljubljana have been asked to leave the premises in which they have been operating since the mid-1990s,” he concluded.