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24th Sep 2018

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Spies, bombs & secret police: Slovenia's EU election campaign

  • Slovenia: the country's communist past has turned into an election sideshow (Photo: robertivanc)

Slovenia's main opposition party has managed to turn an otherwise monotonous EU election campaign into a James Bond-like show by championing a referendum on fully opening archives from the country's communist past.

The Slovenian Democratic party (SDS), which belongs to the European People's Party (EPP), secured enough signatures to initiate the public poll.

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The upshot is that more than two decades after the country's independence from Yugoslavia and its break from socialism, ex-regime horrors such as secret police kidnappings, killings and bomb explosions are being discussed in more detail than ever before.

The coalition government wants the poll to be held on 4 May. The SDS, which is filing a legal complaint over the date, is fighting to have it take place on the same day as the EU vote (25 May)

The dispute and the referendum itself threatens to overshadow the European elections.

A law on state archives was passed at the beginning of the year by the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek of the Pozitivna Slovenija party (PS), which is part of the European Liberals (Alde).

The law tightens up 2006 legislation governing archive access by aiming, among other things, to protect the personal data of former socialist functionaries.

The coalition argues that privacy of information on sexual orientation or health is everyone's constitutional right.

But the SDS disagrees. It says that victims and oppressors cannot be treated equally and demands that a referendum to overturn the changes by the Bratusek government be held.

This would be the nation's second national referendum on communist archives in the past four years.

In 2006 Slovenia opened up its communist archives in a way no other country had done. Virtually everything archived under communist times, from health records and court verdicts to the names and personal dossiers of Slovenian and foreign secret agents – some of them still active in the 1990s – could be accessed.

Since then disclosed archive material from the communist regime – mainly secret service archives related to foreign affairs – has been at the centre of Sovenia's public debate.

Under Tito's Yugoslavia a cold war was waged between the Yugoslav secret police (UDBA) and exiled emigrants.

Between 1950 and 1988 more than 500 terrorist attacks took place against Yugoslavia. The bloodiest were bomb attacks, the executions of diplomats and plane hijacks. On the other hand, the UDBA covertly executed around 150 people, mainly in Germany.

While it is widely accepted that these executions were carried out by the secret police of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, who had the strongest resistance movements abroad, Slovenia’s secret service also helped with kidnappings and information support.

Archive material used for political ends

This chapter of history is now being used for political point scoring rather than being examined more neutrally by historians.

In 2010 former state president, Danilo Turk, who is now a candidate for the post of UN secretary general, was accused by the SDS and Slovenia's People's Party (which also belongs to the EPP family), of having connections to a 1979 bombing attack – carried out by Slovenians working for UDBA - in Austria's southern region of Carinthia.

Later it was proven that the relevant documents from the Slovenian archives were manipulated. In 2012 a similar method was used against the president of the Writers' Association, Veno Taufer, who was opposing austerity measures.

Now, ahead of the May EU elections, new archive documents are being disclosed on an almost weekly basis.

The latest target is the first Slovenian President Milan Kucan, a well-known politician who managed to separate Slovenia from Yugoslavia in a relatively peaceful way, but who is also an ex-communist.

Last month he was accused of knowing about the 1972 kidnapping of a Croat emigrant, who later went missing. It has since been proven that the archive documents were manipulated. A critical page of the published material was missing.

Beyond Slovenia

Slovenia's transparency regarding state archives from before 1990 has had unintended consequences beyond its borders.

In neighbouring Austria, where there is a strong Slovenian minority, mainly in the region of Carinthia which borders Slovenia, a special commission was set up in 2011 to look into violent incidents in the 1970s. The commission's establishment was a direct result of revelations from Slovenia's archives.

One of the commission's aims was to identify which minority leaders collaborated with the Yugoslav secret police.

But there is a reluctance in Austria to delve too deep into the archives for fear of what might be exposed about the country's role in the 1960s nationalist-linked violence in Italy's South Tirol.

The revelations about the activities of the UBDA on Austrian soil has allowed the far-right to present a new narrative for extreme nationalist organisations, such as Carinthia's Heimatdienst.

According to Valentin Sima, a political scientist at the University of Klagenfurt, Austria, they are keen to present the Heimatdienst as "victims of communist terror".

Meanwhile, back in Slovenia the SDS' leader Janez Jansa continues to argue that unfettered access to communist archives is a necessary step in dealing with the past.

He and his followers suggest any obstacles to full transparency reflect communists' ongoing attempts to hide their wrongdoings.

At a recent EPP congress, Jansa said that "failed transition in some post communist countries is the biggest challenge" for Europe and that, in view of the crisis in the Ukraine, it is also a great security risk.

Jansa added that some EU member states still have "pro-Moscow forces" because they have not properly dealt with their communist past.

That same congress also called for the adoption of "lustration legislation". This will ensure "consistent enforcement of the rule of law and democratic principles in all post-communist countries where the decomposition of totalitarian residues failed". The adopted text was pushed by the SDS party.

For Slovenia's ruling centre-left coalition meanwhile, the demand for the referendum on state archives is seen as an EU election strategy of the Slovenian opposition.

Money should be spent on digitalising the archive material rather than on the referendum, suggested Prime Minister Bratusek.

And Igor Luksic, leader of the Social Democrats, which is with the European Socialists, argues that spending public money on a referendum would be tantamount to paying for the centre-right's political campaign.

Not all on the political right support the referendum.

Ljudmila Novak, leader of New Slovenia, which is also a part of the EPP, referred to new "fascistic methods" on the right and said UDBA-like methods were being used by those who want to expose the workings of the secret police.

The referendum initiative is "political manipulation – the army leader needs a war to mobilise his supporters," she said.

Although some of the most prominent members of SDS were themselves in the past eager supporters of the communist regime, including, in his youth, party leader Jansa, the party appears to be benefitting from the debate surrounding the archives.

In January, opinion polls suggested the SDS Party could win one or two seats in the European Parliament (Slovenia has eight in total). Polls in March suggested it could become the single most popular party, winning three seats.

Meanwhile there is a cost element to factor into the debate on the archive access referendum.

If its takes place on EU election day it will cost €1.3 million. But if the referendum goes ahead three weeks earlier, on the ruling coalition's proposed date, the cost will more than double to €3.5 million.

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