Creative uprising: Slovenia in Europe before, during and after 2014

In 2013, Slovene citizens had more than enough reasons to be dissatisfied with Europe, or, more specifically, with the European Union. The economic crisis, unemployment, constant threats of the “Troika” from both Brussels and Ljubljana – none of it seemed even close to the EU we joined ten years ago. In such circumstances, anger and cynicism are understandable. Example: at the end of 2013, I participated in a presentation of a collection of essays about the future of the EU, Europus Mutandis, edited by Tanja Fajon, Slovene Member of the European Parliament. On that occasion a brief gathering was organised during which I had the opportunity to comment on the content of the publication. Tanja Fajon twitted a part of my speech, which went like this: “I think that – historically speaking – Europe has never been so beautiful.” In response, a few members of the Twitter community were kind enough to ask after my health and one even suggested that I visit an optician, reminding me of the possibility of getting a discount if I bought two pairs of glasses.

But perhaps this particular Twitter enthusiast failed to see the key part of the citation, which was the historical view of today’s Europe. The Europus Mutandis essays focus mostly on the present and the future of Europe in general and of the EU in particular. The present and the future are important, and we will talk about them later. However, there is not much in the collection about the historical aspect of the European integration process. At first glance, such an approach seems justified on the grounds that ”We must not look back, we are burdened enough by the past anyway.” But the current crisis demands that we look into the past in order to understand Europe, its institutions and Slovenia’s role in them.

We are acting as if we had been in the EU for centuries, when in fact, we only became a Member State in 2004. What is more, we are starting to forget that until 1990 we did not even know the EU. We did not learn anything about it. We had our own “union”: a melange of nations and languages, a free market of 20 million inhabitants. At the time, we did not need the EU, i.e. the European Communities, but it was their members who needed us, since peace and stability in the Balkans were of great importance for their economic development.

I am often surprised at the need to keep stressing that Slovene history did not begin in 2004, nor even in 1990 with independence, but long before that. It seems as if the younger generations in particular do not have sufficient understanding of this fact. And it is probably not their fault. Every year, freshers and younger students tell me how little they learn in secondary school about the former Yugoslavia. And, they say, their knowledge about what little they are taught about this chapter of Slovene history is usually not tested. Even their knowledge of the EU (let alone the European institutions such as the Council of Europe, NATO, OECD, OSCE, etc.) is sorely lacking. This was also confirmed by a high school student at the presentation of the Europus Mutandis collection I mentioned above. We must admit that this knowledge is improving; however, the improvement all too often comes from external interventions, such as various projects on the topic of the EU funded by the European Commission. I do not want to generalise, but after talking to several generations of students, who attended schools all over Slovenia, I can state that the young do want to know more about the recent past (especially about the former Yugoslavia) and about the present, namely the EU. To be confident within Europe, Slovenia’s confidence must be based on its entire history, which means that all generations of Slovene citizens must have a good understanding of it.

A good knowledge of Slovene history is not something to be ashamed of. This is especially true for the Yugoslav period. Slovene primary education concerning state-building lasted several centuries under Hapsburg rule, but after we changed our “master”, it took us only 70 years to be done with secondary and college education on independence! The European integration process and the role of Slovenia within it should also be seen in a different light. We should recall that Slovenia did not play a passive role, either on the global or the regional stage. It was an integral part of the innovative diplomacy of the former Yugoslavia. As part of the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia became one of the more powerful political actors in the world and, since it sympathised with neither the Eastern nor the Western Block, it held a special position within Europe, allowing it to access Western markets, which turned out to be very beneficial, especially for Slovenia. Last but not least, when talking about the history of Slovenia it should be stressed that not only did our country not “cause” the disintegration of Yugoslavia, it also played an important role in the fall of the Eastern Block. The protests against the ruling elites which spread across the Eastern Europe at the end of 1980s began in Slovenia and certain other countries.

The Slovene lack of self-confidence comes from insufficient knowledge and flawed evaluation of our own history, which includes the attitude towards European integration processes and our responsibility for the future of Europe. This can have unpredictable consequences, one of the first being a general dissatisfaction with the EU. This disapproval of the EU is worrying and goes far beyond Slovenia’s borders. According to the Eurobarometer from 2013, only about a third of respondents have a positive opinion of the EU and its institutions. The EU has clearly failed to meet the expectations of many citizens and certainly does not seem capable of solving the current crisis. It would be hard to imagine a better environment for the cultivation of Euroscepticism, intolerance and closed-mindedness.

Europe is certainly going through a deep economic and moral crisis. But is the Europe we live in really the worst Europe so far? What was Europe like before?

Comparatively speaking, Europe is still one of the easiest parts of the world to live in. In Europe values such as democracy, law and human rights are, with some exceptions, established everywhere. When these values are not respected, Europe has institutions which can enforce them (as Slovenia learned in the case of the erased, individuals from other Yugoslav countries who remained without a legal status after Slovenia declared independence). A brief century ago, and then again in the 1940s, that same Europe was well on its way to becoming a mass killing ground, where people were dying in the most depraved ways that only the human mind can conjure up. In fact, throughout modern history, up until the mid-17th century, the normal state of affairs in Europe was war, not peace. That genocide is still not a thing of the past, even in a period when we believed that the crimes of the First and Second World War could never be repeated in Europe, was proven by the events during the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.

These are the reasons why I believe that, historically speaking, we have never lived in a more beautiful Europe. It could be better, of course, but it must never again get so bad that people start fearing for their lives. The wars in the former Yugoslavia speak for themselves. I really do not want to live in circumstances such as those in Bosnia and Herzegovina a few years ago or those our grandparents lived in during the first half of the last century. This message should reach even those who believe that intolerance pays off. On the contrary, history clearly shows that people who vote for and support those who propose simple solutions to complex problems and in modern times their propagators on online forums, sooner or later become cannon fodder. In every conflict, the victims are not the only ones towards whom the elites direct their hatred. These conflicts also bring suffering and death to those who implement the elites’ plans – the realisation that they are only a tool in the egoistic hands of a usually privileged minority comes too late. The whole point of the European institutions is precisely to prevent such outbursts of hatred. It is also to their merit that the whole of the former Yugoslavia did not become one big slaughterhouse. And that could easily have happened – we could have had many more Srebrenicas on our hands.

Our expectations of Europe should be considered within this context. Despite the current problems, the fact remains that Europe can compete with the rest of the world only if it is united. Of course, there are many critical views of the EU in the Member States, especially in the “old” ones. For the institutions in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, this can only be a good thing. If a bureaucratic apparatus is not subject to everyday criticism, it quickly starts to exist only for its own sake and takes this existence for granted. But calls for the end of the European project are a completely different story – their supporters do not understand that globalisation is not fiction but reality. Even in the 1920s and 1930s the federalists led by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi warned that a Europe divided into small countries with some (tens of) millions of inhabitants each would not be able to compete, economically or politically, with giants such as the USA and the Soviet Union (or its successor, the Russian Federation), and, in recent decades, China and India, with strong integration trends emerging also in South America. Abandoning the European project, which aims to make Europe/the EU a credible political and economical player, would have more negative than positive consequences. In a united Europe, we have much better chances. The EU is more than just a large market Slovenia needs for its development. It also advocates values necessary for the basic safety of all. I repeat: advocates, not ensures. But even this is more that anyone living in the unstable Europe of the first half of the past century dared or was able to hope for. Slovenia is a young country and so the internal stability of the EU is even more important for us, since we are more vulnerable in the field of international politics and, most of all, less experienced.

However, it seems that even in the current phase, the EU with its half billion inhabitants is more united than Slovenia with its population of two million. At the university we tell students that after graduation their lives will actually begin. But despite getting a degree (independence), Slovenia has never really started living as a country. Sporting events aside, it would be difficult to say that the hearts of Slovenes ever “beat as one”. Slovenia has simply not yet matured enough to understand elections as an integral part of the competition of ideas, rather than a supposedly crucial decision for the continuous existence of the country. Election results in Slovenia are starting to mean one thing and one thing only: the domination of one political option over the other triggers a political reset at all levels of the public administration and in state-run companies. In other words, the governing party swaps the officials of the “wrong colour” for their own in all positions it deems important, regardless of their competence. In Slovenia we are not able to comprehend the possibility, in fact we even actively fight against it, that someone can do excellent work in a position of power even when his or her preferred party is not in government.

The reason for this division in Slovenia goes back to the fact that the majority of the elites were formed in the previous system, where the only way to control politics was to have complete control of all state apparatuses. The ambition of gaining enough seats in the parliament to be able to shape the country according to one’s wishes is clearly hard to resist. But it is also hard to achieve. So the political parties use alternative methods. Society can also be controlled by other means, such as encouragement of animosity on various fronts, from the interpretation of history to sexual orientation. This is why in Slovenia critical thinking and people with different opinions are still deemed problematic. And it is never content which is criticised – what people want to know is whether the particular person leans to the left or to the right, who is he or she related to, which faculty did he or she attend, etc. In Slovenia, free and heterogeneous thinking is dealt with by personal disqualification.

This division of society is our reality and we live with it every day. The usually offered solutions are at the same level as the currently prevalent discourse. So far we have put a lot of hope into strong personalities – a technique from the previous system – but somehow, this has not worked since none of the politicians has gained sufficient trust, no matter what their efforts. Those who trust that someone from outside will solve all our problems are also far too numerous. Anyone who really believes that Slovenia has allies abroad who have its best interests at heart is gravely mistaken. Foreign allies can be excellent business partners, loyal coalition members within international organisations or within the scope of bi- or multilateral intergovernmental projects … But we must never forget that they put their own interests first (these interests might or might not coincide with ours and usually the allies needs to be convinced to enter into partnership). People who do not understand this do not understand international politics. Considering how marginalised, undervalued and underused Slovene human resources are in the domain of international politics, this incomprehension or even ignorance of the basic principles of international politics is not all that surprising.

This might be our reality, but we do not have to live in it forever. We need to rebel against it. And an active mode of rebellion is in uprising. Not the sort of uprising where one elite is overthrown by another. I am talking about creative uprising, which has, or should have, two levels. At the first level are changes in the way people think about the division of labour in society. For this way of thinking to one day influence politics, it must first develop independently. This first level of uprising is already happening among the young and young at heart, among those who speak a language still incomprehensible to many: “crowdfunding”, i.e. mass funding of projects which are unable to get access to start-up capital in conventional ways, which gives rise to “start-up” companies.

Even in this world not everything that glitters is gold. The competition between ideas is overwhelming and few projects are successful. But even the way this environment of new ideas and their implementation works inspires a certain optimism that reforms need not be only a dream, they can become a reality. This “scene” unites individuals and groups who believe that, in order to get a job or do business, familial and political connections should not be the most important criteria. They are only interested in how much added value an individual can bring to a project. This added value does not have to be material: it can also be knowledge, experience, an international network or a combination of all of these. In this environment, doors are open to all profiles of education, including those renounced by official policy, even though it has encouraged it for over a decade: namely, social studies professionals. This environment has a better understanding of the division of labour i.e. what and who can actually contribute to the success of a project. And while in this environment good education is a means, it is not an a priori guarantee of success. There is no ideology, no division into social studies and natural sciences, no division into the red and the black. Even in this world injustices happen and the power of transnational corporations and industrial complexes is not to be underestimated, since the funding of innovation often comes from them. But from the point of view of governing a country, presupposing a working legal system and system of values (democracy, law, protection of human rights and minority rights) within the EU, this return to the division of labour according to competences seems to be the future of not only Slovenia, but also Europe.

Let us also touch upon the second level of uprising. At this level, the principle of the division of labour based on the real competences in society is carried over into the political institutions, which retain their form, but change their content. In this context, politics is no longer a competition for privilege and seats on supervisory boards, but a means to ensure the well-being of all citizens. The new representatives of the authorities do not obediently follow the ideologies or the political interests of parties, and their salary or place in the parliament do not depend on toeing the party line. They enter into politics first and foremost in order to repay their debt to society, which enabled them to build their careers by providing free services such as a public school system and healthcare. The agenda of these politicians, who are all successful in their fields, is not to take but to give back to the country and the community by ensuring good conditions for the further development of human capital, which include free, good quality education, healthcare, etc. They still have different world-views, but their shared fundamental value is the long-term welfare of the community instead of profit for themselves and a small circle of their followers. To make this ideal come true, no-one in Slovenia should be allowed to enter politics unless they have, in the course of their career, contributed real added value to society – in a company, in education, in public administration, etc. People who have not done this do not enjoy the right kind of reputation and so cannot set an example to voters.

Does anybody think such uprising is a utopia? Think again. First, people should ask themselves how many of the current 90 members of Slovene parliament they know. Can they name at least ten? Then add politicians from previous governments! Does the number rise to 20? Second, how many businessmen and economists can they name? Does this number reach 10, maybe 15? Probably they can name those who have had their positions for years or who regularly appear in the media. This is our perverse reality: Slovenia has become governed by an elite, which is very limited even by small country standards and which presents itself as “the” Slovenia.  It is therefore realistic and not utopian to claim that Slovenia has much more human potential than the media imply.

But these people never appear in the media because they are not asked to give their opinion. The current political environment does not encourage competition of ideas or fresh faces at government level. But the main problem of our current reality is the acute gap between the political, economic, legal and trade union elites, which are uncreative, drained and without ideas, and the crowd of creative businessmen and innovators who know how to integrate ideas into a coherent product and how to sell them in Slovenia and abroad. To put an end to this state of affairs, a classical uprising, as already indicated, would not suffice. The new definition of a (Slovene) politician must come from the bottom up, following the advocacy of a model in which the criteria for leading politicians are knowledge, experience and international connections, and not political (more or less non-transparent) merits. Such advocacy can, with time, bring about larger changes – it can influence the behaviour of companies and critical evaluation of their social responsibility. The necessity of including companies in the process of achieving the well-being of the whole society was also explained by the UN in 2000, in the Ten Principles for cooperation with business. These principles underline the urgency of ensuring something which is sorely lacking in the modern world: dignity.

Of course, creative uprising does not happen overnight. Advocating alternative approaches takes a certain amount of time and energy before it gains recognition and becomes implemented as the basis of decision-making process in political institutions. But it seems that the conditions for such an uprising are already forming. And since an important part in creative uprising is played by the young, it might well turn out that the world really does belong to the young – to these young and not to the clones of the current elites that can usually be found among the youngest members of political parties. When/if it gains enough support, creative uprising could place Slovenia among the EU avant-garde with regard to governing, both internally and externally. In the meantime, despite the seriousness of the economic crisis, two things should be on our agenda. First, we should strive for tolerance, and not conflict, to be the normal state of affairs in Europe, so as not to waste much-needed human capital searching for solutions to the current crisis. Second, we should endeavour to get back as much of the stolen collective wealth as possible and all who participated in its theft should be banned forever from leading public institutions or managing entities that operate with public money. With this, we would gain the all-too-necessary starting funds and at the same time let citizens know that this time we are serious about reform.

In this context, it makes sense to end the article with the almost proverbial wish of President Pahor to transform Slovenia into a silicon valley. The idea itself has merit: it is one of the possible ways towards a competitive, innovative and internationally recognised Slovenia. However, without creative uprising, it is practically unrealisable.


Author: Zlatko Šabič. Teaches international relations at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana and occasionally tries to generate interest in foreign affairs, international organisations and European integration among the general public on Meta’s List. That is, however, not all he does and he is known not just in Slovenia. He has also been a Fulbright scholar, editor of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and president of the Central and East European International Studies Association (CEEISA), where he still edits the organisation’s journal. In 2015 he will end his term as member of the governing council of the European International Studies Association, the umbrella organisation for international-relations scholars. Can be found on Twitter at @Zlatko_Sabic.


Translated by: Taja Gorjan.

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