The European Union (E.U.) is supposedly built upon ideas of democracy and respect for basic human rights. However, several of its members have rejected these ideas in favour of illiberalism and anti-democratic ideas. Perhaps the most famous example of this is in Hungary with Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party, or in Poland with the Law and Justice Party (PiS). However, another often-overlooked leader is Janez Janša of Slovenia. His leadership was tested in April 2022, when Slovenians headed to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. In this election, Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) lost its status as the biggest party in parliament, coming second after the environmentalist, centre-left Freedom Movement (GS).
During his three terms as prime minister, Mr. Janša has been accused of curtailing freedom of the press, being xenophobic, and eroding judicial independence, amongst other allegations. Thus, his defeat has been called a “return to democracy.” His regime has also been compared to Viktor Orban’s regime in Hungary or Donald Trump in the United States. How are these illiberal leaders different?
Slovenia: the E.U.’s Model Student?
After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the Ten-Day War in 1991 – a short but monumental conflict between Slovenian separatists and Yugoslav forces – Slovenia was born. With state-building underway, Slovenia’s first government began a campaign of Westernisation. Slovenia was initially very successful at this, being the first ex-Yugoslav state to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the E.U. in 2004 and 2007 respectively). What’s more, Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav nation to have adopted the euro and joined the E.U. Schengen Area.
On the surface, Slovenia seems like the poster child for post-communist Eastern European integration. However, Slovenia’s brush with liberalism has been under attack over the last few years. Why is this? Janez Janša, amongst other things.
Janez Janša: Slovenia’s Trump or Orbán 2.0?
A common nickname for Janez Janša is the “Slovenian Trump,” referring to Janša’s support for Trumpist views. In the aftermath of the 2020 United States Presidential Election, Janša was the first world leader to congratulate former President Trump on his supposed “victory” in the election, and claimed that mainstream media was “delaying and facts denying (sic).” Beyond this, many of Janša’s policies mirror Trump’s: Janša’s government enacted anti-migrant policies designed to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Slovenia, and Janša has signalled his intention to further limit the flow of immigrants. Similar to Trump’s extensive use of Twitter, Janša has also taken to attacking his enemies online, earning him the nickname “Marshal Tweeto.”
Even more concerningly, however, is the Janša government’s human rights track record. Janša’s government replaced the heads of museums and art galleries across Slovenia in a move that experts claimed was an attempt at trying to “shift [cultural institutions] in a more conservative and nationalist direction.” Freedom of the press has also been attacked, with funding withheld from the national broadcaster during Janša’s most recent term. Janša regularly attacks journalists on social media, and those who write pieces critical of the government have been fired from newspapers. After being arrested and even briefly sent to prison on corruption charges, Janša also delayed the legal process by refusing to appoint new public prosecutors.
Why Janša is Not Orbán 2.0
Trump isn’t the only right-wing leader to who Janša has been compared too. With so many similarities to Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary, Janša’s regime has been described as contributing to the “Orbánisation” of Slovenia. Janša and Orbán are close political allies, however, the two regimes are markedly different when it comes to foreign policy. While Hungary under Orbán has deviated from the E.U. and NATO, Janša has continued to endorse Western institutions. For example, Janša expressed support for Ukraine, in stark contrast to Orban. Orbán’s regime consistently adopts a pro-Russia and pro-China stance; for example, Orbán’s government imported Russian Sputnik vaccines into Hungary during the COVID-19 pandemic despite it not having been approved by E.U. authorities.
Two likely culprits for the difference in the two leaders’ approaches are religion and nationalism. Whereas Orbán’s Fidesz Party has been able to capitalise on feelings of nationalism and irredentism (a country seeking to “regain” territories that it perceives to be rightfully theirs), such a strategy would not be effective in Slovenia. Slovenia’s current borders practically encompass all ethnic Slovene territories in the region, so its leaders cannot use reunification or ethnic solidarity as a political tool to drum up support. Furthermore, Slovenia’s history as a nation has lasted just 30 years so far, meaning that Slovenian leaders cannot use historical glory or irredentism as a propaganda tool.
Religion, a powerful unifier exploited by both Hungary’s Fidesz and the Polish PiS to muster support, would also not be as effective in Slovenia. This is because religion in Slovenia is not as tied with nationalism as it is in Poland and Hungary. Pope John Paul II was an important figure in Poland’s fight against communist rule, while religion was an important part of post-WWI Hungary, with Catholicism having been irreparably tied to Hungarian nationalism from then on. In comparison, religion has not played as significant of a role in uniting the Slovene people.
Despite these differences, the two nations’ shifts toward illiberalism are remarkably similar. Both movements are led by politicians that gradually drifted further right on the political spectrum after taking political office, with both men also having been leaders of their countries in several non-consecutive terms. Both have been able to exploit their countries’ relative unfamiliarity with democratic tradition to push their undemocratic policies. Where they diverge is from the effectiveness of nationalist and religious appeals. While Orbán has been able to appeal to his supporters by portraying his party as the “last line of defence” for Hungary’s traditional values, Janša has been less successful in doing this. This is not from lack of trying; Janša openly espouses anti-immigrant views and conspiracy theories. However, these tactics have not worked to the same degree as they did in Hungary or Poland, due to the fundamental differences between Polish, Hungarian, and Slovenian history and religion. Thus, Slovenian voters have instead focused on the failures of the Janša government in many fields, for example, the economy or the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to protests against the government and ultimately its downfall.
Why is Eastern Europe Experiencing So Much Democratic Backsliding?
Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia are all countries in Eastern Europe that only gained full independence in the early 1990s, and began the process of democratisation after that. Thus, democratic tradition is not as strong in these nations, especially amongst the older generation. This has allowed xenophobic, irredentist, and religious-nationalist ideas to become more popular and used as tools by opportunist politicians to gain more power for themselves and their party. In return, these views have overshadowed democratic rule of law.
Illiberalism and democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe are often seen as a product of Russian influence, however, as seen from Slovenia and Poland’s support of Ukraine in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, this is not always the case. Robert Golob, the prime minister-elect of Slovenia, has won a victory against democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe with this election, however, this is not the end-all-be-all of illiberalism in the region. Orban’s Fidesz Party won a landslide election just a month ago, and anti-democratic forces could resurge at any time. Ultimately, it will be up to the people of Slovenia to stop the resurgence of illiberalism in their country.
Edited by Osama Alshantti