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Thursday, December 1, 2022

(INTERVIEW) Dr Milan Zver: “My assessment of the functioning of the government is bad, and I must point out that under it, for the first time, I fear for the future of our country”

By: Dr Metod Berlec

We spoke with Dr Milan Zver, MEP, political scientist and one of the most recognisable representatives of the Slovenian Democratic Party, about what is happening in Slovenia, Europe, and the world. Among other things, he emphasised that Dr Pučnik did not deserve a symposium like the one organised by the Museum of Slovenian Independence at the beginning of October. Spomenka Hribar once again abused Pučnik in her unreasonable battle with Janša. He emphasised that for the first time under this government he fears for the future of the Slovenian country and that the EU is weak precisely in the area where it should not be – in the area of defence and security. In this context, he also emphasised that Putin is not surprising, because everything he did was predictable.

DEMOKRACIJA: Mr. Zver, let’s start with domestic, Slovenian topics. At the beginning of October, a consultation was held in the premises of the Slovenian Society about Dr Jože Pučnik. According to the participants of the consultation, first and foremost the President of the Republic, Borut Pahor, Pučnik, as a central figure of the Slovenian political spring and one of the founders of the Slovenian state, should be better placed in the Slovenian collective consciousness. Do you agree with this?

Zver: Of course. Pahor was fair to Pučnik. Together with Janez Janša, he participated in the ceremony to name the hall of the European Parliament after Pučnik. Well, personally, I was among the more active in making Pučnik more firmly anchored in, as you say, the Slovenian collective consciousness. At the University of Maribor, I even included his sociological theory in the study programme. I did a lot to get to know him from the scientific side as well. However, we have not yet evaluated his political merits enough, so this is a problem. Even otherwise, we Slovenians do not respect enough the greatness that the nation’s history has washed away. The Jože Pučnik Institute has an important mission in this, but it does not have enough funds for its work. Otherwise, things are slowly improving, as an airport, parks, a monument, or a school are named after him. But he deserves much more…

DEMOKRACIJA: At the same time, Pahor emphasised that the historical grievances of part of the Slovenian public towards Pučnik began in his efforts to discover the truth regarding the post-war massacres. The former prime minister and SDS president Janez Janša was of the same opinion, adding that Pučnik was constantly striving to create a consensus in society that a crime is a crime regardless of who commits it. At the same time, he assessed that there is still no such consensus in Slovenia today…

Zver: I would not agree with the assessment that the grievances began with his work in this famous commission. As soon as he announced that he would return to Slovenia, he became a target. Not only of the dominant media, who invented everything possible, but also of Udba, that controlled him, even physically, which he himself confirmed to me. What he wanted to do from Slovenia in a cultural sense is reconciliation but based on historical truth. As a rationalist, he fought against false reality and believed that Slovenia has a large enough critical mass of autonomous personalities for change. In the last years of his life, he realised, as you yourself correctly assessed, that this is not quite the case. There were too many damaged mentalities.

DEMOKRACIJA: At the consultation, the speakers agreed that Pučnik was consistent in his thoughts and that no environment hindered him from expressing his beliefs. They unanimously described him as a fighter for the Slovenian state, and according to them, he was not looking for personal gain and was neither power-hungry nor honour-seeking. In the light of this, the sociologist Spomenka Hribar sharply criticised Janša that he is “power-hungry and has the opposite character of Pučnik”. She even claimed that Janša’s third government almost brought Slovenia to its knees. How do you comment on this weak-minded performance of hers?

Zver: A little more than 25 years ago, the two Hribars had an interesting debate with Janez Janša in Šentjošt. The debate was recorded and published by Demokracija. It pointed to cracks in views and Spomenka’s entrapment in old patterns and structures, while Janša presented himself as a modern and responsible politician. Spomenka dissented herself from Pučnik politically much earlier. I read part of her correspondence with Pučnik from the 1980s. I cannot say they did not establish good personal relationships. Among other things, she asked him if he could provide her with computer disks and some literature from West Germany. However, I did not detect any lasting friendship from the correspondence. After the fall of Demos, which she helped bring down, I cannot imagine that they could ever work together again. Therefore, I do not understand the organiser of the said symposium, why he invited her to such an event. Pučnik did not deserve this. Let us remind you that she had a similar outage already in the presidential palace at a similar event. Besides, it seems to me that the situation is only getting worse with her age.

We should not buy the cheap thesis that Pučnik and Janša were opposite characters. It might be worth writing something about it, but the fact is that Mrs. Hribar abuses Pučnik when she fights her unreasonable battle with Janša. The latter tolerates it stoically, but in his position, I would avoid meeting her.

DEMOKRACIJA: In the past, you were a state councillor, MP, and minister. You are an MEP. How do you judge the first months of Golob’s government based on your experience?

Zver: I really have rich political experience, or in other words, I am old enough to be able to compare governments with each other, even those of left-wing origin. We cannot deny Drnovšek’s government competence just like that, howbeit he started with the bureaucratisation of the newly formed state. However, we did not have much luck with Rop’s, Pahor’s, and Šarec’s governments. But when you think it cannot get any lower, the left always surprises. My assessment of the government’s performance is poor, and I must point out that for the first time under it, I fear for the future of our country.

DEMOKRACIJA: I also have in mind the fact that representatives of the economy and crafts are critical of its slow response…

Zver: The previous government left a good legacy and in difficult times came to the aid of practically everyone with extensive anti-corona laws, and the people also felt this. Above all, the previous government offered the best solutions for the economy during the covid crisis. The effectiveness of the previous government’s anti-crisis measures was evaluated by the renowned Economist, and it placed us in 2nd place in the ranking of OECD countries in terms of economic recovery. We were the 3rd with the lowest unemployment in Europe, the highest economic growth, etc. Today, Robert Golob’s government is destroying everything from before and is just waiting for measures and recommendations from the EU. It is not proactive, and this worries the economy as it prepares for the difficult and cold months ahead. Can you imagine having such an unresponsive government during the worst epidemiological crisis?

DEMOKRACIJA: How do you view the fact that sometimes it seems as if the tone of this government, this coalition, is set by the extremist Levica party, which barely made it into the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia?

Zver: The Levica party is a rope around the Prime Minister’s neck. They are already learning about this fact abroad. Last time e.g., some European media outlined the countries with the colour of the governments currently in power in Europe. Slovenia was coloured dark red, and the description read extreme left-wing government. And unfortunately, it is true. Just look at how our attitude towards Russia or Ukraine has changed. When the member states adopt some important measures, Slovenia is in that group of members who are very reluctant to new sanctions. Such an example is the opposition to the ban on tourist visas for Russian citizens, who sooner or later will have to stand up to the craziness that Putin is doing. They quickly started changing the family code, tearing down fences at the border, inviting migrants, etc.

DEMOKRACIJA: The left government coalition has already adopted a number of controversial laws or amendments to laws in the National Assembly. We will obviously decide on three or four laws or amendments to laws at referendums…

Zver: Never before has more than 157,000 signatures been collected. All three laws are extremely harmful, which is why people joined the initiative. Long-term care, which is the failure of Slovenian society, is being blocked on purpose, because the millions that would be needed to care for our oldest would rather be allocated to new studies. I am also personally interested in the issue, as my mother is in a home for the elderly. I heard that in two decades as many as 120 versions of draft laws were prepared to regulate this area. The left spent tens of millions on studies instead of building badly needed homes for the elderly. After 20 years of attempts, Janša’s government finally adopted a law that would definitively regulate this issue. But unfortunately, with the blockade of Golob’s government, we will continue to neglect our parents, grandparents and everyone who needs care. In the case of RTV, it is only a matter of the plight of the left, which suddenly does not have its own leadership with which to fully control the institution. For this goal, they are ready to change the law in order to return to the times when the most prominent SD officials were at the top of the institution, e.g., Kocijančič, Pikalo, or Bašković.

Not to mention the 20 ministries and all the new bureaucracy that Golob wants to introduce in times of crisis. This would even set them world records for the number of ministries per inhabitant. The Prime Minister is only interested in his position; he adheres to the rule that the more ministers there are, the stronger his position.

DEMOKRACIJA: How do you view the fact that the ruling coalition is trying to deal with the government’s unpopular media with the help of an investigative commission headed by a former journalist of RTV Slovenija, member of the Gibanje Svoboda party, Mojca Šetinc Pašek?

Zver: I immediately wrote to Sophie in ‘t Veld, who is the head of the delegation of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs for fact-finding in Slovenia. I am interested in her opinion regarding the mentioned letter, which constitutes a gross interference with the freedom of the media. She attacked only selected ones, e.g., the weekly Demokracija, the Nova24TV television and, among others, the Požar portal. This is actually a revenge campaign. In November 2020, the European Parliament adopted the Resolution on strengthening media freedom. Among other things, it called on the Commission to treat the actions of member state governments that attempt to harm media freedom and pluralism as a serious and systematic abuse of authority and as actions that are in conflict with the fundamental values ​​of the EU from Article 2 of the EU Treaty. Now I am interested in what will happen, although I do not have any illusions about my colleague Sophie. Even Commissioner Jurova once stood up for journalists and publicly demanded that they work without fear. What will she say now that pluralism is being abolished in Slovenia?

DEMOKRACIJA: The presidential elections are upon us. You were a presidential candidate in 2012. How do you see this presidential campaign?

Zver: I ran as a party candidate, supported the government, which at the time had to take unpopular measures, etc. Difficult circumstances. In addition, I had two strong opponents. Some of our voters at that time voted tactically, that is, for Pahor, who had more chances to defeat the unacceptable Türk in the second round. This time, Logar has good chances, as he does not have such competitive opponents. He can perform from the position of the opposition, in short, he has more room for manoeuvre. I hope he takes the opportunity and wins.

DEMOKRACIJA: In the past, you were the chairman of the SDS Committee for Foreign Affairs at the SDS Expert Council, you are a member of the European Parliament, and you are very active internationally. How do you assess the new Slovenian foreign policy? Even in light of the war in Ukraine…

Zver: The last Janša’s government turned foreign policy in the right direction, in the direction of Euro-Atlantic connections. Now there are again attempts to shift it more to the southeast and east. Had it not been for the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the redirection would have gone faster, but now they have some problems due to the EU’s relatively uniform response to the war. Slovenian foreign policy should continue Janša’s approach; among other things, he created a great reputation in Europe and beyond with his attitude towards Ukraine.

DEMOKRACIJA: How do you view the showdown with Ambassador Tone Kajzer?

Zver: In this case, too, the government adopted an extremely disproportionate measure, which may also have negative effects on relations with the United States. I am really interested in who will replace him. I would not want any opponent of the first world country to represent us there again.

DEMOKRACIJA: Let’s move on to this terrible war in Ukraine. How do you assess the European Union’s response to Putin’s brutal military aggression against Ukraine?

Zver: I will say that the response is pretty solid. Aggression essentially unified European politics. There are few extremists in the European Parliament who still support the war or Putin. In addition to a unified voice, the actions of the institutions, especially of the member states, count. The active bilateral relations of the member states with Ukraine are also important in order not to drag NATO directly into war. The Ukrainian side stabilised, while the Russian side showed its flaws very quickly. Putin is in trouble and will have a hard time ending the war.

DEMOKRACIJA: But how do you respond to those who strongly emphasise that the sanctions are not only harmful to the Russian Federation, but also to EU members, and that the United States of America benefits the most economically?

Zver: The fact is that in the long run they harm Russia the most and universally, but what we can see is true that they also harm Europe. But principles count for something in the lives of people as well as countries, so it is right that we put ourselves on the right side of history. It is necessary to realise that the war is very expensive, and that Russia cannot afford it indefinitely. Russia therefore fell into a very unfavourable position.

But if the US benefits the most economically, I can only say that I do not mind at all. In the end, they will again be the ones who may save Europe. That is why I respect them.

DEMOKRACIJA: How do you assess the performance of the European Commission under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen?

Zver: I think the Commission is doing well under her leadership. The president leads a strong army of top experts, she has a lot of money at her disposal. It is not difficult if you are able and willing. Personally, I am bothered by the way she got to this point. Otherwise, in inter-institutional relations, it appears that the Commission is gaining power, sometimes usurping some of the parliament’s powers, which of course is not good for European democracy, which is fairly unique. We may not have strong names in this composition, but that is why there are strong officials at the third and fourth levels who actually lead the work of the Commission.

DEMOKRACIJA: In light of the war in Ukraine, illegal migration to the old continent has been somewhat forgotten. While Europeans, who already have an extremely low birth rate anyway, are killing each other again, illegal migrants from Africa and Asia are rapidly arriving in the European Union. In an interview with the German newspaper Welt, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer pointed to a significant increase in illegal crossings of the Austrian border and in this regard sharply criticised the lack of responsiveness of the European Commission. He emphasised that migrants cross several EU member states before entering Austria without anyone stopping them. Of course, there is also a great responsibility of the new Slovenian government…

Zver: It is true. A large new wave of migration is practically already here, strengthened especially in the Western Balkans. The Slovenian government is tearing down fences, opening its doors to migrants and smugglers, and the Austrian chancellor will close the borders even more. And we will become a pocket with a heavy burden. The Serbian government also added fuel to the fire, as it brought tens of thousands of Burundians, Syrians, Cubans, even Indians, etc. to Serbia with visa-free measures. All of them, of course, continue their journey to the EU, and the tolerance threshold for illegal migration is getting lower and lower not only here, but also in Europe.

DEMOKRACIJA: Mass protests against theocratic rule are taking place in Iran. A few days ago, in the European Parliament, as a co-organiser of the Friends of a Free Iran conference, you called for the introduction of sanctions against the totalitarian Iranian regime…

Zver: We have been working with the Iranian opposition movement led by Mariam Rajavi for more than ten years. It is a movement that strives for freedom, democracy, secular society, gender equality, market economy, redress of injustices, etc. In recent years, the EU has not adopted the correct policy towards Tehran. It made too many pacts with the Iranian regime and in this way gave it legitimacy. Every time major protests break out; the regime imprisons thousands of people and kills hundreds. The international community released 100 billion US dollars to Iran years ago, but it is now using it in controversial ways. It continues with its nuclear programme, rapidly arming itself, even helping Russia in its aggression. I could go on and on so that you can see that Iran is not our partner.

DEMOKRACIJA: And one last question. Where do you see a way out of the incredible turbulence that we are witnessing today on the international political scene, when the question is also raised whether we are facing a third world war? Nuclear War… Your Conclusion!

Zver: It is not pleasant to conclude an interview with a nuclear threat, but it is true that it is becoming more and more likely. Putin has no chance of winning with conventional weapons, so given his mental attitude, he is likely to use them, albeit in limited forms. But the very thought of it is horrifying.

Our common European problem is that in the field of defence and security we do not analyse situations well enough and consequently react poorly or not at all. Putinism has threatened us for two good decades, but there was no timely and adequate response. He is not surprising, everything is predictable with him, if we know the issues. Many things would be saved if we took security and defence policy more seriously.

Biography

Milan Zver is a Doctor of Political Science, university professor, member of the European Parliament. Three decades ago, at the invitation of Dr Jože Pučnik, he actively got involved in politics and became his advisor. He later got a job at the Ministry of Defence and became the head of the Cabinet of Minister Janez Janša. After the Depala vas affair, when Minister Janša was dismissed, he got a job at the Municipality of Ljubljana. He was later elected to the Ljubljana City Council, State Council and National Assembly. He was also Minister of Education and Sports and, during the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2008, President of the EU Council for Education and Sports. In 2009, he won the European elections with the SDS and did so again in 2014 and 2019. For two terms, he led the Slovenian delegation in the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. He is the author of scientific monographs, numerous professional books, and articles. In the EP, he is the permanent rapporteur for the most successful European program Erasmus plus and for trust funds. He is a member of the EP foreign policy committee and vice-chairman of the delegation for Southeast Asia.

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