The centre-right opposition has made its view clear: The President has crossed the line and may soon face impeachment. If the impeachment effort gains enough support in the Parliament, the matter will go to the country’s Constitutional Court. Most legal experts predict little chance for success, but a major political showdown could well be in the works.
The controversy erupted in early December, when President T ürk announced his decision to award a Silver Order for Services to Tomaž Ertl, Slovenia’s Communist-era Secretary of the Interior. The story, however, begins much earlier.
A secret past
In 1989, Slovenia, which was slowly democratizing at the time, was under onslaught of the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Miloševič. The Serbian strongman had engineered virtual coups in several parts of Yugoslavia by organizing mass public rallies. In early 1989, one such demonstration was set to take place in Ljubljana. Many perceived it as a threat to Slovenia’s reform-minded government, which had been taking an increasingly hard line towards Belgrade.
Slovenian authorities responded with Operation North, designed to intercept Ljubljana-bound trains and prevent the rally from taking place. Only a handful of people eventually turned up on the capital’s Republic Square and they were quickly escorted away by the police. Operation North had worked.
The problem, however, is that Türk’s award did not go to Operation North, but to specific people. And the fact that Tomaž Ertl was among those who received it left a large segment of Slovenia’s public very angry. Ertl, after all, had run Slovenia’s police for 12 years, most of which came before the country’s political liberalization. Slovenia’s much-hated National Security Service was under his command. The security services had been responsible for extensive political repression, including the persecution of dissidents and the silencing of critical media. During his watch, Slovenian operatives were even arrested in Austria for setting a bomb, whose explosion they had attempted to pin on an anti-Slovenian group in the province of Carinthia.
Even more significantly, at least in symbolic terms, Ertl was allegedly the one who approved the investigation against Janez Janša, now head of the centre-right SDS party, and three other people accused of having a role in the leaking of a Yugoslav Army document. The trial of the four men enraged the Slovenian public in 1988 and is now widely seen as a prelude to the country’s independence.
According to former government minister Gregor Virant of the centre-right SDS, the decoration is a “spit in the face” of democracy, independence and statehood. Türk rejected such arguments, as well as the comparisons drawn with Stasi, the notorious East German secret police. According to Türk, such a comparison may have been valid in the distant past, but not in 1989, when the police was actually protecting Slovenia’s democratic reforms from the Belgrade government. “This comparison is completely misplaced,” said Türk.
Besides, according to Türk, Ertl received the award solely for his role in organizing Operation North. This was not a lifetime achievement award, stressed the President. To the critics, however, this is essentially irrelevant. What really matters is the symbolism: the leader or a repressive police mechanism receiving an award from the head of state. Besides, in helping to organize Operation North, argue the critics, Ertl had just been following orders given by Slovenia’s reform-minded political elite, which was determined to stop Milošević. The initiative was not his.
The controversy reveals a deep-seated divide in how the Slovenian public views the period before independence. The centre-right political bloc emphasizes the role played by anti-communists in the democratization movement and the scepticism some one the left expressed when the country first moved towards independence. The centre-left view, on the other hand, focuses more on the actions of reformers within the official, communist-led organizations. To many on the left, the abuses of the communist era are balanced by the self-reforming attitude adopted by many established politicians by the late 1980s. And that’s precisely what Türk was saying when he responded to critics by saying “independence efforts cannot be monopolised.” While acknowledging the role played by Demos in Slovenia’s independence drive, Türk was quick to add that the right-leaning bloc cannot take all the credit.
Still, this case is more somewhat more complicated. Ertl never became a dissident; he personified the unreformed, hard-line wing of the old regime and disappeared from the political arena as Communist rule came to an end. That’s one reason why even some centre-left personalities, such as former Health Minister Dušan Keber, publicly expressed strong reservations about Türk’s decision.
The split extended even to veterans. The head of a major association of independence-era veterans, Janez Pajer, publicly supported Turk’s decision, saying that Ertl and the others recognized for their roles in Operation North were rightfully honoured for their achievements. However, a number of other veterans condemned the decision.
The Ertl controversy may be a peripheral event on the Slovenian political landscape. However, it may have long-term consequences for President T ürk. Even if the centre-right’s threatened impeachment is not successful – and it almost certainly won’t be – Türk’s controversial decision may have damaged his reputation as a fundamentally thoughtful and pragmatic statesman, a uniting force in the public forum. And for him, that could end up being very bad news indeed.