Slovenian Bicycle Protests Against Authoritarianism As Concerns Over Democracy In Eastern Europe Grow

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is regarded as one of the most-bicycle friendly cities in the world. It’s nothing new to see throngs of cyclists up and the down the city’s streets. Last Friday, however, Ljubljana’s residents took this reputation to a whole new extreme. Up to 10,000 protestors took to their bikes to publicly shame Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša and his government. A similar demonstration of around 3,500 had taken place the previous Friday. This wave of activism is a response to the alleged authoritarianism of Janša’s right-wing administration. The Slovenian government has been criticised for using the current COVID-19 crisis to increase its own powers and undermine civil liberties. It denies these accusations.

While the protests have taken place in the context of a national lockdown, their message goes far beyond COVID-19. They have been organized by a collective of social movements under the slogan ‘You Won’t Take Our Freedom’. According to Total Slovenia News, the activists’ demands have ranged from increasing wages to stopping a ‘silent coup d’état’ by Janša to increase his authority. The group Forum for Democracy, made up of over 100 university professors and researchers, has officially supported the demonstrations in a public statement that claims ‘if the people’s rule is at stake, the people should claim it back’. MEP and member of the Social Democrats (SD), Tanja Fajon, similarly tweeted that the protests were not of ‘the extreme left’ but instead ‘against a populist right-wing government’. Janša disagreed. He characterized Friday’s demonstrators as extremists, emphasizing his point by tweeting a photo of an activist with a Yugoslavian flag. He went on to claim that the ‘caviar socialists’ at the rally would have been in hospital if not for his government’s response to COVID-19.

Janša vs. The Press

The bicycle demonstration in Ljubljana came the day after Slovenia’s COVID-19 death toll hit 100. As of the 10th of May, the number of confirmed infections was also fast approaching 1,500. Since he took power in March, many aspects of Janša’s initial response to the epidemic mirrored those in other countries. The hospitality industry, schools, sports, non-essential shops and public transport all faced restrictions and closures. Socializing was also prohibited and people entering the country were forced to self-isolate. Other elements of Janša’s subsequent strategy have been less conventional. Like his ally Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Janša has looked to discredit and restrict dissenting voices within Slovenia. He threatened journalists from the RTVSLO public television station for ‘spreading lies’ and received condemnation from the Journalists’ Association as a result. He characterized Delo, one of Slovenia’s most popular newspapers, as an instrument of the ‘deep state’ that has supposedly remained intact since the fall of Communism. Janša also made Ales Hojs, the head of the far-right and Hungarian-financed broadcaster Nova24, his Interior Minister. All of these decisions support the protestors’ argument that an increasingly repressive regime is in control of Slovenia.

Decline of Democracy in Eastern Europe

Slovenia’s lurch towards authoritarianism is part of a much wider and deeply concerning trend in Eastern Europe. Last week the NGO Freedom House declared that there are ‘fewer democracies in the region today than at any point since’ 1995. Coronavirus has been a key factor in this shift. In Hungary, Orbán has used the epidemic to pass an emergency law that allows his government to rule by decree indefinitely. According to Freedom House, Hungary can no longer be considered a democracy. Meanwhile, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland has also exploited COVID-19 to reinforce its authority. It passed the Act on Special Solutions Related to the Prevention, Counteracting and Combating of COVID-19 on March 31st. The law undermines the autonomy of trade unions and allows Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to dismiss members the Social Dialogue Council (which liaises between employees, employers and the government) as he pleases. COVID-19 has clearly played into the hands of those seeking to restrict civil liberties in the former Eastern Bloc. These are worrying times indeed.

The EU has done little to stop the rise of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. The response from Brussels has made it appear feeble, ineffectual, and uninterested. The protestors in Ljubljana and other defenders of democracy in the region deserve more. If the rule of law is to be maintained in these countries, the EU must take a more proactive role.