Civil society strength in Slovenia

Slovenia declared its independence from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991. Looking at the history of the Slovenian civil society, as asserted by Rakar et.al (2011), Slovenia has a long and extensive tradition of people’s interest associations and self-organisation. In the period of an undeveloped welfare state until the end of World War II, Civil Society Organisations played the main role in the providing of public goods and services to the people of Slovenia (Rakar et. al, 2011, p.22). However, the socialist revolution resulted in the stoppage of traditional activities of the Civil Society Organisations and the services they provided to the general masses.

 

During the period of self-governing socialism in the 1970s, Civil Society Organisations became more independent while communication with the state still continued to be insufficient. Nonetheless, it was the period of new social movements in the 1980s that saw the progress of Civil Society Organisations in Slovenia and civil society was then slowly being recognised as an alternative to the official political structure (Rakar et. al, 2011, p.23). This then gave rise to ‘Socialist Civil Society’ in Slovenia which was also otherwise known as the ‘Alternative Scene’ in the country which dates back to 1983 (Mastnak, 1990). Civil society, which was a widely discussed concept in Central Europe at the time proved to be invaluable in setting in motion the democratic transition of the region, especially so for Slovenia. Interestingly, Cox (2005) also asserts that because civil society is essentially a tolerant and voluntaristic approach to modern life, it left a deep imprint on Slovenian nationalism, which had led civil society to undoubtedly be thought of as one of the main tributaries of the national independence movement in Slovenia. In the 1980s, the Slovenian civil society, as part of the Alternative Scene, flourished with a surge in new artistic movements to Non-Governmental Organisations and self-help organisations which promoted many new ideas and concepts including environmental rights, feminism and equal rights for gay and lesbians (Cox, 2005, p. 72). At the same time, the Slovenian civil society in times of the former Yugoslavia, and particularly in the second half of the 1980s showed an explicit sensitivity to the interference of the armed forces with the civil sphere, and to attempts of militarising the society (Jelušič, 2007, p.10). A substantial part of members of the civil society associations bore the accusations of opposing the former Yugoslav military incentives to militarise society when Slovenia was developing the plural political system and becoming independent. Resultantly, this event was considered to be a momentous one for civil society activism in Slovenia. This being said, it can be proclaimed that the present Slovenian civil society sector, to a large extent, had interestingly reserved its past structure from its socialist period. This had given rise to sports and recreation, culture and arts, and professional and expert organisations still vibrantly prevailing over organisations providing services concerning social protection, education, research and healthcare (Rakar et. al, 2011, p. 21).

 

Concerning the breakup of Yugoslavia, after a brief war of less than two weeks the Yugoslav People’s Army retreated from Slovenia, sparing the country the massive destruction that would soon visit Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo (Cox, 2005, p. 72). This early and rather peaceful departure of the Yugoslav Army also in a way happened to play a part in shaping the existence of civil society in the country after the breakup of Yugoslavia. It is also noteworthy to mention that even during the existence of the old Yugoslavia, Slovenia was always more developed than the other five Republics[1] of Yugoslavia clearly showing its aspiration for political and economic reforms and moving towards the European Community in both European ideals and values. Following the first free elections in 1990, Slovenia began undergoing a major transformation of two major systems namely political and economic. The political transformation of Slovenia saw the country make the switch from a non-party system of decentralized self-management to a west European-style parliamentary democracy with about a dozen of political parties (Wagner, 1995). On the economic front, the country moved from a socialist to a capitalist free market economy. The economic and political prosperity that followed after the breakup of Yugoslavia helped Slovenia make an easier path in transition.

 

This being said, according to Mastnak (1990), during most of the transition, civil society actors such Non-Governmental Organisations in Slovenia had acted in a fragmented and disunited way, which added to the difficulty of establishing a solid partnership between Non-Governmental Organisations and the state, especially in the field of decision-making. However, during the accession process to the European Union, there was heightened awareness regarding the importance of partnerships with Non-Governmental Organisations. It was then that the Slovenian Government had caved in and supported the idea of establishing the Centre for Non-Governmental Organisations of Slovenia. Additionally, the Slovenian Government had also committed itself to financing this centre for precisely specified and commonly agreed activities related to the civil society sphere in Slovenia, therefore pledging financial commitment towards the development of civil society in Slovenia (European Commission, 2013). This was an instrumental move by the Slovenian Government since financing was always known to be a common problem amongst Non-Governmental Organisations who often feared for consequences if the financing from sources were reduced or stopped together (Rakar et. al, 2011, p. 63).

 

The European Commission (2013) also highlighted that in Slovenia, Non-Governmental Organisations, being agents of civil society, played a vital role in informing and improving the knowledge of institutions of the European Union, European policies and European values among the masses in the country. During the accession process, the Slovenian Government Communication Office had collaborated with multiple Non-Governmental Organisations to inform the public about European institutions and other related issues. Also, Non-Governmental Organisations—Government collaboration concentrated mainly on making the accession process as open as possible, with considerable participation by citizens and their organizations (Gerasimova, 2005). By having a rather open accession process, the Slovenian citizens were better aware of what contributions they could make and how they could make it via their respective Civil Society Organisations.

 

One key event that had ensured the continued support of the Non-Governmental Organisations in the accession process of Slovenia was the Statement of Intent that was signed by the Non-Governmental Organisations and the Government Office for European Affair. Through the signing of this Statement of Intent, Non-Governmental Organisations were able to make use of the Centre for Non-Governmental Organisations of Slovenia to primarily gain updates on the progress of the accession process and about participation in the formation of European policies (Cerne, 2003). The Centre for Non-Governmental Organisations of Slovenia acted as a platform to pool Non-Governmental Organisations in the country together and form a network where they could jointly contribute their efforts to work alongside the Slovenian Government to complement its efforts in the accession process to the European Union. The organisations were then able to participate in the preparation of common policies.

 

Importantly, findings by Cerne (2003) reveal that the beginning of closer cooperation between the Slovenian Government and Non-Governmental Organisations in the country happened to coincide with the launch of the European Union accession negotiation process, which was based on the principles of transparency and participation of all interested parties. All Non-Governmental Organisations in Slovenia were reportedly given a public invitation that was published in the media, to actively participate in the preparation and adoption of negotiating positions. The purpose of this was to spark discussions amidst civil society and its agents so that these organisations would contribute by proposing initiatives and stating their view of the negotiating positions, give an in-depth view into the actual problems in individual areas (Cerne, 2003, p. 156). The approach adopted by the Slovenian Government to reach out to Non-Governmental Organisations was considered and applauded to be a success, drawing in 164 of such organisations who then took part in 31 working groups in-charge of preparing negotiating positions. This newly found relationship between civil society and the state was particularly important in Slovenia since the former existed in a disunited and fragmented manner during the country’s transitional period. Apart from this, this renewed relationship also showed the state’s willingness to entrust civil society with a say and acknowledge its insights and expertise pertaining to the country’s accession process.

 

Additionally, on the end of the Slovenian Government, there was immense support to include civil society in the accession process despite a general lack of political involvement and attention towards civil society in the country. However, the importance of the European Union accession process and the contributing capacity of civil society was being given sufficient and due attention together with a platform to work from. During the accession process, the Slovenian Cabinet authorized the Government Office for European Affair to cooperate further with civil society and Non-Governmental Organisations (Gerasimova, 2005, p. 4). Consequently, by creating a favourable legal and financial environment for the civil society organizations to operate in, the Slovenian government had expected that Non-Governmental Organisations would demonstrate improved expertise and as a result be better partners in collaborative efforts for the country’s accession to the European Union. This expectation of the Slovenian government was not let down by the country’s ‘third’ sector which effectively worked alongside the government in the accession process by taking advantage of its vast expertise and often playing a consultative role to the Government. Moreover, the financial and political backing by the Government towards Non-Governmental Organisations in Slovenia was very much needed since these organisations were typically young organizations with most registered after 1990. As a result, these organisations did not have large memberships and most did not have paid staff. Also, Slovenian Non-Governmental Organisations lacked financial resources with most in an unstable, poor or very poor financial state. As such, funding the Non-Governmental Organisations in the country allowed the Slovenian Government to help this sector stay both operationally afloat and also be able to contribute effectively to the accession process without having major financial hindrances. Apart from this financial backing, the Slovenian Government also enabled Slovenian Non-Governmental Organisations to participate in the Common Consultative Committee of Socio-Economic interest groups, comprising of members from the Socio-Economic Committee of the European Union, representatives of social partners, the Chamber of Agriculture as well as a representative of the Slovenian Non-Governmental Organisations. This hereby displays the remarkable initiative of the Slovenian Government to recognise the capacities of civil society and include it in interactions with European institutions as part of the accession process.

 

However, there is a finding by authors Szczerbiak and Taggart (2005) who suggest that while civil society in Slovenia was largely pro-European Union and had assisted the government in its accession efforts, civil society was reportedly not engaged in the European Union accession referendum campaign to any large extent and hence gaining the criticism of not playing any momentous role as opposed to its more marked and evident role in the country’s accession referendum campaign for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Similar findings were also suggested by Dr. Michael van Hulten, an adviser from the Netherlands who was invited by the Slovenian Government Office for European Affairs within the framework of bilateral cooperation with the Netherlands Government. Hulten had found that while some of the Non-Governmental Organisations in Slovenia cooperated well with relevant organisations in the European Union and are undergoing preparations for tenders with the European Union, most of these organisations lacked the knowledge required to be able to have an influence on government policies in Slovenia or on European Union policy making via participation in European platforms (Cerne, 2003, p. 159).

 

One other pressing worry as highlighted by Rakar et. al (2011) was the treatment and existence of Civil Society Organisations in the country. According to the report, Civil Society Organisations are fighting for survival and therefore are unable to engage on a wider scale. Hence, the way in which civil society could continue to participate in the post-accession efforts was also affected due to the limited effects of these organisations. This worry was especially significant since the Slovenian government was also criticized for being generally unresponsive to initiatives and proposals from civil society even though civil society actively is said to have actively put forward proposals and initiatives (Rakar et. al, 2011, p. 63).

[1] The five republics of Yugoslavia, excluding Slovenia, are namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

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