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The New Axis of Evil

Under Prime Minister Janša, freedom of the press and the arts is under threat in Slovenia. Renata Zamida, head of the National Book Agency, was also dismissed

This Article is part of the debate on
Mental Wealth Germany Slovenia

Doris Akrap
Protesters wearing a mask with Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s and Minister of Economy Zdravko Pocivalsek’s face hold paper figures of members of the parliament

Since Donald Trump’s US presidency the world has known that Slovenia is not only a country of transit (towards the Adriatic) and origin (Slavoj Žižek, Melania Trump) but is also governed by extremely Trumpesque politicians: Janez Janša, who has been ruling as his country’s prime minister for the third time since March 2020, was the first head of state in the world to congratulate election loser Trump on his claimed election victory last year.

But in 2021, Slovenia really wanted to go big. The country is going to take over the EU Council Presidency in Brussels from July onwards; it was going to be the host country of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, the world’s biggest book fair in October; and it is going to celebrate 30 years of independence on own soil in June, in Ljubljana. For the radical right-wing populist Janša, these would have been the big stages for a national ego show.

But things have turned out differently – because of the pandemic, the independence celebrations will not be as lavish. The EU addresses concerns about freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of the arts in Slovenia which are already overshadowing the upcoming EU presidency. And the Frankfurt Buchmesse has been postponed until 2023.

The fact that the tiny Alpine foothills country, with about two million inhabitants and 47 km of Adriatic access, had been granted the enormously important status of being the host country for Frankfurt Buchmesse at all speaks to the success of the Slovenian book agency JAK. Being a guest country at the book fair is almost automatically synonymous with positive effects for image and economy. JAK is an independent institution set up and funded by the Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for the development and promotion of the Slovenian book market at home and abroad. It was its director, Renata Zamida, who has been working tirelessly on it for years, and who made the deal with Frankfurt happen. Or rather, former director. Because the 40-year-old Zamida was recently dismissed without notice.

Months of a defamation campaign

Her dismissal was preceded by a defamation campaign, lasting months, by media close to the government, which accused her of sloppiness, incompetence, and criminal acts. “There were rather malicious verbal attacks intended to denigrate my work performance”, says Zamida in an interview with the taz.

Slovenia’s Ministry of Culture responded to a taz inquiry about why Zamida had been dismissed, saying she had committed some “blatant cases of professional negligence and some crimes”, including failing to submit a strategy paper for 2020 to 2024, failing to award grants to top authors, and being suspected of corruption and irregular dealings for awarding contracts to unsuitable candidates.

“Absurd,” Zamida comments on the allegations. “The thing about the strategy paper alone – of course, I submitted that, albeit two months after the deadline. The reason for this was that, among other things, the required comments from authorities only came last minute. But not being able to meet the deadline for these obligatory strategy papers is anything but unusual in cultural institutions. So far, it hasn’t cost anyone their job.”

Zamida suspects that the real reasons why Culture Minister Vasko Simoniti wanted to get rid of her were, among other things, that the minister wanted someone in this exposed position who was less independent, outspoken, and popular. In fact, both Zamida’s colleagues and hundreds of celebrities from the literary and cultural scene showed solidarity with her in statements and a petition. “Renata Zamida is a professional colleague who had my full support”, Slavko Pregl, president of the JAK supervisory board, tells the taz.

Or rather, former president of the supervisory board. Pregl and another member of the board, who had backed Zamida, were also dismissed and replaced by others. When it came to another vote on whether Renata Zamida should stay at JAK, the new members of the supervisory board voted for her dismissal.

Pregl, aged 71, himself was once director of JAK and is one of the country’s best-known and decorated authors and publishers. “I have spent my whole life with books and for books. And now someone becomes director of a book agency who is an accountant but has nothing to do with books.”

“Political purges are taking place. We are witnessing the rise of illiberal democracy” – Slavoj Žižek, philosopher

Pregl calls the accusations against unwanted voices like his “legally baseless and indecent.” Simoniti, he says, is a minister without culture. “He is merely a minister in charge of culture.” 

“Slovenia, together with Hungary and Poland, forms the new axis of evil,” says philospher Slavoj Žižek in an interview with the taz. “We are witnessing the rise of illiberal democracy.” Indeed, the accusations Simoniti makes of people like Zamida and Pregl are reminiscent (in their pompous triviality) of those that are well known from other autocratic governments. In Slovenia’s case it was a government whose prime minister had to resign, not because of trifles but because of corruption allegations amounting to millions and was also sentenced to two years in prison.

Slovenia was long regarded as a post-communist model country for EU integration. But its good reputation has been all but ruined. Even on its rubbish tips and in its squatted cultural centres, Slovenia still acts like a sweeper in state form. But since last year there has been a political clean-up, with dirty rags. “Political cleansing is taking place here at the moment,” says Slavoj Žižek to taz. “Renata Zamida wasn’t just going to lose her job. They wanted to destroy her by publicly defaming her. In the 30th year of Slovenia’s independence, we’ve landed back in the 1970s, the last decade of hardline communism in Yugoslavia.”

The Ministry of Culture’s clean-up is not only hitting Renata Zamida. Others, such as the directors of the Modern Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary History and the Museum of Architecture, will also be relieved of their duties.

“The Slovenian government thinks everyone who disagrees with them is a communist leftist,” Žižek says. “But what worries me most is the vulgarity with which politicians now speak. Here, unwritten rules are being broken, for which you Germans invented the beautiful word ‘Sitten’ [customs, moral traditions]. This isn’t punishable. But it’s extremely dangerous.”

Frankfurt fair director Jürgen Boos does not want to comment on the political developments of the future host country. He told the taz: “We were very disappointed that Renata Zamida is no longer in charge of the Slovenian book agency. She is an excellent literary mediator. We owe her a lot.” He said he was counting on the current Slovenian government to continue with the project, which envisages an “intensive exchange of culture and opinions”.

An active exchange of opinions can definitely be found on the homepage of the Slovenian Ministry of Culture. There – also in English – allegedly erroneous representations in foreign newspaper reports are corrected. In January, even the complete mail correspondence with a reporter from the New York Times was put online.

Zamida has not been intimidated by the smear campaigns and is taking legal action against her dismissal. “Because I have maintained my autonomy and independence, I am a provocation to the government”, she says.

Small country, huge book market

Self-reliance and independence are definitely Slovenian cultural assets. Sparsely populated and bordered by different countries every few kilometres, Slovenia has its own language. And perhaps that is why it has an extremely high density of poets and a huge book market: around 5,000 books are published here every year. By way of comparison, Germany has around 70,000, with 40 times as many inhabitants. Apart from cookery books, however, it is almost impossible to publish a book in Slovenia without state funding. The fight for the favour of official bodies is correspondingly strong in the book industry.

A few years ago, the author Aleš Šteger, who has been translated into German [editor’s note: and found great resonance in the German literary scene], described his country as a grotesque dystopia in his novel “Archiv der toten Seelen”, which is as grandiose as it is fantastic. At the heart of the narrative are the cronies and struggles for money and influence in the context of the 2012 European Capital of Culture programme in Maribor: a thoroughly corrupt hell crammed with envy, lies, hatred, revenge, European arrogance, cluelessness, and lack of empathy. The author also included himself in this, he outlined himself ironically as a cultural mediator for the government.

Part of the sad truth is that the line between good and evil is never clear-cut, not only in fiction but also in reality, and modern autocracies allow for opportunism. Šteger, for example, is the programme director of the publishing house Beletrina, one of Slovenia’s most important literary publishers. Its publishing director Mitja Čander had not signed the petition for Zamida. He recently joined the supervisory board of JAK. This newly appointed body voted to fire the director.

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