Politics

21 Jun 2020, 10:24 AM

STA, 21 June 2020 - Taking stock of its first 100 days in office, the Janez Janša government is happy that the coronavirus epidemic was quickly contained, including with key and efficient measures it took just days after assuming office on 13 March, the Government Communication Office (UKOM) said in a written statement.

Despite a recent increase in the number of new coronavirus cases, the situation is calming down in Slovenia, which the government attributes to the tremendous efforts of healthcare staff, police officers, members of civil protection having in the past months and to all those who have consistently complied with the protective measures.

"Nobody would like to see those days repeat, hence a recent call by Prime Minister Janez Janša to consistently respect the measures which are still in place," said UKOM.

To mitigate the consequences of the epidemic, the government has adopted three stimulus packages, all aiming to cushion social distress of residents and help the economy survive the lockdown shock.

UKOM noted that with the first two packages, the government has preserved 260,000 jobs, while direct financial assistance has been provided to as many as 1.3 million people, or 65% of the population, through a temporary measure of basic monthly income, a one-off solidarity bonus and a number of other measures.

Although the measures are yet to produce their results in full, economic forecasts are relatively positive, showing the Slovenian economy will recover from the severe shock already next year and post significant growth in 2022.

Seeing investment as key to restarting the economy post-Covid, the government has endorsed a list of 187 key projects to launch a new economic cycle.

UKOM stressed that in setting the list of major investments, the government was guided, just like when it opted for holiday vouchers, by their multiplicative effects.

Looking further ahead, the government has two major challenges - keeping the epidemic in check and implementing the commitments from the coalition agreement, while preparations for Slovenia's presidency of the EU in the second half of 2021 are also under way.

Improving Europe's resilience to crises and forming action plans for emergencies, such as pandemics, global cyberattacks and migration, are also among its priorities.

In foreign policy, the priority is an ambitious policy on Eastern and Southern Partnerships, and putting EU prospects for the Western Balkans back on the agenda.

UKOM also said the government will send a supplemented budget to parliament by 1 September, also taking into account coronavirus-related expenditure and the latest economic outlook by its macroeconomic forecaster IMAD.

Demographic challenges and long-term care will also be in the focus in the coming months alongside efforts to eliminate the shortcomings in healthcare infrastructure.

To be ready for a potential new migration wave, enhanced and efficient protection of the state border will be needed.

The government will also intensify drawing of EU funds and actively take part in EU talks on the bloc's new multi-annual budget for 2021-2027.

More focus will also be given to food self-sufficiency, while the elderly and some other groups will be eligible for free inter-city transport as of 1 July, in what the government sees as an important step towards a more friendly system of public transport.

Efforts to clean degraded areas such as the Mežiška Valley and the Celje area, will continue together with investments into flood safety, according to UKOM.

The government also plans to establish a demographic fund and a government office for demographic affairs, as well as take measures related to the pension system.

The army and the police are another two areas were the government intends to make some improvements.

20 Jun 2020, 13:08 PM

What follows is a weekly review of events involving Slovenia, as prepared by the STA.

If you’d like to keep up on the daily headlines then follow those here, or get all our stories in your feed on Facebook.

FRIDAY, 12 June
        LJUBLJANA - Economy Minister Zdravko Počivalšek survived a no-confidence motion the opposition had mounted against him over the government's poor handling of the procurement of vital equipment during the Covid-19 epidemic. 51 MPs voted against and 37 for his dismissal.
        LJUBLJANA - PM Janez Janša indicated in a tweet that the May incident on the border with Italy when two soldiers stopped at gunpoint a civilian - a member of the Slovenian minority from Italy, had been orchestrated by representatives of "the deep state" in the prosecution, police and mainstream media, to discredit the army. The prosecution and the police denied any involvement, with the police adding that the information gathered so far did not confirm the "orchestration" allegation.
        LJUBLJANA - Several media outlets published a draft memorandum of understanding Slovenia would sign with the US on the security of 5G networks which highlights the importance of security standards. The document is seen as potentially limiting cooperation with Huawei.
        NEW YORK, US - Ratings agency Standard & Poor's affirmed Slovenia's AA- rating, arguing the Slovenian economy, coupled with the government's policy response, puts Slovenia in a good position to weather the Covid-19 crisis.
        LJUBLJANA - Anton Travner, who has served as acting police commissioner since the new government took over in mid-March, was appointed for a full five-year term.
        LJUBLJANA - Anti-government protesters, who have been voicing opposition to the government on Fridays for the past two months, left their bicycles and protested on foot. Seven of an estimated 5,000 protesters were arrested and fined for violations of public law and order after attempting to tear down a fence that established a security perimeter around Parliament House and after some jumped the fence.
        LJUBLJANA - The college of deputy group leaders adopted a long-overdue code of ethics for MPs in a bid to strengthen the National Assembly's reputation, integrity and public trust. The Commission for the Prevention of Corruption hailed it as a step in the right direction.
        LJUBLJANA - The Environment Agency issued a permit for hunters to cull 115 brown bears until September to manage the bear population.

SATURDAY, 13 June
        LJUBLJANA - Restrictions on international public road and railway transport, imposed on 16 March due to the coronavirus epidemic, were lifted.
        LJUBELJ - President Borut Pahor indicated he is considering a symbolic gesture of reconciliation with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella when they attend a ceremony on 13 July marking the centenary of the arson of the Slovenian National Hall in Trieste by Fascists. They might visit two sites in Basovizza near Trieste that have strong symbolic importance for Italy and the Slovenian community there.

MONDAY, 15 June
        LJUBLJANA - PM Janez Janša indicated in a TV interview that an European Commission lawsuit against Slovenia over European Central Bank (ECB) documents was hampering an ongoing police investigation in Slovenia, hence his recent query with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about whether the Commission might drop the lawsuit.
        LJUBLJANA - Slovenia opened its border with Italy as the country was put on a list of countries whose citizens are free to cross into Slovenia without having to quarantine, as the last neighbouring country to make the list.
        LJUBLJANA - PM Janez Janša indicated the government was willing to amend legislation to impose sanctions against militia groups such as the Štajerska Guard, but he told parliament in questions time that the existing legislation already allowed that, it was just not applied consistently.
        LJUBLJANA - Foreign Minister Anže Logar said in parliament that Slovenia is calling on Israel to "refrain from any unilateral decisions that would lead to the annexing of any of the occupied Palestinian territories and would as such run contrary to international law".
        LJUBLJANA - Slovenia's Competition Protection Agency confirmed it had extended the temporary seizure of Mercator shares from the retailer's owner, Croatian group Agrokor, for six months. Agrokor has still not paid a EUR 53.9 million fine issued for its failure to notify the agency of the 2016 takeover of company Costella.
        VELENJE - Home appliances maker Hisense Gorenje decided to produce TV sets at the existing production facilities, having previously planned to build a new plant at its Velenje location. TV production is scheduled to start in early 2021.
        LJUBLJANA - An Italian military vehicle drove into Slovenian territory in the border town of Šempeter pri Gorici, but soon turned around and returned to Italy. The police said it was investigating the event and would notify the Foreign Ministry of its findings.

TUESDAY, 16 June
        LJUBLJANA - Master chef Ana Roš of Hiša Franko was awarded two Michelin stars, becoming the first chef in the region to win the accolade, in what is praised as a major achievements for Slovenian tourism. Another five restaurants received one star each, as restaurant guide Michelin launched its first guide to Slovenian restaurants.
        LJUBLJANA - Interior Minister Aleš Hojs urged a prompt reform of the common asylum system as he discussed Slovenia's expectations from the EU's new migration and asylum pact, which the European Commission is to unveil at the end of July, with European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson in a video call. He reiterated Slovenia's position against migrant quotas.
        VIENNA, Austria - Foreign Minister Anže Logar was in Austria meeting his counterparts from Austria, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia, who shared a view that the countries had cooperated very well during the coronavirus. Logar believes this has resulted in a new cooperation protocol among neighbours, which is an important European message.
        LAUSANNE, Switzerland - Slovenia rose two rungs in the latest IMD World Competitiveness Ranking to 35th among 63 countries, due to improvements in business and government efficiency, while sliding back in terms of economic performance over 2019.
        LJUBLJANA - In what is seen as a legal precedent, the Supreme Court said that provisions governing access to public information do not apply to judicial proceedings and case files. It said such access are governed by laws such as the criminal procedure act, the civil procedure act and the state prosecution service act. The Information Commissioner responded by stressing public oversight is crucial for the legal functioning of authorities, noting legislative changes may be needed.
        LJUBLJANA - The National Assembly passed a bill amending the penal code by imposing harsher penalties for persons organising illegal crossings of the border and for those helping illegal migrants reside in Slovenia. It also passed the governments-sponsored changes to the law on the prevention of money laundering and terrorist financing that transpose EU law.
        LJUBLJANA - Over 3,280 people tried to enter Slovenia illegally in the first five months of the year, down more than 25% over the same period last year, with almost 2,000 expressing the intention to request asylum in Slovenia, police data showed.
        LJUBLJANA - Collective (Colectiv), a film by Romanian director Alexander Nanau, won the Amnesty International Slovenije award at the 22nd Documentary Film Festival. The documentary draws the viewer into the turmoil of fearless investigative journalism targeting systemic corruption in Romania.

WEDNESDAY, 17 June
        LJUBLJANA - The 15th Bled Strategic Forum, Slovenia's premier foreign policy conference, will be a one-day event this year owing to the coronavirus epidemic, it was announced. It will be held on 31 August under the title Challenges and Opportunities in the Post-COVID-19 World; Neighbours - Regions - Global World: Partners or Rivals?.
        LJUBLJANA - Bojana Beović, the head of the team advising the Health Ministry on coronavirus, urged reimposing stringent measures on the borders at once after an increase in new infections originating abroad, while PM Janez Janša warned new restrictions would be inevitable unless those in place were respected.
        LJUBLJANA - Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksander Geržina announced a shift to a more ambitious foreign policy as he said Minister Anže Logar will host a number of his counterparts for talks in Ljubljana in the coming weeks, at what was the first in a series of Geržina's regular monthly briefings.
        VRHNIKA - PM Janez Janša announced the government's effort to improve the status of soldiers and provide additional funds for military equipment. He said the Defence Ministry and the government were already working on solutions to improve the situation.
        LJUBLJANA - The Fiscal Council, a government advisory body, said Slovenia's fiscal policy in 2019 was expansive although it should have been restrictive, considering the state of the economic cycle, as it released its assessment of compliance of the general government sector budgets with fiscal rules.
        LJUBLJANA - US Ambassador to Slovenia Lynda Blanchard told the STA in an interview that she had put economic development in the focus of her efforts, and would also like to encourage cooperation between Slovenian and US universities. While not commenting in detail on a potential agreement on 5G technology between the US and Slovenia, she said the memorandum of understanding mimics much of the EU toolbox which encourages EU member states to avoid unsafe 5G providers.
        RIJEKA, Croatia - Minister for Slovenians Abroad Helena Jaklitsch visited the Slovenian minority in Croatia in what was her first day-long visit abroad. One of the topics discussed was how to engage young people in minority associations.
        LJUBLJANA - President Borut Pahor conferred state decorations on physicist and researcher Boštjan Žekš and architect Boris Podrecca, both of whom received the Golden Order of Merit, whereas Andrej Šter, the head of the Foreign Ministry's consular service, received the Order of Merit for his repatriation efforts during the epidemic.
        LJUBLJANA - The police are investigating eight persons suspected of threatening the safety of another person related to slogans carried at anti-government protests, notably Death to Janšism, Freedom to All. The police confirmed it was PM Janez Janša who reported the matter to the police on the basis of photos from the protests, which started during the epidemic. "Janšism" has come to imply policies advocated by Janša.

THURSDAY, 18 June
        LJUBLJANA - The government decided to impose stricter rules for arrivals from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo effective on 19 June. The decision came after Slovenia saw the eleven new cases last week, and fifteen from Monday to Wednesday, following almost a month with very few or no new daily cases. The death toll remains at 109 since the last death was recorded on 31 May.
        LJUBLJANA - President Borut Pahor warned MPs in a special address against any delays in securing Constitutional Court-ordered electoral reform, saying a situation could occur where it will not be possible to execute a legitimate election. "This would push our county into a constitutional crisis or even political chaos and must not happen," he said.
        LJUBLJANA - The government compiled a list of key investments that will be given priority treatment in administrative procedures so as to help kick-start the economy. The list currently features 187 investments worth EUR 7.7 billion and will be updated on an ongoing basis, Environment Minister Andrej Vizjak said.
        BRUSSELS, Belgium - Slovenia could achieve the NATO goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence by 2026 after having laid out plans to invest EUR 780 million in defence over the next six years, Defence Minister Matej Tonin said after a two-day meeting of NATO defence ministers. The law securing the investment funds might be adopted by the government next week.
        LJUBLJANA - Slovenia presently has 680 medical ventilators, 439 of which are suitable for Covid-19 treatment, Health Minister Matjaž Gantar told the press as confusion about the ventilator numbers continued in recent weeks. This is by far above the number of intensive care beds as well as properly trained staff.
        STRASBOURG, France - Slovenia released 16% of its prisoner population during the coronavirus outbreak, one of the highest rates in Europe, a Council of Europe report showed.
        HOČE - The automotive multinational Magna decided against reopening its car paint shop near Maribor for now an instead announced it would reassign the bulk of what are around 200 workers at the new Slovenian location to its facility in Graz, Austria. Media reports suggest the plant will not reopen this year.
        LJUBLJANA - Mila Haugova, one of the most esteemed and prolific Slovak poets, was declared the winner of this year's Vilenica Prize for Central European literature. The award will be presented at the conclusion of the 35th Vilenica International Literary Festival in September.
        LJUBLJANA - The National Assembly passed legislation proclaiming 23 September Slovenian Sports Day. The new public holiday will not be a work-free day.

All our posts in this series are here

20 Jun 2020, 10:31 AM

The covers and editorials from leading weeklies of the Left and Right for the work-week ending Friday, 19 June 2020.

Mladina:  SDS and systemic corruption

STA, 19 June 2020 - Those opposing the government of Janez Janša, the head of the Democrats (SDS), should bear in mind that it was money rather than politics that made the SDS want to come to power, so the opposition should pledge already now to check every deal the government made during the coronavirus epidemic, Mladina comments on Friday.

"We have known for years that the SDS is a business model rather than a political party. And when it came to power, the party immediately started doing business," the left-leaning weekly adds.

When the epidemic started simultaneously with the new government assuming office, the party channelled public money for personal protective equipment towards intermediaries to get millions in commission fees, while claiming that people are dying.

"And then we realized: yes, people are dying, but you turned it into a business, which is why bicycle protests appeared in ... Slovenian towns in the first place," editor Grega Repovž says in the commentary headlined Let's Go Back to the Beginnings.

During the worst of the crisis they changed legislation to carry out large investments which no longer require any oversight and which come with large commission fees. At the same time one was witnessing the disintegration of oversight institutions, including the police, so that evidence about the controversial deals could disappear.

Repovž suggests the SDS is doing it because it knows they have little time before the next election, at which "they will probably not get enough votes" to remain in power.

"They know exactly what they are doing. This is a very well organised clique with clear intentions - to appropriate means, financial flows, privatise businesses and redirect investments so that they control them in the long run.

"This is nothing new, we have seen it in practically all East European countries. From Ljubljana to Moscow this world is very similar. And it has a name: systemic corruption."

Mladina says that staying focussed on the fact that "it's all about money, not about politics" for the SDS should help those who oppose the government to be more united.

And already today opposition politicians should pledge to check every deal from the period when the entire immune system of the state was suspended in the name of the epidemic. For starters, one should calculate all commission fees which selected companies received in procuring protective equipment.

Reporter: No-confidence motions could further strengthen govt

STA, 15 June 2020 - The right-wing weekly Reporter notes in Monday's commentary that the scandal on the procurement of protective masks and ventilators, which failed to sweep away Economy Minister Zdravko Počivalšek, did not cause any harm to the senior coalition Democrats (SDS). The government remains firmly in the saddle, perhaps even more firmly than it looks.

The government will also not be brought down by the upcoming attempts to oust Interior Minister Aleš Hojs over a Thompson concert or Defence Minister Matej Tonic over a military incident on the border with Italy, says editor-in-chief Silvester Šurla.

Ideological efforts of the opposition in both cases could actually have the opposite effect than desired - they could make the coalition stronger instead of weaker, Šurla says.

If no major scandals erupt in the next couple of years, and if no new face emerges on the left, Janša will stay PM also after the next election.

"Tanja Fajon leading the SD does not pose a risk, since she is too leftist a politician to pick any votes from the centre as Borut Pahor did in 2008. Marjan Šarec is also obviously not aiming for the centre, as the LMŠ is increasingly turning left and becoming a copy of the Left."

Only the SAB remains in the centre-left among opposition parties, but the possibility of Alenka Bratušek ever becoming prime minister again is almost non-existent, much like with Šarec.

According to Šurla, it is no secret that Šarec and Bratušek do not like each other, and that Bratušek does not like the Left, which is actually to be blamed for the collapse of Šarec's government.

By denying support for the Šarec cabinet, the coordinator of the Left, Luka Mesec, has shown that the Left is an "extremist, destructive party which cannot even stick with a left-leaning government if all its wishes are not fulfilled".

So the more voters of the Left will vote for the SD and LMŠ instead, the higher probability of a left-leaning government, Šurla says in the editorial entitled Wind in the Sails.

All our posts in this series are here

20 Jun 2020, 09:55 AM

STA, 19 June 2020 - Anti-government protesters again took to the streets across Slovenia Friday evening. In Ljubljana, some of the protesters entered the square outside the Parliament House which had been completely fenced off, to read the Constitution. After refusing to move, they were physically removed by the riot police.

While the Republic Square served as the centre for rallies in the previous weeks, today it was completely fenced off by the police and most of the protesters gathered in Prešeren Square instead for the start of the rally at 7 pm, before eventually starting to move toward the Parliament House.

The several thousand people carried banners and whistles, as has become customary. Moreover, a number of protesters dressed black today, after Prime Minister Janez Janša referred to blackshirts in his comment of the protests.

Among the few dozen who read the Constitution in Republic Square were several artists, including author and comedian Andrej Rozman Roza. After some refused to leave the square after being ordered to do so, they were carried off.

The complete closure of the square raised dust among protesters, with the Ljubljana Police Administration telling the STA that the step had been taken in order to protect the Parliament House, to uphold public peace and order, prevent criminal acts from taking place and ensure road safety, as well as to uphold the ban on gathering of more than 500 people.

"When providing for security, we always take into account the known circumstances and information acquired about the protests. Because today's rally has not been reported and has no known organiser, who is... bound to ensure safety of the participants, security was adjusted," the police said of the closed-off square.

19 Jun 2020, 18:19 PM

Just a few hours ahead of the weekly anti-government protest which occur every Friday evening in Ljubljana, the police decided to push the fence surrounding the Parliament building towards Cankarjev Dom, preventing the expected thousands of protesters from accessing their usual venue.

 

At the time of writing some protesters had already gathered inside the fence for a group reading of the Slovenian constitution, which grants people freedom of gathering and expression.

19 Jun 2020, 11:30 AM

STA, 18 June 2020 - The government has compiled a list of key investments that will be given priority treatment in administrative procedures so as to help kick-start the economy. The list currently features 187 investments worth EUR 7.7 billion and will be updated on an ongoing basis, Environment Minister Andrej Vizjak told the press on Thursday.

The minister said the main intention of the third stimulus package and the list of investments was to promote the implementation of projects which had come to a standstill due to bureaucratic complications.

A special task force will examine the projects giving them a priority mark based on their feasibility and whether their finances are already clear, he explained after the government session.

It will get down to work in the coming days, "starting with the projects which are closest to being implemented and which can be brought to life fastest".

The task force will feature representatives of agencies and other offices which are key in the process of obtaining permits.

This new approach could well halve the duration of certain administrative procedures, Vizjak said, adding that "the change at the helm of many institutions important for obtaining permits" would also make these offices act in a less bureaucratic manner.

The list features 22 environment projects worth EUR 310 million and 19 energy projects worth EUR 650 million, including a new reactor at Nuclear Power Plant in Krško.

There are also many transport projects, worth a combined EUR 4.5 billion.

Regional development projects, among them projects from health, education, culture etc, are worth more than EUR 2 billion.

"The government believes that starting an investment cycle in Slovenia does not only mean preserving jobs but also creating new ones. Not only in construction but also in many other industries which are related to construction ...."

Vizjak said this was the first list to start with, but it would be further refreshed with potential new investments before the summer holidays.

The list does not feature only publicly funded projects but also those funded from private sources.

"We also count a lot on the [EU post-Covid] recovery fund, which is still being consolidated and formed and which could be a source for many a project."

Also on the list are projects for which the finances have been fully secured, but are deadlocked due to failure to obtain permits.

The list moreover includes a number of projects which are needed systemically, from new homes for the elderly and housing to water supply, flood safety.

The minister believes the list is an important message to businesses showing that the government would like to encourage an investment cycle and "that everyone who would like to invest in environmentally feasible projects and who wants to see the country's further development in all areas, is welcome".

As for NEK 2, the second reactor at the Krško Nuclear Power Plant, Vizjak recalled it had been placed among important projects already back in 2006.

It has now made it to the list of key investments "because finally, siting procedures should be launched".

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GZS) has described the list as "a contribution to the revival of the economy and the preservation of many jobs".

The list, which was initially expected to include 50-odd projects, now features virtually all major public infrastructure projects currently under consideration.

Some of the biggest projects are ongoing construction of a new track between Divača and Koper, several smaller rail projects across the entire rail network, the north-south expressway in eastern Slovenia, dubbed the third development axis, and the passenger terminal in Ljubljana.

Energy projects on the list include the Mokrice hydro plant on the Sava, the second unit at Krško plus the radwaste repository, and a transmission line upgrade between Cirkovce and Pince in eastern Slovenia.

Several flood protection projects are on the list as well, along with multiple housing projects, construction of new care homes, hospitals and university buildings.

In the culture segment, the new wing of the National and University Library, dubbed NUK2, made the cut along with a renovation of the SNG Drama theatre in Ljubljana and the National Archives building.

19 Jun 2020, 11:24 AM

STA, 18 June 2020 - President Borut Pahor warned MPs in a special address on Thursday against any delays in securing Constitutional Court-ordered electoral reform, saying a situation could occur where it will not be possible to execute a legitimate election. "This would push our county into a constitutional crisis or even political chaos and must not happen," he said.

In what was only the second time a Slovenian president addressed the National Assembly of his own accord, Pahor stressed 21 December this year was the deadline set in the 2018 ruling by the Constitutional Court which said major discrepancies among population sizes in electoral districts no longer guaranteed the one person-one vote principle.

Pahor spoke of the most important constitutional problem in the country at the moment and urged MPs not to put off the necessary changes and implement the top court's ruling before the deadline.

There is still enough time, but only if the "demanding efforts are resumed immediately", said Pahor, who has spearhead the efforts to change electoral legislation, having hosted several rounds of talks on the topic since January 2019.

"Any postponing could have fatal consequences. In case an election is called on the basis of existing legislation, meaning without a prior implementation of the Constitutional Court ruling, a long, dark shadow of doubt about constitutional compliance would fall on the election," Pahor said.

He added the he himself as well as the people of Slovenia were justified in expecting that such a scenario will not occur.

While also pointing to the aggravating circumstances related to the threat of an economic and social crisis, Pahor warned against the reform becoming the subject of any political calculations. "Nobody can win here...we can all only lose," he argued.

Pahor feels that a general election held on the basis of existing legislation before 21 December this year would still be acceptable, while this would definitely not be the case for any later date, where such an election "could not escape justified reproaches about being illegitimate and at odds with the constitution".

"The Constitutional Court wrote in its ruling that its non-implementation would amount to a violation of Article 2 of the constitution, which states Slovenia is a welfare sate and a state governed by the rule of law, and of paragraph 2 of Article 3, which says that in Slovenia power is vested in the people," Pahor noted.

He reminded MPs that that efforts for the changes were not at the starting point, as several rounds of talks have been held. Agreement has for instance been reached in principle that there are two possible solutions - redrawing the borders of the districts or scrapping the districts and introducing a preferential vote.

MPs came closest to agreeing on the second option, one that Pahor also favours, but parliament was 3 votes short in the face of opposition by the senior coalition Democrats (SDS) and junior coalition Pensioners' Party (DeSUS).

Saying efforts have now been revived after coming to a halt during the coronavirus pandemic, Pahor says an understanding seems to have been reached that a new attempt would be made for an agreement on a redrawing of the municipal borders.

"I'm aware that meeting the task before the end of the year will be very difficult, actually almost impossible. However, all of us, who are represented by you, trust that you are up to the task," he said.

18 Jun 2020, 16:27 PM

STA, 17 June 2020 - US Ambassador to Slovenia Lynda Blanchard has put strengthening US-Slovenian economic development in the focus of her efforts, and would also like to encourage cooperation between Slovenian and US universities. Blanchard, who arrived in Ljubljana last August, has told the STA that Slovenia already feels like her second home.

"We're already excellent partners, but we want to further improve this cooperation, so my main focus will be economic cooperation, especially after the end of the Covid-19 pandemic," Blanchard, herself a businesswomen, said in an interview she gave for the STA on Tuesday.

The ambassador, who stressed her doors are always open, pointed to the need to create an encouraging business environment, as competition among countries in the region is very strong. She said she would like Slovenia and the US to become even closer partners.

Although the pandemic has hindered economic cooperation, Blanchard believes there will be opportunities for cooperation and partnerships post-Covid. She believes the third economic stimulus package adopted by the Slovenian government offers many such opportunities.

The ambassador said it was easy to start engaging with the Slovenian government soon after arriving in Slovenia, and she also cooperates very well with the new government, which came to power in mid-March.

Blanchard said they were able to accomplish some initiatives that were already started by her predecessors, for instance defence cooperation and cooperation among universities.

She said defence cooperation is intensive, with the pandemic showing it is urgent for countries to be ready, which is also part of NATO's initiatives.

Even if Slovenia's defence spending is below 2% of its GDP, a target the US insists upon, Blanchard said Slovenia has been working well with NATO for a long time.

She believes one should focus on Slovenia's strengths, such as cyber, and its activities in the Western Balkans.

"You have wonderful troops on the ground, all over the Western Balkans, which is very important to your country and for the security and well-being of the region."

The ambassador also highlighted defence cooperation on infrastructure, and noted the US is engaged in all projects here by invitation.

The ambassador declined to discuss in detail a memorandum of understanding on 5G technology Slovenia is said to be signing with the US and which is seen as an attempt to limit China's Huawei's participation in 5G deployment in Slovenia.

She stressed the 5G network would bring many opportunities, especially for businesses, which however need security, stability and the respect for privacy laws.

She said the memorandum of understanding mimics much of the EU toolbox which encourages EU member states to avoid unsafe 5G vendors.

Blanchard said US First Lady Melania Trump, whom she met before leaving for Slovenia and has been since in contact with her office, is "very interested" in Slovenia.

The ambassador understands that since the first lady is Slovenian, many here would like to see a highest-level visit from the US. But she said that in the year of the presidential elections, the president and the first lady are focussing on the elections.

Blanchard said the US and Slovenia engage in regular dialogue. She said Slovenian Foreign Minister Anže Logar and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had recently had a wonderful and very engaging conversation, and Logar's predecessor Miro Cerar met Pompeo in Washington last year.

The ambassador also said she likes living in Slovenia, which she said already feels like a second home. She likes to go to antique shops and the flea market in Ljubljana, where he has already bought many items to decorate her residence in the Rožna Dolina borough.

18 Jun 2020, 11:04 AM

Eight new coronavirus infections were confirmed in Slovenia in Wednesday, Health Minister Tomaž Gantar has announced. This is a marked increase compared to recent weeks and takes the total number of recorded infections to 1,511. The death toll remained unchanged at 109.

STA, 17 June 2020 - Bojana Beović, the head of the team advising the Health Ministry on coronavirus, has urged reimposing stringent measures on the borders at once after an increase in new infections originating abroad, while PM Janez Janša warned new restrictions would be inevitable unless those in place were respected.

After seeing very few or no new daily coronavirus cases for almost a month, Slovenia saw the daily figure spike at 5 on 5 June, followed by 11 new cases last week and already 7 this Monday and Tuesday.

The cases have either been imported from abroad or are close contacts of those cases, with Radio Slovenija reporting on Wednesday that most of the cases originated in the Balkans.

Commenting on the situation for media on Wednesday, Beović said that most of the cases had been imported, describing the situation as rather critical.

Noting that people obviously got too relaxed, the advisor said the new cases in recent days were due to the open border regime, warning that those new imported cases could lead to dozens of new cases in the future.

She believes that entry should be restricted for the countries placed on the red or black lists by the National Public Health Institute (NIJZ).

"We've had individual cases imported from abroad on a daily basis and with this sort of conduct, that is with a lot of socialising and failure to wear masks, such a situation could be very dangerous," Beović told the online edition of the newspaper Večer.

"We could see an extensive spread of the virus in a very short time," she added.

Similarly, the prime minister warned of a looming threat of a second wave of the epidemic as the risk of imported infections was growing fast with the reopening of Europe's borders and resumption of intercontinental flights.

"All measures in place will prevent a repeat of the epidemic only if they are implemented consistently. Or else new restrictions will be inevitable," Janša said on his Twitter profile.

In response to Beović's criticism of too many exemptions to the measures already in place, NIJZ director Milan Krek announced a rethink on justifiability of some of the exemptions that allow arrivals from countries not listed as Covid-19-safe to avoid a mandatory two-week quarantine.

The government decree on the prevention of Covid-19 spread at border crossings lists 16 exemptions to the 14-day quarantine for arrivals from the countries not okayed as safe by the NIJZ.

Those exemptions include daily or weekly migrants, persons in business transit in Slovenia, those transporting goods into or out of the country, transit passengers and diplomats.

Crossing the border without the mandatory quarantine is also possible for persons visiting their closest relatives and close relatives of Slovenian citizens or foreigners with permanent residence in Slovenia.

Talking with the STA, Krek said that most of the coronavirus infections in Slovenia in recent weeks came into the country based on those exemptions.

This is why the NIJZ would propose a discussion on whether some of the exemptions made sense, as envisaged in the decree in the event of a worsening in the epidemiological situation.

Krek expects the decree could be amended as early as Friday.

As of Tuesday midnight, Slovenia had 26 active coronavirus cases out of the total of 1,503 registered since the first case was confirmed on 4 March.

Seven Covid-19 patients are being treated in hospitals, one of them in an intensive care unit.

There have been no Covid-19 fatalities since 1 June when the death total reached 109.

17 Jun 2020, 14:30 PM

STA, 16 June 2020 - The National Assembly passed a bill on Tuesday amending the penal code by imposing harsher penalties for persons organising illegal crossings of the border and for those helping illegal migrants reside in Slovenia. The amendment, proposed by the upper chamber of parliament, was passed in a 48:35 vote.

The bill was backed by the coalition and by the opposition National Party (SNS), while the other deputy groups opposed it, arguing a more comprehensive approach would be needed to tackle illegal migrations.

The initial proposal by the National Council labelled any illegal border crossing a crime. However, the parliamentary Justice Committee then acknowledged the warnings by the parliament's legal service, state prosecution and the government that this would lead to inconsistencies since the law on foreigners defines illegally crossing the border as an offence, not a crime.

The final version of the bill hence raises the prison sentences for smugglers of migrants from a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment to between three and ten years in prison. Penalties for those helping illegal migrants reside in the country have been also made more severe.

Moreover, persons involved in both crimes who capitalise on their unlawful activities or are part of organised crime will now face three to 15 years in prison, compared to a maximum of eight years in prison as is the case now.

The coalition parties all agreed that the amendment was necessary to boost the deterrence effect and reduce the scope of illegal crossing of the border.

The SNS meanwhile added that the penal code should be further amended by introducing harsher penalties for the relevant accomplices as well.

On the other hand, the rest of the opposition disagreed, with the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) saying that the changes should be adopted with more deliberation and in cooperation with experts.

The Social Democrats (SD) believe that the punishments are now extremely disproportionate to other crimes or offences, whereas the Left pointed out that the root cause of the migrations should be addressed. The Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) meanwhile called for a more comprehensive approach.

Fewer illegal border crossing attempts detected so far this year

STA, 16 June 2020 - Nearly 3,300 people tried to enter Slovenia illegally in the first five months of the year, a drop of more than 25% over the same period last year. However, the dynamic started to pick up in the course of the past month, as the coronavirus pandemic started to ease.

The police detected 3,283 attempts at crossing the border illegally between January and May, and 1,198 expressed the intention to request asylum in Slovenia.

Most of the people apprehended were citizens of Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan.

The police said that more illegal crossings had been detected in January than in the same month in 2019, but then the number dropped, also because of the pandemic.

In May, the 883 attempts at illegal border crossing were detected, the highest monthly figure in 2020 so far, which is nevertheless significantly below the 1,314 fugure from May 2019.

There is another marked difference in terms of nationality of those trying to enter the country. While most of the persons were Pakistani, there has been a significant drop in the number of Algerian citizens over last year and an increase in Moroccans and Afghans.

The number of those expressing the intention to ask for asylum in Slovenia has dropped as well. Pakistanis express it far more rarely than Moroccans and Algerians, with most continuing their journey to their desired destination after being placed in an asylum facility.

The Slovenian police have returned 2,030 foreigners to other countries, most of them to Croatia - as many as 2,019.

17 Jun 2020, 11:04 AM

STA, 16 June 2020 - Germany, Portugal and Slovenia presented the programme of the trio's upcoming EU presidency in a videoconference of EU ministers in charge of European affairs on Tuesday. Foreign Ministry State Secretary Gašper Dovžan pointed to the many coronavirus-related challenges and highlighted the need for a plan B.

"The programme is a compromise reflecting the views of us all. Not all the highlighted aspects are equally important for all the countries. But in principle it is broad enough to allow for certain national specifics as part of the six-month programme," Dovžan told Slovenian Brussels-based reporters.

He noted the programme had to be reviewed in the past three months because of the corona crisis, especially because the goal was to improve the bloc's resilience to any future crises.

The top priority will be the next multi-annual budget, as no plans will be able to be implemented without adequate financial support, he said.

Dovžan noted that logistical and organisational preparations in Slovenia had been interrupted because of the coronavirus but the government endorsed a reviewed plan last week.

He stressed the need for an alternative scenario for the presidency in case of a second wave of the epidemic. Meetings could be cancelled or carried out on-line, which would mean "certain spaces" would not be able to be used, he said.

Asked whether an EU-Western Balkans summit would be held during Slovenia's presidency, Dovžan said it was not in the draft programme. But Portugal also did not plan a summit of the EU and its Eastern Neighbourhood which is being planned now, he added.

Slovenia will have to be flexible and potentially organise any other summits as well, he said, adding it was too early to talk about such plans.

In a joint press statement issued after today's videoconference, Dovžan also called for a sustainable and inclusive growth in combination with a green transition and digital transformation. He also called for plans to help the EU tackle crises such as pandemics, global cyber attacks, and migration pressure, and for an ambitious policy towards the EU's neighbourhoods in the east and south.

The programme of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia will be officially endorsed in a correspondence session in the coming days in line with the new coronavirus rules.

Germany will take over the six-month presidency in July, followed by Portugal in the first half of 2021, and Slovenia in the second half. The trio was also the first trio to hold the presidency in 2007 and 2008. Slovenia was at the helm of the bloc in the first half of 2008 as the first newcomer to hold the presidency.

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