Feature: 25 Years on from the Depela Vas Scandal

By , 21 Mar 2019, 16:20 PM Politics
Janez Janša speaking at the time Janez Janša speaking at the time YouTube screenshot

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STA, 20 March 2019 - Twenty-five years to the day, undercover police agent Milan Smolnikar was brutally arrested action-movie style by four Defence Ministry agents, an instance of military interference with the civilian sphere and an event that continues to affect Slovenian politics to this day.

 

The incident known as the Depala Vas scandal (Afera Depala vas), for the village not far from Ljubljana in which it took place on 20 March 1994, invited differing interpretations and eventually into a fully-fledged conspiracy theory.

It was followed by months of tensions between the defence and interior ministries, deepening political divisions only three years after Slovenia gained independence.
A day after the incident, the Defence Ministry explained Smolnikar, a former Defence Ministry employee, was suspected of divulging a military secret.

An inquiry ordered by then Prime Minister Janez Drnovšek found on 23 March that by arresting Smolnikar the Defence Ministry had overstepped its powers.

Based on this, Drnovšek assessed the Smolnikar case amounted to a military interference with the civilian sphere and asked parliament to dismiss Defence Minister Janez Janša, a prominent independence figure.

Nine days after the incident, Janša was dismissed by parliament and replaced by Jelko Kacin, presently Slovenian ambassador to NATO.

Janša rejected all allegations, stance he has never changed, arguing the government inquiry was but a cover for a long-planned politically-motivated decision to replace him.

He also claimed Smolnikar, who ended up in hospital after the attackers took him to the seat of the military intelligence service, was no ordinary civilian.

Once Janša was dismissed, his party, which has since been renamed the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), moved into the opposition.

His dismissal made his supporters take to the streets, while Smolnikar's arrest prompted protests due to military interference in the civilian sphere.

Fuelling divisions in the country in general, the scandal deepened the already bitter antagonism between Janša and then President Milan Kučan.

Janša believes Kučan, the leader of the Slovenian Communist Party before Slovenia's independence, was the mastermind behind the scandal and the attempt to get rid of him.

This is also a view held by TV Slovenija journalist and historian Jože Možina, the author of a 2014 documentary on Depala Vas.

Možina sees it as a way of curtailing the growing influence of the democratic forces which had spearheaded independence efforts and which Janša symbolised.

"Now we know the manner in which Janša was to be removed was made by a special agent of the Yugoslav secret military service KOS Radenko Radojčić, whom Slovenian military intelligence agents had brought from Belgrade," he told the STA.

According to Možina, it is unclear whether Kučan was the only one behind the scheme "and to what extent he had been encouraged to remove Janša by plottings and insinuations about a military coup d'etat ... fabricated by agents loyal to the nomenclature".

"With the Depala Vas scandal, 1994 was a milestone in that the structures of the former regime managed to stop the process of losing power in all spheres of society, which started with the first democratic elections in 1990," he said.

Meanwhile, Ali Žerdin, the editor of Delo's Saturday Supplement and commentator, said the scandal "was and still is important to understand key principles of political culture" in Slovenia.

"It became clear in 1994 that part of the Slovenian defence system did not understand that the army should not engage with civilians," he told the STA.

The Depala Vas scandal eventually made it to court. In 2003, Smolnikar's attackers were cleared of the charges of having arrested him in a horrendous manner.

Smolnikar's car had been stopped by three vehicles, and since he had locked himself in it, the attackers smashed the car windows with guns. He was then handcuffed.

Marred by a series of appeals, the Depala Vas case fell under the statute of limitations on 20 March 2004 without justice being served.

This is one reason why the circumstances of the event remain moot, creating space for speculations and feeding into the persistent divide between the left and the right.

All our stories on Janez Janša are here

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