Prodemocratic Protests and Movements During the Pandemic

Corona Diary

Anti-government protests in Slovenia

Since the end of April, anti-government protests have been held in Slovenia (a country with a long tradition of protests and resistance, starting with the Partisan movement during World War II). Foreign media do not report a lot about this, and even when they do, the reasons for the protests are not always presented accurately. So let us start with some basic information about Slovenia in the times of the coronavirus. On Friday, 13 March 2020, a day after declaring an epidemic, Slovenia got a new coalition government consisting of a pro-Orbán-oriented party as the leading party, one centre-right party and two centre-left parties. The new coalition replaced the previous minority government of five centre-left parties, which resigned on 27 January 2020, after having been in power for only a year and a half. In Slovenia, the health crisis itself has been managed pretty successfully. Between 4 March and 1 June, 1475 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed and 109 patients died, which means 52 deaths per million inhabitants (however, the tragic fact is, that – just like in many other countries – the majority of those deaths occurred in retirement homes, not in hospitals). In May, the number of daily new cases decreased to the extent that the government decided to declare the end of the epidemic on 31 May. But the encouraging epidemiological situation in the country is accompanied by many severe problems in other fields. One of the problems is that the crisis has been politically misused by some members of the government. On its very first day in power, the leading party started rapidly replacing a great number of high-ranking officials and members of various boards: first in the police, the army and the intelligence and security agency, and later at the National Institute of Public Health, the public broadcaster, the Statistical Office, etc. Furthermore, the Minister of the Interior, who is a member of the leading party, and the Minister of Defence tried to persuade the National Assembly that, during the epidemic, a large number of refugees could be expected and it was therefore necessary to grant members of the Slovene Armed Forces special policing powers on the Slovenia-Croatia Schengen border. The Prime Minister – the head of the leading party for almost three decades and now the head of the government for the third time – continues his long-standing tradition of insulting and threatening journalists, intellectuals and anyone else who criticises him (his main channels of communication with the public are Twitter and the broadcaster founded by his party). Without consulting the three coalition partners, the Foreign Minister, who also comes from the leading party, sent two controversial letters to European institutions. The first letter, addressed to the Council of Europe, claimed that, in Slovenia, hardly any media are not based on the heritage of its totalitarian past. The second letter, sent to the European Commission, criticised the Slovenian judiciary. The last straw that finally triggered the protests was the PPE procurement affair. Thanks to a whistleblower who got in touch with Slovenia’s public broadcaster, the Slovenian citizens were informed about very suspicious procedures in the procurement of face masks and ventilators in March and April. It seems that some government officials favoured certain companies and intermediaries despite them offering more expensive equipment of lower quality.

Every Friday evening since 23 April, several thousand people in Ljubljana and some other Slovenian cities have been taking part in the so-called bicycle protests. Due to the restrictions on the right to assemble, most protesters ride bicycles and many of them also wear face masks. In the capital, they start the protests by bicycling in the city centre, ringing their bicycle bells, blowing whistles, carrying anti-government banners, and conclude the protests in the square in front of the parliament building. So far, there has been no violence at these gatherings; even more, a lot of creativity and humour can be seen there. The protesters of all generations demand that the government resign because of the corruption, politically motivated appointments, attacks on the media and the judiciary, hate speech, and, since mid-May, also because of a new law significantly limiting the ability of NGOs to participate in environmental impact assessments of infrastructure projects. They want the next government to respect democratic standards and invest more money in the public sector and the environment. It has been announced that the bicycle protests will continue as long as the current government stays in power. In addition to the general protests, some smaller demonstrations of cultural sector workers, environmental activists, nurses, etc. have also been organised.

In the 2004–2008 and 2012–2013 periods, Slovenia’s government was already headed by the current prime minister. Eight years ago, he faced similar mass protests and they contributed to the dissolution of the government in 2013. Now, we are wondering whether history will repeat itself… In mid-May, two MPs from the second biggest coalition party already switched to opposition parties; the calls for a snap election are becoming louder; the atmosphere in the National Assembly is very tense; and the PPE procurement affair is being investigated by the Court of Audit. It seems quite possible that the end of the epidemic in Slovenia will soon be followed by the end of the government.

The pan-European activities of DiEM25

During the pandemic, a promising prodemocratic movement has also been active at the international level, a movement that would definitely deserve more publicity. It has been organised by DiEM25 and the Progressive International.

DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) is a pan-European political movement of democrats that was launched in 2015 by Yanis Varoufakis and Srećko Horvat under the slogan “The European Union will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!”. DiEM25 members fight for a democratic, transparent, pluralistic, social, solidary and sustainable Europe and demand social, economic and political reforms of the EU. Through their cooperation with experts and the general public, the movement’s members are developing common white papers for eight pillars – transparency, technology, economy, environment, refugees and migrants, culture, post-capitalism and a European constitutional process – and organising actions around this programme. Among the reforms they call for are a new democratic European constitution, full transparency in the decision-making of EU institutions, the democratisation of technology and innovations, a swift, just and democratic transition to a sustainable Europe and – one of the most interesting proposals – an implementation of a universal basic dividend, i.e. a universal basic income funded not from taxation but from the return of capital.

At the beginning of the pandemic, DiEM25 published a “3-point plan for dealing with COVID-19 depression”. In this plan, they propose three steps that the EU and the ECB should take in order to protect all European residents (instead of implementing “austerity for the many and socialism for the very few” like in the eurozone crisis), avert an economic depression and prevent the disintegration of the EMU and the EU: the ECM should issue €1 trillion in ECB-Eurobonds and inject a €2000 European solidarity cash payment into the bank account of every European resident, while the EU should introduce a European green recovery and investment programme. As a basis for this programme, DiEM25 offers “The Green New Deal for Europe – Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition”, a holistic policy programme prepared by the movement before the 2019 European Parliament election.

Furthermore, in March, DiEM25 launched “DiEM25 TV – World After Coronavirus”, a series of online discussions and lectures that are streamed live and in which the movement’s members and advisers as well as other experts, scientists and activists share their thoughts about what the COVID-19 pandemic means in the political, social and economic terms and how this crisis could become an opportunity for a radical change that would lead to a post-capitalist world. So far, there have been over thirty discussions with prominent philosophers, sociologists, economists, lawyers, politicians, journalists, political and environmental activists, artists and also a virologist (among them Tariq Ali, Franco Berardi, Noam Chomsky, Christian Drosten, Daniel Ellsberg, Brian Eno, David Graeber, Caroline Lucas, Evgeny Morozov, Saskia Sassen, Jeremy Scahill, Vandana Shiva and Slavoj Žižek). The result is a large collection of relevant deliberations on various aspects of the current global crisis (a sort of a video pendant to the collection of texts in the IWM Corona Blog). On International Labour Day, DiEM25 organised a talk with a special guest – Chris Smalls, a whistleblower and a former Amazon warehouse manager from New York City who exposed the corporation’s unsafe practices related to COVID-19 and is now at the centre of a significant movement that, since April, has been organising strikes of gig and essential workers all over the USA (a movement that we also do not hear a lot about).

For the last European Parliament election, DiEM25 and a number of affiliated national parties formed a transnational European party named European Spring, which won 1.4 million votes, but failed to meet the electoral threshold; so far, the only parliament that DiEM25 has managed to enter with one of its electoral wings (Varoufakis’ MeRA25) is the Hellenic Parliament. But despite the fact that DiEM25 lacks political experience and power, it is important to have a pan-European prodemocratic movement that prepares concrete proposals for a thorough transformation of the EU. There is no doubt that the EU – weakened due to the eurozone crisis, the Greek crisis, the refugee crisis, the triumph of Brexit and now the pandemic crisis – needs radical changes, otherwise right-wing populism and Euroscepticism will continue to grow and most probably lead to the disintegration of the Union.

Global campaigns of the Progressive International

Amidst the pandemic, a new progressive movement with an even more ambitious agenda than that of DiEM25 has arisen. The Progressive International (PI) is a global organisation uniting, organising and mobilising left-wing forces around the world. The PI was announced by the Sanders Institute and DiEM25 on 30 November 2018, when Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis issued an open call to form a common, global front in the fight for democracy, sustainability and justice – since only internationally connected progressives can fight the international alliance of big corporations, bankers and the political establishment. On 11 May 2020, the PI was finally launched. The current Council of Advisers includes political representatives like Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Vicenta Jerónimo Jiménez and Yanis Varoufakis; activists like Carola Rackete, Nick Estes and Vanessa Nakate; and thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein.

The activities of the organisation are divided across three pillars. The first pillar consists of building a global network of progressive activists and organisers to share toolkits, trainings, forums and other resources. The second pillar involves convening activists, thinkers and practitioners to develop a policy blueprint for a progressive international order and transform the institutions that impact our lives, our communities and the planet. And the third pillar means building a coalition of progressive media outlets to report stories of struggles and social movements and to bring grassroots perspectives to a global audience. The first activities that the PI has undertaken are: tenant empowerment for the period during and after the pandemic; preparation of an international Green New Deal; a campaign for total debt forgiveness and an emergency injection of finances into the Global South during the COVID-19 crisis (the campaign is led by Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar); helping Cuba fight COVID-19 and the US blockade; and “de-exceptionalising” the Palestinian struggle.

For the PI, there is no doubt about what the time during and after the pandemic entails: “At this historic juncture, we face a clear choice – a choice that […] Noam Chomsky has described as ‘Internationalism or Extinction’. Either we bind our local struggles at the planetary scale. Or we surrender to an authoritarian capitalism that is grinding our species to extinction. There is no return to normal. It was the normalisation of a heating planet, of resource extraction and of labour exploitation that has led directly to the present crisis. In face of this existential challenge, we have the moral and political duty to organise a planetary front that can transcend borders and confront the capitalist logic of expansion.” Since there has been no global organisation of this kind till now, it will be very interesting to follow its development.

The world after the coronavirus

While causing the greatest global crisis after World War II, the COVID-19 pandemic also offers the greatest opportunity for radical changes. The crisis has clearly revealed – in a very short period of time, all over the globe – how inhuman, destructive and unsustainable the present social system is. It has revealed not only that there is “such a thing as society” (despite Thatcher’s neoliberal heirs, the destroyers of the common good, still wanting to persuade us to the contrary), but also that this society can only survive as a community of solidarity that, at the level of the system, ensures a decent life for every human being. Just like we should fight against retaining any nondemocratic, human-rights-violating restrictions and decrees after the end of the health crisis, we should also fight for retaining the positive measures that strengthen solidarity, public services and ecology, measures that some of the most neoliberal governments were also ready to accept during the crisis, even though they had, for years, labelled them as impossible, unreasonable or bad (e.g. more money for the public health system, an implementation of universal basic income, a reduction of air traffic, and, above all, saving lives before the economy). This is why it is worth supporting national and – since a global crisis needs global solutions – also international protests and movements struggling for “a democratic, decolonised, just, egalitarian, liberated, solidary, sustainable, ecological, peaceful, post-capitalist, prosperous and plural world” (the vision of the world that the members of the PI aspire to). And the least we can do, therefore, is spread information about these struggles.

June 3, 2020.

Anja Naglič is a freelance translator from Slovenia, with a master’s degree in German Studies and Sociology of Culture. In Spring 2019, she was a Paul Celan Visiting Fellow at the IWM.