New Slovenian PM Robert Golob Charts a Different Course With The EU And Ukraine
(This article was published at the Australian Institute for International Affairs on June 30th, 2022. You can find it here.)
New Prime Minster Robert Golob ousted right-wing populist Janez Janša. Will his new government mend fences with Brussels damaged by the previous administration, or rise to the challenge created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Left-wing populist Robert Golob’s new “Freedom Movement” party, formed just months ago, swept the Slovenian elections, winning 34.5 percent of the vote and formed a coalition securing 53 of 90 seats in the parliament. Golob’s victory was a rebuke of right-wing populist Janez Janša’s COVID-19 policies and his drift into Hungary’s Viktor Orbán’s orbit.
Golob is not your typical politician. While he has a history in party politics, he is also an academic and successful businessman in the energy industry. Golob made multiple campaign promises that seemed appealing: lifting restrictions on certain media outlets, a “return to normalcy” with the EU, and maintaining the same level of support for Ukraine that Janša’s administration was offering. Many in the West saw his proclamations as a positive sign for Europe. However, just over 30 days in, where are we, and what does Golob’s Prime Ministership mean for the future of Europe?
So far, the Golob administration has taken preliminary steps to fulfil some of its “Pro-European” campaign promises. For example, they have renewed the commitment to create a more open environment for journalists in Slovenia after Janša’s controversial interactions with the media. Additionally, the new government is signalling a “return to normalcy” by promising to tear down the fence between Croatia and Slovenia, built in 2015, which was intended to slow the flow of migrants into the country. However, Golob’s recent statements regarding Ukraine are uneven at best, which may negatively impact European security.
No Further Military Aid To Ukraine
The biggest issue facing Slovenia and Europe is Ukraine. Golob indicated during the campaign he supported Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression. The Slovenian PM repeated this claim during a recent phone call with President Zelenskyy on 23 June. However, this is not entirely accurate. While the administration has supported Ukraine’s candidacy for EU admission, it also announced it would no longer offer military aid to Ukraine. Instead, Slovenia will continue to provide humanitarian assistance and demining support. This position is a break from the previous administration’s stance, which stressed the importance of lethal aid to help the Ukrainians fight back against Russia’s irredentist war.
A shift away from providing military aid is also out of step with most Slovenians. A recent poll of EU member states found 49 percent of Slovenians supported purchasing military assistance for the Ukrainian defence. Comparatively, 43 percent disapproved to some degree, and only 17 percent of that group disagreed completely. Notably, Slovenia was not directly purchasing weapons for Ukraine, as the previous administration was willing to exchange old Soviet stock, such as M84 tanks, for newer kit such as German Boxer wheeled vehicles. In other words, Slovenia would have entered into exchanges with other member states, allowing them to help Ukraine at minimal cost while simultaneously upgrading Slovenia’s current military readiness. Defence Minister Marjan Šarec confirmed at the June NATO summit that the new government is committed to boosting its military preparedness and NATO commitments. However, now the government will likely have to reach deeper into federal coffers for funding.
Moreover, Eastern European states are growing weary of broken promises and equivocations toward Putin. From their perspective — Putin must be opposed now to send a message to authoritarian leaders around the world. Otherwise, they will only be encouraged by Putin’s resistance, which will threaten the security of Europe and the world. In other words, policies that would not support Ukraine militarily and reward Putin with Ukrainian territory will lead to distrust among some EU member states. Specifically, Eastern European, and Baltic states might point towards states like Slovenia and Germany who are reneging on promises of weapons. Instead, some countries in Western Europe suggest negotiations and concessions before Russia’s defeat in Ukraine. It leaves countries like Poland and the Baltics, who, like Ukraine, are victims of past Russian aggression, feeling vulnerable and unable to rely on the strength of the EU for protection.
Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon has said she would like to focus on mending “broken EU promises” such as those made to several states in the Balkans. These include allowing Kosovars to travel to Europe’s Schengen zone without visas, giving Bosnia EU candidacy, begin accession discussions with North Macedonia and Albania, among other topics. At the same time, she eschews closer relations with Poland, for example, in favour of France and Germany.
However, such a stance may further divide Europe at its most critical time. If Slovenia truly wishes to increase trust within the EU, as Fajon has stated, several steps must be considered. The current path of fixing conflicts with its media and removing fencing on the border of Croatia are a promising start. Additionally, Slovenia could choose to embody the role of bridge mender by advocating in the EU for the Western Balkans and using the war in Ukraine to build trust. Further, Slovenia can show “promises” matter not only when the EU is the one who has made them. The new government can lead by example by maintaining Slovenian promises to deliver M84 tanks to Ukraine. Moreover, the Golob government could use its influence to bring a newly Orbán-soured Polish leadership back towards the EU orbit. These actions would forge a stronger trust relationship between Eastern Europe and EU member states and help increase Slovenian and European security now and into the future.