Postcard from…Ljubljana

Billboard art in LjubljanaThe huge yellow banners on the façade of the building under renovation contain short statements that could be part of an advertising campaign or perhaps a conceptual art project. But the stories that are now appearing on this building (pictured) and bus shelters throughout downtown Ljubljana, the capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, are far more subversive than that.

One of the panels reads: “When my personal data became missing in both the register of Slovenian citizens and the register of Slovenian residents, I assumed it was just one of those red-tape confusions that take about an hour of time to clear up. But not 16 years.”

It’s been 16 years since the newly independent Slovenian government stripped more than 18,000 Slovene residents of their civic identity. Known as the Erased, these 18,000 people largely came from the other parts of former Yugoslavia. Many had lived in Slovenia all their lives, spoke fluent Slovenian. Many thought of themselves as Slovenes. But because they had been born elsewhere or couldn’t meet the new citizenship requirements, they were suddenly non-persons. They lost jobs, apartments, health benefits, pensions. Many went underground. Others were unceremoniously deported.

After a decision by the Constitutional Court followed by a new law, about two-thirds of the 18,000 have acquired permanent residency. Many of these have also gotten citizenship. But about 6,000 people remain in limbo. And even the lucky ones still have mysterious gaps in their legal histories, which compromise their careers, their pensions, and much more.

The European Court for Human Rights is considering a case that challenges the Slovene government’s handling of the matter. Meanwhile, the Slovene parliament has been debating a new law that would “rectify” the situation by, among other questionable provisions, denying the Erased any right to compensation for what they have suffered.

The Slovene government and many Slovene nationalists would like the issue of the erased to quietly disappear. But the new communications campaign — sponsored pro bono by a major Slovenian PR firm and with the help of some well-placed Slovenians such as Ljubljana’s mayor – is putting the stories of the Erased all over Ljubljana. So perhaps, after 16 years, Slovene society is about to come to terms finally with the most unfortunate chapter of the new country’s short history.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.