As the mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Janković has almost as much financial power in his hands as the prime minister of Slovenia, but he gives priority to the local level of government, where there is less political trading, people are more trusted than parties and it’s easier to learn that one should always listen carefully to others
Zoran Janković was elected in November last year for a fourth mandate as the mayor of the City of Ljubljana, despite having turned the centre of the city into a veritable “living room”: without traffic, which the local authorities in Belgrade are struggling with. He runs the city like a businessman, but – judging by the verdicts that have gone in his favour against media claims – without a blemish on his career.
He succeeds in that which is barely possible in Serbia – to be friends with both Serbian businessman Miroslav Mišković, who finds it easier to invest in Slovenia than at home, and with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who he recently said he wanted to successfully lead Serbia into the European Union. Even opponents of the Belgrade Waterfront development, which Janković considers a good project, would probably patiently listen to his opinion because he’s turned Ljubljana into the green capital of Europe. What is it that Janković has that Serbian politicians don’t? Although no such question arose during this conversation, the interview still provides interesting answers.
Is there any truth to the claim that the mayor of the capital city, despite not being a position of equal rank, is on a par with the prime minister in terms of financial and political power?
I’d say that he is. I always say how the state and the city should be managed like an enterprise: you must have a vision, a strategy and a goal, and then the courage to realise that. And all with the aim of providing the best service to your citizens, which we have been doing in Ljubljana for 12 years already. Some politicians forget their pre-election promises after being elected, and that’s not right. Voters do not forget that easily, but rather remember. When you get elections at the national level – the parties start trading. With us, at the local level, there’s none of that. As such, the local level is much closer to me.
I always say how the state and the city should be managed like an enterprise: you must have a vision, a strategy and a goal, and then the courage to realise that
Is there any “Ljubljana-isation” in Slovenia, as there is “Belgrade-isation” in Serbia, i.e. a huge gap between the capital city and the periphery? Is Slovenia seeing an emptying of the country and mass relocating to the capital?
I don’t think that’s the case in Slovenia and that there’s no big difference between the capital and the periphery when it comes to the quality of life. One of the reasons is that Slovenia isn’t a big country – you can travel from one end of the country to the other in just over three hours – and everything is relatively close.
Slovenia has about two million inhabitants, while Ljubljana has a population of slightly more than 290,000. Like any capital, Ljubljana is the hub of political, economic, educational and cultural happenings, but we also find various institutions and required infrastructure in other cities.
How come power in Ljubljana is held by the left, while the rest of the country is to the right?
If we look at other cities in Slovenia, I wouldn’t agree that the rest of the country is held by the right. When it comes to mayors, they are predominantly independent, which is in some ways understandable. It is important for citizens what is built in their city, and whether they have improved living conditions, while the political party to which the mayor belongs is less important. They choose a man, not a party.
However, let’s return to Ljubljana. During World War II, Ljubljana was surrounded by barbed wire, put in place by enemy forces, and nobody could enter or leave the city. On 9th May 1945, the Partisans liberated the city, and on that date, we also celebrate the holiday of the city, the city of heroes. The area where that barbed wire was once installed now marks the ring road around Ljubljana, which symbolises friendship and is simultaneously a memorial to a difficult period of history that must never be repeated. I am proud that this is respected and appreciated by the people of Ljubljana.
And I am a leftist in my soul, although I’ve always stood in local elections as an independent candidate, with the support of the list of Zoran Janković, which holds a majority in the city council, and thus has a great responsibility for the development of the city.
You have many years of experience in the economy, but when managers take the helm of an institution we almost always, as a rule, get a neo-liberal concept in which people’s jobs disappear. How did you reconcile within yourself the market and the left?
With me, people are always ranked first.
That was the case while I was chairman of the board of Mercator, and is still the case today. People must be respected. I taught everyone at Mercator that, and it was written in our policy that the children of existing employees have priority when it comes to hiring staff. People always return good to you when you place trust in them. That’s why I couldn’t survive a strike of my colleagues, if it came to that, without me being at the helm.
Although it’s difficult to talk about yourself, what seems to matter to me is that a person must be decisive, honest, just, keep their word, have clearly defined goals, be courageous in making decisions, and, very importantly, must have empathy and know-how to listen to others. Every man should act with a balance in his actions in order not to harm others. I adhere to that personally.
We have another three and a half years ahead of us until the end of the term, and I’m not thinking about retirement or the future, but rather about what we promised that we would do
If we are to believe the media after your fourth, decisive victory, you also said this too “the citizens of Ljubljana elect a mayor… to whom they can entrust the making of decisions, because otherwise, they would have 50 opinions on each project and thus would go round in circles.” What is wrong with people having different opinions, discussing them and enjoying democratic dialogue?
There’s nothing wrong with that. Moreover, people have different opinions that need to be debated and discussed. I would dare say that it is obligatory for them to say what they think and offer a solution. But once an agreement is reached and a decision made, then there is no more room for debate and discussion. Then things need to be realised. And that’s what I was referring to in my statement. If endless debates were permitted, then no decisions would be made and it wouldn’t be possible to realise anything. Such a situation wouldn’t lead to anything; there would be no development. There would be stagnation.
When it comes to pedestrian zones, which is a subject around which there are clashes at the highest political level in Belgrade, we would ask you: how did Ljubljana’s citizens decide on the type and extent of pedestrian zones?
Everything didn’t go smoothly at first. We had to decide to take responsibility and to close the area to traffic after 10 am. People were afraid of change, they were accustomed to the old, not knowing what the new would bring them.
Many even said that the city centre would die if we banned movements of motor vehicle traffic. It was necessary to exert a lot of effort, to hold numerous conversations – with citizens, retailers, hospitality establishment owners and others – in order for us to prove to them that this would lead to the city centre flourishing. And that is, of course, exactly what happened. If you ask any of them today whether they want a return to the old ways, the answer will be negative.
The city centre has become a large living room, covering more than 10 hectares, and a hub of various cultural, social and sporting events – around 14,000 annually, most of which are free of charge. Operating in the city centre are six electric vehicles, Kavalirs [Gentle Helpers], which are very popular, particularly among older people and children, and we also have the ‘Urban’ electric train. Today it’s difficult to imagine that the city centre was even traversed by a bus, which had its station in the vicinity of the city hall.
You often comment on the situation in other former Yugoslav countries. Is your interest in events in Serbia a result of you being a “purebred mix”, Yugo-nostalgic or something else?
We used to live together in a single country, and it’s completely normal for me to be interested in what the situation’s like in those countries today. We are still neighbours and it’s very important to together cultivate good mutual relations. Ljubljana also has good relations with all capital cities of the former republics of the previously shared country. We cooperate well and share good experiences with one another. I say of myself that I’m a ‘purebred mix’ – my mother is Slovenian, and my late father was a Serb, which I am very proud of, as that strengthened the family. It was also good for me in the former state.
We have deeply divided societies almost everywhere in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. How do you, for example, combine that fact that you praise President Vučić for the Belgrade Waterfront project, while one of your friends is Miroslav Mišković, who is having a hard time with the current Serbian authorities?
I’ve known Mr Miroslav Mišković since the period when I was Chairman of the Management Board of Mercator and during that time we collaborated very well. That’s also how we became friends. We even considered joining forces, with him, me and Mr Ivica Todorić jointly establishing a major retail chain, but that, unfortunately, didn’t happen. Mr Mišković last year opened the first five-star hotel in Ljubljana, the Intercontinental, which is excellent and operates well, and I find that very pleasing. I have equally good relations with President Aleksandar Vučić. I had an official visit with him at the beginning of February and I then expressed to him my wish for Serbia to join the EU as soon as possible. As for the Belgrade Waterfront project, I consider it as being very well-conceived and of providing a great contribution to Serbia.
You’ve also been targeted by the press – if not for being a tycoon, then for being someone who, according to the media, used his position to illegally acquire personal wealth. How much is it “permitted” to be successful and rich in Slovenia?
The claim that I used my position to illegally enrich myself isn’t true. I’ve never received any kind of money from anyone, and I’ve acquired everything I’ve gained legally and through my work. Unfortunately, there are some people who’ve been trying systematically for years to destroy me and thus also my family and associates. It is also interesting that all the claims against me are conducted by the same person, who I’m convinced wants to deliberately discredit and demonise me.
I always say that I believe in justice and that it is up to the courts to make a judgement, not the streets or the media. Unfortunately, it happens too many times that it is the street that condemns, and some media help them. I was condemned for allegedly asking a private company for a donation to the public institute of the City of Ljubljana, which was founded by the City of Ljubljana, and at the beginning of this year, the court ruled that I was not guilty. To date, all cases that have been before the courts, all 14 of them, have been resolved in my favour.
From our perspective, it seems as though Slovenia has remained the most socialist, most equal country, with by far the highest quality of life compared to the rest of Yugoslavia. How did you succeed in doing that while we didn’t? What does your “split” Serbian and Slovenian soul tell you about how one becomes a winner or a loser?
It’s difficult to talk about who’s a winner and who’s a loser. The fact is that Slovenia didn’t have a lengthy war during the breakdown of the former joint country, as happened with some of the former republics. The economy was always the best in our country. That’s how it was able to recover faster and start a new life, and it is well known that many people from the former Yugoslavia live in Slovenia. I’m sorry that we parted ways in such a way; that innocent people were killed, instead of us resolving that by peaceful means, as was the case with the former Soviet republics.
It is important for citizens what is built in their city, and whether they have improved living conditions, while the political party to which the mayor belongs is less important
The Mercator of your time is no longer Merkator, nor is Gorenje the Gorenje that it was, though there are other, conditionally speaking, leaders of business in this field that are playing on the broader market. Did we lose the opportunity provided to us by the former country or is the market so globalised today that we’re all just easy targets for major corporations?
I’m sorry about what happened with Mercator, I’m very connected to it emotionally. While I was chairman of the board, it was one of the most successful companies in the region. Unfortunately, what happened, happened.
However, I essentially don’t think it’s important who owns the company. It is important that a company has good management and a good supervisory board. The result is important. If operations are good, then major corporations shouldn’t be feared.
You are ranked second in the EU when it comes to the length of the mandates of mayors of capital cities, and it is unlikely that anyone will come close to emulating your place in the history of Ljubljana anytime soon. Is that enough for one lifetime and for nice memories in those years that are by definition the years of retirement, or are you a man of the future?
That’s the only thing I haven’t asked myself since my first term. I enjoy my work and often say that I feel like I’m on holiday there. I have the best team of associates. Together, over the past 12 years, we’ve realised over 2,000 projects, and we’re currently implementing around 200. We’ve won numerous international awards, the most important of which is the title of Green Capital of Europe for 2016.
The Commission [for that award] emphasised that we’ve made the most changes in the shortest possible time and successfully implemented the vision of sustainable development – Vision of Ljubljana 2025 – which we established in 2007 before that title even existed. I’m proud that Ljubljana is clean, safe, green and hospitable, where those of us who are different, live together and respect each other. We have another three and a half years ahead of us until the end of the term, and what will come later depends on health, motivation, desire, the trust of citizens, understanding among associates etc.
I’m proud that Ljubljana is clean, safe, green and hospitable, where those of us who are different, live together and respect each other
It was also good for me in the former state… and it’s completely normal for me to be interested in what the situation’s like in those former republics today and to maintain good relations with everyone
Every man should act with a balance in his actions in order not to harm others. I adhere to that personally
Photo: Uroš Hočevar, Nik Rovan