Discontent over corruption simmers on in Slovenia

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Life is peaceful again in Maribor, Slovenia's second city, with locals sipping coffee on a shaded square where months ago protesters clashed with police in a cloud of tear gas.

But under this calm exterior, the pressure is on for the city's new mayor -- and the country's new prime minister -- to revive a hard-hit economy and end a culture of corruption that brought thousands into Slovenia's streets over the winter.

"If he makes a mistake, the movement I'm in and other organisations will be breathing down his neck," Sanjin Jasar, one of the leaders of the Maribor protests, says of new mayor Andrej Fistravec.

The sometimes violent rallies died down in March, but many Slovenians remain disgusted by the nepotism and self-interest shown by their politicians even as the country battles a two-year recession and high unemployment.

"Slovenia is such a corrupt country... we need 100 or 200 good verdicts" to restore order, Maribor's new mayor -- himself one of the protesters before he was elected to city hall four months ago -- tells AFP.

Both his predecessor and ex-prime minister Janez Jansa were forced out at the height of the protests.

Slovenia has a long history of deep-rooted corruption.

In the 20 years since independence from the former Yugoslavia, the national anti-fraud watchdog estimates Slovenia has lost some 10 billion euros ($13 billion) to corruption -- a fortune for this tiny country of two million.

Millions earmarked for Maribor's year as European Capital of Culture in 2012 vanished into thin air.

Exasperation at such graft has been exacerbated by hard economic times.

Slovenia, once a model newcomer to the European Union and the eurozone, is in recession, and a mountain of bad debts at its banks have raised concerns the country may be the latest eurozone member to need a bailout.

"If I had the chance, I would move to any other country. Austria, or maybe New Zealand," says 26-year-old Jernej Demsar.

Slovenia expects its economy to contract this year by 2.4 percent.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate is 13 percent. In Maribor, a major industrial centre in the former Yugoslavia, it is 18.4 percent.

Much-needed anti-crisis measures -- including tax hikes to help pay for the country's troubled banks, public-sector wage cuts and labour-market reforms -- have made many bitter.

-- New faces, new ideas --

But with new faces on the political scene -- former sociologist Fistravec, 56, had no political experience before becoming mayor and Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek was a relative unknown until her March appointment -- there is some hope things might change.

Fistravec says he plans to set up social projects to help those struggling to make ends meet, such as small gardens for people to grow their own produce and a food bank to redistribute unused supplies from the city's many schools.

With "new ideas" and "creative industries", he hopes to return Maribor to its former glory.

"In five or six years, we will see if Maribor is a town with 17 or 18 percent unemployment, or with five or six percent. I want to establish five or six percent," says Fistravec, who already plans to run for reelection in 2014.

Bratusek has meanwhile announced 66 million euros in state aid to Maribor, with additional measures to promote start-ups and tackle youth unemployment.

Around the city, signs of recession are hard to come by: the cobblestone streets, ripped up during the protests, have been flawlessly repaired and cafes are full of locals enjoying a drink or an ice cream.

People appear to be happy -- "for now," says would-be emigrant Demsar.

But critics note that Fistravec is still surrounded by the same corrupt city council as before, while Bratusek took over as prime minister without an election.

The key now will be to keep politicians in check so they do not abuse their positions like those before them.

"We have to supervise our representatives," says protest leader Jasar, who is already predicting new rallies soon.

"It will come. We're expecting another boom in the fall."