The Erased: Human Rights in Slovenia


A review of Becoming Erased: State Power and Human Rights in Slovenia, by Toby Martin Applegate.

After the secession from Yugoslavia and as a result of the nation building exercise that followed it, Slovenia had to answer two key questions – “Who is in? Who is out?” – in order to constitute a new nation-State within Europe. The varied answers given to these questions produced a long running, yet hardly noted human catastrophe, i.e., the Erasing. In this well-researched dissertation, Toby M. Applegate puts forward that the nature of the Erasing is a type of human rights violation generating a new spatial regime in light of individuals’ relationships to the State. Applegate explores three challenges so as to provide a thorough understanding of the complex spatial realities generated by the Erasing and confronted by the Erased: first, the Erasing requires the generation of an inconceivably new spatial regime where state power is suspended/in force/and absent all at the same time; second, the demographic ambiguity of the Erased; and third, the failure of the remediation of the erasing as a matter of structure and as a matter of agency (pp.7-11).

Applegate sets the stage for understanding and exploring the Erasing and the challenges faced by the Erased in Chapter 1-3 by presenting the problem statement, the theoretical perspectives, and the methodological approach to the problem.

Chapter 1 illustrates the critical aspects of the erasing starting with a historical account of what happened as of early 1990s: the enactment of the Aliens Act on 25 June 1991 generated a process for continuing the residency of non-Slovenes living in Slovenia on 23 December 1990 (i.e., the day of the referendum that decided upon the independence). After a six-month period for registration, the non-Slovenes who did not registered under this Act were subjected to a process of erasing from the residency roll. The Chapter sheds light upon the difference between citizenship and residency and the effect on the human rights of the Erased: in the case of the Erased, citizenship is not the real problem, for in Slovenia citizenship rights are not as important as residency rights, which are key in order to be legitimate. Thus, the deprivation of residency rights for the Erased – in Slovene izbrisani – is tantamount to a deprivation of human rights.

Chapter 2 presents the theoretical perspective necessary to examine the Erasing. It builds a theoretical framework from four components. First, through the analysis of Giorgio Agamben’s perspectives on “states of exception,” Applegate develops a critique of Agamben’s move to spaces of exception (pp. 32-38). An intermediary step, the spaces of erasing, is introduced to produce a place where the residual effects of the second component of the framework, Michel Foucault’s pastoral power, are felt (pp. 38-44). This pastoral power is offered as mechanism by which territory is controlled, but also as the place where the process of governing arises: any residual space unaffected by this power – but still occupied – is the space of erasing. Where Agamben extends Foucault’s work in many ways, the ability of pastoral power to get at the “how” of governing and its impact on subjects helps understand the process by which power is extended to bodies: the existence of an occupied space of erasing means that a different relationship exists outside the binary relationship State/individual. The third part of the theoretical framework discusses the ambiguous nature of the relationship between power and subjects and proposes that this relationship, as pointed out by Saskia Sassen, is necessarily incomplete (pp.44-52). The final part of the theoretical framework explores Bob Jessop’s perspectives on the State as a set of complex social relationships that varies from place to place, economy to economy, and society to society (pp. 52-62). Each of the four parts of the framework (the state of exception, pastoral power, incomplete relationships, and the social relationship of the State) are joined together by their participation in those complex social relationships, but also through their specific relationship to the post-socialist realities of the 20 years after Slovenia’s breakaway from Yugoslavia.

In order to test the positions put forward in Chapter 2 – state power/pastoral subject/incomplete relationships – Applegate adopts a multi-method approach. Chapter 3 clarifies this approach that combines three methodologies, i.e., ethnography and biography, archival research and statistics, and participatory action research (PAR). Applegate explains that data and contacts were collected using a “modified snowball methodology” (pp. 70-74) amplified by biographical interviews and empirical analysis of archival materials; in addition to that, each method was meant to complement a participatory action agenda that, on the one hand, became a way of attempting to help and advocate for izbrisani, while on the other impacted and defined the way in which the research positioned itself vis-à-vis all actors involved (i.e., State, NGOs, the people in their homes).

Four empirical chapters follow the theoretical framework: each places a biographical vignette in correlation with a methodological approach and centers on a key dimension of becoming erased.

Chapter 4 presents an introduction to the problems faced by the Erased through the story of a male izbrisani: Bostjan, who born along with his twin brother in Bosnia and whose family moved to eastern Slovenia in the late 1970s, was erased while working in Germany; whereas his brother went through the registration procedure following the secession of Slovenia from Yugoslavia, Bostjan did not and, consequently, became Erased. The shared genetics with his twin became a vehicle to overcome the obstacles generated by the fact of being Erased and to reconnect himself back to Slovenia. The Chapter casts light upon who the Erased are through presenting data set collected from an archive of a free medical and social work clinic founded to help people who did not have access to health care services in Slovenia (pp. 92-104). In fact, the data set acquired by Applegate inter alia elucidates a male landscape of erasing and a predominant presence of people coming from Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia who arrived in Slovenia between 1975 and 1980. This data set is put in conversation with the chapter’s biographical vignette and confirms the theoretical features of being erased that are subsumed in the vignette.

In Chapter 5, Applegate touches on the positionality of women izbrisani (p. 28) and, through a vignette about an izbrisani woman – Marta – who has been repeatedly pushed away from help and security, identifies a clear situation of gender disparity among izbrisani (p. 113-126). Marta’s story represents the tension between the Erasing as human rights violation and the Erasing as an action against a single individual who is a woman: the political effect of killing without taking life is brought about in a space outside of the juridical space. Applegate re-examines the data set presented in Chapter 4 in correlation with the vignette in order to elucidate the impact of erasing on women: in addition to being erased, women in the data set are also invisible. Through Marta’s story, he also challenges Agamben’s figure of “life that cannot be sacrificed and yet may be killed” (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 45): women as Marta were not killed by the State; this fact differentiated them from the Agamben’s sacred man, because they were suspended between life and death (pp. 135-137).

Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 touch on the organizations izbrisani women and men can engage with and start the process of no longer being erased.

The peculiarity of Chapter 6 lies in shifting the theoretical perspective from agency reinforced by male privilege or the loss of agency as an individual to the process of recapturing one’s agency through interacting with social care institutions. In this chapter, an erased woman – Nina – accessed social networks to solve the problem of becoming erased: for instance, she reconfigured her life in such a way that she could start completing her relationships, building social networks, and accessing a different form of conceiving her existence. In light of this story, the chapter presents various governmental and non-governmental organizations that had been set up to address the izbrisani problems (e.g., Association of the Erased, Pro bono Clinic for People without Insurance; Amnesty International; and the Ombudsman for Human Rights, pp. 155-176). The key and fundamental support of the Peace Institute helped Nina to complete all the steps she undertook; without it, she would have been unable to do it.

Chapter 7 focuses on the Peace Institute, a hybrid NGO, that creates a new institutional space in which to act and expands the realms in which individuals can advocate for themselves and for others. Applegate highlights how this NGO does not replicate State functions. Through the use of the biographical vignette of Nina – examined in Chapter 6 – Applegate sheds light upon the main feature of this organization, i.e., being one of the key actors in the remediation of the human rights violations as related to the izbrisani case (pp.183-188). In fact, by virtue of its political and financial independence from the government, this NGO operates in ways that are considered as working against the purview of the State’s interests; moreover, it becomes an organic example of participatory action research, since the involvement of the izbrisani themselves is seen as a practical manner to remedy the problem. In Applegate’s theoretical narrative, the Peace Institute represents the organization that enables the process of completing the relationships with the State; it also becomes a focal point in the remediation process, as it links any izbrisani request for assistance to local, national, and global organizations dedicated to the remediation of such a request.

The concluding chapter, Chapter 8, brings together the arguments offered in the previous empirical chapters, in light of the theoretical framework proposed in Chapter 2. To this end, Applegate puts the biographical vignettes in conversation with each other: the conclusion is that izbrisani as individuals share little among their stories other than the fact of being erased; although their agency varies, the common aspect remains that of living in a place of exception as a demonstration of State power. According to Applegate, the logic of the Erasing is the creation of a space outside of normal political space, a space occupied by the Erased. The innovation lies in the fact that, through the Erasing, the State achieves the political outcome of killing without the political problem of killing. Furthermore, Applegate illustrates an extended theoretical perspective on what becoming Erased and its aftermath means beyond Slovenia: as a historic event, the Erasing demonstrates both the innovative nature of State Power, but also a diminished capacity. Slovenia’s pattern of subsuming itself to larger governance structures, such as the EU, gives testament to its diminished capacity. The accession to the EU, an alliance of nation-states, required Slovenia to undertake measures – the Erasing – to show that it was a nation-state without exposing it to the risk of being removed from consideration by the EU (pp.221-227). In this respect, Applegate underlines that the complex spatial regime represented by the izbrisani has the potential to impact others in different parts of the world and, as such, is not unique to Slovenia.

In Applegate’s dissertation, the State emerges as innovative and able to change itself to project its power and protect its authority despite larger forces arrayed against it in a globalized world (p.230). At the same time, the examination of the izbrisani through the theoretical framework demonstrates that the state of exception is not the end of exclusion, as it has a paradoxical exception itself: becoming erased is becoming complete; becoming complete is the process of relating oneself back to power and authority from outside of political space of the State (p.231). Undoubtedly, this dissertation is a breakthrough among the quite recent publications on the Erasing and on being Erased. With his dissertation, Applegate contributes to bridging existing gaps on the Erasing (e.g., the lack of a serious accounting of demographic data on the Erased and of a thorough historical account of what happened). In addition to that, the dissertation provides a thorough explanation to the failure of the remediation of the Erasing. Applegate’s work sheds light on the ontological process of Erasing and being Erased and on its triple-dimension, i.e., geographical, social, and human through a critical approach to theoretical perspectives on the state of exception (Giorgio Agamben), the pastoral power (Michel Foucault), the incomplete relationships (Saskia Sassen), and the social relationship(s) of the State (Bob Jessop). As a book, the dissertation will have a valuable impact in a number of fields including political geography of human rights, social geography, and sociology of space.

Alessandra La Vaccara
PhD Candidate
Department of International Law
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Primary Sources

Archival statistics from Free Clinic for People Without Health Insurance
Biographical interviews with izbrisani (the Erased)
Participatory Action Research through an in situ analysis of the Peace Institute’s work with the Erased
Peace Institute Projects

Dissertation Information

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. 2014. 250 pp. Primary Advisor: Joanna Regulska.

Image: Photo of protest by BoBo.

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