Jasna Gabric, Mayor of Trbovlje, Slovenia, since 2014
Essays by World Mayor finalists

In a series of personal essays, the finalists for the 2018 World Mayor Prize describe the reasons that motivated them to enter politics, the challenges they face as mayors and how they envisage their towns and cities to develop and prosper in the future. They stress the importance of women in politics and urge young women to always aim high.

In her essay, Jasna Gabric Mayor of Trbovlje, Slovenia, since 2014, writes that she is old enough to remember the break-up of Yugoslavia and the wars that were fought in the region during the 1990s. The Mayor describes the loss of cultural and economic exchanges as well as the lost promise of a better future for entire generations. “Therefore, I make it my vision and every day goal to add my part to that promise of a better future in my city, in my country, in the wider EU and particularly in the region of the Western Balkans,” the Mayor writes. Mayor Gabric also speaks of her initial difficulties in entering politics as a women. “As a woman, I was unable to enter politics earlier, because the older men who were in power underestimated my abilities.”

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Essay by Jasna Gabric
Mayor of Trbovlje, Slovenia

My entry into politics
Becoming a politician was absolutely not part of my plans. I considered it an unstable and difficult role since, in these days, many people are particularly distrustful of politicians. It was in fact purely by chance that I landed in politics.

I worked for a radio station as moderator and part of my job was to moderate local events. I guess I became a known face in the town, and one day a lady approached me and proposed me to stand as a candidate for the municipal council. After some reflection, I accepted her offer and I was elected to the municipal council of Trbovlje in 2010. I quickly realized that once you start engaging in local issues that are important to people, it becomes a call that just drags you in. And so, in 2012, I became deputy mayor. But that only increased my ambition to change things for the better and in 2014, I ran with my own list and was successfully elected mayor. Back in 2014, almost nobody believed that in the old mining town of Trbovlje, a woman could win the elections, especially at the age of 29 and without a party backing her.

I must admit that in the beginning it was extremely challenging. Mostly because those who were sceptical of me as a young woman heading their town had already spread falsehoods about me as a person and as a professional and thus tried to undermine my work. In the municipal administration, the situation was no better: the administrative efficiency of the organization I inherited was really low. Therefore, my first goal was that of building values within the local administration. I started purposefully placing success, professionalism and fairness in the spotlight.

In the municipality, the major challenges I identified were: high unemployment (22 %), tense relationships between people, absolute pessimism, and bad reputation of the municipality both within and outside its borders as a grey and unpromising valley. How do you deal with this? How do you first convince people living in your city that Trbovlje can be among the successful municipalities and that this can only depend on them?

My team and I worked hard for the first two years, disregarding pessimists and baseless criticism, and only focusing on our work and results. After this initial period, when the results of our work were increasingly visible and unemployment began to fall, people began to become optimistic.

The city started changing its image, we cleaned it up and it immediately started looking more orderly. The most visible achievement was the improvement of the road infrastructure, implemented with the help of EU funds; we also laid the first meters of a bicycle lane, which was long said to be impossible to build in a narrow valley such as ours. Through a very business-friendly approach, we achieved an incredible fall in the unemployment rate that dropped to 13 per cent.

The biggest challenges ahead
I would not run again if my work was finished. The biggest challenges for the next period ahead lie in three main areas:

• Local economy; lowering the unemployment rate below 10 per cent, revival of the industrial zone, establishing the Zasavje business incubator.

• Connecting Trbovlje to the national motorway network; cities with good traffic connections develop faster. The city of Trbovlje does not have a fast link to the motorway network, which is why it is essential to build a 2 km tunnel and also a city bypass. It is a project that has been discussed for the past 30 years. However, unfortunately not much has been done in the past to implement this project. In my first mandate however, we took historic steps in this direction. We signed an agreement between three municipalities to cooperate in this project and the State has also recognized it as a priority for the region.

• Environment and clean air; the municipality of Trbovlje is one of the areas in Slovenia that has problems in expelling the air particulates in excess of the permitted limits. The bad air quality is mostly due to traffic and individual households still using hard fuels for heating. Without aid and cooperation with the national level, we cannot solve this problem alone. In terms of sustainable development, we have put in place projects that aim at making our city more friendly for cyclists, with the objective of reducing considerably the use of cars.

The role of women in politics
It is perhaps a cliché, but even in Slovenia, which is traditionally not the most conservative country, women often struggle to take up leading roles in society. As a woman, you are required to work twice as hard to see your work being recognized. This is because there is a persistent mentality in our society that does not see politics as a domain for women.

As a woman, I was unable to enter politics earlier, because the older men who were in power underestimated my abilities. Politics, but especially local politics, are still a man's playing field, and the combination of me being a woman and young represented a challenging mix for entering this environment. Even some voters expressed doubts about what a young woman could do and achieve in politics - regardless of whether she was right for the post.

International cooperation and tolerance
During the most prosperous decades of our mining and industrial past, our municipality became home to workers from all across former Yugoslavia. They brought their families along with them. As a result of this influx, new building complexes were built to create homes for these newcomers. However, many years later, their second and third-generation descendants still live in these blocks. Despite being born in Trbovlje, they did not always manage to integrate well and even today they speak their own language and feel marginalized in their own environment. As a mayor, I set the objective to revive also these neighbourhoods. I visit all parts of my city regularly, and whenever we select projects for implementation, we always make sure that all areas of the city are covered. Under no circumstances will I allow any divisions.

But I also do not want all these cultures to get lost in Trbovlje, as I strongly believe that they enrich our city and give everyone a sense of purpose and identity. In the past, our municipality used to have established contacts with a twin town in Serbia and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (hereinafter "FYROM"). Due to the war, these links were broken. After almost 30 years we revived exchanges of students and children with the intention of bringing a new dimension to our youth, to see what life and growing up looks like in different countries, and to teach them tolerance and openness for difference. We also continue cooperation with our twin city of Sallaumines in France.

Beyond Trbovlje
Along with my activities as a mayor, I also took up a variety of other engagements. My work in the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) is tightly linked to all of the above. What I achieved at home should be possible anywhere. My focus is on the Western Balkans and I chair the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) between the CoR and local and regional representatives from FYROM. This is my opportunity to spread the ambition in the neighbouring region, of both the EU, but particularly of my country - to display with an example that young politicians, and young women, can and must take leadership in solving today's challenges of our communities and not sit idly while the old established class lead by inertia.

The JCC has become a platform for me to influence with my story other aspiring politicians of my generation, to show them that the concrete successes close to people's homes, jobs and their heart can be so much more fulfilling than the "fame and glory" of national politics. And to tell them it is possible, it is necessary and it is inevitable that they get engaged and do their utmost to help create prosperity, establish cohesive communities and promote tolerance and equal opportunities in their home towns.

I am not doing this just because I believe it is a duty of every European politician to encourage their counterparts in the candidate countries and in our neighbourhood to foster progress. I am doing it because I believe stability and prosperous societies in the republics of former Yugoslavia, which used to be our common home, are in the interest of the entire EU, in our national interest and in the interest of my town! I am old enough to remember the years of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Croatia, and the troubles in Kosovo. I know what effect this has had on the entire region, and I am not only talking about the refugees we welcomed in the nineties, but the lost connections between people, the lost cultural and economic exchange, the lost opportunities, and the worst of all, the lost promise of a better future for entire generations.

Therefore, I make it my vision and every day goal to add my part to that promise of a better future in my city, in my country, in the wider EU and particularly in the region of the Western Balkans.

In November 2018, among seven candidates, I was once again elected mayor, with an unprecedented majority. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment but also an incredible feeling of duty and responsibility to continue on the set course.

The Municipality of Trbovlje received in 2017 the prize for the safest city in Slovenia, which is a result of the good work of the municipality jointly with the competent services in the area of prevention. We received the title Volunteer-friendly municipality for effectively promoting volunteering as one of the key social fibers in our communities. We also obtained a certificate for being a Youth-friendly municipality thanks to all the projects dedicated to our youth. We work hard every day to ensure that these are not only awards hanging on the wall in our offices, but that the citizens of Trbovlje feel the benefits of the work behind these awards.

In times, when nationalism and xenophobia are increasingly challenging democratic norms and principles, mayors play a massive role in helping shape vibrant, safe and inclusive neighbourhoods, which in turn provide the setting for tolerant, connected and happy communities. Female mayors can contribute to this goal just as much as their male counterparts, and I am proud that my citizens have twice given me the opportunity to demonstrate this, and in doing so recognise how much we have achieved together. If what we have done in Trbovlje inspires other women to take up the challenge in municipalities small and large, anywhere in the world, and demonstrate how they too can make a positive difference to people's lives, then the difficulties and obstacles I encountered in my early political career will have definitely been well worth the effort.