Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Home » Extremists Vie with Politicians to Capitalise on Rightward Shift in Balkans

Extremists Vie with Politicians to Capitalise on Rightward Shift in Balkans

by Prasad Banda
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As elsewhere in the world, major right-of-centre parties have been adopting policies advocated by their rivals further to the right in order to peel away voter support for them.

In the politics of six non-EU Balkan states, this has largely meant more strident nationalist and anti-immigrant electioneering and voices within parliament, and more social conservatism, at the expense for example of measures to protect minorities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people.

But out on the far-right fringes, extremists are still trying to attract people to a range of beliefs such as ethnically pure states that grab territory from neighbours, anti-Semitism, the acceptance of violence, reverence for war criminals from the 1940s and 1990s, or unconditional allegiance to the nation, the leader or God.

To put the spotlight on such groups, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has published a new database looking into extreme-right groups in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. Many potential groups were considered but using strict criteria, demonstrably extreme-right outfits were found only in three of the states.

“The rise of grassroots far-right extremism in the Balkans has been a notable phenomenon in recent years, as fringe ideologies have increasingly gained mainstream attention and support,” concludes a methodology report accompanying the new project.

“Activists and organisations on the extreme right may pose a threat to democratic values and to an already weak social cohesion in the region.”

Broad range of groups

Illustration: Igor Vujicic/BIRN.

These organisations are ultra-nationalist and authoritarian to the extent that they have little regard for a country’s constitutional order or democracy. They are at the far end of the far-right spectrum. Groups officially designated as extreme-right can, for example, be banned in Germany as a threat to democracy, whereas merely radical-right ones cannot.

Seventeen organisations are included on BIRN’s list from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, a snapshot taken in autumn 2023. Just before publication ethnic tensions were escalating in Kosovo leading to four deaths, and a rift was deepening between pro- and anti-Serbian parties in Montenegro.

The groups range from the neo-Nazi Bosnian Movement of National Pride (BPNP) to Serbia’s religion-focused and ultranationalist Obraz Saint Sava Alliance.

Some seem to keep themselves to themselves like the apparently small and largely anonymous Albanian group Brerore, but a worrying trend has been the growth of malign influence from outside the region.

Serbia’s Zentropa is the local arm of a far-right network spanning various European countries, from Ukraine to France.

Bosnia’s Grey Wolves are an offshoot of an ultranationalist Turkish group active in several countries and banned in France. It sees Bosnia as part of the “Turkish World”.

In Serbia and beyond, some extreme-right groups idolise Russia, seeing it as the great Slavic saviour which is championing opposition to the decadent West. They revere President Vladimir Putin, who has been accused by some of trying to interfere in politics in the region, and support his invasion of Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, other extremist Balkan groups hostile to Serbs have in turn voiced strong support for Kyiv.

Many Balkan extremists dream of an ethnically pure nation such as a Greater Serbia or Greater Albania that would mean taking territory from their neighbours.

Unsurprisingly for a region whose recent history has been marked by ethnic conflict, it is highly nationalistic views and hatred towards the group next door that characterise many of the extreme-right groups here.

In several cases, religious differences are a key element.

Also unsurprising perhaps is the fact that many groups were overwhelmingly male and some had strongly patriarchal and at times misogynistic views, opposing abortion and openly targeting women, such as prominent actresses, journalists, activists or politicians.

Passing the extremism test

Ilustration: BIRN

BIRN engaged two academics who are experts on the region’s far-right scene to develop a comprehensive methodology for researchers to determine if a group could be proven to be extreme-right and thus eligible to be included on the list.

The threshold for evidence is high. Groups must have made a public display of the core extremist traits of authoritarianism and nativism (ethnic chauvinism that demonises a perceived enemy) and at least one other, such as being anti-Muslim, anti-Roma or supporting vigilantism or a desire to deny historical facts that don’t suit a specific world view (revisionism), or railing against the perceived decadence of modern Western society.

They had to be an organisation, rather than just one person, and to have been visibly extremist within the last four years, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, itself a catalyst for a proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation by the extreme right.

An earlier version of this project was published a year ago, tracking not just the extreme right but the broader far right as a whole.

After several complaints from people named in it, BIRN decided to withdraw that map and launch an independent review, which has led to this new database.

The new list ensures readers do not confuse extreme-right groups with those who are on the broader far-right or simply use far-right narratives but not deemed to be essentially anti-democratic.

However, extreme rhetoric – such as historical revisionism, genocide denial and demographic purity – is used more widely by other organisations not considered extreme right. In fragile post-conflict societies such language can serve to incite violence and the new map captures only a fragment of society where such narratives thrive.

Clubs, coffee shops and gyms – today’s recruiting grounds

Illustration: Igor Vujicic/BIRN.

Researchers for the project found that rightwing extremists were being innovative in the forums they used to try and recruit people to their cause.

Some used social or cultural clubs (like Belgrade’s 451 club), some – such as Serbia’s Levijatan – promote themselves as animal-rights activists, while actually targeting Roma and refugees, and others highlight environmentalism or humanitarian welfare work, while pushing a far-right message.

“Extreme-right gateways can be found in various and perhaps unexpected cultural spaces, such as ‘right’ coffee shops, folk, pop and rock music scenes, clothing brands, and sports and fitness clubs,” the experts wrote in their methodology report for BIRN.

Schools and universities, social media platforms, clubs, soccer stadiums or other places and spaces can all serve as gateways to extremism.

Football fan groups and bikers are also a favourite target for far-right activists.

However, to be on the list, any groups in these areas have to be rightwing extremists first and foremost.

A huge amount of propaganda and recruiting effort is these days online of course, and far-right groups are skilled at using social media tools, like the catchy cultural items known as memes, such as images, videos and GIFs, that can spread virally.

According to the experts, memes, in particular, play a significant role in the far-right’s digital visual culture.

“Memes, often containing humour, violent and dehumanising rhetoric, serve as vehicles for legitimising political violence and evoking negative emotions that can fuel motivations for violent actions.”

In some countries like Kosovo, North Macedonia or Montenegro, no groups met all the conditions for inclusion. Some groups ticked some of the boxes, but none ticked them all clearly enough for this snapshot.

Some groups wear their extremism with pride and operate despite being banned.

But others are far more careful what they say in public, knowing that prosecutors or state security services are monitoring them and could push for them to be broken up.

Laws against rightwing and other forms of extremism vary across the region – as does the robustness, and even-handedness, with which they are enforced.

Source : BalkanInsight

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