SLOVAK ANTI-FASCISTS DIVIDED OVER HOW TO FIGHT EXTREMISM
Play nice or get tough? That is a question vexing activists in Slovakia alarmed at growing support for far-right extremism.
Progressive politicians are on a winning streak in Slovakia, triumphing in recent presidential and EU elections. But such victories belie a groundswell of support for far-right extremists, especially among disenchanted rural voters.
In a country where a party known for its neo-Nazi leanings has more than a dozen seats in parliament, anti-fascist activists take their job seriously. But they are deeply divided on strategy.
In one camp are those who take the battle to the streets, organising noisy protests and engaging in direct action. This is the traditional “Antifa” model favoured by more militant campaigners.
In the other camp are those who prefer to seek long-term solutions to the smouldering resentments that fuel far-right extremism in the first place. By playing “nice”, they hope to starve fascism of the oxygen it needs to combust.
“Being nice is overrated,” said Michal Riecansky, an Antifa member who organises “the Uprising Continues”, an annual anti-fascist festival in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. “They are not nice, so why should we be?“
“I think that decency is the only way to fight this,” counters Martina Strmenova, coordinator of “Not in Our Town”, an informal anti-fascist movement in Slovakia’s central Banska Bystrica region.
It is a debate that ignites passions and threatens to weaken Slovakia’s anti-fascist movement just as the far right gets more sophisticated in reaching out to people across the country.
In 2013, Slovakia gained international notoriety when far-right politician Marian Kotleba pulled off a shock victory in regional elections to become Banska Bystrica governor.
Though he was defeated as governor four years later, members of his radical People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) went on to enter parliament in 2016, winning 14 seats in the150-seat assembly (they now have 13).
Kotleba ran for president earlier this year, losing to progressive newcomer Zuzana Caputova but nabbing just over 10 per cent of the vote. In elections for European Parliament in May, 12 per cent of voters opted for LSNS.
A former schoolteacher, Kotleba was known for marching through Slovak towns and villages in a black uniform sporting symbols inspired by the country’s wartime Nazi puppet state.
After becoming governor, he took down the EU flag from the governor’s building, calling it an “occupying blue rag”. On the anniversary of the launch of a Slovak resistance movement that fought fascism during World War II, he put up a black flag instead.
Demonstrators take part in an Antifa protest dubbed “You can’t be louder than anti-fascism” in Bratislava in April 2019. Photo: Miroslava Germanova
“We have a lot to be afraid of, yes,” said Stanislav Micev, a historian in the city of Banska Bystrica and director of the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising (SNP), which commemorates the wartime insurrection against Nazi troops and the Slovak quisling state.
Ironically, the uprising started in the very region where Kotleba was elected decades later.
“Sometimes we feel like lonely soldiers in the field,” Micev said, explaining that state efforts to fight extremism are often more theoretical than practical.
“I’m not sure how many committees there are to fight extremism. I myself am a member of at least three or four, but everything we agree on stays there, on paper.”
Slovakia’s wartime record still polarises opinion.
The country was a collaborationist satellite state of Nazi Germany led by Slovak arch-nationalist Josef Tiso, whose regime sent thousands of Jews to their death in the Holocaust.
But many take pride in the SNP insurrection that saw a “partisan” people’s army rise up from August 29, 1944 — a date still commemorated in national celebrations.
Kotleba prefers to celebrate a different date: March 14, the anniversary of the creation of Tiso’s fascist Slovak State in 1939.
Despite recent gains for progressives in Slovakia, LSNS support is growing, hitting 12-14 per cent, according to the most recent polls ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
“I think that in Slovakia, we are still only coming to terms with the extent of how far this has gone,“ said Not in Our Town coordinator Strmenova.
“Kotleba has long been considered to be a Banska Bystrica problem. Now people realise he’s actually a problem of the whole country. His support is growing and I’m not sure we have found the right way to fight it yet.”
Sometimes we feel like lonely soldiers in the field.Historian Stanislav Micev
Not In Our Town was created by a group of activists in Banska Bystrica who wanted to defuse extremism while promoting democracy and human rights.
They were inspired by a movement from the US town of Billings in Montana state, where locals united under the slogan “not in our town” to fight against attacks on minorities by white supremacists.
And long before a return to “decency” became a nationwide rallying cry in the wake of the murder last year of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, the Banska Bystrica activists decided the best way to fight fascism was by offering positive alternatives.
No shouting, no violence, no more hate.
Instead, they acted as a watchdog to keep tabs on Kotleba’s administration. They organised debates to raise awareness of rising extremism.
“I’ve been learning so much about the psychology of extremism, about how some activities work and others don’t,” Strmenova said. “It’s very important to find a balance between the ‘noisy’ activities that are visible and the ones that people don’t see but that actually make a difference.”
In her view, “protests in themselves won’t decrease the level of radicalisation”.
Not in Our Town created an educational programme called Schools for Democracy to try to fill gaps in civic education and prevent radicalisation among students.
In an unprecedented move, they also set up a special committee at the mayor’s office, working with local police, authorities, teachers and experts to tackle extremism in all its nuances.
LSNS leader Marian Kotleba (right) in 2016. Photo: EPA/Jakub Gavlak
It is an approach that contrasts sharply with that of Antifa, which organised a raucous protest when leaders of far-right European parties met in Bratislava ahead of EU elections in May.
Under the banner “You can’t be louder than anti-fascism”, the activists threw a techno party with extremely loud music.
When Boris Kollar, leader of anti-immigrant party We Are Family and host of the meeting of far-right leaders, came out to offer the protesters croissants, some activists took it as provocation and started throwing pastry at the politicians.
For Riecansky of the Uprising Continues, throwing croissants or milkshakes (a favourite projectile of anti-Brexit protesters in Britain) is a harmless — though symbolic — act.
“These people don‘t have my respect,” he said. “I can’t shake hands with them. For me, they are not partners for any discussion.”
These people don‘t have my respect … For me, they are not partners for any discussion.Antifa member Michal Riecansky
However, the croissant incident sparked online debate among activists over the limits of direct action.
“Antifa is important,” said Not in Our Town’s Strmenova. “Sometimes you need to shout too. It’s a representation of how people feel. But from a strategic point of view, it won’t work.”
However much they may disagree on strategy, activists concur that raising awareness of the problem is only the first step.
“It’s very important to talk to people about things they worry about,“ Riecansky said. “Our agenda goes way beyond croissants.”
He added that much of LSNS’ appeal comes from appearing to care about community-level problems. He said party members make a point of going to far-flung regions where locals feel forgotten. They help with flood relief and meet with people in churches.
“That’s much more dangerous than marching around with a swastika,“ he said.
Museum of the Slovak National Uprising in Banska Bystrica. Photo: Miroslava Germanova
Suits and ties
While anti-fascists debate tactics, analysts say the government and opposition parties are doing too little to offer voters a clear alternative to extremism.
“I think that all parties, including the new ones, are failing in their fight against the far right,“ said Tomas Nociar, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava.
He added that some mainstream politicians have given Kotleba legitimacy by adopting his rhetoric against migrants, non-governmental organisations or US financier George Soros, the subject of many far-right conspiracy theories.
But he said the problem goes much deeper.
“There is also a second fundamental agenda that the far-right parties are using: populism,“ Nociar said, explaining that Kotleba has artfully connected anger over corrupt “elites” with fear of immigration.
If Kotleba became violent, he’d lose his voters.‘Not in Our Town’ coordinator Martina Strmenova
Meanwhile, other parties lack strong social programmes and are seen to focus too much on the upper-middle class, he said.
“This has cleared the path for the far right and for voters who no longer feel represented by the parties they voted for before.”
Another challenge is Kotleba’s success in coming across as respectable, activists say.
While right-wing extremism in other countries is often associated with violence, they say Slovakia’s far-right extremists are careful not to appear too thuggish.
“If Kotleba became violent, he’d lose his voters,” Strmenova said. “I think he understands very well that he needs to stay reserved if he wants to get to power.”
Kotleba himself has traded in his black uniform for a suit and tie, though he still sends subtle messages through Nazi symbols and praise for fascist regimes, she added.
“Kotleba’s voters see a different person than we do. Their Kotleba is OK.”