Right-wing extremism – and even terrorism – can exist and flourish without political participation and the success of radical right-wing parties, yet it cannot exist without the unchallenged xenophobic and populist sentiments of the public.
By Vladimir Ninković
For two consecutive days, public opinion in Serbia was stirred by the decisions of two very different courts. First, on 15th November, the Constitutional Court in Belgrade rejected a request to ban two far right-wing organizations – Srpski Narodni Pokret (SNP) 1389 and Nasi. The following day, the Hague acquitted Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač for alleged war crimes committed during Operation Flash and Operation Storm in 1995, which triggered a mass exodus of Serbs from Krajina and ethnic engineering of the Croatian state.
With the exception of a short ‘honeymoon’ after 5th of October 2000, Serbian public opinion has been increasingly hostile towards the ‘West’ since 1999, additionally fuelled by the recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008. The Hague Tribunal has contributed to ever growing hostility through its acquittal of war crimes committed by non-Serbs. In particular, anti-Western sentiments – as well as conservative, radical and extreme-right ideas – are considerably strong among the sizeable number of Serbian refugees from Croatia and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) from Kosovo.
Since the start of the economic crisis, far right movements and parties have been getting increasingly popular in almost all liberal democracies across Europe. In Serbia, aside from blunt nationalism and occasional chauvinism, those organizations have the image of having “clean hands” and independent from much-maligned ‘tycoons’ and foreign influences.
As Wilhelm Heitmeyer argued, right-wing extremism is more likely to flourish and pose a threat to those societies that are going through a period of ‘transition’ and/or societies possessing a “basic stock of equipment” in the form of conspiracy theories, a weapons scene, religious groups plying their views and social deprivation. One of the theses has been that the West is waging an incessant psychological war against Serbia, for which one of the proofs were the sentences and perceived bias of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
At the last elections, there were some radical changes with the Serbian far right scene. The relative electoral success of Dveri – which secured 4.34% of the vote in its first elections – was based upon the fight against ‘tycoons’ and unfair privatization (which Dveri asserting itself as a clean pair of hands), as well as a pro-Russian (equalling anti-EU) and pro-clerical stance. The Serbian Radical Party (SRS) – following its split that led to the establishment of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), now Serbia’s largest political party – stuck to their secularist nationalism and anti-globalism; yet for the first time in their history didn’t pass the threshold to enter parliament.
‘Naši’, meanwhile, participated at the local elections and were reasonably successful; they now form part of a governing coalition in the municipality of Arandjelovac. A little more than a week ago they published a list of NGOs and other actors perceived as traitors and puppets of the West, requesting that the Constitutional Court ban these organizations.
Soon afterwards, the State Prosecutor’s Office submitted a request for Naši and SNP 1389 to be banned, which the Constitutional Court rejected on 15th November. Even though these organizations can undoubtedly be classified as far-right, the Court’s decision is sensible and can be beneficial. From the liberal point of view, banning radical organizations is unjustified, and fighting extremism with extremism (i.e. bans and censorship) should be discouraged whenever possible. Although these movements have in their programs many questionable, and arguably wrong, illiberal and detrimental ideas and attitudes, there is a clear distinction between them and organized violent Neo Nazi groups such as Nacionalni Stroj, Blood and Honour etc. Far-right does not equal Nazi, especially in countries like Serbia, where extremist ideas have a somewhat different genesis.
Studies have shown that violence by extreme right-wing groups is more likely when there are no representatives of such political options at the ballot box – or in other channelling mechanisms – on a state, regional or local level. Right-wing extremism – and even terrorism – can exist and flourish without political participation and the success of radical right-wing parties and movements, but it cannot exist without the xenophobic and populist sentiments of the general public. Political marginalization of the radical right gives very unpredictable results. Often, it can lead to the further radicalization, which can be manifested in acts such as threats and assassination attempts.
On the other hand, the ICTY’s controversial decision might play into the hands of extreme nationalists in both Serbia and Croatia. The expected acquittal of Ramus Haradinaj will bring only more headaches to Serbia’s leaders. Anti-EU opinion can be expected to grow in the short to medium term, whilst relations between Serbia and Croatia are likely to deteriorate. The explosion of nationalist pride and triumphalism in Croatia triggered by the acquittal of the Generals did not bypass even that strata of Croatian society – politicians, NGO activists, writers and intellectuals – who were perceived to be strictly fenced-off from the politics of the Tudjman regime in the nineties; including Ivo Josipovic, Croatia’s president, Vesna Pusic, the foreign minister, and Vedrana Rudan, a feminist writer, to mention but a few. It is hard to imagine that any serious inquiries into war crimes and ethnic cleansing committed by Croatia during the war will now follow.
However, it seems that the newly-elected conservative government has enough nationalistic credit to entice most of the rightist sentiments, without allowing extremist groups to achieve additional popularity. A bunker mentality and the idea of isolationism may become more prominent in political life, but it seems unlikely that the acquittal will cause violence, or at least not increase its frequency. However, ideas and discourses deeply-entrenched in romantic traditionalism, clericalism, conspiracy theories, anti-modern and anti-Western sentiments may further enter the political mainstream.
The role of the media cannot be underestimated in this regard, as they hold the key to confronting extremist and populist sentiments. Unfortunately, the most popular outlets have often been too emotional; only serving to deepen the current indignation. Each new tabloid that appears carries more desperate and negative views of the situation in the country – as well as Serbia’s position in the world – expressed in a language that occasionally constitutes hate speech. Instances of hate speech, conspiracy theories, racism and anti-Semitism in the media, as well as a lack of accountability for spreading false rumours, should be condemned in every possible way, as they provide one of the most damaging sources of extremist sentiment in Serbia.
Vladimir Ninković is a project officer for security at TransConflict Serbia.