Excluded from the mainstream media, whose content is more heavily policed, the purveyors of extreme ideologies are spreading their messages of fear and hatred on social networks.
By Marija Ristic, Sven Milekic, Maja Zivanovic and Denis Dzidic*
Largely underrepresented in the traditional media, far-right groups in the Balkans have increasingly turned to the Internet to get their extreme message across.
More than 60 websites in the region can be found promoting the idea of ethnically pure nation states, neo-Nazism, violent homophobia and other radical right-wing policies.
In Croatia, Frano Cirko, 27-year-old leader of the far-right Generation of Renovation party, told BIRN that movements like his have realised they need to up their game on social media if they want to attract followers.
“We focus on the younger voters and the bulk of our marketing and public relations is put through the Internet,” he said.
Cirko says it is it hard to attract voters through traditional techniques such as door-to-door lobbying or public rallies. The net is cheaper, simpler, safer yet also more effective.
Cirko is also trying to multiply his impact by using different channels. Besides running a party, he runs a news website. The idea is for the website to spawn an NGO that advocates a mishmash of cultural issues as well as far-right political views.
Born at the very beginning of the conflict that resulted in Croatia’s war for independence from Yugoslavia, like many others from his generation, he leans towards ideas that are even more radical than those who split up the former Yugoslavia.
He has become known abroad after appearing in a French-German documentary, Rechts, Zwei, Drei where he was described as espousing fascist ideas, though dismisses the label.
“We pay no attention to the stigmas and labels we receive … we are not a group of fools that gather and behave like football supporters,” Cirko told BIRN, adding that the “fascist” label is applied too easily.
In terms of policy, he supports traditional marriage, outlawing abortion and the independence of Croats in neighbouring Bosnia. More controversially, he and his supporters often wave the flag of Croatia’s wartime fascist Ustasa movement.
While only few years ago such groups would have been widely reviled, in today’s more populist atmosphere, such views are now more mainstream across the Balkans and correspondent to the similar populist movements across the world, such as alt-right from the United States or far-rights in Europe.
Old and new far-right groups share ideas
Generation of Renovation was not the first political party Cirko has joined.
Since 2008 he has also been involved in Croatian Pure Party of Rights, HCSP, the only far-right party that has managed to join the mainstream in Croatian politics and whose members are councillors in local municipalities.
Every year, the party unashamedly celebrates April 10th, the day in 1941 the Ustasa-led fascist state was established in Croatia under Aix power auspices.
HCSP members are often prominent in protests against gay pride rallies and in attacking the memory of the Ustasa-run concentration camp at Jasenovac.
Besides the old HCSP and the new Generation of Renovation, other far-right groups operate in Croatia, mostly united by admiration for the old Ustasa movement as well as opposing abortion, homosexuality and the Serbian minority. “Kill the Serbs” is a common chant.
Ironically, far-right groups feel they and their values are the ones under attack.
Drazen Keleminec, leader of the marginal far-right Autochthonous Croatian Party of Right, A-HSP, which uses the Ustasa slogan “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Homeland”) told BIRN that Croatia was the victim of “internal aggression”, designed to portray all Croats as “fascists, Nazis, Ustasa-led and genocidal”.
Keleminec insists that “Za dom spremni” is not a Fascist chant but a traditional Croatian greeting.
He also defends the Ustasa movement of the 1940s in whose camp at Jasenovac more than 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists were killed, as a natural reaction to the oppression Croats suffered in the Serb-run Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
“Are we causing unrest in Croatia? Are we attacking anyone, are we attacking minorities?” he asked. “This is a democracy, not a totalitarian system anymore,” Keleminec added.
The most prominent voice of the far right on TV in Croatia is that of TV host Velimir Bujanec whose show, Bujica, airs on several local TV stations.
Despite his extreme views, he has hosted everyone on his show from rigid far-rightists to President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic in 2014, during her successful campaign for the presidential election.
But far-right views in Croatia are most openly shared online, where the state barely regulates the conversations and calls are openly made for violence. According to some surveys, at least 10 000 users in Croatia at least once posted Ustasa related content on Facebook.
Far-right websites flourish in Serbia:
Srpska.tv in February, uploaded a video about a mural being painted in memory of Mihail Tolstij Givi, the killed commander of Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine
The situation is similar in Serbia, where more than 30 websites in Serbian promote extreme right-wing nationalist views.
Typically, these deny or denounce the independence of Kosovo, demand the union of all Serbian people in one state, denounce the EU and champion Christian Orthodox Russia.
Most of them strongly support Russia’s war in Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea.
Srpska.tv in February, for example, uploaded a video about a mural being painted in memory of Mihail Tolstij Givi, the killed commander of Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, by activists from so-called “patriotic” groups such as the Serbian League, and Serbian People’s Movement 1389.
The leader of the Serbian League, Aleksandar Djurdjev, and a private company Feedback Consulting & New Media Production, which is connected to him registered Srpska.tv portal on January 25 this year. In July 2016, he also registered another outlet, poredak.rs.
Most far-right parties in Serbia acting under the umbrella of the so-called Patriotic bloc.
Djurdjev said the traditional print media focus too much on issues like the EU, claiming that Serbia has “no alternative” to membership and giving no space to other views.
“The internet as a multimedia media, with all its possibilities, has become our dominant channel of communication,” he said.
Djurdjev said the Serbian League makes good use of social networks, portals and e-newspapers.
The Internet is also a platform for people wanted by Serbian authorities, like the leader of the neo-Nazi National Machine Goran Davidovic, who along with another member of his group is being tried in absentia in Serbia for initiating national, racial and religious hate and intolerance.
While Davidovic lives in Italy, thanks to the Internet, he is still very much present in Serbia, thanks to his own website and social media profiles.
All agree on wanting a piece of Bosnia
Despite the conflicting nationalist agendas of the far-right groups in Croatia and Serbia, they share a desire for parts of Bosnia and promote the self-determination or independence of the Croats and Serbs in Bosnia, to create a Greater Croatia or Greater Serbia.
Serbian rightists call for the unification of today’s Serbia with Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, and with parts of Croatia that were once dominated by Serbs.
In Bosnia, far-right “Chetnik” groups rely mainly on the Ravna Gora movement, which last year opened an office in the northwestern town of Prijedor.
They are also active online and their webpage has 4,000 daily visits while their overall number of visits is some 3 million.
They have several groups on Facebook but they are mostly closed.
The webpage of Bosnia’s main Ustasha movement is registered in Kassel, Germany, and offers its own history of the wartime Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, a section on “proven Serbian lies” and a list of patriotic songs.
Neo-Ustasha groups in Bosnia are especially active in areas close to the border in Croatia, where ethnic incidents flare between the majority Croat population and Bosniak Muslims.
Bosniaks have their own far-right groups, however. Most are linked with radical Islam. But in recent years new movements have also emerged, such as the Bosnian Movement of National Pride, BPNP, which promotes the identity of Bosniaks but without religious prefix.
They advocate a secular Bosniak state while declaring a broad list of groups, including Jews, Roma, Communists gays and non-whites as enemies of Bosnia.
The moderator of this group’s webpage is a Sarajevan who now lives in Sweden and works under the pseudonym of a former Balkan SS officer.
This page also has a forum, but one can become a part of it only after answering questions.
One of its leaders told BIRN under the condition of anonymity that their goal was to end the international community’s “dictatorship” over Bosnia, prevent Serbs and Croats from seceding and block the interference of Moscow and Istanbul in Bosnia’s affairs.
“I joined the movement when I was 21. I started reading about the history of Bosnia and Bosniaks and saw how much Bosniaks had suffered and how many powers tried to wipe out our people,” he said.
“I wanted to protect our people and the BPNP was the only option as they don’t fear to tell the truth,” he told BIRN.
Links forged with far-rightists in Europe:
Almost all of the organisations promoting far-right or nationalist ideas in the Balkans have links with similar organizations in Europe.
According to the BPNP member that BIRN spoke to, this organization has the strongest ties with organisations in Scandinavia and Ukraine, but he was mysterious about exactly what kind of relations and cooperation they have.
In neighbouring Serbia, far-right parties and movements also have partners in Ukraine, on the other side of the conflict, with the Russians.
In the name of the Orthodox fraternity, some Serbian citizens have even fought on the Russian side in the conflict.
Some of these organisations also have portals registered in Russia.
Other far-right Serbian organizations, like Serbian National Movement 1389, use their websites to promote Facebook groups for groups such as “Poles for Serbian Kosovo”, Slovenské Hnutie Obrody, and Oboz Wielkiej Polski.
1389 says it cooperates with the Union of Poles organization in South America and with far-right organizations from Russia.
Right-wing Croatian parties are believed to have the strongest links with European partners.
In March, the Generation of Renovation took part in a meeting in Hungary that gathered representatives of several rightist parties from Central and Eastern Europe including Hungary’s Jobbik, the Latvian National Alliance, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia and the Bulgarian National Movement, VMRO.
Croatian anti-abortion movements like “In the Name of the Family” and Vigilare are also connected with similar organizations in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, although they deny holding extreme views.
Populist climate boosts far right’s profile:
Bojan Perkov, from the Share Foundation, an NGO dealing with online freedom and monitoring, says the ideology of far-rightists is reaching young people, who usually learn about the world around them through the Internet.
“Bearing in mind that the organizations of the extreme right have almost no access to traditional media, informing interested people through social networks seems like a simple choice,” Perkov said.
He pointed out how groups like the National Serbian Front make plentiful use of social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
Perkov added that the Internet community is characterized by the fact that its members are often gathered around an idea, rather than a place of residence, profession or any other personal characteristic.
He also pointed out how Stormfront forum, one of the most often mentioned Internet forums linking extreme rightists and neo-Nazis, has a special Serbian section.
Elvis Fejzic, from the Sarajevo political science faculty, said the activities of these movements should be carefully monitored.
“The ideas of extreme right-wing movements are dangerous, as they are not institutional actors so it is very hard to control their activities,” he told BIRN.
Fejzic added that these movements had become more popular partly due to the growing economic and social hardship. He said the situation was not dramatic but should be kept under control.
In most Western Balkan countries, extremism on the net ought to be regulated through laws on hate speech and calls for violence. But few cases ever come to court.
Isidora Stakic, from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, told BIRN that the Internet had enabled far-right organizations to connect up more easily, and states lacked the will power to combat these threats.
“States are not implementing laws on hate speech and hate acts,” she said, adding that too often they only react once incidents of violence have occurred.