By Linda Karadaku
Extremism “constitutes both a cause and a consequence of conflict; deepening mistrust within and between communities, and often contributing to outbreaks of violence and acts of terrorism,” according to TransConflict, a training centre for conflict management.
Ian Bancroft, the co-founder and executive director of TransConflict, told SETimes that extremism — particularly its violent manifestations — challenges ethnic relationships in the Western Balkans.
“The persistence of poverty, the marginalisation — whether perceived or real — of certain groups, and the deficiencies of post-war efforts at dealing with past have hardened divisions between communities,” Bancroft said.
The list of extremist organisations in the region is not small.
In Macedonia, the Hristianska Organizacija (Christian Organisation) became part of the recent tensions through a video they posted on the internet this month, in which masked men were shown burning Albanian flags and chanting anti-Albanian slogans.
Professor Stevo Pendarovski, of American College University in Skopje, said that in the post-communism era, the Balkans has experienced serious problems with the “homegrown” extremists who fight for local causes.
“[The] dissolution of the former Yugoslavia has practically archived old extremists; all of them have been deeply embedded into the respective national liberation movements,” Pendarovski told SETimes.
He said that many old radicals have merged into the system. “Macedonia has made a unique achievement: thousands of former extremists have been entirely absorbed by political institutions and state bureaucracy. Now they are not interested in being down in the streets or up in the mountains,” he said.
“Recycling” extremists into the political arena has been successful. “In 2001, they were trying to undermine the state; today they are sustaining it. All in all, many old extremists from the former Yugoslavia have earned respect at least among their ethnic kin. New ones are miles away from that point,” Pendarovski said.
In Serbia, two extremist organisations — Obraz and SNP 1389 — have also taken to the internet.
Vladimir Ninkovic, a project officer for TransConflict Serbia, says that the extremist groups in the Balkans are motivated primarily by nationalistic causes.
“The internet is a very fertile ground for popularising extremist ideas, recruiting new members, establishing connections between — and brainstorming with — similar organisations from all around the world, as well for fighting ‘cyber wars’ with their counterparts from the region,” Ninkovic told SETimes.
While there is a fear that the growing popularity of relatively new organisations — such as Obraz, Nasi, 1389, and Dveri — is alarming, “the influence of such groups is not very high. But the level of organisation they’ve demonstrated means that they cannot be ignored,” Ninkovic said.
“The arrival of Wahhabism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Raska/Sandzak region, Kosovo and Macedonia, however, poses new challenges to the region: one that is of great concern to many Western European countries,” Ninkovic said.
Pendarovski said that a number of new extremists are still there, but are “capable only of semi-professional individual acts — like the recent attack on US Embassy in Sarajevo”.
But the Wahhabis are not the only group causing fear.
A new Albanian group has also appeared on the scene, saying it will “protect” northern Kosovo. The so-called Army for the Liberation of occupied territories Albania (AÇTOSH) issued a communiqué last year that was published in the media of different countries, saying that “in particular, Kosovo is threatened by the formation of a ‘Republika Srpska’ on Albanian territory.”
Ninkovic said that what is particularly worrying is that many young people have participated in acts of extremism.
“In many respects, governments have not taken a firm stance towards such incidents, which can only encourage perpetrators. Young people also remain more vulnerable to manipulation and conspiracy theories that offer simplistic ‘explanations’ for why they are comparatively disadvantaged,” he explained.
Bancroft said that while the influence of extremist groups themselves may be limited, their rising membership suggests a shift in attitudes among electorates across the region; a shift that political parties will not be able to ignore.
“Extremism is a phenomena that requires co-operation between law enforcement and intelligence agencies — not only throughout the region, but with their counterparts in the EU and internationally,” he said.