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Slovakia: Authorities Begin Clipping Wings Of Far-Right – Analysis

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For decades, the fight against far-right extremism in Slovakia has been largely carried out by civil society and the media. Over the past three years, however, the police and prosecution service have charged hundreds of people, including Marian Kotleba, with extremist crimes.

By Miroslava German Sirotnikova

At first glance, the fight against far-right extremism in Slovakia looks alarmingly feeble. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit brought by the prosecutor general to dissolve Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party-Our Slovakia. Earlier this year, Kotleba’s LSNS party, which is described by various experts as neo-fascist or neo-Nazi, gained enough votes in the election to enter parliament for a second time, taking 17 up seats in the 150-seat national assembly. And hate, racism and homophobia have become mainstream, spurred on by disinformation outlets, while voting alongside the fascists in parliament is normalised.

As Jan Orlovsky, director of the Open Society Foundation in Slovakia, who thinks top politicians bear a large part of the responsibility for the rise of extremism in the country, puts it: “If institutions like government, parliament or courts are not sane enough, the public won’t receive the right signals.”

“It would really help if we had at least two to three people, besides President Zuzana Caputova and the ombudswoman, who can lead the way,” he added, saying that officials in previous SMER governments have, instead, opted to pursue populism and polarisation over sensitive topics in society.

Yet the individual, systematic work of law enforcement in Slovakia tells a different story. Ignoring changes in government or political pressure, the National Criminal Agency (NAKA) over the past three years has launched investigations into not just “regular” neo-Nazis spreading hate speech on the internet, but also into the top figures in Slovakia’s neo-Nazi scene, including key members of Kotleba’s party.

Since 2019, at least four LSNS MPs, including Kotleba himself, have been charged with extremist crimes. And this month, a well-known neo-Nazi musician who once ran for office in Kotleba’s party, was charged with disseminating extremist materials.

Criminal reform

While the populist government led by Robert Fico and his SMER-SD promised in 2016 to “build a wall against extremism”, when Kotleba’s party entered parliament that year it was activists and civil society who actually did most of the heavy lifting in the fight.

Behind the scenes, however, Fico’s minister of justice, Lucia Zitnanska, from the Hungarian minority party Most-Hid, passed an important piece of legislation that paved the way for a concrete change in how the country prosecutes extremist crimes. She created a special unit at NAKA, under the auspices of a special prosecutor and special court, to look into extremist crimes, uniting under one roof hate crime investigations which until then had been scattered across the legal system and consequently often never went anywhere.

And in recent years, this relatively small, but significant reform has borne fruit.

On August 11, NAKA carried out raids and arrested nine people, accusing them of forming an organised group to disseminate extremist materials. “The charged parties are accused of producing music albums with extremist topics,” the Slovak Police Force (SPF) said in a statement following the raids.

Among those arrested, one name stood out – Rastislav Rogel, the well-known singer of a neo-Nazi band called Kratky proces (Short process), who ran in the 2016 parliamentary elections for Kotleba’s LSNS under the symbolic number 44. According to experts, the code is used by neo-Nazis as a reference to the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler”. H is the eighth number in the alphabet, so the initials of the salute stand for number 88. Neo-Nazis tend to use 44 as a less obvious reference.

Although Rogel’s activities have been well documented for over 30 years, law enforcement had never found a way to actually charge him with extremism – until now. Although the defendants were released on bail, the sheer volume of extremist materials gathered by the police suggests that this time Rogel might not get off so easily.

“These guys have been the icons of the neo-Nazi scene in Slovakia since the 1990s,” said Irena Bihariova, a lawyer focusing on extremist crimes and a leader of the Progressive Slovakia party.

As a former director of People Against Racism, an NGO promoting tolerance towards minorities, Bihariova published a report on Rogel back in 2002. The vast collection of evidence that she handed over to the police, however, was lost. Twice. “They thought that no one cared about them anymore,” she said of the accused. “Of course, it also shows how insensitive we as a society are to these things,” she said, referring to attacks on minorities or outright anti-Semitism.

The special unit at NAKA, however, subsequently took up the case, assigning it the codename “Action Clowns”. During the raid, they collected Nazi memorabilia, portraits of Nazi soldiers and a number of neo-Nazi books, magazines and albums. According to a court order obtained by Dennik N, Rogel and others are charged with producing three albums with neo-Nazi themes and selling merchandise of the neo-Nazi band. They are facing up to eight years in prison if convicted.

Systemic change

Over the past three years, NAKA has, it seems, investigated hundreds of extremism cases, many of them ending up before the special criminal court. “You can see a big interest in the police to deal with these cases,” said the Open Society Foundation’s Orlovsky, who also wants the capacity of the police to deal with such crimes increased, given the scope of the problem.

In 2019, the Supreme Court convicted Milan Mazurek, a prominent MP in Kotleba’s party, for making racist remarks about the Roma minority in a radio interview, and he became the first parliamentarian in Slovak history to lose his mandate for committing a crime. This year, Marian Kotleba himself went before the special court, charged with promoting neo-Nazi ideology for handing out checks worth 1,488 euros at a public event. Experts say that 14 and 88 refer to an infamous white power manifesto “14 words” and the neo-Nazi greeting “Heil Hitler”, respectively.

“There has been huge progress and it can be tracked in numbers,” said Bihariova about law enforcement’s recent approach to extremism.

She points out that up until 2017 the police usually dealt with around 30 cases of extremism a year, sweeping most of the hate crimes under the carpet before they were even investigated. In 2017, however, the police initiated criminal proceedings in 176 cases, and in 2019 that figure was 109, according to official data. A public database of the special criminal court also suggests that judges are dealing with hate crimes on a regular basis, punishing racist violence, spreading racial hatred online, the possession or sharing of extremist materials, and instances of anti-Semitism.

Law enforcement’s success in punishing extremist crimes over the past three years goes back to a concrete effort to build a more effective legal system. “With the creation of the national anti-terrorism unit, which was preceded by the revision of criminal law, the specialists have been centralised in one unit,” Michal Slivka, spokesperson for the Slovak Police Force, told BIRN.

By bringing the special unit of investigators under one roof, they also gained better access to specialised education and practices. In addition to the changes in the police organisation, all the extremist agenda was moved under the competence of a special prosecutor and special court, and the system became much more agile and effective.

A bumpy road to change

The road to the reform, however, has been long and littered with obstacles.

Bihariova and her partner, the extremism expert Daniel Milo, have been putting a spotlight on far-right extremism in Slovakia for 15 years, though the cases often ended with the same result: “the deed did not happen”.

“I remember a case of a Roma family that lived in a block of flats where a problematic white man had moved into,” said Bihariova. “He was intent on making their life difficult – he threw stones at them every day, played racist music loudly, and at one point he even attacked their daughter and broke down their door,” she explained. “They always called the police, and it was always written off as a minor offence.”

When the attacks became more violent and the case finally made it to court, the judge refused to accept the racial motive, said Bihariova. “Even though the guy regularly wrote horrible Nazi-style anti-Roma messages on their door,” said Bihariova, who handled the case as an activist at the time.

“This was our motivation; we felt we can’t leave these people to fend for themselves,” said Bihariova, who is of Roma origin herself and has faced racist attacks for decades.

As members of the Special Committee for the Prevention and Elimination of Racism (VRAX), which is under the aegis of the Interior Ministry, Bihariova and Milo created a thorough analysis of law enforcement’s approach to extremism cases. “The analysis documented all the cases we had dealt with at People Against Racism. My partner collected materials from prosecutors and gathered court and police decisions – we wanted to see where it got stuck,” she said.

“Ten years ago, the police had more or less given up on dealing with extremism, they mistook it for football hooliganism,” said Bihariova. “And this gave the extremist scene wings.”

The experts found that hate speech went totally unpunished by the institutions in Slovakia, any racial motive in crimes was often ignored, and that the police were painfully ill-equipped to deal with extremism in general. “This is a type of criminality where you really need expertise,” said Bihariova.

They proposed a model where all extremist crimes would come under a specialised unit. This idea was eventually realised by the legal change introduced by the justice minister at the time, Lucia Zitnanska.

Old vs. New

Jan Orlovsky, who also represents civil society on the VRAX committee, sees positive signals from the new government already. “Igor Matovic came to commemorate the Roma holocaust, and recently he put out a statement about Moscow and its spies,” he said of the prime minister, who has pushed for greater tolerance and respect to be shown towards Roma and other minorities, while his cabinet has unified Slovakia’s position in foreign policy in a way not seen off for a long time.

At the same time, however, Matovic’s government is also staunchly conservative and has already received a lot of criticism for its approach to human and women’s rights, even after just a few months in power.

When it comes to extremism, however, the new interior minister, Roman Mikulec, has promised to keep attention on the issue. “The minister is personally invested in the issue of extremism, as he has taken over the chairmanship of VRAX,” Michaela Paulenova, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, told BIRN. She added that the minister realises the seriousness of the problem in society and wants to focus on the prevention of far-right extremism.

Experts agree that political statements, civic activism and stern action on extremist crimes need to complement each other in order to protect democracy and the rule of law. “Law enforcement needs to send a signal to society, that if there are activities which carry the suspicion of criminal acts, they can’t be ignored, that the state has not resigned itself to letting them happen,” said Bihariova.

Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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