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SPOTLIGHT ON THE WESTERN BALKANS: FAR-RIGHT TRENDS IN THE REGION

Written by Fabio Bego

Far-right ideas and politics are deeply embedded in the Western Balkans and pose a serious threat to the stability of the region. They accentuate ethnic and religious divisions, undermine civic movements, and delegitimise local democratic institutions and their international sponsors. 

This article investigates the programmatic and ideological analogies between different far-right organisations in the region and the way in which they reflect the politics of mainstream parties. Ideas and ambitions that are considered prerogatives of the far-right in Western Europe, have been a dominant factor in the Balkans during the last four decades. Far-right politics are ubiquitous and mobilise several layers of society. The phenomenon should therefore be analysed within a broader political scope. This research does not aim at providing an exhaustive classification of the groups that may be classified claims and revanchist sentiments that determined the “normalisation” of nationalism in the regional political framework. Far-right leanings have also been propelled by diaspora communities which gave support to the parties in conflict. The experience of migration contributed to enhance the sense of national belonging138 and in some cases to emphasise the racist content of the national narratives. One of the earliest Albanian affiliation to neo-fascist ideology seems to have occurred in the context of the Italian National-Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) scene. 

Activists of Serbian Action honoring with torchlight 70 years since the death of Serbian ideologist Dimitrije Ljotić. Photo: Dalekovod

In order to understand the pervasiveness of far- right ideas in the WB, I will analyse far-right leanings by proceeding from its “periphery”, that
is underground movements, toward its “core”, that is mainstream parties. Some of the most radical expressions of the far-right have been endorsed by Srbska Akcija/ Serbian Action (SA), Posizioni i Tretë Shqiptar/ Albanian Third Position (ATP) and Bosanski Pokret Nacionalnog Ponosa/ Bosnian National Pride Movement (BPNP). SA was founded in 2010, but its origins date back to the late 1990s when an homonymous fanzine was published in Belgrade. The original idea of Srbska Akcija was to combine Serbian orthodox nationalism with the skinhead subculture.140 BPNP exists since 2009 whereas ATP was founded in May 2019.

In analogy to populist parties, these Balkan far- right groups refuse to be identified as either right or left-wing. They relate to “third way” doctrines that were conceived in the 1920s as a response to bolshevism and liberal capitalism. These groups draw inspiration from historical characters of the interwar and World War II periods who sympathised or collaborated with fascist governments. Evocating the thought of Julius Evola, Oswald Spengler and Carl Schmitt, third way activists advocate the return to tradition as the only possible means to restore authentic national and European values. 

Far-right groups do not disclose the names of their members and it is difficult to know their quantitative figures. Judging by the pictures that they have published, they should not be very numerous. SA is most likely the larger organization, whereas ATP and BPNP probably have a small number of active members that is dedicated to the propaganda. Their objective is not to become parties that run for elections and therefore they are not interested in gaining the support of the masses. Third way activists aim at mobilising individuals disposed and prepared to undertake specific tasks. They try to captivate young people by deploying contemporary far-right imagery and sounds. 

Beside keeping the law at bay, secrecy can be a strategy that aims at increasing the appeal of the groups. The organizational structure of BPNP is inspired by secret societies and obliges all members to keep silence about the activities. ATP draws its name and political ideology from the former Italian neo-fascist group Terza Posizione144 whose members were associated with terrorist groups such as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR). In analogy to the other far-right groups, SA does not openly advocate the use of violence, unless it is for “self-defence” purposes. However, videos that glorify street riots are posted on a YouTube account affiliated to SA. According to a 2015 interview, at least one member of the organisation has joined the Novorossiya forces to fight against the Kiev government in Ukraine.

THE POLITICS OF CARE 

Preservation and protection of the national group and traditions are the core politics of third way movements. The nation is a community determined by common spirit and blood which was born from race. The far-right acknowledges that each race has its own values and worldviews. Racial relativism is advocated as the only way to preserve social harmony against the dangers of mixing. When George Floyd was killed, SA stated that it was a brutal crime that needed to be punished. However, it also pointed out that the “global left” and Soros exploited the case to create chaos. According to SA, racial hatred is evil, but racial mixing inevitably leads to hatred. Each race has its organic laws and its living space in which it can prosper. The group’s motto is: “0% hate, 100% identity”. 

The third way ethics imply care for fellow nation and race members, as well as for the environment and other living beings. Such ethics assert that Nature should be loved because it is God’s creation, and that national-socialism is the only authentic green ideology because it preserves biodiversity, even among people.153 Albanian far- right activists point out the damage caused to the environment by capitalist exploitation. They expose “pseudo-ecologists” like Greta Thunberg and suggest reading authors such as Linkola and controversial NSBM musician Varg Vikernes in order to know about true ecology.

The care for nature also implies the care of one’s own body that has the function to protect and regenerate the race. Far-right activists complain about the loss of virility that affects contemporary men who have become chubby and fat. In order to recover the muscular tone, they encourage people to practice sports, but some activists think that supposedly ‘Zionist practices’ such as body-building must be avoided. BPNP warns to stay away from drugs and alcohol and claims that Israeli mafia sells ecstasy with the deliberate purpose of destroying the European youth. 

When dealing with health issues, the far-right leans toward conspiracy perhaps more than it does when it engages with historical issues. There are actually several groups that spread QAnon-like stories in Serbia, and SA is one of them. In an article published in May 2020, the activists explained that “Pizzagate” was a circle of child trafficking, paedophilia and satanic rituals that involved Jeffrey Epstein, Donald Trump, the Clintons and Marina Abramović.

Children’s health has a strong affective appeal that is also used by mainstream politics in order to reach the masses. The coalition that won the last Serbian elections was called Za našu decu/ for our children. No-vax campaigns are almost exclusively based on people’s concerns for children’s health. Conspiracy theorists and no-vax advocates with far-right leanings such as Jovana Stojković in Serbia and Alfred Cako in Albania have thousands of social media followers. The current Covid-19 crisis has contributed to increase their popularity. The attitude of third way activists toward the pandemic is not univocal. They acknowledge the danger of the virus, but have also criticised governments for limiting freedoms. 

Care is often articulated as humanitarian aid. Right-wing football ultras in Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia donate blood and support fund raising for people in need. Similar initiatives are carried out in Bosnian Facebook pages such as Ljiljani Bosanski that combine Islamic and nationalist propaganda. Pictures of persons who suffer because of the lack of vital needs counterbalance the propagandistic images spread by local politicians such as Tirana mayor Erjon Veliaj who has recently been posting pictures of nice, trendy and seemingly wealthy people
that represent a small portion of society. BPNP provides a list of humanitarian actions that are supported by the organisation. This includes
food sharing, neighbourhood patrolling and blood donation. Some far-right groups have made of the humanitarian cause their main raison d’étre. The Pokret Levijatan/ Leviathan Movement, was founded in 2015 to protect animal rights before turning into a political party. One of their main humanitarian actions consist in patrolling Belgrade at night to harass migrants and other marginalised persons. 

The emphasis on protecting traditional values turns into hatred toward those who are considered a threat to them. Marxism, feminism and homosexuality are considered against the laws of nature. Feminism is defined as a mental disease,164 whereas homosexuality is associated
to paedophilia and perversion. One of SA’s most frequent activities involves disturbing LGBTQ manifestations. The passage of African and Middle Eastern migrants in the Balkans has accentuated local far-right trends almost everywhere in the region. In analogy to Western European groups, WB far-right activists corroborate the myth of ethnic and racial replacement. SA invokes the closure of borders because migrants endanger public security. A blog and Facebook page named brerore were opened in late 2018, by Albanian right-wing activists in order to propagandise radical nationalist ideas. The group uses the same symbol of the Italian right-wing party Lega. Some of the authors of the blog have progressively embraced aggressive attitudes toward migrants and they blame “sorosians”, communists and religious fanatics for carrying out population exchange between continents.

THE REJECTION OF DEMOCRACY AND NEOLIBERAL POLITICS 

The passage from socialism to democracy has freed people from dictatorships, but has failed to produce uniform wealth in the region. It has instead created profound social inequalities that have a strong and clearly visible impact on the everyday life of individuals and families. According to the far-right, democracy is a “lie”, an “illusion” and a “cruel joke [maskarallëk]” because it tells people that they enjoy equal rights when they don’t. Fascism stands for the rejection of materialist values and strives to make man understand that money, social Darwinism, and communist utopias are fake gods that must be destroyed. The third way aims at abolishing conventional democracy in order to establish a corporatist welfare state. The latter will free people from plutocracy173 and neo/liberal policies. 

Mainstream parties advocate democratic values, but they share similar conceptions about the effects of neoliberal politics. The Savez Nezavisnih Socijaldemokrata (SNSD) which is the main partyof Bosnia-Herzegovina’s autonomous unit, the Republika Srpska, stresses that globalisation and liberal capitalism have failed. Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (LV) that won the Kosovo elections in 2019, and SA activists might have diametrically opposed views on Kosovo’s status, but they both believe that “neoliberalism” is an agent of political and economic chaos. In analogy to third way movements, LV advocates the formation of a “social” state that will redistribute wealth. The party agenda envisions the nationalization of resources that have irregularly been privatised during the transition years.

Far-right activists refuse to adopt political models that they believe were imposed by foreign powers. They oppose both “multiculturalism”, which in their view is the expression of a moral corruption, and “civic nationalism” which they see as an attempt to create nations with members that are not biologically related to each other. Regional mainstream parties share similar views. According to SNSD, national identity is neither useless nor obsolete whereas multiculturalism was a big lie. The party program stresses that Republika Srpska should be founded on a clearly defined sense of belonging. 

The debate concerning the founding principles of citizenship is particularly relevant in Bosnia- Herzegovina and in Kosovo where international actors have played a major role in the post-conflict state-building process. In Bosnia, the main party of the Bosniak community, the Stranka Demokratske Akcije (SDA), calls for the constitution of a supranational Bosnian-Herzegovinian identity based on civic interests. The main Croat party of the Bosnian autonomous unit Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (HDZ) is against the concept of “civic universalism” and stands for “ethnic federalism”. In a similar way, LV in Kosovo rejects Athisaari’s plan because it imposes a multi-ethnic society that, in their opinion, treats Serbs as a privileged minority. In analogy to SNSD, LV refuses the idea that national identity is obsolete and asks that if the concept of nation-state is so outdated why only Kosovo has to be a multi- ethnic state. The party has criticized the former chief of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) Yves de Kermabon, stating that if he liked multi-ethnic states, he could turn (his homeland) France into one. 

THE THIRD WAY AND RELIGION 

Serbian Action volunteers in Ukraine.
Serbian Action volunteers in Ukraine. Photo: Dalekovod

Religious radicalism is usually associated to Balkan Muslims because researchers tend to look at the phenomenon mostly from a global perspective. A local gaze suggests that the rise of radicalism might as well be the outcome of far-right ideologies, which consider religion as an essential tool to restore traditional values. 

Most Serbian far-right organisations place Christian Orthodoxy as the basis of their political projects. SA activists describe themselves as an army devoted to Orthodox faith. Religion has recently been at the centre of attention in Montenegro as in the end of 2019, the government passed a law on religious freedoms that threatened to dispossess the Serbian Orthodox Church of its properties. The event accentuated the conflict between the two main nationalist trends in Montenegro: one that advocates the belonging of Montenegrins to the Serbian national identity, and the other that promotes Montenegrin identity as a distinct national entity. 

Separatist drifts are also stimulated by the existence of two churches. The Serbian Orthodox Church is entitled to administer the eparchy of Montenegro, but in 1993 a schism occurred which led to the restoration of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church that has not been recognised by the Patriarchate.187 The last elections in August 2020, were won by the coalition Demokratski Front (DF) which is led by the pro-Serbian Party Nova Srpska Demokratija (NOVA). The party program emphasises that the Serbian Orthodox Church has a special role in the national and spiritual upbringing of “our people”. The vision of NOVA coincides at least in part with the ideas of underground far-right groups such as Bunt Crna Gora that runs the homonymous Instagram and Facebook pages, and a blog. According to an interview, Bunt (revolt) was founded as a reaction to the abovementioned law on religious freedoms. The members preserve anonymity and declare that they do not belong to any party. Serbian nationalism is opposed by far-right Montenegrin groups, such as the one that runs the Facebook page Komiti-Zelenaski Pokret (KZP). The latter rejects any affiliation to Serbs and professes loyalty to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.191 In response to the Serbian appeals for brotherhood, KZP publishes crude old pictures of Montenegrin independence fighters killed by Belgrade forces accompanied by the words “we have never been brothers (…)”. Recent events have also produced repercussions for Muslim-Christian relations. Soon after the Montenegrin elections, Serbian nationalists attacked exponents of the Muslim (Bosniak) community in Pljevlja. In response, a car parade was organised in Sarajevo with the call “brothers you are not alone”. 

Unlike Serbs, Albanians and Bosnians practice different religions and the far-right has proposed alternative ways of spiritual transcendence. In order to generate a sense of common belonging, BPNP professes naturalism. In their view, national socialism is founded on the laws of nature and has therefore a clear concept of right and wrong.

ATP calls for the rejection of all “Abrahamic” faiths because they are responsible for the European decay. The far-right in Albania is averse to Islamic faith since, in their opinion, it does do not allow believers to be part of a nation. Albanians feel that Islam draws antipathies upon them from Western Europe. These anxieties are based on the fact that radical trends have lately become more visible. Many Albanians in different WB states supported the recent anti-French campaign advocated by Erdogan. Others cynically grinned to the Vienna attack of November 2020, which was carried out by a terrorist with an Albanian background. In order to extinguish religious divisions, the ATP promotes paganism, which is portrayed as the true faith of Albanians and of their Illyrian ancestors. Far- right activists have criticized the government for hosting Iranian MEK dissidents in Albania. They fear that the presence of Iranian dissidents will accentuate Islamic radicalism, and jeopardise the overall security of the country since it creates the preconditions for a proxy war with Teheran.

SPATIAL RECONFIGURATIONS 

Most WB countries have territorial issues with their neighbours and far-right groups are strong advocates of irredentist programs. BPNP declares that the national-socialist state should annex territories that were detached from Bosnia such as the Sandžak that is part of Serbia. ATP claims the Albanianness of Kosovo and insists on referring to the region as Dardania, as it was called in antiquity instead of Kosovo which is a Slavic word that was adopted later. Serbian far-right activists employ the term “Kosovo i Metohija” to define Kosovo which they see as part of Serbia, notwithstanding the declaration of independence of 2008. Beside Kosovo, SA claims Montenegro, Krajina, Slavonia and Dalmatia which are parts of Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and “South Serbia”, that is North Macedonia. 

Semantics are important in the region because language is a tool of appropriation of space through ethnocentric historical narratives. This is particularly the case of the Greek-Macedonian controversy concerning the name of Macedonia and the one between the latter and Bulgaria concerning Macedonian identity and language. The first question was resolved with the change of name of the Republic of Macedonia into Republic of North Macedonia. The second is still pending and has led to a stop of North Macedonian talks for EU accession after Sofia’s veto in November 2020. 

The Macedonian case shows that national issues of mainstream politics have a relevant impact on the region. Sometimes territorial ambitions advanced by mainstream parties are even bigger than those of underground movements. Whereas ATP is mostly concerned with Kosovo, the Albanian party with parliamentary representatives Partia Drejtësi, Integrim, Unitet (PDIU), advocates the constitution of an “Economic Commonwealth” between Albania and the Albanian-speaking regions of the other Balkan states (Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Greece). The purpose of the project is to gradually achieve the full integration the Albanian people. 

The programs of other regional mainstream parties point at the same goal. SDA states that it aims at defending the rights and national interests of Bosniaks that live in other countries of the region. Vnatrešna Makedonska Revolucionerna Organizacija – Demokratska Partija za Makedonsko Nacionalno Edinstvo (VMRO – DPMNE) in North Macedonia wants to reach a border agreement in order to facilitate connections between “Macedonians” in Macedonia and in Golo Brdo without even mentioning that the latter region is in Albania. A similar agenda is established for the Kosovo and Bulgarian sides of the borders.

Analogous trends characterise Serbian politics. The main Serbian party in Serbia, the Srpska Napredna Stranka (SNS), considers Kosovo as part of the national territory and advocates closer political and economic relations with Republika Srpska. SNSD leader Milorad Dodik has been advocating the independence of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and its union to Serbia for years. Building tighter relations with Serbia is also one of the key objectives of NOVA in Montenegro, which aims to enhance the natural, historical and business connections between the countries. The party pursues a similar policy with Republika Srpska. Rumours have started to circulate about the endeavours of Republika Srpska, suggesting its ambition of annexing the coastal Montenegrin town of Sutorina to Bosnia. Serbian politician Aleksander Djurdjev believes that Belgrade should support the initiative. The news worried the KZP. Novak Adzić, a member of the Montenegrin opposition, claimed that country risks turning into a Republika Srpska on the sea, that is a state dominated by Serbian nationalism. 

THE THIRD WAY AND REGIONAL CONFLICTS 

Balkan regional rivalries that are normally contained within the limits of cyber space, tend to invest the physical space in contexts where nationalists of different nations live side by side. Currently, this especially concerns Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Graffiti, parades, monuments, pyro shows, ostentation of national and religious symbols, and intimidations of real or fabricated opponents are some of the actions undertaken by nationalist and far-right groups to demarcate the belonging of contended spaces. 

FK Shkupi ultras Shvercerat write on walls and banners: “Skopje is Albania too”. At the end of 2019, North Macedonian supporters attacked Kosovo fans with knives after a football match. FK Vardar ultras Komiti expressed their disappointment toward Albanians in the country stating that the Macedonian people is living in a regime of apartheid because they are dominated by the (Albanian) minority.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina several roads and public buildings bear the names of war criminals. A monument dedicated to Croat war victims in Bosača was vandalized by someone who depicted the symbol of the Bosnian army on it. National resentments are deliberately exacerbated in Facebook pages such as Hrvatsko Viječe Obrane, Vojska Republike Srpske and Armija Republike Bosne i Hrecegovine that glorify and vilify the factions that confronted each other in the 1992-1995 civil war. There are no fancy photoshopped pictures with neon light effects in these Facebook profiles, but raw images portraying young man and woman who have perished in battle, the faces of their parents who have to live with the pain, and figures and information about killing, defending and betrayal. 

Following the results of Montenegrin elections in August 2020, the former Bishop of Serbian Orthodox Church Amfilohije, who recently passed away, declared that he intended to undertake construction works of sacred sites in Lovčen and Cetinje. Part of the Montenegrin press saw this project as the implementation of the old Serbian nationalist agenda known as Načertanije. Montenegrin nationalists held up a banner as a warning that they will not allow such an enterprise. The current political situation is stimulating national animosities also in other fronts. Albanian nationalism has never been particularly extreme in Montenegro although there have been manifestations of revisionist trends. 

In analogy to Albanians in North Macedonia, the Albanian minority in Montenegro celebrates the national festivities with national symbols, manifestations and noisy car parades. The Facebook page “Albanians in Montenegro” glorifies historical characters who fought against the annexation of allegedly “Albanian” territories by Montenegro when they still belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Far-right Serbian nationalist groups such as Bunt Crna Gora stigmatize these forms of nationalist externalisations in order to present the Albanian minority as a threat. 

Local politicians have carried out some endeavours to enhance regional economy and overcome tensions due to border disputes through the so-called “Mini-Schengen” initiative. The latter envisages the free mobility of people and goods in all WB states. The project has been mainly promoted by the Prime Ministers of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia, and has drawn criticism from both right-wing and centrists. The former consider it to be a betrayal of national interests, and the latter see it as a bland alternative to the EU accession. Far-right activists position themselves against any inter-Balkan cooperation that does not imply the recognition of their maximalist claims. When Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement in Washington in September 2020, both ATP and SA declared it was “scandalous”. They thought that Trump used Vučić and Hoti for the benefit of America, Zionism and pederasty/moral degeneration.

Notwithstanding regional rivalries, third way activists have several programmatic points in common. Firstly, they distrust regional and international actors such as local governments, the USA, the EU, Putin and/or Russia, and Turkey. Moreover, they are equally engaged in fighting against alleged enemies of tradition such as LGBTQ movements, “sorosians”, migrants, Muslims, Marxists and Zionism. Finally, they believe that the long-term purpose of their political projections should be devised on the principle of racial solidarity. Unlike conventional nationalist parties who are mainly focused on territorial claims and minority rights disputes, contingent challenges and race ideology are factors that allow third way activists to overcome divergences and seek for each other’s collaboration. 

CONCLUSIONS 

Far-right trends in the Balkans are currently in ferment. A generation of people born during the end of the socialist/communist regimes or in the transition period is growing tired of waiting for a social development that never comes or that does not satisfy their expectations. This generation, which was projected toward emigration to Western Europe to study and work, now perceives the arrival of other migrants as competition, since in their view, they would further limit their chances for individual affirmation. 

Third way ideology redefines regional and continental hierarchies according to a biological/racist concept. Moreover, by emphasising anti-capitalist ethics, it promises to free people from the frustrations of consumerism. Since local governments and international institutions find it difficult to curb criminal networks and corruption, far-right activists feel legitimated to present themselves as champions of morality. 

The analogies between third way ideology and parliamentary parties has shown that underground politics have a relevant influence on mainstream parties. Social networks, blogs, underground circles (in the Balkans or abroad), religious institutions, stadiums, streets and public squares are the places where far-right activists come in contact with larger parts of the population. The comparison between mainstream parties and far-right groups suggests that the main political conflict does not concern relations between neighbours as much as it concerns relations between local agents and what they perceive to be the main causes of their problems such as “neoliberalism”, “globalism” and their cultural facets. The far-right groups push people to believe that the societies in which they live need radical structural changes and portray themselves as agents of a new anti-colonial struggle. 


State of Hate: Far-Right Extremism in Europe

State of Hate: Far-Right Extremism in Europe is a landmark report exploring the state of far-right extremism across Europe. It is a collaboration between three leading European anti-fascist research organisations: HOPE not hate Charitable Trust (UK), EXPO Foundation (Sweden) and Amadeu Antonio Foundation (Germany). The report includes contributions from 34 leading scholars, researchers and activists from across the continent and 32 country profiles. The report includes an exclusive survey of 12,000 people across eight major European countries (Sweden, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Poland and Italy), measuring attitudes toward immigration, minoritised communities, feminism and political disaffection.
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