09 March 2016

Central Europe's Fascist Revival

Slovakia’s March 6 general elections have catapulted a neo-fascist party into parliament and strengthened the position of another ultra-nationalist formation. The results highlight a broader European trend of public disillusionment with the major parties and anger with stagnant economic conditions. They also indicate that a sizable portion of the Slovak electorate remains susceptible to xenophobia, ethnic exclusivity and authoritarianism.

While Prime Minister Robert Fico lost his parliamentary majority and must now forge a broader governing coalition, two ultra-right organizations have gained significant support. The nationalist Slovak National Party, returned to parliament after a four-year absence by capturing 8.6 percent of the vote and 15 seats in the 150-member assembly. Much more troubling, the People's Party-Our Slovakia (PP-OS) — a movement that openly praises the Nazi-sponsored clerico-fascist Slovak government during World War II— won 8 percent of the vote. It entered parliament for the first time with 14 members.


PP-OS leader Marian Kotleba, the regional governor of Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia, is a self-professed neo-fascist. His party staunchly opposes both the European Union and NATO, and has attracted many young people living in depressed areas by stoking Islamophobia and inflaming fears over the EU migrant crisis.


Until now, the starkest example of radical rightist popularity has been evident in Hungary. Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, is the third-largest party in parliament, having won 20.5 percent of the vote in Hungary’s April 2014 elections. The party is ethno-exclusivist, anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. Similarly to other militant leftist or rightist movements, it rejects “global capitalism” and European integration. Jobbik also openly interferes in the politics of Hungary’s neighbors by claiming territorial autonomy for Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.


Ultra-right groups are also present in Poland and the Czech Republic. In Poland, the National Movement — which resembles Hungary’s Jobbik — claims five of the 40 seats held by the “Kukiz ’15” movement in the 460-seat parliament. An even more extremist but extra-parliamentary formation, the Polish Defense League, wants to create a register of Muslims to protect Poland against the threat they allegedly pose. The PDL has close links to the anti-Muslim English Defense League and other Islamophobic organizations across the EU.


As in Western Europe, the new ultra-right formations in Central Europe prey on social discontent and fear of foreigners. Although Slovakia’s democratic institutions appear to be strong enough to withstand any fascist impulses, the relative triumph of militants spotlight four main negatives that need to be monitored throughout the region.


First, any ultra-right successes generate a negative image of Central Europe in the EU and the United States. While observers largely dismiss French xenophobes such as Le Pen’s National Front — or their radical Italian, Dutch, Scandinavian, Greek and British equivalents — as irritants to otherwise healthy democracies, Slovakia’s elections reinforce the perception of the Central Europeans as tenuous democrats. Pundits and politicians can claim that Central Europe is turning toward fascism, thus bolstering the notion that they are political infants needing outside supervision, and ignoring the fact that the revival of radical movements across the political spectrum— from nihilist and leftist to nationalist and fascist — has become a pan-European trend.


The neo-fascist revival is producing a second, more disturbing phenomenon: the rising popularity of racism and xenophobia among the younger generation, and the increasing nostalgia for a “golden era” of fascism among some disoriented youths. It demonstrates the inadequacies of the public education system and the yearning for simplistic solutions, phenomena we are also witnessing in the U.S. presidential elections


A third danger is when ultra-rightists convince ruling parties — which are fearful of losing votes — to adopt some of their positions, which then become mainstream. Conversely, if a major party adopts xenophobic policies then it gives credence to even more radical programs. For example, SMER — Fico’s center-left party — campaigned intensely about Europe’s refugee crisis, warning about an "invasion" of Muslim migrants in Slovakia, thus legitimizing PP-OS’s more militant anti-immigrant platform.


Fourth, but certainly not least, a radical rightist revival leaves countries more exposed to Russia’s anti-Western influences. Extremist parties anywhere in Europe receive an inordinate degree of attention in the Russian media, and Slovakia’s election results have figured prominently in the Kremlin’s international broadcasts.


Moscow seeks to benefit from popular dissatisfaction with Brussels across the EU. It has focused in particular on radical groups espousing anti-liberalism, anti-globalism, anti-Americanism, ethnic intolerance, Islamophobia and combative Christianity. Militant parties and personalities are invited to Moscow for international conferences at which Russia is lauded as the bastion of traditional values and monoculturalism, while the West is lambasted for its “moral bankruptcy.”


Perversely, while organizations tied to the Kremlin fund and publicize ultra-nationalist formations in several European states, Russian officials simultaneously seek to discredit targeted governments by claiming they tolerate the rise of fascism. Moscow deliberately espouses contradictory positions to contrasting audiences in order to undermine European unity and to dismantle the West.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.