Daniel Milo, Senior Research Fellow at GLOBSEC Policy Institute and a former advisor on countering extremism to the Slovak Minister of Justice and Irena Bihariová, lawyer who has long been specializing in the field of hate crimes and extremism, including criminal expressions of hate in the online environment.
In Slovakia, in line with trends in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, political extremism is both the dominant form of extremism and the most significant threat from a long-term perspective.
For historical reasons, right wing extremism has always been much more pronounced and various right wing groups have dominated the political extremist spectrum. Left wing extremism was seen mainly in the 1990’s and is represented by a relatively small group of individuals who do not have any real impact on society. Therefore, this analysis focuses on various forms of right wing extremism.
From Fringe Skinheads to Successful Modern Populism
Right-wing extremism (RWE) has a relatively rich history in Slovakia. It is also in flux. The RWE movements and their leaders have made significant changes to their images, narratives, activities, and messaging. Some of these changes have helped the far right to establish itself gradually as a publicly acceptable political current and propelled its representatives into parliament.
Between 1990 and 2008, right wing extremism was closer to the skinhead subculture than the standard concept of political extremism. It did not harbor serious political ambitions to destroy the democratic system or participate in state governance. Nor was it organized in the form of associations or political parties. Its ideological message was based on Nazism and its typical actors were neo-Nazi skinheads, primarily focused on the promotion of openly racist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi views and theories (Milo, 2005). Its activities were dominated by concerts and occasional demonstrations and violent acts, especially targeting the Roma minority and alternative youth.
The extremist scene featured both small local groups and large ones, with connections to international networks such as Hammer Skins and Blood and Honor, most of which openly and directly subscribed to Third Reich ideology and theories about Racial Holy War and the “Zionist occupation government” (ZOG). This period was characterized by serious acts of violence, mostly targeting Roma.
Over the past decade, though, a major transformation ensued, where the extreme right copied trends emerging elsewhere in the European extremist scene. From the point of view of its image, rhetoric and activity, it has largely left behind the typical features of neo-Nazi groups. This change was related to its gradual transformation from local and informal groups to legal entities aspiring to take part in the political governance of the country.
A typical and prominent feature of today’s RWE groups is anti-system and anti-democratic populism on issues that are sensitive in Slovak society and have the potential to increase polarization (IVO, 2018) Topics and activities that have contributed to their popularity include criticism of the democratic system itself and “liberal elites”, public demonstrations and marches “against Roma crime”, and spreading disinformation, especially on issues related to migration, the European Union, and NATO.
RWE groups have also successfully appropriated themes that traditionally belonged to social and ecological movements.
In this way, they have reinvented themselves as fighters for social justice, voices for the poor, and protectors of the heritage of Slovakia. These moves have boosted their attractions in the eyes of the electorate. In fact, some RWE figures are quite successful in addressing the general public, whether the targets are young or old and regardless of their social, economic or educational status.
The most important political RWE group is Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia. It is arguably the only political entity which has been able to build a bottom-up, grassroots type of social movement. This has made it even more attractive for young people – it uses social networks successfully, communicates through short videos, has its own “alternative news channels”, and effectively circumvents its rejection by the mainstream media.
Extremist Movements and Entities in Slovakia – Moving Into the Mainstream
Slovak RWE entered the political domain in 2005, when a small group led by Marian Kotleba registered as a political party using the name Slovak Togetherness – National Party. The party glorified Slovakia’s war history, when the country collaborated with Nazi Germany. Its members wore uniforms that closely resembled uniforms used by the forces of the Slovak fascist state paramilitary force during the war – Hlinka’s Guard.
However, this initiative was short-lived. Shortly before the parliamentary elections in 2006, the Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic dissolved the party on the grounds that its program violated fundamental rights and freedoms.
Nonetheless, hardcore members did not give up their political ambitions and after three years they returned with a new image, new themes, and most importantly a new party – People’s Party – Our Slovakia (LSNS).
Since 2009, this political party has become to a large extent a hegemon and unifier of the RWE scene in Slovakia. Its leader Marián Kotleba first won elected office in 2013, when he became a governor of the self-governing Banska Bystrica region. This victory enabled him to gain both visibility and economic opportunities for his fellow party members. Kotleba employed several of his relatives and high ranking members of his party in the office he ran (Transparency International Slovakia, 2015).
Building on its increased visibility and resources, the LSNS entered the national parliament in 2016. Although polls before the election showed maximum support of just 2% to 3%, the party actually gained 8.04% of the vote and claimed 14 seats in parliament.
As parliamentarians, their typical agenda is to present controversial and populist proposals, such as promoting measures to stigmatize NGOs, stricter regulation of abortion that would make it harder for women to have an abortion, and so on. Their political activities, draft laws and statements in parliament have been a fiasco and they have not been able to implement their program so far, but their support has increased to 10% (Focus, 2018). Furthermore, the party leader Kotleba has announced his candidacy for the presidential election in March 2019.
In addition to the LSNS party, the Slovak Revival Movement (SHO), currently registered as an NGO, has articulated its political ambitions. Their leader too will contest the upcoming presidential election. In comparison to LSNS, the SHO is more oriented towards traditional nationalism and has not yet shown strong mobilization potential.
There are other RWE groups and communities in Slovakia that are not institutionalized. Their repertoires and agendas vary. Some of them are radical and close to neo-Nazi ideology. A typical example is Vzdor Kysuce – Kysuce Resistance. Others focus on online activities and produce a rich supply of disinformation on the topics we have outlined above. They create an active underworld for spreading and publicizing extremist messages to the general population through Facebook networks and “alternative news” platforms.
Legal Aspects of Extremism in Slovak Legislation and Legal Practice
As for the legality of RWE activities, illegal hate speech targeting minorities and public support of extremist movements are the dominant criminal acts (MV SR Criminal Statistics, 2017, 2018).
In 2017, the Slovak system for the investigation and prosecution of extremist offenses was significantly reformed. All such crimes are now allocated to a system of specialized institutions tasked with tackling corruption and organized crime.
As a result, the number of officially recorded extremist crimes grew rapidly and the lack of transparency typical with this kind of crime was alleviated to a large extent. According to official crime statistics, only 30 cases of extremism were recorded in 2015, while in 2018 the number jumped to159 (Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic, 2018).
Despite the significant improvement in the process of detection and prosecution of extremist crimes in Slovakia, social demand for RWE policies is on the rise. It is manifested in continued support of the dominant political extremist force in Slovakia, the LSNS party, but also in the general attitudes of the Slovak public towards minorities and democracy and its weak resistance to disinformation.
According to several polls over time, the highest rate of animosity is reported in relation to the Roma minority. Jews are in the frame as well. According to Globsec research conducted in 2018, no fewer than 52% of Slovaks are convinced that Jews have too much power and secretly control the world. Research also shows that a relatively large segment of the Slovak public agrees with several attitudes of the extreme right – up to 83.8% of Slovaks in OSF research confirmed that they support the ideals of extremists, in particular in relation to minorities (OSF, 2012).
In such a social environment, it can be assumed that criminal law instruments themselves will not be sufficient to solve the problem and it is imperative to perceive this phenomenon as a profound social issue, largely in line with trends in other EU countries.
Milo, D.: Rasistický extrémizmus v Slovenskej republike, Ľudia proti rasizmu, Bratislava, 2005
Bihariová, I: Vývoj pravicového extrémizmu na Slovensku, Ľudia proti rasizmu, Bratislava 2013
Bútorová, Z – Mesežnikov, G: Zaostrené na extrémizmus, Inštitút pre verejné otázky, Bratislava 2017
Velšic, M: Mladí ľudia a riziká extrémizmu, Inštitút pre verejné otázky, Bratislava 2017
Rozsudok Najvyššieho súdu Slovenskej republiky 3 Sž 79/2005-54
Transparency International Slovensko: Rok župana Kotlebu alebo ako sa darí ĽSNS, Bratislava 2015
Statistical Office of Slovak republic: Voľby do Národnej rady Slovenskej republiky 2016, available at: http://volbysr.sk/sk/data03.html
Agentúra Focus, Volebné preferencie politický strán, available at: http://www.focus-research.sk
Ministerstvo vnútra SR, štatistiky kriminality 2017, 2018
Nadácia Otvorenej spoločnosti: Verejná mienka v oblasti extrémizmu. Výskumná správa, OSF, Bratislava 2012
GLOBSEC, GLOBSEC Trends 2018 Central Europe: One region different perspectives, https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/GLOBSEC-Trends-2018.pdf