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Coming to Grips with the Far Right

A political shock mobilized civil society in Slovakia several years ago, but it’s only sporadically active now. At the Embargo Festival for Human Rights, Tolerance and Mutual Understanding in December 2018 in Banská Bystrica, a small Slovak city, activists exchanged news and views on strategies for dealing with the far right.

By Uwe Rada

On the expressway leading to the centre of Banská Bystrica, a small city in central Slovakia, a big banner visible from afar says, "Stop Marrakesh! Slovakia is not Africa!” “Kotleba’s party put that up here", explains Michal Hvorecký, a Slovak writer. In 2013, Marian Kotleba, the leader of the far right People’s Party – Our Slovakia, was elected governor of the Banská Bystrica region. "That was a shock: a neo-Nazi running one of the eight Slovak regions." Hvorecký is still shaking his head.

But it may have been a salutary shock. Kotleba was voted out of office in 2017, much to Hvorecký’s relief. "Voters realized he’s not just a populist." There were various reasons for Kotleba's defeat. "He’d promised not to accept any more money from Brussels, and he was consistent on that score." As a result, no more schools were renovated, no roads built. And yet Hvorecký fears that that horrific episode isn’t over. "Kotleba is likely to take part in Slovakia’s presidential elections in March 2019," he explains. "His party is polling at just under ten per cent." Party members sometimes gather in the street leading to Kotleba’s native Banská Bystrica to rail against the United Nations Global Migration Compact, which was signed in Marrakesh on 10 December 2018.

The 2013 shock and its aftermath

Michal Hvorecký (b. 1976) lives with his family in Bratislava and works part-time at the local Goethe-Institut, where he’s in charge of funding for literature and translation. He is currently the most widely known literary and critical voice in Slovakia, especially in German-speaking countries. Last autumn his novel Troll came out in German: it’s about how Putin's troll factories manipulate public opinion in Europe. Russian propaganda often falls on fertile ground in Slovakia in particular, observes Hvorecký. "In smaller societies like Slovakia, trolls can reach wide swathes of the population rapidly and with little effort," he says. "What’s more, conspiracy theories have long since reached a new level here, beyond being a purely online phenomenon. They’re even spread by political leaders. Conspiratorial thinking is part and parcel of everyday political life."
A street in a snowy landscape Johny Goerend © unsplash Hvorecký has come to Banská Bystrica to take part in the Embargo Festival for Human Rights, Tolerance and Mutual Understanding, a four-day event including concerts, discussions, screenings and performances, all of which are about human rights, tolerance and mutual understanding. The festival is organized by the Záhrada Cultural Centre, the Slovakian Goethe Institut’s partner in the Freiraum project. The very fact that Freiraum is travelling from the capital to this provincial city in central Slovakia is largely owing to the shock of the gubernatorial election results in 2013, when an avowed neo-Nazi was elected governor of this region. Milan Zvada, a dramaturge at Záhrada, sees that political sea change as having sparked a whole slew of civil society activities. Many of those activities were initiated or hosted by Záhrada, one of the city’s principal sociocultural institutions, which holds over two hundred events a year.

Given the rise of the xenophobic right, Slovakia’s question for the Freiraum project came as little surprise: "How can we have a lasting and constructive influence on public discourse about borders, freedom and democracy?”

The anti-fascist uprising

A video produced for Freiraum by the Slovak Goethe-Institut shows Marian Kotleba marching with his followers, wearing uniforms and carrying flags that evoke the so-called "Slovak State” (later officially known as the “First Slovak Republic"), a fascist clerical state which, by the grace of Hitler, broke away from Czechoslovakia in 1939 and declared its independence the day before the Germans marched into Prague. The leader of the Slovak State was Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest and politician venerated to this day – along with the fascist Ustashe regime in Croatia – by right-wing extremists.

But Banská Bystrica also exemplifies another side of Slovakia. On the outskirts of its Old Town is the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising. The revolt against Nazi occupation, the biggest of its kind after the Warsaw Uprising, began in August 1944, when the Germans occupied Slovakia to prevent another satellite state from changing sides after Romania broke off its alliance with Hitler Germany.
Factory in a snowy landscape Kristaps Grundsteins © unsplash The insurgents battled the SS for two months. After their defeat, they retreated to the mountains and continued the fight as partisans. Greek journalist Vassiliki Grammatikogianni is convinced that "Banská Bystrica is a symbol of resistance to fascism in Europe." So it’s all the more surprising that this chapter in Slovak history was overlooked in the 2013 election. "A city which you’d think would never forget the murdering, marauding Nazi troops,” she says, “revived fascism in 2013 with an election victory for right-wing extremists." In an article in the Greek “Editors’ Newspaper” (Efimerida ton Syntakton), Grammatikogianni asked, "What has happened to us? What has happened to our two cities? What has happened to Europe to make it forget its history?"

Ghosts of freedom and new networks

Vassiliki Grammatikogianni first learned about Banská Bystrica’s history when Milan Zvada and his colleagues from Záhrada came to Athens in May 2018. They also told her about the murder of the Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The couple were found dead in a western Slovakian village in late February 2018 after they’d investigated corruption and tax fraud and uncovered ties between high-ranking Slovak politicians and organized crime.

The partner institution of the Goethe-Institut in Athens, the Temporary Art Academy (PAT), were similarly shaken by the assassination in Slovakia, especially after they’d raised a related question for the Freiraum project: "What are the visible signs of and limits on freedom of speech? Are there any visible or implicit constraints?" At the beginning of their project, filmmaker Constantinos Hadzinikolaou and artist Yota Ioannidou developed plans for an experimental documentary film called Ghosts of Freedom. The idea was to use the double murder in order to explore broader questions: the existing limits on freedom of speech, the illusion of a liberal democracy and the forces undermining that democracy.

In December, Vassiliki Grammatikogianni set off with Natalia Sartori from the Goethe-Institut Athens to pay a return visit to the tandem city in Slovakia. "Unfortunately, the two filmmakers couldn’t make it, and the film isn't finished either," she had to explain to the partners in Banská Bystrica. That put the Embargo Festival all the more centre-stage as a result, especially since Jonathan Leman, an expert on right-wing extremists, had flown in from Stockholm to confer and converse with colleagues in the Slovak Not In Our Town initiative. Leman and Zvada had actually met at the Freiraum gathering in Warsaw in December 2017, after which they’d stayed in touch and met up again a year later at the festival. So the Freiraum project certainly deserves credit for spawning new working relationships and functioning networks like theirs.

Far right radicalism in Slovakia: the long shadows of '68

Záhrada means "garden", and this cultural centre is aptly named. To get there from the elongated, slightly rising ground of Banská Bystrica’s town square, you pass through a gateway, along a fire wall, then through another gate, to find yourself in an enchanting garden – which is covered with fresh snow on this December evening. Crossing a wooden deck, which holds tables and chairs in summer, you enter the cultural centre itself, which is made up of a bar, an adjoining auditorium and another room for events. The cultural centre is not funded by the city: the premises are privately owned and rented out to Záhrada, which Milan Zvada feels is a good thing: "That rules out outside interference in our work."
CloseUp of an factory building Martin Grincevschi © unsplash On this Tuesday afternoon, the Embargo Festival kicks off at 4pm with a debate about right-wing extremism in Sweden and Slovakia. For starters, Rado Slobodan introduces Not In Our Town (in Slovak: Nie v našom meste), which was set up in 2014 after Marian Kotleba won the governorship. This NGO is headquartered at Záhrada and is also a Freiraum partner of the Goethe-Institut in Bratislava. Slobodan remembers: "The question at the time was what responses could we come up with to counter right-wing radicalism and fascism." Today, he’s pleased to say, Not In Our Town is the biggest civil society organization in the region. "Our main focus is prevention: we run programmes in schools motivating young people to get involved." The initiative mobilized even before the 2017 regional elections. "Fortunately, we were successful. And in the process, we gave an example of how civil society can be a part of lived democracy."

Since Kotleba was voted out of office, the initiative has been working with the new governor and the city administration. "We’re seeing some progress," says Slobodan. "And hopefully a strategy will soon be in place to fight radicalization in the region and in the city itself." Not In Our Town has already launched its own deradicalization programme. But the situation in Slovakia, says the activist, remains fractious. "Slovak society is divided into two camps. One supports democratic society, the other does not." But not many people are socially or politically active. "Voter turnout is low. Slovak politics is highly rational and unemotional. It doesn’t move you. That’s different on the right." Slobodan estimates Kotleba's chances of winning the general elections at no higher than ten per cent, although a whopping 20 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds would actually vote for the neo-Nazi candidate.

How such a potent far-right populist movement was able to emerge in Slovakia in the first place was the subject of Ask Your Parents: '68, a documentary film by Barbora Berezňáková screened and discussed the night before. Interviews with young people, asking what they know about the Prague Spring and how it ended, are interspersed with footage of Warsaw Pact troops marching into Czechoslovakia. For Michal Hvorecký, the memory of Prague Spring is shared by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, even though the two states went their separate ways after the end of Communist rule in 1993. "There was a Prague Spring in Bratislava and the rest of Slovakia too," says Hvorecký, "though the opposition were persecuted mainly in Czechia. The suppression was followed there, too, by so-called Normalization, entailing arrests, imprisonment and emigration.” Furthermore, Slovakia was granted special rights in 1970, and a Slovak, Gustáv Husák, became the leader of Czechoslovakia. “This is why, unlike in Czechia, no opposition movement formed in Slovakia until 1989," explains Hvorecký. "You can still feel it today. Civil society is less active in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic."

The actual tandem

This may also be one reason only a handful of listeners turn out for the debate between Rado Slobodan and Jonathan Leman. Slovaks could have learnt a lot from the Stockholm expert about dealing with right-wing populism and extremism. Leman is a researcher at Expo, a Swedish anti-racism foundation established by activists and journalists, including the writer Stieg Larsson, in 1995, at a time when the far right menace loomed large in Sweden.
Harbour in the evening Vladimir Soic © unsplash "Our object is to ward off this menace and curb the influence of racist and far right organizations as far as possible," explains Leman. He believes neo-Nazis are firmly established as a political force in Sweden, as in Slovakia: "In the 1990s they joined forces with the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats, until they split up in 2001. Since then Sweden has had a blatantly right-wing extremist party, the National Democrats, while the Sweden Democrats continue to pass themselves off as a mainstream party."

The Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time in 2010. Four years later, the National Democrats also fielded candidates in the general elections, but once again failed to gain a single seat in parliament. "Since then," says Leman, "they've been operating more as a think tank. And networking Europe-wide." Their network now extends as far as Slovakia. Sweden's National Democrats are now working together not only with the German NPD and the Greek ultranationalist Golden Dawn party, but also with Marian Kotleba's People's Party – Our Slovakia.

The initiators of Not In Our Town can only confirm Leman's observations about the mounting influence of the far right on right-wing populists in Europe. Needless to say, they agree with his call for a potent response. At the end of his lecture at the Záhrada Cultural Centre, Leman said, "Right-wing extremists understand democratic society better than democratic society understands right-wing extremism. We aim to change that."

The Embargo Festival was an enlightening and enriching experience for the handful of people who turned out for the event in cold Banská Bystrica in mid-December. It also gave rise to the formation of new tandems in the middle of the Freiraum project, for Not In Our Town has much more in common with the Swedish Expo foundation than with an Athens art school that couldn’t be bothered to come to Slovakia.