¿No pasarán?

We Serbs pride ourselves on our anti-fascist traditions – even in the 1930s, when fascism was taking root in Europe, it found no fertile soil in Serbia. That said, the Milošević era might call this into question, as intolerance and ultra-nationalism violently took the centre stage in the 1990s. But we have, one would think, moved on and cast aside such destructive ideals. Sadly, right-wing extremism seems to be reemerging in Serbia. What is more, it seems that this trend is mostly unopposed, as even the state apparatus makes little to no efforts to curtail the rise of such detestable tendencies, while the EU turns a blind eye. This blog aims to outline the problem of the resurgent right-wing in Serbia, and to draw attention to the distinct lack of appropriate reactions or condemnation from the Serbian authorities and representatives of the European Union.

Serbia does not lack for right-wing populist parties. The ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (Srpska Radikalna Stranka) can arguably be considered the ‘old guard’ of the right wing, due to its notoriety and activity, especially thanks to their ignoble role and war-mongering during the 1990s. The Serbian Movement Dveri has grown from a Christian nationalist student movement into a proper political party. Staunch nationalists, Russophiles and Eurosceptics, these two parties have held seats in parliament and actively participate in the politics of Serbia.

However, there are other actors within the Serbian extreme right that espouse a far more radical and violent ideology. A new party has emerged recently, seemingly out of nowhere, calling itself the Serbian Right (Srpska Desnica). With a programme based on ultra-nationalism, traditionalism, Orthodoxy and ‘national defense’, this party gained notoriety due to threats of violence towards their opponents and racist, anti-migrant rhetoric. Movements such as Obraz, 1389, and Naši, considered to be clero-fascist, have been operating in Serbia since the early 2000’s – despite some of them being banned by court decision, after which they would simply reincarnate under a slightly modified name, as in the case of Obraz. They propagate ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism, committing acts of propaganda, intimidation and physical violence. More recently, we have seen the emergence of Levijatan – a movement which, bizarrely enough, presents itself as an animal rights protection group – and the return of the leader of the National Serbian Front (Nacionalni Srpski Front), a man who goes by the nickname ‘Führer’, both of which have announced their interest in participation in the upcoming elections. The anti-globalist, identity-centred organization Zavetnici (Patrons) has recently achieved party status, aided by the current ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) itself, and will be participating in elections, while some of its members are participating in local elections on the tickets of other ruling coalition partners. There are also supposedly independent NGOs, such as the National Avant-guard (Nacionalna Avangarda) – which presents itself as anti-fascist, while simultaneously promoting ideas of national identity and militarism. In 2018, this hitherto completely obscure NGO organized a conference, gathering some of the most prominent members of the state apparatus – sparking questions about the National Avant-guard’s relation to the state. It should be noted that not all of these right-wing groups date from the early 2000s, as the Serbian Right, Levijatan, the National Serbian Front, Zavetnici and National Avant-guard have all come to existence since 2012 – incidentally the year the ruling SNS party came to power in Serbia.

There is a very visible lack of an appropriate response from representatives of the Serbian state apparatus to a number of hostile actions undertaken by members of the extreme right-wing. Disruptions of various cultural events – such as the festivalMirëdita, dobar dan”, aimed at promoting Serbian-Kosovar cultural relations, or the screening of the film “Albanke su naše sestre“ (Albanian women are our sisters) – by members of extreme right factions have been met by minimal reactions from the government, beyond police presence to prevent escalation. Another example are the threats made against an opposition member of the Serbian Parliament, after which the institutional response was limited, and the threats and smear campaign by various right-wing outlets continued even after the initial offender was arrested. The attacked MP stated that her primary problem was that “the state does not have a problem with [the right-wingers]” and later noted how the surge of right-wing activity is a direct product of a quiet, but very real support of the Serbian state and the ruling SNS for such tendencies. Similarly, verbal threats made by a member of the Serbian Right against an opposition politician has not been met with any significant actions by the government. In another incident, where a bakery owned by an Albanian was surrounded by members of right-wing organizations with the aim to intimidate and harass the owner, there was yet again little to no adequate reaction from state officials, some of whom even stated that the gathering “was without incidents”. Most recently, so-called “National Patrols” have been documented harassing migrants and refugees currently staying in Belgrade, and beyond verbal condemnation by some representatives of the state, no legal action has been taken – in fact an anti-migrant march was permitted to be held freely only days later. These are sadly only a few of a myriad of such incidents.

With such a lamentable state of affairs, one has to ask the question: why do the institutions and representatives of the Serbian state not react to these tendencies? One political scientist, himself a victim of threats from such groups, believes these belated or absent reactions of the state to be an indication of the existence of a popular consensus, imposed from the top, that these kind of extreme ideologies are acceptable. One historian claims that this is so because the presence of an extreme right-wing alternative benefits the ruling class, noting that Serbia is no different from the rest of Europe when it comes to the presence of such extremism – though in Serbia this extremism is less covert. Furthermore, serious conjectures have developed, asserting that the state apparatus is not just supporting, but also helped create these various extreme right-wing parties, movements and organizations, while also peddling a narrative of a need for higher state security. Beyond that, the participation of members of the BIA, Serbia’s security and intelligence agency, at the aforementioned 2018 conference of the National Avant-guard is also interesting, pointing perhaps to the involvement of intelligence agencies in the propping up of such actors. Certainly, it should be a cause for concern that the state seems to be at best indolent, and at worst supportive of right-wing extremism.

One further question should be asked here – beyond the Serbian government, why are the representatives of the European Union also silent when it comes to Serbia’s reemerging extremists? As the Union’s normative power rests in the championing human rights, equality and peace, one would expect the harshest condemnations to be heard from Brussels. And yet there seem to be none. In fact, in the 2019 report by the Commission, right-wing extremism is mentioned no more than once in passing. So why is there such visible disinterest? One answer could be that these extremists are simply not significant enough of a threat to warrant attention – highly unlikely given the increasing severity of their offences. Alternatively, perhaps the European representatives are aware of the benefit these extremists provide for the Serbian ruling class. If so, this would give weight to the speculations that, beyond mere indifference, the Serbian state supports such organizations. Whatever the case, the silence is shocking. Instead, the EU ought to draw significantly more attention to the issue and push for concrete action, whether by means of putting pressure on the seemingly detached Serbian government, or by supporting and fostering constructive initiatives and projects within Serbian society at large, aimed at raising awareness and supporting values that contribute to the suppression of such detrimental ideology. In any case, the EU needs to take a more active role in addressing this menace.

We know full well how and why extreme right-wing ideologies develop and spread – this is not a mystery to anyone, nor is Serbia immune to the causes of this ailment that infects most nations. But if history has taught us anything it is that right-wing extremists should have no place in modern, progressive societies. The same is true of Serbia, which has supposedly moved on from the shameful period of the 1990s. But such destructive ideology seems to be on the rise. And while the upcoming elections and the immediate future will show the full extent of the actual strength of such actors, it is upsetting to see this extremism emboldened by a deafening silence from those that ought to be the ones condemning it the loudest.

The author, Aleksa Ilić, is an intern at the European Policy Centre – CEP.
Photo: Goran Davidovic and Dolf Pospis during a rally in Novi Sad  ©