Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How a creepy right-wing extremist became a regional governor in Slovakia

I realize this isn't breaking news or anything, but I've been meaning to cover this for some time, yet kept getting sidetracked for one reason or another. At any rate, this unsettling development is especially newsworthy to me since it happened in the Banská Bystrica region, which is where Terezia's parents and family are from.

So, last November Slovaks went to the polls to elect their regional governors. The country is divided into eight regions, which in Slovakia are called (in typical bureaucratic fashion) higher territorial units. The governors and councils in these regions wield decision-making authority over things like education, social services, public transportation, maintenance of lower category roads, and tourism. Turnout for these elections is usually low, as many people don't fully understand how much influence these regional-level governments actually have.

While in most regions the election results were business as usual, with Smer (the ruling party in parliament) nominees winning in most races, the outcome in the Banská Bystrica region stood out in pretty glaring fashion, where to everyone's horror noted right-wing extremist Marian Kotleba managed to become governor, beating incumbent governor and Smer-nominee Vladimír Maňka.

Kotleba has become notorious over the years for leading right-wing fascist parties, one of which was even banned by the government some years ago. He frequently praises the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak state, which was ruled by catholic priest Jozef Tiso, and which sent some 70,000 Jews (plus Roma and other minorities) to concentration camps like Auschwitz. Kotleba used to lead marches each year to celebrate the creation of that state. (There are actually a slew of Slovak nationalists who celebrate this because they view it as the first time Slovaks had their own "autonomous", "independent" state; I put those words in quotation marks because most informed people agree it was really just a Nazi puppet state).

He gets loads of mileage out of his extreme hatred for Slovakia's substantial Roma population, and much of his activity and general vitriol seems to be directed at them. He routinely calls them "parasites" and other horrendous things, and loves to talk about how he wants to clean up their "mess". Kotleba even acquired land containing illegal Roma settlements just so he could stir up a publicized confrontation with the inhabitants living there. He and his thugs came with shovels and axes, threatening to tear down their homes, but the police intervened and got him to go away.

As an extreme nationalist, Kotleba despises the EU and NATO, even going so far as to call the latter a terrorist organization. People of Kotleba's ilk hate the EU because they feel it strips their country of its autonomy and they tend to vehemently disagree with the more progressive elements of the EU's agendas and laws. Kotleba recently took down the EU flag that hung along side the Slovak flag on the front of the regional government building in the city of Banská Bystrica's main square.

Kotleba removed the EU flag from the front of the regional government building - because he really, really hates the EU. Only the Slovak flag remains.

Kotleba and his fellow thugs used to march while donning these silly, black, neo-Nazi looking military fatigues, which seem to have been inspired by the uniforms worn by the Hlinka Guard in WWII, which was Tiso's division of jackbooted thugs responsible for rounding up the Jews.

Kotleba and his followers before they ditched the creepy neo-Nazi uniforms.

But at some point he apparently came to the realization that if he ditched the neo-Nazi garb and symbols and appeared in public dressed like a regular Joe, that he and his party would stand a better chance of connecting with voters and boosting their support among regular people. And alarmingly, this just might be yielding results.

So, how in the hell did this guy actually win? 

There are many reasons and many angles to this, but I'll try to break it all down and give you the Cliff's Notes version.

Firstly, Kotleba could be seen as part of a broader European phenomenon stemming from the global economic crisis, which hit many EU member states hard with steep unemployment and cuts in social benefits. In other countries, rising immigration by non-European foreigners and the fear that these people will take everyone's jobs have fueled this nationalistic and xenophobic rightward lurch, and fascist parties that thrive on this fear have gained a lot of traction in recent years. People are seeing unemployment in their countries soar, their standard of living sink, and opportunities evaporate, and they see EU austerity measures as exacerbating the problem. That member states are also having to help bail out countries like Greece has only further deepened people's resentment towards the EU. Unfortunately, this volatile cocktail of unemployment, xenophobia, and growing nationalism tends to result in a kind of fear that leads many to flock to fascist groups who were until recently operating on the fringe. Some people see the centrists and socialists as having helped create (or perpetuate) this big mess, and so they are starting to look myopically to the extremists on the right as an alternative. These extremists then gleefully pour fuel and a lit match onto people's fear and anger.

Hungary is a notable example, where the fascist Jobbik party has become the third largest party in parliament. Right-wing extremists have also made gains in France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, too. These extremists have their sights set on the EU, and would love the chance to "slay the monster", as they often put it.

But hold on - unlike some of these other countries, Slovaks aren't losing jobs to minority immigrants, because Slovakia barely has any immigrants to begin with! As I've mentioned in other posts, there is a glaring lack of diversity in Slovakia, in part because there is very little here (mainly in terms of desirable jobs) that would attract people from abroad. They'd much rather go to Germany or the Netherlands, where there are way more opportunities and a higher standard of living.

Yet, in Slovakia there is still a fair amount of resentment, or at least ambivalence, towards the EU, and with unemployment hovering at a pretty high 13-15%, the standard of living stagnating, and average wages that are typically half (and often even less) than for the same jobs in Austria or Germany, people are getting fed up.

Selective racism: Scapegoating the Roma

But let's go back to foreign immigrants, or in Slovakia's case, the lack thereof, for a moment. While foreigners are certainly not coming here and taking jobs away from the natives, a huge number of Slovaks harbor deep hatred for the nation's quite sizable Roma population. Of course, the Roma have been here for centuries, so they are nothing new. But tension has existed between Roma and the non-Roma population from Day 1.

I always say that culturally Slovaks tend to be quite non-confrontational and muted, but the one thing that in my experience here is guaranteed to elicit blind, seething rage is to bring up the Roma. I guarantee you - go to just about any Slovak party or social gathering and you will possibly hear some of the most shockingly intolerant things said about Roma if the topic arises. If you're American you'll likely wonder if you've suddenly stepped into a neo-Nazi meeting - it really is that bad sometimes, which makes it difficult to have a rational, cool-headed conversation about it.

The Roma question in Slovakia is far too complicated for me to spell out in detail here, but many in the ethnic Slovak majority population propagate very harsh, negative Roma stereotypes, and there is definitely a kind of selective racism at work here. Many Slovaks believe Roma are "lazy parasites" who reap the benefits of the social system yet contribute nothing to society and willingly live in poverty and squalor. (And many believe that the Roma actually receive more in social benefits than ethnic Slovaks, that they are scamming the system, even though that is actually not the case). The truth, or course, is way, way, way, way more complicated than that, and it's like pulling teeth to get some Slovaks to change their view, or to at least look at it from a different perspective and see how the state (and all the various forms of government since the Roma first arrived centuries ago) bears considerable responsibility for the situation.

It's understandable that many Slovaks out in the towns and villages who scrape by on as little as €350 per month are naturally going to be resentful when they work hard for very little money and see unemployed Roma pulling in almost as much in state support. But what you have is a vicious cycle, wherein those Roma who actually want to improve their lives stand very little chance of doing so because of the racism and stereotypes that persist. The Roma have been effectively marginalized by society. Some Roma kids are even put into segregated classes in school, or are forced into special needs classes even when it's not warranted, so things are stacked against them from the get-go. Sure, the Romas' marginalization has to a certain extent been self-inflicted: in their totally understandable need to maintain and preserve their own culture and traditions, they often reject many aspects of Slovak culture, sometimes to their own detriment. (And truancy is a big problem among young Roma kids). But relatively few ethnic Slovaks seem to be doing or saying anything constructive to help improve the situation, and the conversation typically devolves into negative stereotyping. The general attitude seems to be to push the Roma out of sight and pretend they don't exist.

And for more than two decades now, the state, regardless of who's been in power, has done pretty much zilch to help resolve the situation. The government just throws money at the problem without making sure the programs they are funding are feasible, effective, or realistic. A lot of that money is actually EU funds, some of which doesn't even make it to the intended programs, but instead into the pockets of speculators who have nothing to do with the Roma. And of course, many politicians have come up with any number of harebrained schemes that seem designed more to play into public anger, but which in practice would be wholly unethical, and wouldn't stand a chance of working in the first place. My favorite example was when Prime Minster Robert Fico had the gall to suggest that Roma children should be taken away from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where they would be freed from the "bad" influence of their families and communities.

And this brings us back around to why Kotleba won. The Roma have become a major hot-button political issue, and people have seen the problems persist for years now, and are starting to lose patience. Some communities have even taken to erecting actual concrete walls between their neighborhoods and the adjacent Roma ghettos. Others have held demonstrations, where they carry large banners calling Roma horrible things. And still others may think they have found a solution in Kotleba.

A cavalier attitude towards racism and intolerance

Another crucial factor here is that even mainstream politicians frequently stoop to the kind of behavior that one would normally expect of right-wing racist bigots. As Anna Porter notes in her book The Ghosts of Europe, former three-time prime minister Vladimír Mečiar "has made no secret of his disdain for the Hungarian minority". When current Prime Minister Robert Fico's Smer party ruled in a coalition from 2006-2010 with Mečiar's nationalist HZDS party and the uber-nationalist SNS party, led by the infamous Ján Slota, this only helped to further legitimize offensive rhetoric and racial intolerance. Porter says Slota "achieved considerable renown for his openly anti-semitic and anti-Hungarian statements."

Slota has described Hungarians as the descendants of "ugly, bow-legged mongoloid characters", called them "a tumor" in the body of Slovakia, and threatened to send tanks into Hungary to "flatten Budapest". Pretty ugly and corrosive stuff. Luckily, Slota and his SNS party were voted into irrelevancy in the 2012 elections and no longer appear to be a threat, but for a period of time they enjoyed a decent amount of influence, popularity and attention.

During the period of this Smer/HZDS/SNS/Fico-led government coalition, they passed a language law forbidding Hungarian (or any other language, for that matter) from appearing (as Porter explains) "on street signs, monuments, tombstones and shop signs, and no Hungarian radio program would be allowed unless every word was also broadcast in Slovak translation." This law is still on the books.

Now get this: in the week leading up to the regional governors election, was Fico in the Banská Bystrica region stumping for Maňka to make sure Kotleba was defeated? Nope. Instead, Fico went to the Trnava region to support a Smer nominee (Tibor Mikuš) who was running against an ethnic Hungarian, József Berényi. In an attempt to scare people into voting for the ethnic Slovak candidate, Fico warned that if people don't come out for the elections, "others will". Of course, by "others" he meant Hungarians. He continued, "if Most-Híd and SMK [Hungarian parties] tell us that they are participating in this election to elect in Trnava, a Slovak town, a Hungarian governor, I answer: let us join Slovaks in Slovak political parties and let us elect Tibor Mikuš." Adding insult to injury - the Smer guy won, but he was favored to win anyway. But apparently, for Fico the thought of a Hungarian candidate winning was far worse than a cuckoo Slovak right-wing extremist.

Fico, of course, wasted no time blaming centre-right parties for not endorsing Maňka and blamed the media for being generally anti-Smer. Take a good long look in the mirror, buddy.

Fico is also an avid supporter of Matica Slovenská, a cultural heritage institution dating back to the Slovak national awakening in the 1800s, but which has more recently become notorious for its members engaging in a range of offensive pursuits, from publishing texts that praise Tiso and the Slovak wartime state to vilifying Roma and advocating that they be dealt with "exactly the same as advised and done by Dr Jozef Tiso". At a speech Fico made at a Matica Slovenská event in 2013, he said, "We did not establish our independent state in the first place for minorities, although we do respect them, but mainly for the Slovak state-forming nation," adding that he has detected what he called a "strange tendency to put forward the problems of minorities" to the disadvantage of the Slovak nation "as though Slovak men and women do not live in Slovakia at all". Say what?

And more recently, there was this:

...in June 2013, police officers in SWAT gear raided a Roma settlement in the Kosice region purportedly seeking seven men for which they had arrest warrants. They found none of those men, but violence ensued and 15 other Roma were taken to the police station. While police allege they were attacked upon entering the 800-person settlement, none of the 15 detained were ever charged with a crime resulting from the clash. Several of the Roma were injured, and at least one of them contends that he underwent two more severe beatings at the police station. A second alleges he left the station bleeding from his rectum. An NGO active in the settlement, ETP Slovensko, documented the injuries with photographs (as quoted from The Slovak Spectator). 

The Interior Ministry has maintained that this police action was justified and legal, even insisting that this tough-on-crime approach is necessary and politically popular. After several NGOs and Slovakia's ombudswoman suggested that people's human and legal rights had been violated, Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák made a publicized visit to the police station in a show of support for the officers involved. And if you think more than a handful of Slovakia's average citizens give two shits about this highly controversial police operation, you'd be fooling yourself.

So, you can see what I'm getting at here. The list goes on and on and on and on.

Time and time again, Slovakia's mainstream politicians have set a horrible example, making it seem like saying and doing offensive, intolerant, and just plain racist things constitutes perfectly acceptable behavior. Now, in America, a country that has struggled horribly with myriad racial issues for centuries, racism is unfortunately still very much alive and well (contrary to what the conservative faction of the US Supreme Court would have you believe), but if the president or members of congress there were to do or say some of these things, they'd get nailed to wall. Yet, in Slovakia it's apparently par for the course, and the fact that few people seem to be bothered by it is pretty surreal, to say the least.

Given all this, is anyone really all that surprised that someone like Kotleba eventually made it into an elected office?

Other factors: An absent governor and uninformed youths

Slovakia's political pundits and intelligentsia let out a collective gasp when Kotleba's victory was confirmed. How in the hell could this happen?

Racism and Roma-rage weren't the only factors here. Incumbent Governor Maňka was somehow allowed to serve simultaneously as a member of the EU parliament. I don't know how much time being an EUP requires from one's schedule, but the general feeling was that he was spreading himself too thin and not focusing enough of his attention and energy on the region. He reportedly repaved a couple of roads in the region ahead of the election, perhaps hoping that would help seal the deal, but that was obviously not enough. In the future Smer would do well to make sure that its regional governors aren't coasting on autopilot.

It was also revealed that in the week before Kotleba's election win, a pro-Kotleba internet campaign went absolutely viral, spread among predominantly young people in their 20s and university students through social networking sites. It wasn't frightened older people who voted conservative, as is often the case in the US - it was the region's young people that seemed to help seal Kotleba's victory. It has been suggested that this wasn't necessarily done out of a newfound love of right-wing extremism, per se, but rather it was uninformed youths who thought it would be fun to stir up the shit just to see what happens. It was more of a vote against the status quo, against the ineffective governor/system that had been neglecting their region, and a vote for some kind of change at any cost.

That Kotleba says unthinkably awful things about the Roma didn't matter - many ethnic Slovaks say and think the same crap. But are these 20-somethings really down with Kotleba's love of the fascist wartime Slovak state? Some political pundits and academics have said you can chalk that up to the abysmal state of the nation's education system. Basically, the way history is taught in Slovak schools is so ineffective that kids and young people have scant knowledge of the events of WWII, and only a tenuous understanding of what fascism really is and what Kotleba and his ilk truly stand for.

So, you've got widespread racial scapegoating and propagation of negative stereotypes? Check! General anger at the low standard of living and lack of economic opportunity? Check! An absent regional governor who thinks he can just cruise into re-election? Check! A government with a very spotty human rights record and mainstream politicians who routinely make offensive comments about minorities? Check! An uninformed and ignorant younger generation that thinks it'd be fun to mix things up by voting for that weird neo-Nazi guy that their Smer-supporting parents shake their heads at? Check!

Maybe it was really just a matter of time before Slovakia got its very own right-wing extremist in an elected office.

Possible vote buying? 

The evidence for this is mainly anecdotal, but when I asked Terezia's dad about who in his village might have voted for Kotleba, he said - with absolutely zero hint of irony or surprise - "the Gypsies". Come again? Kotleba reportedly did extremely well in areas with high concentrations of Roma. There has been speculation that Kotleba supporters bribed Roma to vote for Kotleba. This is apparently quite a common practice, although no one seems to be overly concerned by it, despite occasional lip service by the authorities.

So, what's Kotleba done so far with his time in office? 

He's done more damage than you might think.

Remember how much Kotleba hates the EU? Well, he's brimming with so much hate for it that he has cut off all EU funding for his entire region, and this has had some fairly serious repercussions. A number of public schools were counting on EU money to make some necessary repairs - one was to receive funds for a much-needed paint job, another for a new roof, etc. But after Kotleba blocked the funding, those schools were suddenly plum out of luck. And it wasn't just schools, but also facilities for homeless people and mentally disabled kids, and a variety of other projects. It's astounding that he'd rather let people in his region suffer than accept money from the EU, but Kotleba apparently means business. Do you think all those 20-somethings who voted for Kotleba really thought this through?

But wait, there's more! Back in January, when the demonstrations in Kiev were really flaring up, but before former president Viktor Yanukovich fled Ukraine, Kotleba wrote a letter to Yanukovich, in which he implored him to steer clear of the EU, called NATO a terrorist organization, and accused the EU of only being interested in Ukraine for the sake of opening up new markets.

More recently, Kotleba came in for criticism for having turned the Banská Bystrica's free regional monthly newspaper, Náš Kraj (Our Country), into a blatant propaganda vehicle for his extremist views. The first issue since the monthly's revamp contains articles touting the virtues of Tiso-led Slovakia and railing against the EU. The lead story praises Kotleba for "having the courage" to remove the "occupant flag of the EU" from the regional government building. Another article tells of how Kotleba gave a free washing machine and dryer to a couple who happened to give birth to triplets on the anniversary of the creation of Tiso's Nazi-allied Slovak state. Others just talk about what a "great job" Kotleba has been doing. I was able to get a copy from Terezia's parents (everyone gets it free in the mail) and it's alternately laughable and scary.

Here's the front page of the monthly. Creepy stuff.  

Every region has its own monthly like this one, and they all consist of very little actual news, and are mostly full of puff pieces about all the "wonderful" things the regional government is doing for its citizens. But Kotleba's offensive, new Náš Kraj really struck a nerve, and many regional council members were so outraged and offended that they voted to defund the paper.

Slovakia's ombudswoman's office is even looking into whether anything published in the monthly constitutes a crime, since promoting Naziism or fascist ideology can be illegal, much as it is in Germany.

The council and Kotleba have also been at loggerheads over the regional budget. They passed a budget which he vetoed, and so they've been having to function on a provisional budget wherein funding for a lot of stuff is suspended. The council voted again to pass the budget, which is more or less identical to the one Kotleba vetoed, so no one's quite sure how that will play out yet.

At any rate, things aren't off to such a great start. And while he has yet to unveil any specific plans for the Roma, one can only imagine what he might have in store.

"A huge blow for democracy"

That's how centre-right opposition MP and Bratislava regional Governor Pavol Frešo aptly described Kotleba's victory.

Naturally, no one in any of the major political parties was happy with this development. Smer and the opposition parties played the blame game, but no politicians seemed to acknowledge any of the points/observations I made above.

What is particularly worrisome is that Kotleba and his party clearly have their sights set on Slovakia's parliament, and the next parliamentary elections are just a couple years away in 2016. A poll that the MVK agency conducted earlier this year even had Kotleba's party passing the 5-percent threshold necessary to win seats in parliament. If Kotleba's momentum isn't curbed, this thing really could get out of hand.

The problem is that I just don't get the sense that enough people really care that much, or take it very seriously. Some people seem to have an attitude of "well, this doesn't really effect on me". Terezia and I have even encountered people (in their 20s, mostly) who wouldn't have voted for Kotleba, but who said that perhaps it's a not such a bad thing that he won because maybe he'll finally "solve" the "Gypsy problem". It's truly disturbing to hear things like this.

Some hope that this is a fluke and that down the road Kotleba will prove to be no more than a brief, unpleasant footnote in Slovak history, but I'm with those who worry that this could snowball into something bigger and much more difficult to reverse. Given my time spent in this country I think there's real reason for concern. This is not the time to fall asleep at the wheel; it's crucial that politicians stop fueling intolerance and casually disregarding issues of race. It really is a fine line between what they've been doing and what people like Kotleba advocate.

Fortunately, there are some people who are concerned about rising right-wing extremism. After the newspaper Sme published video footage in January of a group of neo-Nazis physically assaulting patrons of a popular bar/student hangout in the city of Nitra (and after Nitra's police and prosecutors waited over a month to arrest the culprits and then promptly released them), a group of festival organizers planned a series of events to protest violence and racism. (A few of the assailants were reported to have ties to Kotleba's People's Party-Our Slovakia).

In mid-March a group of a few hundred mostly young people held a demonstration in downtown Bratislava to protest fascism and racism on the anniversary of the creation of Tiso's wartime fascist state. Kotleba's election win and the attack in Nitra seemed to lend the protest a sense of urgency.

Hopefully the people behind these anti-fascist events will be heard by the general public.

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