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Taking Their Chances

A newly formed Slovak movement is challenging a neo-Nazi stronghold in central Slovakia. 

by Martin Ehl 26 May 2017

Andrej Ban is a well-known Slovak journalist and photographer who would never pass the litmus test of Western journalism. That’s because Ban is also an activist, engaging directly in a cause. After reporting from places like Kosovo or Afghanistan, he has been consumed since last year with fighting the rise to power of a neo-Nazi party in his native country.

 

And he seems quite successful so far.

 

In 2013, Marian Kotleba – the leader of the neo-Nazi People’s Party-Our Slovakia – was elected governor of the regional parliament in Banska Bystrica, a region in central Slovakia. Last year, to the shock of Bratislava liberals, Kotleba's party entered the national parliament after receiving 8 percent of the vote. According to national polls, their support now stands at about 11 percent, which is significant in light of regional elections this autumn, when Kotleba will defend his position.

 

These elections will also be a test of Ban's initiative. After Kotleba’s shocking success, he founded last year, together with architect Michal Karako, a civic group called Forgotten Slovakia. Since then, members of the group have been journeying to the regions where neo-Nazis got most of their votes, to discuss the dangers of a fascist revival with people who feel forgotten by politicians.

 

Kotleba and his allies want to leave the EU, organize semi-legal patrols in Roma-populated areas, and openly acknowledge their connection to the Slovak fascist state that existed during World War II. Their behavior has been so disturbing that prosecutors moved this week to ban the party, citing a threat to democracy. Step by step they have gained the sympathy of voters who increasingly see in these skinheads, with their trademark green shirts, an alternative to the (often corrupt) inefficient politicians of both the left and the right.

 

Last Monday, Forgotten Slovakia organized its final public meeting on the topic (together with a concert and a debate). The event took place on the main square of Banska Bystrica, right under the window of Kotleba’s office. The meeting was financed through crowdfunding, and because Ban and his colleagues received a lot more money than they needed, they have been talking about continuing their work in the autumn before regional elections.

 

They also have the support of Slovak President Andrej Kiska, who participated in last week’s debate in Banska Bystrica. Kiska is also the only politician who stood up to the green-clad guys in an already famous video during a recent visit to Brezno, one of the neo-Nazi strongholds.

 

 

“Skinheads offer only short sentences, they are demagogic. We must discuss [things with them] but not retreat when facing evil,” Kiska told the several hundred people gathered in the square. The president had also earlier declared a competition for the best website, video, or app that would fight against hatred. Now his office is in the process of selecting the top five applications out of the 139 received.

 

Ban said that there have been moments during the discussions when he was afraid of people’s reactions – for example when a bus full of skinheads participated in one of the public debates. But when common people stood up and spoke out, it was a revelation. “The most important thing I noticed was that, when Kotleba's guys participated in a discussion with the others, people were no longer afraid to speak up,” said Ban.

 

“These Kotleba guys are heroes only when they are together,” he said. “They are also stronger in a virtual space than in real life. But this is a dangerous phenomenon all the same.” The debates he organizes, which target students and young people but are open to the wider public, usually include Holocaust survivors among the guests.

 

Forgotten Slovakia isn’t the only interesting civic initiative. Last month, over 10,000 people took to the streets of Bratislava, the country’s capital, to participate in a demonstration organized by two 18 year olds.

 

The Slovak political scene might be a shabby mess of variously compromised politicians who have been losing the trust of the voters. But it is also a promising laboratory of civic activism based on a rich heritage. For instance, NGOs were the main driver behind the defeat of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1990s, when Slovakia seemed more likely to follow the Belarusian descent into authoritarianism than to join the EU and NATO.

 

But organizing one demonstration or several public debates is one thing, and systemic political work is another. We will see the concrete results of the fight against neo-Nazism, and we will see them soon – regional elections take place on 4 November.  If Marian Kotleba is defeated, Forgotten Slovakia and Kiska deserve more recognition than they got from the small crowd gathered in the center of Banska Bystrica a few days ago. 

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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