Dispatch

Marian Kotleba Wants to Make Slovakia Fascist Again

A party of right-wing extremists is trying to ride a wave of youth support to reshape Slovakia’s government.

Marian Kotleba, the leader of the right nationalist People's Party-Our Slovakia, walks to his seat during the introduction of delegates to the parliament in Bratislava on March 11, 2016.
Marian Kotleba, the leader of the right nationalist People's Party-Our Slovakia, walks to his seat during the introduction of delegates to the parliament in Bratislava on March 11, 2016. VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP via Getty Images

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—It’s hard to imagine a political party with a more unabashed neo-Nazi past than Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS). The party’s current spokesperson once headed up a neo-Nazi band; there’s audio online of him shouting “Sieg Heil” from the stage in the 1990s. The party has prominent members who have been convicted of hate crimes for shouting Nazi-era slogans, and has a party vice chair who beat up a black man while shouting racial slurs at him.

As for the party’s leader, Kotleba once called life under Slovakia’s Nazi puppet state “like being in heaven.” He also used to parade around in public wearing a uniform modeled on the puppet state’s militia and once called Jews “devils in human skin.”

It’s a résumé that might be expected to sink the party’s chances. But Kotleba and his crew of barely concealed extremists are riding high ahead of Slovakia’s parliamentary elections on Saturday. Polling at around 10 percent and in third place, Kotleba and his far-right fanboys could well be kingmakers after Saturday’s elections, with observers worried Kotleba and friends could become part of a coalition government with the current ruling party—and bring down Slovakia’s democracy in the process.

Kotleba’s LSNS has been operating from the increasingly accurate assumption that a broad swath of voters in this country of 5.4 million have grown sick of their sclerotic political class. By softening its rhetoric, the party is targeting Slovakia’s alienated voters, especially the young people most concerned by the unsolved 2018 murder of a crusading journalist who had exposed high-level government corruption and criminality.

It’s a far cry from the beginnings of Kotleba’s public life. He first made a name for himself almost 20 years ago in his hometown of Banska Bystrica in central Slovakia. It was there where the schoolteacher grabbed attention for his open praise of the Slovak State and its Nazi-collaborating leader, Jozef Tiso, and his penchant for parading about with friends in uniforms inspired by the Hlinka Guard, the Nazi puppet state’s militia.

Kotleba’s first attempt at a political party, Slovak Brotherhood, was banned by the country’s highest court in 2006 for violating democratic principles and the constitution; to date, it’s the only party to have been banned in Slovakia. In response, Kotleba and friends took over an almost-defunct fringe party called the Party of the Friends of Wine and reshaped it into LSNS. The officially registered name of the current party—“Kotlebists-People’s Party Our Slovakia”—makes clear who runs the show.

They ditched the ominous black uniforms for green polo shirts, and Kotleba ran to become governor of the Banska Bystrica region in 2013—and won. Buoyed by this success, LSNS defied expectations and won 8 percent of the vote in 2016’s parliamentary elections, good enough for fifth place.

While Kotleba was trounced from his governorship in 2017, he wasn’t down for long. In May 2019 his party garnered 12 percent of the vote in Slovakia’s European Parliament elections, winning two of Slovakia’s 14 seats.

Direction-Social Democracy (Smer), the party that has governed Slovakia for 12 of the past 14 years, is still predicted to come first in this weekend’s election, though with a significantly reduced vote share. The party has lurched from scandal to scandal, including the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in February 2018, which shocked the nation and forced Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign after massive protests. Kuciak’s investigations into widespread criminality and corruption implicated senior figures close to the government.

While most parties have rejected the idea of forming a coalition with Kotleba, analysts have speculated that Smer may well form a formal or informal coalition with LSNS after the elections. The party has coordinated with and relied on votes from LSNS in the last parliament, and Fico has defended the party and its members in the past. With polls suggesting that as many as nine parties may make it into the country’s fractured National Council on Saturday, the parliamentary math remains unpredictable.

But the prospect of an extremist party joining Slovakia’s next government is suddenly very real. LSNS’s rhetoric and messaging has become less overtly extreme over time, but they still express open contempt for Muslims, Roma, George Soros, and the European Union, to name a few of their primary targets. Despite the party’s continuing claims it’s not a neo-Nazi party (they’ve even sued a Slovak media outlet who called them neo-Nazis), the party’s hardcore roots are still evident in its personnel.

Aside from Kotleba himself there’s party spokesperson Ondrej Durica, who once headed up a neo-Nazi band called Biely Odpor (White Resistance). High up on their list of candidates for this year’s election is Andrej Medvecky, who was convicted for assaulting a black man while shouting racial slurs at him. Another candidate, Anton Grno, was fined 5,000 euros last month for giving a fascist salute, while former member of parliament Milan Mazurek lost his seat last year after being convicted of making racist statements; he was also involved in an assault on an Arab family in Bratislava.

LSNS’s messaging continues to make nods to its hardcore roots. The party still celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the Nazi-allied Slovak State every March. To celebrate the occasion in 2017, Kotleba gave checks for exactly 1,488 euros to families at a party event, referencing a neo-Nazi numerical hate symbol. A few months later he donated the same amount to a youth hockey team.

Despite all this, LSNS continues to poll well in advance of Saturday’s elections. Polls several weeks ago had LSNS as high as second place with 12 percent of the vote, with some worrying that LSNS could even win the elections. More recent polls suggest though that a first-place finish is extremely unlikely. Still, the party is set to gain around 10 percent of the vote and finish in third place on Saturday, a significant result in a European country for a party with not just an openly neo-Nazi past but a thinly disguised neo-Nazi present.

On the streets of Bratislava, Kotleba and company are far from popular. The party gained only 4 percent of the vote in the capital in 2016, and stickers condemning Kotleba and LSNS in fairly obscene language aren’t hard to find. But this isn’t where Kotleba and his party focus their attention. It’s in Slovakia’s smaller towns, hours away from the capital, where LSNS has long tried to plant deep roots.

Martina Strmenova has long seen the simplistic, carefully packaged message of Kotleba garner support in the small towns in the Banska Bystrica region. It’s in towns like these where he has struck a chord with a significant minority of voters with his railing against the country’s “elites” and scapegoating Slovakia’s Roma population. In 2014, Strmenova and others formed the Not in Our Town civic initiative in response not only to Kotleba’s victory the previous year in regional elections, but to what they saw as a slow slide in the region toward far-right radicalization and the mainstreaming of far-right ideas.

Strmenova and her colleagues are working overtime in Kotleba’s home region to try and stymie his progress. Not in Our Town has chosen 60 villages and towns in the Banska Bystrica region, Strmenova told Foreign Policy, where Kotleba garnered more than 20 per cent of the vote in 2019’s presidential elections (he garnered 10 percent nationwide and fourth place in a race won by anti-corruption lawyer and progressive candidate Zuzana Caputova). They travel around the region, focusing on speaking directly to voters and “explaining to them why far right parties are not a good option,” she said. The initiative has arguably already had some success, being part of efforts to build an ultimately successful unified front against Kotleba in the 2017 regional elections.

Stopping Kotleba and LSNS this time won’t be easy—and Strmenova is especially worried about what might happen after the elections. LSNS, she says, has already been successful in mainstreaming a far-right narrative in the country, and their results on Saturday won’t change that. “People are getting used to it and consider it ‘normal’ or OK,” she said. Worse, it’s Slovakia’s young people who are most likely to give Kotleba a chance. One recent survey suggested that almost 20 percent of Slovaks under the age of 33 would vote for Kotleba’s party. This is consistent with results from a survey in the fall of 2019 that suggested 19 percent of Slovaks under the age of 30 would vote for Kotleba’s party—more than any other party.

The country’s mainstream parties, especially Smer, may have the power to decide whether LSNS will become even more “normal.” If they decide to cooperate or form a coalition with LSNS, Strmenova fears it may be something the country won’t be able to walk back from. “LSNS has had many ups and downs,” Strmenova said. “But it takes only one strong victory for them, and democracy won’t be able to fight it anymore.”

Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.

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