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“We are leaving this coffin and a nice wreath here for [the prime minister] as a heartfelt gift,” Miroslav Suja, an LSNS member of parliament, said, standing in front of Matovic’s gate.
Despite breaking the ban on public gatherings and not abiding by a range of epidemiological measures, the protest continued unhindered as the police stood calmly by until the crowd eventually dispersed.
Protests against the coronavirus measures and the Matovic government have become the latest addition to Kotleba’s repertoire this year, as he and his supporters seek to deepen public distrust in the government and democratic institutions, including the EU.
According to political experts, however, they are also part of Kotleba’s attempt to divert attention away from his own legal troubles by creating an atmosphere of pseudo-political oppression. “If Kotleba goes to jail, they want to make it seem like political persecution,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, political scientist and an expert on far-right extremism in Slovakia at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.
In October, Kotleba was found guilty of extremist crimes at the Special Criminal Court in Pezinok, and now faces four years and four months in prison. He was convicted of promoting neo-Nazi ideology after using the well-known numeric symbol “1488” – derived from the neo-Nazi slogan “14 words” and the eighth letter in the alphabet ‘H’, as in “Heil Hitler” – at a public event. He denies all the charges and his appeal against the sentence is due to be heard by the Supreme Court.
Kotleba’s party, which entered parliament for a second time earlier this year, is the most prominent representation of the far-right in Slovakia, with stable support at around 8-10 per cent of voters. But they are not alone. Together with other groups, movements, organisations and propaganda networks, these groups work hard at destabilising public trust in liberal democracy, tolerance, human rights and Slovakia’s place in the West.
Leader of LSNS, Marian Kotleba (C), with party members in Krasnohorske Podhradie, southeast Slovakia, 29 September 2012, where Kotleba planned to demolish shacks where Roma live. Photo: EPA/Janos Vajda
The political wing
The main organisations of the extreme far-right in Slovakia can be divided into two groups: the political and the paramilitary. Both of these groups are richly supported by a network of disinformation media and Facebook groups, often openly propounding a pro-Russian narrative.
Kotleba’s LSNS is the acknowledged leader of far-right extremism in the country, gaining enough support to enter the top democratic institutions – not once, but four times. In 2013, Kotleba won the election for regional governor of Banska Bystrica, which helped propel his party into the national parliament in 2016 and again in 2020 with 8 per cent of the vote. In 2019, LSNS also won two seats in the European Parliament.
LSNS was created via a legal trick in 2010, after the first party led by Kotleba, Slovak Togetherness (Slovenska Pospolitost), was banned by the Supreme Court in 2006. A few years later, Kotleba and other members of Slovak Togetherness took over a tiny party, founded as a kind of practical joke, called The Party of Friends of Wine, which in February 2010 became LSNS.
Its main campaign theme has been built around attacking the Roma minority, not just with political slogans, but also with anti-Roma rallies in towns with significant Roma populations. But over time the party’s agenda has widened to include the fight against liberal and progressive politics, LGBT rights, the EU, migrants and NGOs – all laced with an undercurrent of antisemitism.
“Saying that LSNS is a far-right party is a euphemism; they are much more radical than the regular far-right,” Meseznikov told BIRN.
“LSNS is an extremist party, they are a part of a neo-Nazi family of parties,” the political scientist said, referring to LSNS’s membership in the Alliance for Freedom and Peace, which connects the most radical parties across the continent, including Greece’s Golden Dawn and the National Democratic Party of Germany.
Although LSNS likes to pose as a respectable party these days, its extremist roots aren’t too hard to discern. It regularly celebrates the anniversary of the wartime fascist Slovak state on March 14, as well as its President Jozef Tiso, who was sentenced to death for war crimes in 1947. It also likes to highlight the (real or invented) Jewish ethnicity of enemies and puts up billboards with anti-LGBT, anti-migrant or anti-Roma slogans. Its members and supporters have marched through towns in dark uniforms modelled on the Nazi Hlinka Guards from WWII.
In 2016, LSNS launched “train patrols”, which it claimed were to protect “decent people” from “anti-social” elements. In practice, that meant LSNS thugs in green party t-shirts intimidating Roma travellers and playing the ‘heroes’ on social media.
LSNS faced being banned in 2019, but the Supreme Court chose not to rule in favour of the Prosecutor General’s petition, stating the office had not provided enough evidence. The case returned to the spotlight later when leaked messages from the phone of Marian Kocner, an oligarch who was tried but acquitted of ordering the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018, showed him bragging that he had “made sure” that LSNS would not be disbanded.
“The court will say that they are not fascist,” wrote Kocner to his partner Alena Zsuzsova in March 2018. “They owe me now,” he added, alluding to a “plan B” with Kotleba’s party in case the government led by Robert Fico fell after the mass protests following the murder.
“I still have doubts about the ruling of the Supreme Court,” said Meseznikov. “In a decent country, what [Prosecutor General] Jaromir Ciznar wrote in those 20 pages would be absolutely enough [to dissolve such a group].”
In the end, Kotleba’s party used the court verdict for its own benefit, falsely claiming that the court had officially “confirmed” that they have nothing to do with fascism.
The tide, however, appears to be changing. So far, at least seven LSNS members and a number of the party’s candidates have been charged and convicted of extremist or violent crimes, including Kotleba himself.
One of the party’s MPs lost his parliamentary mandate due to extremist crimes last year, while another former member was convicted of first-degree murder. If Kotleba’s verdict is upheld by the Supreme Court, the party faces challenging times.
“If I were appointed prosecutor general, I would definitely re-evaluate all the evidence necessary to file a petition with the Supreme Court to dissolve LSNS,” Maros Zilinka, a prosecutor, told Dennik N in the month before he was actually elected prosecutor general by parliament on December 3.
SHO (Slovak Revival Movement) posters (right) before the 2020 elections in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia. Photo: Miroslava German Sirotnikova/BIRN
The Slovak Revival Movement (SHO) has been on the Slovak extremist scene since 2004, first as a civil group, before transforming into a political party in 2016. Since then, it has competed with Kotleba’s LSNS to attract the most radical voters, but failed to gain much support in either national or presidential elections.
At first glance, SHO is very different from LSNS. Its leader, Robert Svec, 44, studied political science and presents himself in a rather sophisticated way, always dressed in suit and tie, always polite. SHO likes to promote its social programs that are aimed at helping families in need or environmental activities.
At its core, however, SHO is strongly nationalist, pro-Russian and neo-fascist, building on the heritage of the wartime Slovak state, a partially-recognised client state of Nazi Germany. “We think the first Slovak president, Jozef Tiso, was the best and most significant president in Slovak history,” the movement writes on its website.
SHO party members strongly reject multiculturalism, migration, liberalism, the “LGBT agenda”, the mainstream media and NGOs. On the other hand, they are not shy about promoting Russian propaganda or the idea of “pan-Slavism”.
The most openly neo-Nazi part of the SHO agenda is its attitude towards Slovak history. On March 14, it organises annual celebrations on the anniversary of the establishment of the First Slovak Republic State (1939-1945) in a village of Cakajovce near Nitra, gathering and taking pictures by the only statue still standing of Jozef Tiso, located in a park. The party promotes selective or alternative views on Slovakia’s wartime history, going as far as to defend the criminal deportations of Jews and other minorities to concentration camps.
“If I had to define them in the far-right camp, I’d say they are the most radical wing,” Meseznikov described SHO. “Svec almost openly says that if they got into power, they would impose laws based on race,” said the analyst, pointing to Svec’s posts about work camps for Jews in Slovakia during WWII.
“These photographs are proof that Jews were looked after very well in the camps,” wrote Svec on Facebook in 2016, sharing a set of historic photographs from concentration camps. “They were given medical care and food. In the future, we will continue to do what worked in the past.”
Members of Slovak Conscripts training in the woods. Photo: HBO/Jan Gebert/ When the War Comes
The paramilitary wing
Slovak Conscripts (Slovenski branci, SB) is an unofficial, unregistered paramilitary group, founded in 2012 by a young university student called Peter Svrcek from Trnava.
Over the years, Slovak Conscripts has been busy setting up units across the country, training in woods and on private grounds in military gear and uniforms with very real-looking deactivated (or blank-firing) weapons. Experts estimate the number of active members at 100-150, though a lot more have completed their training.
As Slovak Conscripts has never registered as an official organisation, the state claims it has no way of dissolving or banning it. Legally, paramilitary groups are banned in Slovakia, but in 2016 the Slovak Conscripts created a civil association called Our Homeland Is Our Future, which is allowed to accept donations from the public and promotes a clear political agenda. Up to that point, Slovak Conscripts had presented itself as an “apolitical civil militia”.
In the 2019 annual report by the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), Slovak Conscripts was labelled a security risk. “SIS has focused on activities of the members of the unregistered organisation active in the area of paramilitary training, which concentrated its operation mostly on the intensive recruitment of new members and on increasing the level of training for different units,” the report read.
In response to questions from BIRN, the Slovak Defence Ministry said that although Slovak Conscripts existed “at the limits of the law”, the ministry has delegated the taking of any action against the group to the “responsible [state] organs”. The police have launched several investigations into the organisation over the past two years, rejecting or closing the cases without charge.
In December 2019, the SIS documented activities by Slovak Conscripts that targeted the Roma minority. After two incidents in Vazec and Richnava involving local Roma people from poor communities, Slovak Conscripts announced the setting up of “patrols” in Roma settlements to “stop the escalation of tensions”. Similar to its patrols in 2016 aimed at intimidating Middle Eastern tourists in the spa town of Piestany, the Slovak Conscripts’ activities were short-lived, but served as effective PR stunts.
Slovak Conscripts came under some state pressure when they started trying to organise military workshops in elementary schools. The group continues to offer training and summer camps for children and adults.
Peter Svrcek (left), leader of Slovak Conscripts, at the head of a public event organised by the paramilitary group. Photo: HBO/Jan Gebert
In 2018, HBO broadcast a documentary about Slovak Conscripts made by Czech director Jan Gebert, titled When the War Comes, that showed the two faces of Peter Svrcek: a public one and the one reserved for friends and fellow conscripts.
“A lot of people lack meaning and ideal in their lives that reaches beyond their perhaps ordinary lives. Svrcek gives them this purpose. In Slovak Conscripts, they get the feeling they are becoming warriors for the nation,” Gebert told Startitup.
The biggest risk for Slovak Conscripts, according to security and policy experts, lies in its affinity towards Russia and animosity towards Slovakia’s allies in the West. Svrcek founded the Slovak Conscripts after leaving SHO and completing a military training course in Russia, together with other members.
“Slovak Conscripts is a paramilitary group providing military training combined with pan-Slavic and pro-Russian ideological indoctrination,” a 2017 report by the Institute for Public Affairs laid out.
Meseznikov of the Institute calls Slovak Conscripts a Russian outfit. “At a time of crisis, they would be the ‘little green men’, that’s their role,” said Meseznikov, adding that the Slovak Conscripts would not fight on the side of NATO, but against it.
“We’ve had political parties or movements with paramilitary wings here in the past, and it never turned out well,” Matej Kandrik, a security analyst at the Stratpol think tank, told Startitup. “The problem is that, in the past, there have been individuals with radical or extremist attitudes moving in the same circles as Slovak Conscripts. The possibility that an individual with these inclinations receives training through Slovak Conscripts is real and worrying.”
As evidence, Kandrik points out that one Slovak Conscripts member is known to have fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, while other members are known to be active members of the Slovak armed forces, with the potential to provide military training or insights into the inner workings of the Slovak armed services.