On November 24, 2013, Banská Bystrica, a city of 78,000 inhabitants situated in the foothills of the Low Tatra mountains in Central Slovakia, woke up to shocking news. A fascist candidate was democratically elected as the regional governor for the next four years.
Marian Kotleba, a former IT teacher, is infamous for his open hatred of the Roma minority, Jews, immigrants and the LGBTIQ+ community. He denies the Holocaust and admires the World War Two fascist Slovak State and its president Jozef Tiso, who was hanged in 1947 as a war criminal. Kotleba was always strongly against Slovakia´s membership in the EU and NATO, and often demonstrated anti-American and pro-Russian sentiments. He founded the far-right Slovenska pospolitost party in 2003 and the party was banned in 2006. Later, he founded the eponymous political party – “Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia” (Kotleba – Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko – ĽSNS).
Ironically, Banská Bystrica, where Kotleba´s fascist party came to power, was the center of the Slovak National Uprising, one of Central Europe’s largest anti-fascist movement during World War Two. People from the region and from many other countries (including the US) fought as partisans against the Nazis on the nearby mountains. Many were killed and a number of villages were burnt by the Nazis in retaliation. Since the memories of this period survive, it was shocking to witness a fascist candidate win elections in this region (including in the villages burnt by the Nazis during World War Two). Political analysts and experts were astonished by these election results.
Outrage and despair led to collective action. In 2014, following numerous discussions among local groups – activists from various sectors supported by the Centre for Community Organising in Banská Bystrica (founded by an American citizen) – a new local civic platform, Not in Our Town (NIOT), was established in Banská Bystrica. The inspiration for this effort came from the Not in Our Town movement of 1995 in Billings, Montana, against hate-crimes, racism and bullying.
The core group of this new movement consisted of 20-25 people including NGO activists, academics, artists, religious, church and minority representatives, and individual volunteers. Within a few months, the NIOT organized its first public debates on the Jewish and the Roma holocaust, and formulated its value statement,“breaking the silence.” Since then, the NIOT has developed and organized numerous activities across the region. Long-term projects such as Schools for Democracy Programme and the annual Human Forum conference, supported also by the US Embassy in Slovakia, represented the initial cornerstones of the movement. All these activities had one objective: to mobilize local people in the regional elections of 2017 in order to remove the fascists in power and elect democratic candidates. The four year battle of the NIOT movement was ultimately successful. Banská Bystrica voted for a democratic candidate and got rid of Kotleba.
However, this was only a partial victory. During this period, Kotleba and his ĽSNS party managed to win seats in the national Slovak Parliament in 2016 (8.04% and 14 seats) and became part of the opposition against the ruling coalition of SMER – Sociálna Demokracia Party. Their “white supremacist and hetero-sexist” narrative, like those of similar right-wing political parties in Europe, is built on all the prejudices inherent in fascism: racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and nativism. In addition to authoritarianism, they advocate for so-called “traditional values;” they consider feminism, homosexuality, abortion, and, more generally, liberal democracy as threats to the traditional Slovak family and the Slovak nation. This is captured in their slogan “For God – for nation,” first used by the fascist Slovak State of World War Two. During the ĽSNS participation in the parliamentary opposition, the party proposed and supported a number of laws denying rights to the LGBTQ+ community, Roma communities, and immigrants (particularly Muslims).
Despite no real achievements in either regional or national politics, Kotleba´s political presence has been growing. Before the parliamentary election in February of 2020, his party held rallies in numerous villages and towns across Slovakia, especially in the regions experiencing economic decline and high rates of unemployment. Furthermore, ĽSNS has relied primarily on social media to appeal to young people by spreading fear, doubt and uncertainty through conspiracy theories and fake news. Opinion polls before the election showed ĽSNS consistently placing second or third with 12 to 14 percent of votes. It was clear that the 2020 parliamentary election was about the future of Slovakia’s democracy. In the end, the ruling coalition led by Smer-SD was defeated by Igor Matovič’s anti-corruption Ordinary People Party. Kotleba-ĽSNS remained in the opposition after receiving 7.97 percent of the votes, slightly less than its share in 2016.
Right after the election, the Covid-19 crisis engulfed Slovakia. The newly elected government had to deal with a new emergency situation and managed it effectively. Covid-19 and the dissatisfying result of the election seemed to slightly paralyze the Kotleba-ĽSNS party. Emily Schultheis insight about Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) applies generally to the far-right parties in Europe who face a new dilemma: “As voters turn overwhelmingly to government officials and experts to lead them through the crisis, they’ve lost the spotlight they’ve long depended on.” The “friend versus enemy” narrative, which targets refugees, immigrants, and ethnic minorities such as the Roma in Slovakia, does not work very well during a pandemic. With the closing of borders, which is central to the far-right discourse, these parties struggle to find an alternative message.
However, history teaches us that hate-filled extremism flourishes during moments of crisis. In times of uncertainty people tend to look for radical alternatives. Marian Kotleba has tried to attract attention by spreading misinformation and peddling dangerous conspiracy theories. He claims that the coronavirus pandemic is a result of mass immigration into Europe. He blames refugees for bringing the virus to Slovakia and criticizes hygiene and safety measures introduced by the government. In a recent video he argues that the pandemic is part of a greater plan of some secret powers to control the lives of citizens, who will use vaccination as pretext to inject nanochips into people.
Right-wing parties across Europe are engaged in a similar campaign. AfD politicians cite the pandemic as evidence of the “failure of border-free globalization,” calling for the new border controls to be made permanent. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party, has also been spreading misinformation about the origins of the virus. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has asserted that there is a direct correlation between Covid-19 pandemic and illegal immigration. These baseless theories fit the rhetoric of populist, right-wing authoritarian politicians and can lead to strengthening of their power, as Orban’s power-grab in Hungary demonstrates.
Populists, extremists, and neo-fascists who build their political power on negative exclusionary narratives are waiting to make use of the pandemic, and the likely economic crisis that will follow, to further their agenda. The economic destruction and the rise of unemployment will inevitably lead to societal unrest and tension, providing fertile ground for the growth of nationalism and extremism. Let us not forget how Hitler´s Nazi regime came to power after the Great Depression in the 1930s. The right-wing parties in Europe will undoubtedly seek to capitalize on the economic decline to strengthen nationalist tendencies, and to undermine democratic states and the European Union.
Yet, let us hope for a more positive outcome. While the pandemic has provided an impetus for Slovak fascists to spread messages of fear, doubt and hatred, it has also allowed for numerous state, corporate and individual acts of goodness to prevail. The coronavirus-crisis might teach us about the need for more solidarity and cooperation at the global level. We share the same physiology, and are vulnerable to disease regardless of social status, faith, ethnicity, nationality or wealth. We should realize we are all part of humanity. We depend and rely on each other. We are responsible for each other, and we should care for people beyond our national borders.
What then will be the enduring legacy of the pandemic, global solidarity or authoritarian nationalism?
Alexandra Bitušíková is professor of social anthropology. Her research interests include urban change, diversity, identity, gender and social movements. She is actively engaged in a grassroots anti-fascist movement Not in Our Town in the city of Banská Bystrica, particularly in the organisation of the Human Forum conference and Schools for Democracy programme.
This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.