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For Eastern Europe, “the situation has become something really, really dangerous.”
Members of the Hungarian far-right group Magyar Garda try to get into a Budapest Court (Photo by Karoly Arvai/Reuters)
ZLIN, Czech Republic – Calm, pleasant and modestly prosperous, the Czech city of Zlin seems the last place you’d expect to find violent extremists.
Women push baby strollers through the cobblestoned town square where, on weekends, wedding parties line up for photographs in front of the handsome town hall. On the outskirts, people tend elaborate gardens outside the tidy brick homes constructed by the early 20th century industrialist Thomas Bata, who built Zlin as a model city.
But earlier this summer the peace was broken when dozens of neo-Nazis clashed with about 100 anarchists, overwhelming police. Similar clashes occurred in the suburb of Otrokovice two years ago, forcing police to deploy armored vehicles and a helicopter to disperse them.
So far, the Czech far-right has had more of an impact on the streets than at the ballot box. Its support is limited to pockets here and in the north of the country. But lately their counterparts in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe have amassed more power than they have since the end of World War II. This became particularly apparent during June’s European Parliament elections, in which ultra-right parties ran neck-and-neck with established mainstream rivals, capturing numerous seats.
In Hungary, the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party took 15 percent of the vote, scoring three seats in the EU’s Strasbourg-based parliament. Members of its paramilitary arm, the Magyar Garda, march in formation through Gypsy neighborhoods while wearing black jackboots and carrying flags and symbols favored by Hungarian Nazis during World War II.
The Slovak National Party won its first EU seat this year. It has been part of Slovakia’s governing coalition since 2006. Its leader, Jan Slota, has referred to the country’s ethnic Hungarian minority as “a tumor on the body of the Slovak nation.”
The Greater Romania Party — founded by Holocaust denier Vadim Tudor — also picked up three EU seats, with 9 percent of Romania’s vote. In Bulgaria, the nationalist Ataka party won two seats with 12 percent.
“The rise of these ultra-nationalist parties and their political success is unexpected and unpleasant,” said Pavol Demes, director of the German Marshall Fund’s regional office in Bratislava, Slovakia. “If you had told us 20 years ago with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Velvet Revolution that we would be seeing something like this, nobody would have believed it.”
Jobbik’s rise in Hungary has caused the greatest alarm. The party and its paramilitary arm, Magyar Garda, both headed by a telegenic 30-year old history teacher, Gabor Vona, claims to wish to confront “Gypsy crime” and has held dozens of rallies to “defend Hungary” in villages and neighborhoods with large Roma (Gypsy) populations. Last month a Hungarian appeals court upheld a ban on Magyar Garda for generating a climate of fear among Roma.
The Roma have been victims not only of fear mongering, but of violence as well. Over the past year, six Roma have been murdered in four death squad-style attacks, including a 45-year-old woman executed in her home on Aug. 3, 2009; the woman’s 13-year-old daughter remains in critical condition from shotgun wounds. Police have said the killers have military training. In February, a 28-year-old man and his 5-year-old son were gunned down on their doorstep in Tatarszentgyorgy.
Jobbik has denied involvement in any of the incidents and has accused the country’s Socialist government of organizing the crimes as part of a “witch hunt directed at Jobbik.”
According to party spokesman Zsolt Varkonyi, the Gypsy issue is a distraction from “the core problem": the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory. Jobbik would like to see the treaty revised, or reversed altogether. The latter move would require all of its neighbors to give up territory, and would wipe Slovakia from the map.
“We can spend another 20 years … talking about racism, anti-Semitism … and the rest of the ‘topics’ the western media seems to be concerned about, without touching on the core of the problem … [the] Trianon Treaty,” he told GlobalPost Passport via email. He wrote that the ban on Magyar Garda had been undertaken “on completely political grounds” and that there was “not one single case” of the group committing a criminal act.
When the European Parliament convened in Strasbourg on July 14, one of Jobbik’s newly elected representatives, Csanad Szegedi, caused a stir by showing up wearing the uniform of the banned Magyar Garda. (Later when he walked the halls, other legislators reportedly mistook him for some sort of repairman.)
Istvan Rev, a historian at Central European University in Budapest, said most of the region’s extreme right groups are “not neo-Nazis but simply fascists in the old-fashioned interwar sense of the term: They single out minority groups which they target with stereotypes coined at the beginning of the last century, be they Jews or Roma.”
“In Hungary, these groups have armed themselves and the situation has become something really, really dangerous,” Rev said. “The history of Europe can hold real surprises, including very ugly ones, like what happened between the two world wars.”
He added, “What is happening now is not just a war of words.”
The extreme right has benefited from the economic downturn, which has struck Eastern Europe particularly hard. “The bad economic situation and bad economic policies inevitably lead to a rise in support for the more radical parties,” said historian Geza Jeszenszky, who served as foreign minister in Hungary’s first post-Communist government. “Jobbik did best in former industrial regions with high unemployment.”
Low turnout — the worst in the Parliament’s three-decade history — helped extremists gain in the June elections. Only 43 percent of eligible European voters participated, with turnout under 37 percent in Hungary and less than 28 percent in Romania.
“When you are well organized, it’s much easier to win 10 percent of the vote when there’s only 30 percent turnout,” said Zoe Petre, who served as a top aide to former Romanian President Emil Constantinescu. “The Romania Mare Party inherited a lot of organizational ability from [former dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu’s secret police” helping them get supporters to the polls.
The movement’s success is not limited to the former Eastern Bloc, however. The extreme right is also gaining strength in Western Europe, with British, Austrian and Dutch nationalists making major gains in the European Parliament. The difference, Petre said, is that their voters are motivated by anti-immigrant feelings, while in the east there are few immigrants. “Here in Romania we are emigrating mostly,” she said.
By focusing instead on longstanding internal and external “enemies,” the extremists have been feeding on one another. Slovak and Romanian nationalists rail on their countries’ “disloyal” Hungarian minorities, which strengthens Jobbik’s arguments that the region’s borders should be redrawn to protect them, and vice versa.
“Nationalists on one side of the border are helping those on the other,” Demes said. “Mainstream politicians have to try to stop this from spreading.”