Slovakia becomes latest European country to hit the far right

A neo-Nazi Slovak MP has been slapped with a prison sentence, after Greece and Italy took legal measures against the far right.

Marian Kotleba, leader of the far-right LSNS speaks during an election campaign rally in Topolcany, Slovakia, February 12, 2020 [David W Cerny/Reuters]

A Slovak court has sentenced neo-Nazi MP Marian Kotleba to four years and four months in prison in early October, a sentence viewed as a warning to the country’s hardliners that the state is coming for them.

During the trial, the Specialised Criminal Court in Pezinok, north of the capital Bratislava, heard how the leader of the neo-Nazi People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) had in 2017 handed out novelty-sized cheques featuring Nazi references at a charity event.

The cheques, made out for 1,488 euros, were presented to the families of children with disabilities on the anniversary of the founding of Slovakia’s war-time Nazi client state, led by Jozef Tiso. Prosecutors argued to the court that the amount referred to a 14-word racist slogan favoured by neo-Nazi’s: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Kotleba, whose party campaigns against EU and NATO membership, preaches hatred against Jews, Muslims, and Roma.

He has filed an appeal. Analysts estimate that Slovakia’s Supreme Court will hear the case within the next six to nine months.

Emerging from the court after his sentencing, the LSNS leader was defiant, claiming the court had not judged the facts of the case.

‘Slovak society less and less tolerant of extremism’

“I can’t say that I’m happy, because I expected an acquittal,” he told journalists. “It is clear that there was a political order that Kotleba needs to be ‘dealt with’.”

Prosecutor Tomas Honz said: “Slovakia has finally finished waiting for a verdict against a top representative of extremism.”

It served a message, he added, that the courts and prosecution service will defend victims of “extremism”, violence, racial hatred, fascism and neo-Nazism.

Kotleba, who has recently dropped a penchant for marching in black uniform in a bid to soften his party’s image, is the third LSNS MP to be convicted for “extremism” recently as the Slovak establishment steps up to confront the far right.

In 2016, the neo-Nazi party, carried by a wave of anti-migrant sentiment across Europe, entered parliament for the first time by taking 8.6 percent of votes in elections. It confirmed its support again at the polls in February this year, when it won 17 of the 150 seats in the lower house.

The party’s gains at the ballot box forced a fundamental change, said Daniel Milo. Now an analyst at the Bratislava-based Globsec think-tank, in 2017 he was an adviser to the justice minister and helped build a central state body to fight “extremism”.

Centred on a National Counterterrorism Police Unit (NPTJ), the reorganisation also established special prosecutors and courts under the same roof, improving the effectiveness of investigations into far-right activities.

“Slovak society has become less and less tolerant of extremism, and the establishment has taken that firmly on board,” said Branislav Kovacik, an associate professor of political science at Matej Bel University in Banska Bystrica, Kotleba’s home town in central Slovakia where he launched his political career.

These centralised forces continue to press the far right, and the LSNS in particular.

In August, Rastislav Rogel – a notorious neo-Nazi musician and previously a party candidate – was charged with disseminating “extremist” materials along with several others. Another member of the party was sentenced to 23 years for murder.

Many see the four-years-plus-four-months sentence handed to Kotleba as a warning that the establishment intends to finish the LSNS off. Launched from Bankska Bystrica in 1944, the Slovak National Uprising insurrection is widely viewed as the beginning of the end for Tiso’s Nazi regime.

“The judge was clearly very serious about confronting Kotleba,” said Andrej Matisak, an editor at the Pravda broadsheet, “and the symbolism of the sentence was obviously intended to provoke him.”

The 2019 conviction of Milan Mazurek for racist remarks about the Roma minority during a radio interview seemed to have started things off. He became the first parliamentarian in Slovak history to lose his mandate following a conviction.

Kotleba risks the same should his appeal fail. Analysts disagree over whether LSNS could continue to rally significant support without its high-profile leader. But even should it survive the loss, Kotleba’s imprisonment could still mark the party’s end.

Last year, the Supreme Court blocked an attempt by the interior ministry to ban the LSNS on the grounds that it seeks to overturn the democratic state. Many believe that the authorities will soon seek to exploit the convictions of Kotleba and the other officials to continue trying to weaken the party.

Other efforts across Europe

Slovakia is not alone in its push to target “extremism” and Bratislava’s confrontation of the LSNS coincides with other efforts across Europe to clamp down on far-right parties and networks.

Thousands gather outside a Greek court for the decision in the trial of the leaders of the far-right Golden Dawn party in Athens, Greece on October 07, 2020 [Ayhan Mehmet/ Anadolu Agency]

Like Kotleba, the leaders of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party are facing jail terms after being found guilty of running a criminal organisation.

In Italy, former Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini is on trial for abuse of power, a charge linked to his refusal last year to allow 131 refugees rescued from the Mediterranean to disembark from a coastguard ship.

While not directly connected, this spate of legal attacks is a response to the rise of far-right and neo-Nazi parties during the populist wave that has swept Europe since the global financial crisis.

“There has been a growing recognition amongst governments and criminal justice systems that these movements are a threat,” said Milo.

There is some hope that this legal pressure could further reduce support for the radical right. This month’s municipal elections in Vienna saw support for Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO) all but collapse. Polls suggest Salvini’s League is struggling badly, and a similar trend has Germany’s AfD (Alternative for Germany) descending into chaos and threatening to tear itself apart.

However, some doubt that the prosecutions are a sustainable means towards weakening the far right long term.

Legal hostility is nothing new for these parties, Cas Mudde, a prominent researcher on extremism, pointed out.

“Neo-Nazi and radical right parties have faced bans and convictions ever since the end of the second world war,” he said.

Milo insists these legal battles are important but adds that they cannot make a fundamental difference on their own.

“Society must use all tools at its disposal to defend its core democratic values,” he argued. “But the key point is to find out how to stop extremists gaining public support in the first place.”

Others call for the authorities to adopt a harder approach. As Slovakia has done, the criminalisation of far-right networks should be approached through the counterterrorism lens, said Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director of the Counter Extremism Project.

“Branding toxic right-wing narratives as terrorism-related would unmask them for what they truly are,” he said, “inhuman, violence-inducing illegitimate ideology, not extremist pipedreams that can – to a certain extend – be ignored.”