Normalising Extremism: How Far-Right Narratives Spread in the Balkans

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From racism to misogyny and anti-LGBT rhetoric, the use of far-right talking points by mainstream politicians and public figures has become increasingly commonplace in the Western Balkans in recent years, an analysis by BIRN’s team of experts shows.

Hate-filled comments about migrants, Roma people and the LGBT community. Praise for authoritarian regimes like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Misogynistic and sexist abuse. Conspiracy theories about George Soros, Covid vaccines and the so-called ‘Great Replacement Theory’, a far-right notion that there is a plot to supplant white European Christians with Muslims and non-white immigrants.

These are just some of the narratives often used by right-wing extremists that have also entered mainstream discourse in the Western Balkans in recent years.

BIRN’s analysis of the situation in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia shows how mainstream politicians and other prominent public figures have used talking points that sound like they come from the far right, even though they may not be right-wing extremists themselves. Indeed, some of those who have used such talking points claim to be on the left of politics.

These narratives have regularly been amplified by social media and, in some countries, by mainstream media outlets with links to government, often to the point where extreme viewpoints can seem unremarkable to the general public.

Western Balkan countries’ troubled histories – the armed conflicts of the 1990s; the difficult transitions to democracy and free-market capitalism; problems with poverty, corruption and bad governance – have made it easier for extremist narratives to find space in the public discourse as expressions of discontent.

Inter-ethnic disputes still fester in several countries, perpetuating divisions, fostering suspicion and sustaining enmity. Tensions around the disputes between Serbia and Kosovo, and between ethnic blocs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, provide material for hate-filled narratives, particularly when divisions are inflamed or manipulated by politicians for electoral gain. Meanwhile in Albania, the country’s history of dictatorship and repression casts its own shadow.

Although most countries in the Western Balkans are now hoping for a future within the European Union, conservative traditionalists who despise the EU’s liberal values are also waging so-called ‘culture wars’ using right-wing grievances about gender and sexuality.

Misogyny and sexism have long been a problem in the public arena in the Balkans, but they have been amplified by social media, with the risk of making misogynistic rhetoric more acceptable in wider social and political circles.

Coinciding with an increase in online attacks on women and girls and the deadly problem of femicides across the region, the exploitation of misogynistic and anti-feminist ideas by right-wingers serves to encourage violent attacks in the real world too.

Other factors have also fuelled hate speech, like the issue of migrants and refugees on the so-called Balkan Route to Western Europe, which has attracted racist rhetoric, or Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has been supported by Balkan admirers of authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin.

For this analysis, BIRN’s team of experts looked at how some of the most prominent right-wing extremist narratives have manifested themselves in the mainstream arena in recent years in these six Western Balkan countries.

Racism and ethnic discrimination

Migrants and refugees wait in line for food at the Vucjak camp in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR.

Intentionally conflating Muslims with Turks, therefore representing Muslims as an ancient enemy of Christian Europe, is one of the most common far-right talking points of Serb nationalists in Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia, and is also commonly used in the media. This narrative, along with equating Islam and terrorism, fits seamlessly into a broader far-right paradigm that positions Muslims as an outsider element within Europe.

The ‘ethnicisation’ of contemporary politics by referring to historical events fosters an environment ripe for far-right ideologies to take root. Drawing parallels between historical adversaries and present-day minorities fuels an ‘us versus them’ mentality, seeking to consolidate a homogenous identity by marginalising others.

Roma people have regularly been the targets of discriminatory rhetoric in various Western Balkan countries. In March 2023, the mayor of Belgrade, Aleksandar Sapic, claimed that the Roma community refuses to integrate into society and that the help that the city has offered them in the form of social housing has been in vain.

Sapic alleged that Roma people “tear out our woodwork and sanitary ware, sell everything that can be sold, cause problems for their neighbours and in the end, they return to their unhygienic settlements”.

Migrants and refugees have also been repeatedly targeted by discriminatory rhetoric since the emergence of the Balkan Route to the EU. In Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2020, deputy minister of finance Edita Djapo argued that “it would have been preferable to seal the borders for migrants, rather than diminishing the gravity of the security, humanitarian and health risks they potentially pose to life in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

report published by the Albanian Media Institute in 2022 said that there had been a rise in ethnic hate speech in the country that could be connected to the arrival of Afghan and Syrian refugees in the country and to anti-Chinese and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as racism against local Roma and Egyptian minorities.

An example of discriminatory narratives in the mainstream arena in Albania were the news packages broadcast in 2020 by Top ChannelABC News TV and A2 CNN that focused on local Albanians’ complaints about alleged theft by Arab and Middle Eastern immigrants living in asylum reception centres in Babrru, on the outskirts of the capital Tirana.

In Serbia, migration has been the subject of scare stories for several years, spread by right-wing parties with anti-EU agendas. In 2020, former Economy Minister Sasa Radulovic, of the Dosta je Bilo (Enough is Enough) party, even alleged that there was a clandestine blueprint to “settle over a million migrants in Serbia in the next 20 years”.

In ethnically-divided Bosnia and Herzegovina, the use of discriminatory slurs is not uncommon in the public sphere, particularly by nationalist politicians. A database produced by BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina logging hate speech, discriminatory statements and genocide denial by officials or public figures registered a total of 124 incidents from October 2021 to September 2022.

Provocative statements have also been registered in the sporting arena. During Ramadan in 2021, Bosniak NBA basketball star Jusuf Nurkic caused controversy when he posted a photo from 1944 on X (then Twitter) showing a mosque in Zagreb built by the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia, NDH, which persecuted and killed Jews, Serbs and Roma people.

In Kosovo meanwhile, according to a report for the European Commission last year on right-wing extremism in the Western Balkans, the phenomenon is divided along ethnic lines and “mostly based on identity-related and ultra-ethnonationalism politics” in a country still troubled by an unresolved conflict with its former master Serbia.

Many politicians and political activists, both Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, have faced hate speech comments, including ethnic hatred, and there have been incidents when individuals who have ethnically-mixed parentage have been targeted for abuse.

Nativism: ‘our country is for us

In both Serbia and Montenegro, a characteristic of the Serb far-right is the refusal to recognise some ethnic groups as valid: Croats are often described as ‘Catholicised Serbs’ and Bosniaks as ‘Serbs who converted to Islam’, while insults are also aimed at ethnic Montenegrins.

Expressions of nativism commonly appear as slogans in graffiti or banners at protests or football matches (“Serbia for the Serbs”“Montenegrin church, Montenegrin state, Montenegrin people”). But over the last couple of years in Montenegro, there has also been an increase in nativist talking points in the wider public arena related to the issue of who can get citizenship and the right to vote.

Amid debates about whether voting rights should be extended to members of the Montenegrin diaspora or citizens of Montenegro who also have citizenship of Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, a particularly noticeable far-right talking point has been that voting policy needs to be restrictive in order to ‘maintain the demographic structure of the country’ or to resist an ‘aggressive attempt to Serbify Montenegro’.

Montenegrin-born artist Sanja Golubovic argued, in an opinion piece published by a popular online media outlet in September, that Montenegrin citizens who do not want to be considered Montenegrins “should be encouraged by a series of laws to relocate (especially in the case of disrespecting the state)”.

Meanwhile Sanja Damjanovic, a former science minister and former MP from the Democratic Party of Socialists, wrote on Facebook in 2021 that she was “shocked by the brutal, engineered attempt to change the national identity of Montenegro”.

Damjanovic was accused of hate speech after she declared that it was time for everyone who found refuge in Montenegro because of the 1990s wars to leave. Asked by one Facebook user what should be done, she replied: “Open the cage to let the animals out.”

Well-known Montenegrin physicist Dragan Hajdukovic was also quoted by media as expressing fears about demographic change in the country caused by refugees from the 1990s wars: “A huge number of citizens left Montenegro because of hopelessness, and we received over 100,000 refugees, which is a dramatic and dangerous change of the structure of the population; one could say ethnic refilling,” he claimed.

In North Macedonia, in the early years after independence, ethnic Macedonian conservative parties, primarily the VMRO-DPMNE, constantly pushed the notion of a ‘greater’ Macedonia, sometimes depicting it on a banner or a flag showing territory including parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Albania.

However, the VMRO-DPMNE has more recently pulled back from promoting the idea, even though the notion that ethnic Macedonians, and North Macedonia as a state, have suffered a historic injustice is regularly aired in public discourse. However, in a country whose population is one-quarter ethnic Albanian, there is still promotion of the idea of a ‘Greater Albania’ in the mainstream political arena – a territory encompassing parts of North Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia as well as Albania and Kosovo.

Banners showing a ‘Greater Albania’ have been flown at football matches, and one was waved at a concert in Tetovo in honour of visiting Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in August, which was organised by the city’s mayor, Billal Kasami. Kasami, a member of the Besa political party, greeted Kurti by playing a song called ‘Welcome to Albania’.

Kasami calls Tetovo the ‘capital of the Albanians in North Macedonia’. He defended the display of the Greater Albania banner at the concert, and a few days later, it was flown again at another event that he organised.

Anti-Bulgarian rhetoric is also an issue in North Macedonia, particularly as Sofia has been blocking the start of Skopje’s EU accession talks over a historical dispute between the two countries. Actor and comedian Sasho Tasevski, who has emerged as a popular media personality on the right, was accused of anti-Bulgarian hate speech in 2022 by the Anti-Discrimination Commission after making a sexist speech about Bulgarian women.

Macedonian pop singer Lambe Alabakovski also became a hero for the country’s right wing because he tried to set a Bulgarian club on fire in the town Bitola. When he was prosecuted, right-wingers protested in his support, some wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I am Lambe too”.

After being given a suspended sentence, Alabakovski then became part of a concert tour entitled ‘Macedonia we carry you in our hearts’ which aims to promote ‘patriotism’ ahead of elections next year.

The leftist Levica party has also tapped into anger at Bulgaria over the ongoing dispute between the countries. The party was of the main mobilisers of the protests in June 2022 against a French compromise deal with Bulgaria which would enable Skopje’s EU membership talks to start. Opponents of the deal claimed it would endanger the Macedonian language and national identity.

Misogyny and sexist abuse

Societies in the Western Balkans are largely patriarchal and male-dominated, and misogynistic statements are commonplace in the public arena, such as the sexual innuendos aimed at female politicians and ministers. These are often amplified in the online arena, boosting the negative impact on the victims. The lack of sanctions for online sexist abuse further discourages women and girls in the Western Balkans from participating in public life.

Since declaring independence in 2008, Kosovo has had two women presidents, but both have been subjected to sexist abuse. In January 2021, Kosovo Interior Minister Agim Veliu was accused of humiliating current President Vjosa Osmani with insulting comments about her body, and during her presidential campaign the same year, she was also targeted with abuse on social media and manipulated photographs designed to mock her.

The first woman president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, said that when she came to power, “what I was not ready for was the sexism expressed against me by almost every entity in society”. She added that she was targeted with “misogynistic comments by politicians”, while “the debate that dominated the public discourse” in the media was her appearance. Sexism in politics was “internalised in the system”, Jahjaga declared.

In Albania, an in-depth survey of media published in 2020 by the Pro LGBT NGO showed that women were the category of people most frequently subjected to discriminatory language and hate speech. The survey said that there had been a “considerable increase” in Albanian media outlets using sexist language and “objectifying and sexualising” women.

This can happen at the highest level. In 2021, Prime Minister Edi Rama was asked to apologise for allegedly sexist comments he made about a woman candidate for parliament, Grida Duma.

In Serbia, right-wing extremists often propagate anti-feminist and misogynistic narratives online, but mainstream figures also use humiliating sexist rhetoric. Ana Brnabic, who is now Serbia’s prime minister and is openly gay, said that right-wing politician Dragan Markovic, known by the nickname Palma, once invited her to a ‘bunga-bunga’ sex party. Markovic also publicly ridiculed the female fighters from his own kickboxing team, Palma’s Tigers, in the Serbian parliament.

Public figures outside politics have also used their positions of privilege to belittle and insult women. After being accused of sexual harassment by Montenegrin TV presenter Lejla Kasic, satirical rock singer Rambo Amadeus responded by apologising for having “slapped, touched or pinched” her – but also told his 190,000 followers on Facebook that he thought she was a “lunatic” who “needed treatment”.

Homophobia and anti-LGBT rhetoric

In countries across the Balkans, homophobia and anti-LGBT sentiments are commonplace in the public arena, as well as being promoted by right-wing extremists. Politicians seeking support from traditionalists often make declarations of support for religion and the family and voice their opposition to Pride marches, trans rights and same-sex marriages.

In Albania, since proposed constitutional changes to legalise same-sex partnerships provoked a homophobic backlash in 2016, similar views have been repeatedly expressed by politicians.

In 2020, opposition Democratic Party MP Flamur Noka used homophobic language against the mayor of the capital Tirana in a post on Facebook after the municipality flew a rainbow flag to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

Last year, a new public controversy erupted over the issue of gay marriage and parenting, after the Albanian authorities refused to register a lesbian couple as parents of two baby girls; only one could be recognised as a single mother parent. Activists were accused of wanting to remove the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ from the civil registry and replace them with ‘parent 1’ and ‘parent 2’.

A prominent Albanian professor, Artan Fuga, wrote on Facebook that he was against such a change and made unsubstantiated claims that “social experiments” with replacing the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ were going on in pre-schools.

Prominent Albanian religious figures were also outspoken in their criticism, with evangelical pastor Akil Pano accusing the LGBT community of pursuing a “destructive agenda” against the “traditional” family. Albanian imam Ahmed Kalaja then expressed support for pastor Pano.

In a post on Facebook, where he has 296,000 followers, Kalaja said that the traditional family is “the foundation on which all civilisations are built” and marriage “must continue to be between a man and a woman”.

There were also similar statements in Kosovo in 2022 when the government tried to bring in legal changes to the country’s civil code to allow same-sex unions. Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and evangelical communities in Kosovo signed a joint statement condemning “the redefinition of marriage and its participants, ie. a man born male, and a woman born female”. MP Burim Meta from the ruling Vetevendosje party said he was against the changes “as family is sacred and a human being should have no other relations other than the natural family”.

Another Vetevendosje MP, Labinote Demi Murtezi, declared that marriage must be restricted to heterosexual couples on moral grounds. “Any relationship outside this combination is considered to be debauched and degenerate,” she said in parliament. The proposed change to the civil code was defeated in a parliamentary vote.

Public LGBT events like Pride marches have often been triggers for homophobic rhetoric by political and religious figures in various countries, even though governments across the Balkans now permit such events and ensure police protection for the participants.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the day of the 2023 Pride parade in Sarajevo, Party of Democratic Action politician Fadil Novalic, a former Federation entity prime minister, wrote on Facebook that “we are obliged to protect our children from deviants who impose their manifestations” – a reference to the LGBT community.

The previous year, Bosnian politician Samra Cosevic Hajdarevic was found guilty of discrimination for making derogatory statements about LGBT people – the first time that the country’s anti-discrimination laws were applied to protect LGBT individuals from hate speech. Cosevic Hajdarevic had written on Facebook, in a post reacting to a Pride march, that LGBT people should be “isolated and put away from our children and society”.

In North Macedonia, the issue of gender became the focus of discriminatory rhetoric during public debate about the new Law on Gender Equality in 2023. There was also controversy around the new Law on Birth Registry, which gives people the option to change the part of their personal citizens’ ID number that relates to sex if they have had a sex change.

An unlikely reactionary coalition emerged when the Coalition for Protection of Children, a QAnon-aligned organisation, organised a public debate together with Eleusa, an Orthodox Church-sponsored group, in the city of Strumica. The event was publicly supported by Kostadin Kostadinov, the centre-left Social Democratic mayor of Strumica.

Kostadinov, who is on the executive committee of the Social Democrats, North Macedonia’s governing party at the national level, successfully convinced Strumica municipal council to remove the terms “gender” and “gender equality” from the draft text of its local youth strategy.

The Novo Selo municipality then followed suit, removing the term “gender equality” from its local equal opportunities programme and adding strictly biological definitions of what is a man and what is a woman.

The Strumica mayor also supported the first public screening in North Macedonia of the film ‘What is a Woman’, made by Matt Walsh, a prominent ultraconservative public figure from the US, at the city’s Cultural Centre.

protest against the Law on Gender Equality and the Law on Birth Registry in Skopje in July, organised by the Macedonian Orthodox Church and supported by many far-right organisation, was addressed by Archbishop Stefan, the head of the church, and Katica Kjulavkova, a well-known poet, professor of literature and member of the National Academy of Sciences and Arts. Archbishop Stefan alleged the legal changes would harm “all citizens and especially women and children”.

Admiration for authoritarians

Pro-Russian sentiments are highly visible in Serbia, with murals of Russian fighters painted on walls in cities like Belgrade and Novi Sad and T-shirts with Putin’s image on sale at city-centre stalls in the capital.

Russia is seen by Serbs as a powerful ally over the Kosovo issue, and this has resulted in significant public admiration for Putin as a strongman president offering uncompromising leadership in uncertain times, staunchly projecting national pride and defending ‘traditional’ values. Pro-government media outlets in Serbia have consistently echoed the Kremlin’s stance on the war against Ukraine, amplifying false concerns about a purported ‘resurgence of Nazism’.

Similar themes have been disseminated by Serb officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Denis Sulic, deputy speaker of Republika Srpska’s National Assembly, who describes himself as a leftist, has promoted Russian narratives about the war. In a post on X (formerly Twitter) in 2022, he described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, as a “Nazi”.

Sulic has also expressed gratitude to Russia for its support for Republika Srpska, and praised Moscow’s role in Africa with a post on Facebook declaring that “the new world leader is here”.

In North Macedonia, the left-wing Levica party parrots the Russian line on the war against Ukraine, and called it a ‘special military operation’, the Kremlin’s term for the full-scale invasion, when the party invited the Russian ambassador to parliament in Skopje. Levica MP Borislav Krmov has also argued against supporting Ukraine and for being ‘militarily neutral’.

Conspiracy theories thrive

Across the Western Balkans, as elsewhere in the world, conspiracy theories proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Albanian TV channels gave airtime to anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists such as Alfred Cako, a former publisher and MP candidate. In an interview with ABC News TV in March 2021, Cako launched into a tirade against what he said was a plot to use the coronavirus to depopulate the world, blaming Microsoft founder Bill Gates and top US immunologist Anthony Fauci and questioning the efficacy of masks and vaccines.

The billionaire philanthropist George Soros has also been a constant target for right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists in the Western Balkans who claim that he wields huge influence.

Former Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha claimed in March this year that Soros “destroyed the justice system and the backbone of the country” and was “the main promoter of drugs legalisation”. Berisha declared that “Albania is the republic of Soros, he is very powerful and has an enormous influence which legitimates criminality”.

In Montenegro, Soros has also been a bogeyman for opposition MP Nebojsa Medojevic, leader of the Movement for Changes party, known for his statements about “secret organisations ruling Montenegro” and “Soros not allowing the Montenegrin opposition to unite”.

Meanwhile Serbia is home to one of the podcasts known for disseminating conspiracy theories in the region – BalkanInfo. Its subjects range from the so-called deep state and secret elites pulling the strings to aliens ruling the world from a secret pyramid and extreme weather events in the summer of 2023 being caused by the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP).

Such ideas are occasionally mainstreamed through shows on Serbian channels like TV Happy but seldom voiced by mainstream public figures. One exception was Niggor, a well-known hip-hop artist and DJ from Montenegro, who claimed during one widely-shared BalkanInfo show that the Earth is flat.

Another flat-earther, popular singer Vlado Georgijev, insisted in an interview with Nova S TV that “there is no evidence” that the planet is round – a claim he has also repeated to his 700,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter).

Historical revisionism

Across the Western Balkans, historical revisionism has taken root, particularly in the context of interpreting events related to World War II. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Serbia. Some key Nazi collaborators, such as Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihajlovic, Nikola Kalabic, Milan Nedic and Dimitrije Ljotic, have either been rehabilitated by Serbian courts or there have been attempts at rehabilitation, as well as concerted efforts to portray the Serb Chetniks not as collaborators but as victims.

In Montenegro, the most frequent example of historical revisionism is the celebration of the Chetniks by the Serbian Orthodox Church and by some members of the Montenegrin parliament.

There is also a street in Petnjica in Montenegro named after Osman Rastoder, commander of a Muslim militia that collaborated with fascist forces, and a mural in Podgorica of another collaborationist, Krsto Popovic, who formed the fascist-allied Lovcen Brigade.

Across the former Yugoslavia, the denial or relativisation of crimes committed during the 1990s wars is also commonplace. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, the public praising of war criminals, as evidenced by murals hailing Bosnian Serb wartime military leader and genocide convict Ratko Mladic, which have not been removed by the authorities.

Another example of support for 1990s war criminals came in July this year when Zeljana Zovko, a member of the European Parliament from the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ party, defended Dario Kordic, a commander of the Croatian Defence Council, the Bosnian Croat wartime force, who was jailed by the Hague Tribunal for planning and instigating killings.

Earlier this year, Lidija Bradara, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Federation entity, also called Kordic a “friend”, adding that in her view, “a convicted person who has served their sentence presumably stops being a war crimes convict”.

In August, the Srebrenica Memorial Centre published its annual report on denial of the 1995 genocide, which registered 90 incidents of genocide denial in the media or in public statements in the period from May 2022 to May 2023. Predictably, the most frequent genocide denier was Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik, a Serb nationalist – but also on the list was Croatia’s centre-left president, Zoran Milanovic.

Source : Balkaninsight