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East: Political Extremism In Eastern Europe -- On The Wane Or Going Mainstream?

  • Jolyon Naegele

The strong showing of the National Front's Jean-Marie le Pen in the first round of France's presidential elections and last week's murder of anti-immigrant Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn have focused attention on the politics of the far right in Western Europe. Although le Pen fared poorly in the vote's second round, the National Front could gain as many as 10 seats in next month's parliamentary elections. Dutch voters go to the polls on 15 May, and it is unclear what effect Fortuyn's assassination will have on support for his fledgling List Party. This resurgence of right-wing political parties in Western Europe comes at a time when similar parties in Central and Eastern Europe appear to be on the wane. But as one analyst notes, appearances can be deceiving.

Prague, 13 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Right-wing parties have struck a chord over the past dozen years with many disaffected voters in Eastern Europe. In the past several years, however, the strength of these parties at the polls has largely dissipated as mainstream parties seeking to expand their voter base through populism and nationalism have absorbed some of their policies.

Right-wing parties include the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP); Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS); Corneliu Vadim Tudor's Greater Romania Party (PRM); Istvan Csurka's Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP); Jan Slota's True Slovak National Party; and in the Czech Republic, Miroslav Sladek's Republicans (SPR-RSC).

All are, or have been, in parliament, but their voter support tends to hover around 5 to 7 percent. The platforms of these parties tend to be ultranationalistic and racist in content.

In Poland, Leszek Moczulski's ultranationalist Confederation of Independent Poland (KPN), which gained 10 percent of the vote in 1990 and nearly 6 percent in 1993, left parliamentary politics in 1997 and is no longer perceived as a serious political force.

Rudolf Rizman is a professor of sociology at Ljubljana University in Slovenia. Rizman believes that what he calls the "era of fascination" with right-wing rhetoric has ended in Eastern and Central Europe. "You know [extremist right-wing politics] was considered a kind of forbidden fruit due to the fact that extreme, radical-right ideas in the communist times were more or less forbidden, and young democracies did not find at the beginning the best ways to cope with some of the issues that extreme rightists opened," Rizman said.

Right-wing parties seeking restoration of their countries' past status -- that is, devoid of foreign workers and of certain minorities -- had sufficient support in the early and mid-1990s to get into parliaments and in a few cases even to be junior partners in coalition governments, such as the KPN in Poland, the Serbian Radical Party, and the Greater Romania Party.

That has now changed, says Rizman. "We are witnessing the first phase of the consolidation of democracy, which is also a kind of a barrier toward expressing those views that might be very radical and laden with high rhetoric on the part of the extremists."

Classic mainstream parties have actively sought the support of disaffected voters -- those with low incomes, the unemployed, and the elderly -- taking away much of the power base of the far right.

"Mainstream parties -- I mean moderate parties on the left and the right -- have partly hijacked the extreme-right agenda and have moderated some of the stands on the issues like immigration and ethnic minorities," Rizman said.

There are exceptions. One of them, as Rizman confirmed, is Serbia, which he described as undergoing "an interesting and useful evolution."

"These parties with extreme, radical-right rhetoric are still there, but if we remember their rhetoric, say five or seven years ago or even earlier, [they were] associated with actions. I would say this was not just rhetoric, but it was something that was producing killing, that was producing concentration camps," Rizman said.

Unreformed communist parties on the left of the political spectrum in Eastern Europe are splinter groups that have attracted only negligible public support, insufficient to enter parliament. However, there are a number of reformed or semi-reformed communist parties where extremism can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder and that attract a loyal following of 11 to 14 percent of voters in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and far more in Serbia.

These parties include the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), which, though in the Czech parliament, is unlikely to be allowed into any government in the foreseeable future. That's largely because of its unwillingness to come to terms with its own past and for its continued anti-Western, pro-Moscow stance.

Slovakia's Democratic Party of the Left (SDL), in contrast, is a member of the Slovak ruling coalition. SDL has recently moved far to the left on economic issues after breaking with its moderate wing but still publicly advocates privatization rather than nationalization. Analysts insist it is not extremist in the broader sense.

Serbia, which has fought four wars since 1991 in a search for its national identity, boasts two strong left-wing extremist parties. Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and his wife Mila Markovic's Yugoslav Left (JUL) constitute the bulk of the parliamentary opposition and will be a force to be reckoned with in parliamentary elections later this year, particularly due to the disunity of the ruling 18-party pro-democracy bloc, DOS.

Nationalism and intolerance are endemic in the western Balkans. Most parliamentary parties in government and in the opposition throughout the former Yugoslavia and Albania share strongly nationalist tendencies, regardless of whether they are on the left or right of the political spectrum. However, thanks to the development of civil societies in recent years, most fall short of being extremist.

Ultranationalist parties suffered a major decline in voter support among Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, though not among Croats in parliamentary elections in Bosnia 18 months ago. That trend can be expected to continue in elections in Bosnia this fall.

Rizman said the swing away from extremist parties by disaffected voters and their move toward postcommunist leftist parties is a "natural, logical development," as these parties transform themselves into social democratic parties. "It's not therefore surprising that younger, unemployed people and pensioners are casting their votes for ex-communists or social democrats because they do expect that their material interests will be much better protected by these parties than by the right or conservative parties, which rather favor private capital or, in general, privatization," Rizman said.

However, Michael Shafir, an expert on extremist parties in Eastern Europe at RFE/RL, believes appearances can be deceiving. He said that just because extremist parties have been doing poorly at the polls doesn't mean that no one is promoting their extremist policies.

Shafir said the far-right label has become so malleable that there are parties -- for example, the PRM in Romania and Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) -- that some call far-right, while others call far-left. As Shafir put it, "It amounts to practically the same thing because they are an exacerbation of extreme nationalistic policies under communism."

Shafir said the vocabulary of extreme nationalism has been made acceptable after having been absorbed by mainstream parties, such as in Hungary, where the once-liberal student movement FIDESZ became a right-wing party adopting nationalist rhetoric, or in Slovakia, where Meciar's HZDS similarly evolved.

"The picture is very mixed. One couldn't say, couldn't talk at all, about a disappearance of extreme leftism or extreme rightism," Shafir said.

But nationalist views can often be found in virtually all political parties, e.g., in the recent unanimous decision by the Czech parliament to uphold the controversial decrees issued by Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes at the end of World War II. These decrees legalized the confiscation of German and Hungarian property, stripped ethnic Germans and Hungarians of Czechoslovak citizenship, and amnestied crimes of vengeance committed by Czechoslovaks against members of these minorities during and after the war.

"Nationalism is present across the board. And if someone thinks it is absent, it is enough that somehow someone from the region tickles the issue and all of a sudden, particularly if you deal with the eve of the elections situation, like right now in the Czech Republic, it pops up and it's used by the different parties. And in Serbia, in a way, this is illustrated only in an exacerbated way," Shafir said.

Shafir said the rhetoric that can now be heard in parliaments and in campaigns throughout the region could be an indication of things to come. "We could argue endlessly about what is better: to have the nationalists have a relatively minor representation of their own, isolated and having always someone to point the finger to, or, as in Romania's case, to have the main party [Social Democrats] actually lure into its [ranks] people like Ilie Neacsu, who was the editor in chief of the most anti-Semitic, most extreme weekly ['Europa'], and all of a sudden [having quit the Greater Romania Party,] he has become a great Social Democrat."

Shafir noted that Romania wants to show the West that the nationalists have been isolated. But he questioned whether herding nationalists into the mainstream really constitutes isolation.

As for Hungary, Shafir said he does not regard the outcome of the Hungarian elections -- in which FIDESZ lost to the Socialists and Liberal Democrats by a slim margin -- as a rejection of nationalism.

"The official extreme nationalist party, Istvan Csurka's MIEP -- Hungarian Justice and Life Party -- actually got about the same number of votes as it got four years ago. What happened, however, was that the turnout was much higher, so the same number of votes didn't make the 5 percent [hurdle to get into parliament] that they did four years earlier," Shafir said.

Shafir said that whatever additional support Csurka could have added to his party was taken by incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban's FIDESZ, because Orban played on even more extremist themes than Csurka did.

"The anti-FIDESZ vote was, in fact, not a vote against FIDESZ nationalism but was a vote of the less-well-to-do, of the elderly, of those who cannot compete. So the young generation [in Hungary] was not bothered by FIDESZ's ultranationalist postures. And this doesn't bode well at all for the next election," Shafir said.

Rizman shares this view. And he said the specter of extremism spreading from Western Europe eastward, thanks to globalization, threatens to make itself felt in elections throughout Eastern Europe this year.

Parliamentary elections are due in the Czech Republic next month and in Slovakia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and possibly Serbia later this year.

Rizman said the danger exists that some extremists on the left and right might use the consequences of globalization for negative ends. As he put it, "Globalization can be seen as a useful tool for both the extreme right and extreme left to mobilize their forces in a way that may not be conducive to their further democratic and pro-Western development."