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The Patriot Game

John Paul Newman

The Far Right in the Balkans, by Věra Stojarová, Manchester University Press, 173 pp, £23.50, ISBN:

Věra Stojarová’s essay on the far right in the Balkans is both of its time and timely. Originally published in 2014, a second edition followed three years later, while the work’s chronological focus is 2000-2010. So near and yet so far. Since that time the rules of the political game in the Balkans, in Western Europe, and indeed in the Western world have changed dramatically. The right does not seem so very far away any more: its policies ever more incorporated into the political mainstream, it is enjoying electoral successes in the USA, UK, Italy, Central Europe, and is increasingly confident in countries like France. So far and yet so near.

Stojarová is an assistant professor in the faculty of political science at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic and is an accomplished and authoritative commentator on the Balkan region. In this book, she sets out to provide a taxonomy of the far right in the Balkans, seeking to provide a basic minimum of criteria through which we can define the core characteristics of those tendencies in the region. In so doing, she draws out possible comparisons with the more comprehensively studied far right in Western Europe. Again the task here is to establish a set of basic criteria through which we can link far-right movements in the West with those in the Balkans. The author’s examples are drawn from Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. Bosnia and Kosovo are absent from the analysis (because “nation and state building have been delayed”. Moldova is out, too, as is Greece, on account of its “great cultural and political differences”, A footnote explains that Greece’s early European integration is the cause of this divergence, but nevertheless it feels like a lost opportunity to exclude Greece’s Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, so far the most successful far-right movement in the Balkans (although admittedly their breakthrough did not come until 2012, beyond the parameters of Stojarová’s study)

The book describes in detail the nature of right-wing parties and groups in each of the selected country case studies, analysing the historical roots of each, their support or lack thereof (and the reasons for same), the core ideological programmes and their similarities from differences from far-right movements in the West, their voters, strategy and tactics, political evolution, international co-operation, and the role of paramilitaries. The book’s conclusion returns to the central questions raised in the introduction, finding – fascinatingly ‑ that the ideological core of far-right movements in the Balkans, nationalism, xenophobia, and law and order, is identical to that of Western Europe. As right-wing entrepreneurs, most notably former executive chairman of the Breitbart News network and ousted White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, attempt to co-ordinate the various waves of nationalist populism on a global scale, Stojarová’s insight is indeed an important one.

I wondered about the author’s use of history in her analysis, especially since here the Balkans differ dramatically from Western Europe. Stojarová provides an historical exposition of the main far-right parties under discussion, tracing their roots as far back as the formative period of party politics in the region (in most cases the mid- and late nineteenth century). But these are, I think, mostly imagined links, the deployment of a set of ethno-nationalist symbols to bestow historical gravitas upon the parties in question. There are right-wing parties in present-day Bulgaria and Macedonia that go by the name of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (the acronym is VMRO), after the paramilitary nationalist association that operated in the region from the end of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth. Yet with the many disruptions in those countries’ histories in the last hundred years, the connection, beyond the adoption of a set of symbols and aspirations, is tenuous. The same could be said of the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Šešelj, which has cloaked itself in the mantle of the People’s Radical Party, the great state-building force in Serbia’s early party-political history. But where, really, are the material connections between the two? The long period of communist rule is a significant sundering in party political life in the Balkans. The partial exception here is the Croatian case, where the current right wing has direct connections to the post-1945 emigration, who were soi-disant anti-communists but carried as well significant fascist and far-right baggage. Ironically, it is the left wing and the centre-left in the Balkans, as throughout formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe, whose heritage is deeper and more linear. In most cases, the present-day social democrat and socialist parties emerged from the reformed and reconstructed communist parties after the regime collapses of 1989-91. That legacy is something of an albatross in the present-day battle for national identity. We need only look to the example of the recent “illiberal turns” taken by Hungary and Poland: in both cases ruling parties have justified increasingly authoritarian action on account of their “unfinished revolution”, that is, a failure to properly reckon with the communist period and its leaders. Thus the present-day right and far right in formerly communist Europe, including the Balkans, inflate both their opponents’ links with the communist period and their own links with the historical political blocs of the pre-communist period. It is tendentious, but it is a patriot game whose odds are always stacked in the favour of the right.

So much has happened since 2010: Brexit, Donald Trump, the immigration crisis ‑ whose frontline cut across the Balkans, or the transformation of Serbian Radical Party renegade Aleksandar Vučić (whose nascent popularity post-Radical break Stojarová here cites), now leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and president of Serbia, into the unassailable political master of his country. On these shifting political fault-lines it is extremely difficult to define the “far” reaches of the right. Stojarová herself acknowledges the shortcomings of the spatial analogy in politics, deploying it nevertheless because “to be honest, I do not know of any political scientist who has come up with anything better”. Fair enough: political scientists are no less disoriented than the rest of us. But if the far right is characterised by nationalist populism of the kind Bannon espouses and wishes to promote, then the Balkans do not lag behind the West: it was precisely this kind of politics that led the region to ethno-nationalist war, economic ruin and isolation in the 1990s. Stojarová’s intelligent analysis of this style of politics in the post-conflict Balkans is an important read, not just for those interested in the area, but for those interested in the new political currents throughout Europe and the West. And this reviewer would be very pleased to see a sequel by the same author that brings this dramatic and unfolding story up to the present day.

1/3/2019

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