Institutional racism, unemployment and poor housing are among the hardships endured by Slovakia’s half-a-million Roma.
Ruzomberok, Slovakia – When 68-year-old Jan Bencik’s son created a Facebook account for him after he retired four years ago, he saw little reason to log in, save for boredom. Just over a year ago, however, he discovered a way to make social media useful: tracking and doxing Slovakia’s far right.
On a frigid afternoon in March, the retiree steps into a local pizza parlour and shakes the snow off his winter coat. He takes a seat on a sofa in the corner of the room, removes his laptop from its leather case and flips it open.
The former phone technician and publishing house employee opens a folder on his desktop, pulling up screenshots of social media posts, most of them since deleted, by far-right social media users.
He points a finger at an image on the screen. It shows a hefty Slovak man wearing a backwards baseball cap and a wide grin as he lays on a charred oven in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. His arms are tattooed with coded numbers and neo-Nazi imagery.
Bencik publishes photos like this on the front page of his blog, where he dumps the personal information – name, phone number and address – a practice known as “doxing”, of those who post white supremacist, neo-Nazi and racist content on social media.
Slovakia’s largest media outlets have profiled Bencik, nicknaming him the “fascist hunter” on magazine covers and in television reports.
Among those he has outed are sitting parliamentarians from Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) – a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots and a swelling following.
After it was founded from the ashes of the now-defunct Slovak Togetherness National Party in 2010, the LSNS was largely considered a ragtag band of inconsequential hardliners. But that all changed in March 2016, when the party captured more than eight percent of the popular vote in national elections and secured 14 seats in the National Council, Slovakia’s parliament.
Before those elections, polls had estimated that the party would clinch between 1.5 percent and three percent of the vote. In fact, nearly one in every 12 voters cast their ballot for the LSNS.
Many of their legislators now frequent the halls of government buildings, with a handful sitting on parliamentary committees such as the one tasked with advancing domestic human rights.
“Look at this one,” Bencik says. He motions to the screen again. On it, this time, is a Facebook post written by a LSNS legislator. In both English and Slovak, the legislator quotes the infamous hate slogan known as “14 words”, written by American white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
He clicks to the next post: “Nothing will save us but killing all the Jews.”
And another: “Slovakia is not Africa!”
With parties like the LSNS focusing much of their recruitment activity online, Bencik’s work has landed him in the far-right’s crosshairs. He has received angry messages and death threats.
The death threats – promising public hanging, stabbing and shooting, among other forms of violent retribution – have failed to deter Bencik, but he has lived under police protection on and off for the past year. “I cannot give them the pleasure of [not blogging] about them,” he explains.
Since the LSNS made its electoral gains, his work has assumed a heightened significance, he says, bobbing his head to the music coming from the restaurant’s overhead speakers. “Come on, baby, do the locomotion with me,” he sings along softly, before exploding into laughter.
Switching back to the conversation, he jokes: “They are as brave as Arnold Schwarzenegger and post their muscley photos from the gym; but when you write about them, they get scared and delete the posts.”
The LSNS was founded seven years ago by Marian Kotleba, who is the party’s namesake and was formerly an open neo-Nazi.
Its members used to march through cities, towns and villages across Slovakia in black uniforms modelled on those worn by the Hlinka Guard, the military of the First Slovak Republic (1939-1945), a Nazi satellite state during World War II.
They have now exchanged their black garb for green polos emblazoned with the party’s signature double cross emblem. And their anti-Semitic rhetoric has been largely replaced with anti-Roma incitement, ostensibly considered a more socially acceptable form of racism.
But the party’s platform, laid out on its official website, preserves much of its original commitment to ultra-nationalism and Christian identity. Roma are “social parasites” and “terrorists”, while the United States, the European Union, NATO and Israel are enemies plotting against the Slovak nation, they argue.
Keeping to its custom of rarely speaking to foreign media, the LSNS failed to reply to Al Jazeera’s numerous requests for an interview.
Although it isn’t the only actor in the crowded political terrain of Slovakia’s far right, Kotleba and his followers have managed the most successful shift from the fringes to the corridors of power.
Alena Kluknavska, a post-doctoral researcher at Masaryk University in the neighbouring Czech Republic, says the LSNS used a three-prong strategy to build its base while simultaneously eschewing traditional electoral campaigning.
There were no LSNS television commercials, no rallies and no images of Kotleba’s face pasted on billboards. Instead, the LSNS focused on visiting poor communities, exploiting tensions between white Slovaks and Roma and cultivating a following through “nationalist, xenophobic and populist” sentiment in the online sphere, says Kluknavska.
Railing against Roma, Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities, the LSNS made a point of providing financial support to impoverished Slovak families living in communities feeling the pains of institutional deprivation.
By “positioning itself as the advocate and defender of ‘ordinary’ people”, she argues, the LSNS has been able to sculpt a presence beyond the digital sphere, with a growing number of foot soldiers on the streets.
The signs of Kotleba’s increasing strength were present long before the 2016 elections. In the Banska Bystrica region, Kotleba has been governor since 2013, when he won the last-round runoff by a 55-percent-margin.
On a drab morning at Banska Bystrica’s Slovak National Uprising Museum, director Stanislav Micev passes through the fluorescent-lit hallway and into a conference room. The walls are a mosaic of war, with paintings of guerilla fighters and rifles, ammunition belts and army helmets fastened to the walls.
Micev, who plans to challenge Kotleba for the regional gubernatorial seat in the autumn, is a large man who gesticulates as he speaks. With his heavy hands momentarily clasped on the oak table in front of him, he describes the LSNS as anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-European and anti-democratic.
“They bought green shirts and put away those black outfits, but those uniforms are still sitting in storage somewhere,” he says.
For the LSNS, the First Slovak Republic and its head of state, President Jozef Tiso, who was also a Catholic priest, represent the country’s first successful attempt at sovereignty. Those five years, during which an estimated 75,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps, have been described by Kotleba as “like living in heaven”.
In 1944, some 60,000 democrats, communist partisans and anti-fascists launched the Slovak National Uprising, taking up arms against the government and its German allies.
Losing ground and men daily, Tiso fled the country when the Soviet army occupied it in April 1945. He was later arrested in Bavaria and extradited to what had become communist Czechoslovakia. After being tried and found guilty of various crimes, Tiso was marched to the gallows and hanged in his clerical wardrobe in Bratislava on April 17, 1947.
If history is tragic and its repetition farcical, then Slovakia is no exception.
Although it views itself as the protector of Tiso’s legacy, the LSNS has been able to gain ground in curious places, including the adjacent villages of Ostry Grun and Klak, both razed by the First Slovak Republic’s armed forces and its Nazi allies in January 1945.
Miroslav Seget, the deputy mayor of Ostry Grun, recounts the tragedy that loomed over the village during his childhood.
When soldiers arrived in the village to punish its inhabitants for aiding partisan guerrilla fighters with food, water and safe passage, his grandparents were evicted from their homes and displaced to a nearby hillside.
They were lucky, he says, describing how Klak and Ostry Grun lost 146 villagers to Nazi gunmen. “My mother was born as the child of refugees,” he says, shaking his head. Nearly one in five voters in his village voted for the LSNS last year.
“It’s a paradox,” he says, “because our village was burned down by the fascists, and Kotleba received the second largest share of the vote.”
Blaming his generation and his parents’ for failing to explain the historical consequences of fascism to the village’s youth, Seget says that this year they started holding annual vigils in which survivors speak to young people about the bloodbath that stains Ostry Grun’s history.
“The memory of what happened in World War II is still present in the minds of the older generation,” he says, “but that knowledge hadn’t [previously] been passed on because most survivors were traumatised after losing family members.”
At noon on March 13, more than a thousand anti-fascists – known as Antifa – assemble in central Bratislava for a public display of defiance against Kotleba and other far-right groups.
A large white tarp spans the length of the lawn in front of a monument dedicated to the anti-fascist fighters who died during World War II. On the tarp is a broad black swastika, encircled in red with a dash bisecting it.
The Slovak Antifa are joined by their Czech and Hungarian counterparts. A group of teenagers sit on a cement ledge across from the stage, puffing on cigarettes and taking turns to drink from a bottle of beer.
When the speeches conclude, the demonstrators march off in columns through the city as they chant against Kotleba and the LSNS. “Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here,” they shout in English.
A sea of flags and banners moves through the historic old city’s alleyways.
The marchers eventually reach a square, where an impromptu drum session accompanies the anti-fascist chants as the afternoon sunlight dims.
Matus Budovic, a reed-thin 29-year-old, claps along with the drum beat. He has travelled 180km from his village, Ratztocno, to “set an example” for the country’s youth.
“We’ve seen this situation before,” he says. “When the neo-Nazis are on the rise, they attack [minorities] and Antifa activists. History can repeat itself because the old generation grew up, but there is a new one now.”
Ten years ago, he says, far-right provocateurs recognised him as an Antifa organiser and attacked him in the street.
More recently, in June 2015, thousands of LSNS members and other far-rightists held an anti-Muslim rally in Bratislava. By the end of the day, participants had attacked a Saudi family, including a child in a stroller, pelting them with stones.
On March 22, 2016, unknown assailants attacked a Muslim woman of African descent at a bus stop in the capital. One tried to wrestle away her bag as another ripped off her veil. Local media reported that they had yelled “black”, “dirty” and “Muslim” during the assault.
Throughout 2016, the LSNS has carried out vigilante train patrols that targeted Roma passengers. Despite being banned in October, activists and reporters say those patrols have continued unabated.
The day after the Antifa rally, March 14, is the anniversary of the establishment of the First Slovak Republic. In the northern village of Oscadnica, around 30 green-clad LSNS supporters huddle in the yard of the modest lavender house that was once home to Tiso. Snow dusts the yard’s dead grass. A bitter wind keeps the LSNS flags fluttering.
Newcomers exchange greetings with those already gathered. “At guard,” they say, evoking a phrase used under Tiso’s rule, as they salute each other. Party official Frantisek Drozd places a multicoloured wreath of flowers by the house. He clears his throat and welcomes the crowd. Churchgoers pour out of a small church across the street as a Sunday morning mass concludes. A handful join the LSNS procession.
In an adjacent car park, police officers stand beside their patrol cars. They rub their gloved hands together to stay warm.
Drozd blasts through a catalogue of Slovakia’s supposed ailments. A faltering economy. The loss of sovereignty. Threats to its overwhelmingly white demographic makeup. He nods as his listeners applaud.
“The European Union, with its insane laws, only does harm to Slovakia,” he bellows. “Migrants, who have been invited by the EU, are coming to Europe in the thousands.”
That fewer than a thousand refugees and migrants have sought asylum in Slovakia is irrelevant to Drozd and his comrades; theirs is the politics of redemption, of reviving the short-lived motherland that died 72 years ago.
He pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolds it, reading a poem dedicated to Kotelba:
Marian Kotleba planted a small seed,
And it grew into a big, beautiful tree.
It has a treetop and branches and it’s blossoming and blossoming,
There will be a rich harvest for those who desire its fruit.
Applause follows, and then Andrej Medvecky, another LSNS member, takes Drozd’s place in front of the audience. “Many of you here experienced communism, and the regime today is even worse,” he begins.
“People are going to prison for their opinions,” he laments, referring to Sheila Szmerekova, a 24-year-old woman facing legal retribution for broadcasting online a video of her threatening to “hunt” Muslims and urinating on a Quran before setting it ablaze.
“If we think about the importance of March 14, some agree with us and others don’t,” Medvecky says. “Those who don’t agree are not true Slovaks.”
His speech concludes and the commemoration ends, a dull crescendo of applause and chatter hanging in the air. Selfies and group photos are taken. The cameras capture the day’s final moments. In every frame, the green flags dance under the dark winter sky.
In a one-room office in Bratislava, Alena Krempaska, the programme director of the Human Rights Institute, argues that Antifa tactics like direct confrontation are becoming less effective as the LSNS moves from the streets into the parliament.
“The old-school idea of Antifa – justice in the streets – is less effective in these circumstances,” says Krempaska, who was beaten up by far-right activists while leaving her office one night last September. “We must use different kinds of weapons and build new alliances.”
Sitting in a noisy cafe across town, Rado Sloboda, a 26-year-old activist from Banska Bystrica, says he and fellow organisers from the ‘Not in Our Town’ campaign hope to educate young people about human rights and far-right “extremism”.
Sloboda says they recently launched a pilot educational programme bringing Jews, Muslims, Roma and refugees to speak to students in primary and secondary schools.
As the LSNS targets young people with youth leagues and other political organisations, Sloboda and his colleagues aim to provide an alternative. “We used to believe that they spread among young boys from poor families,” he explains, adding that Kotleba and his followers have accused Not in Our Town of being “foreign agents”.
If Kotleba wins re-election in the autumn, Sloboda fears the LSNS will be empowered. “There will be more mobilisation on both sides,” he predicts. “It can really get much more radical and violent than it already is.”
Back in Ruzomberok, Jan Bencik says stopping the growth of the LSNS is his top priority. “I lived for 41 years under the communist regime. So, I don’t want to risk living the rest of my life under a neo-Nazi dictatorship,” he concludes, “and I don’t want my children and grandchildren to live under them either.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_