Friday, May 15, 2009


Central Europe's right wing is back, now with modern public relations techniques
Posted: May 14, 2009

By Jaroslaw Adamowski, For the Post

As Czech media increasingly reports on nationalist and racist incidents, even the most passive observers begin to ask: Has something changed in Czech society? With rising intolerance toward the Roma minority, neo-Nazi rallies and foreign leaders of white-supremacist organizations coming to lecture at universities, are these just desperate attempts by fringe groups to draw attention, or is there more to it? Is Czech society the only one confronting these problems?

Increased activity by the Czech far-right movement is part of a trend in the whole region. In nearly all Central European countries - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - nationalism and far-right politicians are enjoying a grand retour. This time, they have learned lessons from previous defeats and, as a result, softened their image. Now, the question is: Why and how are they back?

It is no coincidence that, as the global economy has bottomed out and recession has hit Central Europe hard, extreme-right parties are strengthening. When politicians, be they on the left or the right, offer few direct solutions for overcoming the crisis, there is always the risk of people casting votes for someone who claims simple solutions to complicated problems.


In Hungary, for instance, Jobbik, or the Movement for a Better Hungary, is a far-right party with an agenda that includes reinsituting the death penalty, "economic independence," and throwing all citizens of Roma origin out of the country. They may enter the European Parliament in June's elections. The party feeds on Hungarian society's fears: a shrinking national economy that suffered from stagnation long before the global meltdown, rising unemployment, crime and a Roma minority that remains un-integrated. Jobbik profited from the mainstream political class' inability or unwillingness to address those fears. Polls say Jobbik carries between 4 percent and 5 percent support, which is enough to pass the threshold to gain seats in Parliament.

Established in 2002 as a youth organization of the right-wing Fidesz - Hungary's biggest parliamentary opposition party and the likely winner of the next elections - Jobbik transformed into its own party a year later and ever since has built its position with hate speech and violence targeting Roma, Jews and "left-liberal elites." In August 2007, a group of 56 men, wearing black-and-white uniforms and distinctive Bocskai caps from the interwar period, gathered in Budapest at the famous Castle Hill, or Budai Var, next to the Presidential Palace. Jobbik's leader, 31-year-old Gabor Vona, took an oath swearing to struggle for "one nation, one religion and one homeland." Fidesz politicians and Hungary's first post-communist defense minister, Lajos Fur, attended the ceremony. The number of members in Magyar Garda - a paramilitary group associated with Jobbik - has since increased to about 2,000. Judicial attempts to outlaw the group, registered by Jobbik as a "cultural association," have been unsuccessful. The driving force for the group, according to Vona, is "protecting the Hungarian nation."

Although right-wing inclinations for uniforms and military knack have remained unchanged since the 1930s, such groups have tried to modify their image over the years. Modern nationalists are nothing like their predecessors from the 1990s, who seemed to live mostly in the past. Dressed in a well-tailored suit and smiling, Vona looks like a businessman trying to gather investment rather than a leader of a self-proclaimed "radically patriotic Christian party." A history and psychology graduate and former teacher, Vona weighs his words as he answers journalists' questions. Instead of invoking racist slogans, he speaks of "the unsolved situation of the ever-growing Gypsy population." In place of anti-EU rhetoric, he says that his party "supports European cooperation, but not the current bureaucratic state alliance."

Jobbik's young leader knows that, in order to attract a wider spectrum of voters, he has to deliver extreme content in moderate packaging. That is why the party chose Krisztina Morvai, a professor at Budapest University, as its lead candidate in European elections. Her eloquence, style and résumé, which includes work for the United Nations, make her a perfect candidate for Jobbik as it struggles to improve its image. The new nationalists know that a loudspeaker and a group of violent militants is not enough to win a seat in Parliament. They try to expand their influence over traditional political frames by entering media or convincing foreign businessmen to sponsor their activities, as is the case in Poland, where the extreme-right has managed to infiltrate public media.


Although two major nationalist parties - LPR, or the League of Polish Families, and Samoobrona, or Self-Defense - have not sat in Parliament since 2007, their supporters have kept seats at various inflential bodies, like on the supervisory board of public television. In December 2008, Piotr Farfal, a former LPR member and, in his youth, a neo-Nazi, became the chairman of public television broadcasting.

After the electoral defeat of the LPR in 2007, Farfal and his fellow extreme-right politicians started to organize the Polish branch of the pan-European Libertas movement, founded by the Irish multimillionaire Declan Ganley, hoping that a new foreign brand with a wealthy investor - just like in ordinary commerce - would bolster their chances in European elections. Though Ganley assures that his party is de facto pro-European, Libertas' candidates in Poland give a different impression. All key figures were previously associated with anti-EU, Christian fundamentalist and nationalist movements, pushing to sharpen Polish anti-abortion legislation (which is already one of the most stringent in Europe), ban prostitution, restore the death penalty and make Poland's economy fully self-sufficient. Ironically, the same globalization they so despise allowed Polish nationalists to receive financial support from an Irish millionaire.

While Farfal did not join the new party, the chairman's political sympathies are more and more evident as the June 7 elections approach. At first glance, the television content does not seem to have changed significantly, but it is the details that matter. When Ganley visited Poland March 20, public television interrupted normal programming to broadcast his press conference. The same day, a special interview with Ganley aired just after a popular news program; an anchorwoman who was originally supposed to conduct the interview but refused to do so was suspended a few weeks later. Though political manipulation has always been an issue in Polish public television, "customizing" its programs to the needs of a party with less than 1 percent support in pre-election polls caused quite a stir. A number of prominent public figures protested against Farfal's nationalist colleagues taking over public broadcasting and replacing managers and journalists from within their ranks.


In Slovakia, extremists have similarly learned to value pragmatism over idealism. The far-right SNS, or Slovak National Party, is part of Prime Minster Robert Fico's bizarre Social Democrat and nationalist-populist coalition that has governed since 2006. The SNS accuses Slovak newspapers of favoring the opposition but does not hesitate to use them instrumentally itself. Its talent for manipulating the media was on full display April 5, when President Ivan Gašparovič secured his second term in office with the backing of the ruling coalition. His main opponent, liberal Iveta Radičová, largely owes defeat to a negative campaign launched by the SNS. As election day approached, Slovak nationalists paid for full-page newspaper advertisements falsely accusing Radičová of promising autonomy to the Hungarian minority. In a country where unemployment surpasses 11 percent and the government offers few solutions to the financial crisis, the temptation to blame everything on Hungarians and Roma during the campaign became increasingly appealing and found a willing constituency .

Modern public relations skills and more subtle branding proved useful tools for the far-right yet again. Unfortunately, this is increasingly the rule and not the exception. Extremist politicians are becoming adept at portraying themselves as reasonable alternatives; this is perhaps as worrying as the messages themselves.

- The author is is a Polish freelance writer who divides his time between Warsaw and Istanbul. He writes about Central Europe for the Journal of Turkish Weekly.

Jaroslaw Adamowski can be reached at © The Prague Post 2009

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