Divisive ideologies are effective because they are simple. They create easy-to-understand “us” versus “them” narratives. Parties in countries transitioning from communist/socialist rule to liberal democracy seem particularly prone to throwing around ideological labels to discredit their political opponents. These labels are usually based on real or imputed affiliations with (possibly non-existent) secret organizations related to the former regime, supposedly still secretly pulling strings from behind the scenes. The benefit of using a clandestine organization to scare voters is that anyone who becomes a political menace can be accused of being “in on it.”
Racism remains unaddressed
Most European transitional societies do not have enough immigrants for political parties to use them as convenient scapegoats plotting against the country. The enemies created are thus necessarily internal. Ustaša in Croatia, četnik in Serbia, and belogardist in Slovenia are examples of powerful labels that carry with them both a stigma and votes for the (declaratory) opposing force.
Slovenia, my country of origin, is often portrayed as a country that has successfully transitioned from socialist to democratic rule. However, twenty years after its independence, cracks are beginning to emerge. In 2012, our parliament commissioned a study on the existence and activity of extremist groups in Slovenia. The conclusions were intended to form the basis of future policies and comprehensive legislation. The report, which was prepared by the Slovene Intelligence and Security Agency, concluded that numerous extremist groups exist and that most extremist activity is found on the far right. It also found that several extremist groups with xenophobic, nationalist and racist views felt their views were represented by the center-right Slovenian Democratic Party. By comparison, negligible far-left activity was observed.
Racism remains unaddressed
The Slovenian Democratic Party – the ruling government at the time – discarded the report under the pretense that it was biased. In reality, it didn’t like the report’s conclusions. The government used the report’s alleged lack of consideration of far-left and Muslim extremism and the unspoken agreement in the Slovenian political forum that all extremist ideologies, ranging from communism and anarchism to neo-nationalism and racism, need to be addressed simultaneously, to shut down an overdue discussion on extremist groups and racism in Slovenia.
Most transitional societies did not critically assess their World War II heritage until after they rid themselves of totalitarian leadership. As societies, we are still attempting to come to terms with who was a patriot and who a “Quisling” during World War II, as well as who was a victim and who a perpetrator during our totalitarian history – and these answers matter to many. One need only look at Ukraine to see how strongly the label “fascist” still resonates. The unchecked use of such terms dominates our political discourse at the expense of real discussion.
The consequence of all this is that racism in the true meaning of the word remains unaddressed. No comprehensive anti-extremist legislation exists, so hateful international associations can freely plan their next meetings on the streets of Ljubljana. The police has no authority to intervene as long as the group is not disturbing public order. It has been repeatedly suggested that the police be given more power to disperse clearly hateful gatherings, but the current minister for Internal Affairs, who was closely affiliated with the Slovenian Democratic Party, sees no necessity for that.
A diverse spectrum of hatred
Europe is becoming more diverse as I write and as you read this piece. While transitional societies are on average more homogenous than most Western European states, they are (luckily) not immune to the inflow of immigrants. Even Slovenia has a growing foreigners’ community. This community is not welcomed by everyone, and crimes against foreigners are reported with ever greater frequency. While political parties are stuck battling out unresolved issues from the socialist era, the Slovenian people, many of them poorly educated or unsatisfied with their economic position, have started developing a more diverse spectrum of hatred than our politicians are willing to recognize.
Political discourse on extremism can transform itself into populist blaming and shaming faster than you can blink. This pettiness, however, has real victims: those from foreign lands and other countries, those with darker skins and, finally, our ideal that we are an open, liberal and hospitable society.