Recent efforts to ban the activities of ultranationalist groups in Serbia and Croatia have drawn both scepticism and praise.
By Lily Lynch for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 07/05/12
During the past month, the governments of Serbia and Croatia have stepped up their efforts to ban extremist groups and rallies. While some welcome both governments' tougher stances on extremism, others have questioned the motives behind the bans.
On April 12th, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milovanovic announced that he was banning a rally of extreme-right European parties in Zagreb. The event was organised by the Croatian Pure Party of Rights, a group notorious for celebrating Croatia's World War II-era pro-Nazi Ustashe regime.
Participants had planned to rally in support of Mladen Markac and Ante Gotovina, two former Croatian generals convicted of war crimes last year. In a public statement condemning the rally, the prime minister announced that "calling for the persecution of Serbs and Roma, and for the seizing of territories … will not pass in Croatia."
Yet some activists say the ban was only implemented after they had pressured the government through an ad hoc initiative comprised of NGOs and citizens.
As Demian Voksi, 23, a student and anti-fascist activist told SETimes, "We are satisfied with the fact that the conference and the procession were banned, but we are not satisfied that an initiative had to react. The government and the police should have reacted faster and more effectively."
Others also expressed mixed feelings about the ban. Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European studies at the University of Graz, told SETimes, "The banning of the rally in Zagreb is certainly a sign that Croatia appears less willing to tolerate such manifestations. Whether this constitutes a more profound shift remains to be seen."
Bieber also noted that Milovanovic had attended the annual commemoration at Bleiburg in 2008, an event at which fascist symbols were openly displayed.
Despite these apparent contradictions, Bieber said that the ban "might reflect the weakening of extremist groups in the region in elections, and their decreasing ability to dictate the political agenda, as has often been the case over the last decade."
Elsewhere, the public prosecutor's office in Serbia called on the Constitutional Court to ban the ultranationalist groups Nasi and Serbian People's Movement (SNP) 1389. In a public hearing on April 17th, the public prosecutor's office described the groups' alleged participation in the violence and destruction of property that followed Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 and the Belgrade pride parade in 2010.
In addition, the public prosecutor's office alleged that SNP 1389 had recently celebrated the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed.
Gordana Janicijevic, deputy state prosecutor, summarised the groups' activities before the court as having "consistently threatened human rights and freedoms" and "incited hatred of other peoples."
Danijela Lombarda, spokesperson for the constitutional court, told SETimes that the court's decision would likely be pending until July.
The groups in question say there are no legal grounds for a ban. "Every activity we engage in is legal. We are a registered organisation, and each of our protests is registered with the police, as required by Serbian law," Miodrag Milosavljevic, 24, vice president of SNP 1389, told SETimes.
Many citizens, however, believe groups like SNP 1389 should be banned. Milenka Djurovic, 57, a retired nurse who lives in Belgrade, told SETimes that such groups should be criminalised because "any time something happens in Serbia they don't agree with, they use violence to demonstrate they don't like it."
Others expressed doubts about the government's commitment to criminalising extremist groups. Goran Miletic, programme director for the Western Balkans for Civil Rights Defenders, told SETimes he believes that the government has no intention of implementing a ban, and that the court proceedings amount to nothing more than the government "pretending to do something" about extremism in Serbia.
Meanwhile, Sasa Jankovic, Serbia's Ombudsman, questions whether outright bans are the best way to deal with the problems caused by extremist groups. In an April 17th interview with B92, Jankovic said that a ban imposed by the Constitutional Court may be able to temporarily halt the activities of extremist groups such as SNP 1389, but would not solve the underlying problems that make such groups appealing to young people.
"We all are very supportive of Novak Djokovic, but how many young people in Serbia can play tennis, or achieve their ambitions in the area of culture and music? The absence of these opportunities makes young people vulnerable to extreme ideologies, and if we don't start dealing with that, the Constitutional Court's ban will not solve a thing," Jankovic said.
Jankovic also noted that the multiple failings of the police, prosecutors, courts, educational system, and ministries of education and sports had contributed to a situation in which a ban on a registered group's free right to association, as guaranteed by the Serbian Constitution, had to be considered as a last resort.
While some may view efforts to ban such groups as disingenuous, Voksi points out that proposed bans can help focus the public's attention on the issue of extremism, as it did in Croatia.
"We are satisfied with the media reaction, which was huge and united in its condemnation of fascism. The reaction of the Croatian public was also overwhelmingly supportive of our cause, proving that fascism in Croatia is not as powerful as was thought before. Nevertheless, we cannot let ourselves ignore it."