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Leviathan of Fear: the EU-Turkish border crisis spills over into Serbia

Anti-refugee protests in Subotica. Source: Pannon RTV/Scheller Endre

Racist patrols and protests are spreading in Serbia, as the far right seeks to exploit the migrant crisis for political gain, write Anja Ilić and Vladimir Unkovski-Korica. This is a significantly expanded version of an article first published on Counterfire.

When news broke that Turkish–EU tensions in Syria had led to Ankara’s cynical decision to stop preventing migrants crossing the EU border on 27th February, the Balkans as the main transit route between Turkey and the EU could not be unaffected. EU member Hungary has temporarily stopped taking asylum-seekers on the Serbian border, citing fears that migrants are bringing coronavirus from the Middle East and Central Asia.

There are already around 6,000 migrants in Serbia, waiting to pass through to an EU state. But this is a small number and, not long ago, there were as many reports of people helping migrants as of migrants being targeted – many recall the plight of refugee Serbs during the wars of the 1990s and are keen to show solidarity. Recent events suggest, however, that the far right is using the new situation to score political points ahead of the elections – parliamentary, provincial and local – in April.

Fifty shades of the anti-migrant right

A shared trait between various right-wing groups and organisations is that they are trying to pose ‘the migration question’ as the main problem of Serbian politics. This is true regardless of whether these groups are supportive of Aleksandar Vučić’s government or not.

When it comes to opposition political parties, the most prominent in fuelling the anti-migrant sentiment is Dveri, a far-right parliamentary party which has been boycotting the Parliament for more than a year. 

In the aftermath of large popular protests which started in December 2018, and were effectively taken over by opposition political parties, Dveri came out as a major beneficiary, presenting itself as the decisive force of Serbian ‘democratic’ opposition. In the second half of February, Dveri kick-started a campaign against the ruling party of Aleksandar Vučić, despite the fact it is boycotting the forthcoming elections.

The main target of Dveri’s campaign is the government’s ‘migration policy’; thus it advertises its campaign with a van making rounds through Serbia, presenting locals with a huge placard of migrant men, and asking ‘Are these migrant women and children?’ Dveri also petition against the government’s migration policy ‘for the safety of our children’.

The anti-migrant card is, currently, not exclusively played by the far right. Other parties, such as the People’s Party (Narodna stranka) of ex-UN General Assembly President Vuk Jeremić, or the neoliberal Enough is Enough party (Dosta je bilo) of ex-Minister of the Economy, Saša Radulović, are also playing the migrant card in their election campaigns. 

The first one presents itself as a ‘patriotic’, liberal conservative party, while the second one used to be a party of protest voters in the past. Encouragement of racist tropes and conspiracy theories has, however, marked their latest political development.

While these political forces are consciously using migrants as scapegoats in order to score cheap political points – as many other European parties of similar profile – there are also other, pro-Vučić political players, whose anti-migrant campaign is an integral part of their structurally racist and even fascist programmes.

Such is the case of Levijatan, an organisation disguised as animal rights advocates, which announced its plan to enrol in parliamentary and local elections in fifteen municipalities. Levijatan has a long history of far-right and fascist ties. Its recent anti-migrant spurs are in accord with its anti-Roma racism: Levijatan refers to both as ‘pests to be wiped out’.

Levijatan has also welcomed Goran Davidović, nicknamed the ‘Führer’, who used to lead a secret neo-Nazi organisation called National Alignment (Nacionalni stroj). Davidović has recently returned to Serbia, after he was granted an acquittal for attacking an anti-fascist demonstration in 2007. He spent eleven years on the run.

Along with these more or less organised forces, there are also supposedly grassroots initiatives against migrants. For instance, some 600 people gathered on the streets of the northern town of Subotica on 29th February to listen to hate speeches and calls for migrants to be sent home.

Other cities in northern Serbia have seen heightened tensions after allegations of migrant attacks on locals. Far-right ‘popular patrols’ have appeared in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, threatening migrants and publicising familiar tropes about migrant threats to Serbian women and girls. These patrols, however, still function on propagandistic level solely: their primary aim is to present themselves as an anti-systemic element.

Still, this is a new development and it should not be underestimated. Although the three protests organised so far attracted only a few hundred people – around 600 in Subotica, somewhat more than 200 in Požarevac, and around 600 in Belgrade on 8th March – they also prove that the far right feels emboldened enough to physically confront migrants and shout fascist tropes about ‘the great replacement’ on the streets.

The left against the right-wing regime and its opponents

Serbia is due to hold the elections on 26 April 2020 and the far right smells blood. Responding to the liberal opposition’s calls for a boycott of the elections amid growing authoritarian tendencies on the part of the illiberal President Aleksandar Vučić, the government has lowered the threshold from 5 to 3 percent, which may be within reach of various right-wing groups. The government’s move has already succeeded in dividing the liberal opposition, but it has also given the racist far right added incentive to whip up anti-immigrant feeling in the poor Balkan country.

Vučić, too, has been keen to position himself in relation to the emerging crisis by more openly moving to the right and promising not to allow Serbia to become ‘a parking lot’ for migrants prevented from entering the EU. This is a cynical move that will only further embolden the far right. Everyone can see that Vučić hopes to offer Serbia’s services as an external ‘border guard’ for the EU to gain funds and concessions from the EU in order to gain a faster route to accession.

As we have argued, the far right is already posing manipulative questions, such as: why is money being spent on foreigners, while it can never be found for ordinary local folk? These are mixed with ever more familiar Islamophobic rhetoric and fearmongering related to the coronavirus, typical of the far right across Europe, aided and abetted by the EU’s criminal policy of ‘Fortress Europe’.

The left in Serbia will be challenged to respond. Any response would have to couple solidarity with migrants and anti-racist campaigning with credible demands for a more socially just Serbia. This can act as an effective counterweight to shallow far-right critiques, whose seemingly social rhetoric serves the purpose of empowering nationalist sentiments.

There have been advances for the left in recent years, especially with campaigns like ‘The Roof Over Our Heads’ (Krov nad glavom), which united more than 9 organisations and dozens of non-affiliated individuals to prevent the eviction of families from over 151 homes across Serbia.

Unity in action on the left, if replicated in coming months, could help to slow and even stem the rise of the far right, and make the left in Serbia new allies in the wider region’s anti-racist and anti-fascist movements.

It may also help deepen the left’s working class and trade union component, a key step if it is to break out of small left activist circles and into the mass of the population, and thus offer light and hope in an often seemingly dark and hopeless situation.

Anja Ilić is a Sociology student at the University of Belgrade (Faculty of Philosophy) and an activist of Marks21, a revolutionary socialist organisation based in Serbia.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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