As they do every year, demonstrators marched against fascism on March 15 in Bratislava, the Slovak capital
“Today, the Nazis in Slovakia and all over Europe try to act politically.” said Martina Majerníková, a student taking part in the march.
“Since people don’t have any alternative in times of crisis and of failure of politics, they tend to agree with neo-Nazis. We are here also because Marian Kotleba was elected to a high political place as governor of Banská Bystrica. He’s a former neo-Nazi and fascist, and we are here to express that we don’t agree with that. We stand for tolerance and not for hatred,” she added.
The march was in response to another gathering, in the city of Nitra, some 100 kms from the capital. Marian Kotleba is the figurehead of the small ultra-nationalist ‘Our Slovakia-People’s Party’.
He was there to mark the anniversary of the first declaration of Slovak independence in 1939 by the pro-German regime of Josef Tiso.
The presence of a euronews’ crew aroused suspicion. We managed to get only a few terse comments from one party representative, Jan Keckes
“We want to defend the Slovak people, to highlight Slovak traditional values, and to make them thrive. We want to promote new laws that are favourable to the Slovak people,” said Keckes.
Despite repeated requests, Kotleba, declined to be interviewed. He has been misrepresented by the media too often, his supporters said.
It was as the leader of a small, now banned, extremist group, that he made his public debut about 10 years ago.
Though his current movement – Our Slovakia-People’s Party – now says it respects the constitution, he is known for his hardcore rhetoric against what he perceives as any enemy of the nation.
His starting point is the Roma community, which he once described as “Gypsy parasites”. Arrested several times in the past, he has never been convicted.
Kotleba has since toned down his speeches and portrays himself as the champion of a just state, and what he calls “decent “ Christian citizens.
That helped him win more than 55 percent of the vote in regional elections last November in Banska Bystrica, a key region in Central Slovakia
That was a protest vote against the mismanagement and corruption of the entire political class, says Pavel Šedivý, a retired military officer turned radio host, and one of the few supporters of Kotleba who agreed to talk to us.
“During the past 25 years since the revolution, nothing has changed in Slovakia,” said Šedivý.
“And the worst thing is that everything is being stolen, Public finances were looted. There are politicians who steal without limits the country’s assets. And the judicial system has completely broken down. People don’t know what to do. We have to reject these things, to say stop, enough! To say stop, and move on!”
Those sentiments have been reinforced by an economic slump and inflation in a region where unemployment runs to 18 percent of the workforce, and where wages are up to two times lower than in Bratislava.
The Grand Power plant is one of the few to prosper here. It makes handguns, mainly for the sports shooting market, but to a lesser extent the private security market, according to its CEO, Jaroslav Kuracina.
A former founding member of the ruling Social Democratic party SMER, Kuracina now strongly supports Marian Kotleba .
He says he is the only one who really fights against the political corruption and cronyism affecting local businesses and the economy. He also supports Kotleba’s aim of taking Slovakia out of the eurozone.
“The economic situation in Slovakia has deteriorated a lot since its entry into the European Union,” Kuracina told euronews.
“Especially with the implementation of European norms, which have liquidated most Slovak companies in the food industry. After joining the EU the policy was to liquidate a large number of Slovak companies; most are now in the hands of foreign capital, which in turn, benefits from Slovak cheap labour. “
Another frequent target for Kotleba and his supporters, is the Roma community, which represents 25 percent of the region’s population. Marginalised and often accused of living off society, two thirds of them are unemployed.
It is a situation no one has tried to remedy, says Milota, who we met in a settlement threatened with demolition.
Marian Kotleba, she says, is the least of her worries: “For me, Kotleba’s just a normal guy. What he thinks is good. He just wants there to be order here; he wants people to find work, to go to work.
“He wants the children to go to school regularly, that’s all. If he finds us work, fine, we can only be glad. But people here can only rely on social benefits. They go out looking for work, and when they apply for a job, on the phone, they’re told to come; but when they go, they’re turned down, because they’re Roma. People do make efforts, but we just can’t get anywhere.”
Any success Kotleba will have as a regional governor may boost the fortunes of the Our Slovakia Party at a national level. While not running in this year’s presidential election he can be expected to do well in the legislative elections in 2016, according to one political analyst.
“Today they are approaching the five percent threshold, they’re still under that. But if the situation in some issues, like Roma issues, or regional development, will deteriorate, then I won’t exclude that maybe at the next elections this party will sit in parliament,” says Grigorij Meseznikov, President of the Institute for Public Affairs.
In the meantime, Kotleba’s party is set to put up several candidates in the coming European elections.
Addressing supporters at the rally in Nitra Kotleba he left no one in any doubt about his main themes: “Hitler himself had not allowed himself to do what the European Union is doing today. At the time, there was no German flag on the front of all Slovak public institutions
“Look at how Slovakia looks like now! On every administrative building, there is this shameful blue rag of occupation! Except in Banska Bystrica.
“We want to fight to win back the independence of Slovakia. For a better Slovakia, our Slovakia.”