Eleonora Vio, Balkan Insight, November 19, 2019
Alexandar Vorkapic, a 29-year-old graphic designer from Serbia, first met members of the far-right Identitarian movement in 2014 in Lyon, while he was studying in France.
They told Vorkapic that some like-minded activists in Serbia wanted to open a local branch of Generation Identity, the global far-right youth movement born in France and now a driving force behind the populist, far-right resurgence in Europe.
However, he said, “The French were afraid the Serbs were neo-Nazis or fascists,” so they asked Vorkapic to check them out.
On completing his studies the following year, in 2015, Vorkapic headed home. “I met these guys,” he told BIRN. “They were students, not Nazis or fascists. Just young patriots who wanted to get involved on the European political stage.”
Within two years, the Serbian branch of Generation Identity was born, its core made up of disaffected young members of a party led by a firebrand ultranationalist called Vojislav Seselj, a rotund, 65-year-old convicted war criminal reviled across the Balkans for his blood-soaked rhetoric during the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
For some in the Serbian far-right, the Identitarians represented a chance to rebrand themselves in the image of a movement fronted by well-groomed millennials selling repackaged racism, a ‘blood and soil lite’ concept of “ethnopluralism” that has roots in the European New Right of the 1960s and stresses culture and identity rather than race and genetics.
Serbia, after all, holds a special place in the far-right narrative in Europe, its loss of majority-Albanian Kosovo in a 1998-99 war held up as a case study of the ‘Islamic colonisation’ of ‘Christian land’, threatened anew, they say, since 2015 with the flow of mainly Muslim migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to Europe’s shores.
Yet by mid-2018, the Serbian branch had folded. The reasons for its failure are many and varied, but the experiment nevertheless shed light on the changing nature of far-right politics in the Balkans and beyond. Serbia has proved more valuable as a propaganda tool for Western far-right movements than as an actual stage for Identitarian expansion.
The year after Vorkapic returned to Serbia, Nikola Mirkovic, a dual French-Serbian national, wrote an article about what he called the “Islamic conquest” of Europe on the website of a right-wing think tank called Katehon, which is owned by a Kremlin-linked Russian billionaire called Konstantin Malofeev.
“If someone asks you for a crystal ball to know what the future will look like,” Mirkovic wrote, “tell them to look at the history of Kosovo and Metohija.”
That history is hotly disputed by the Serbs and Albanians who lay claim to Kosovo, but winds up with the territory – commonly referred to in Serbia as ‘Kosovo and Metohija’ – breaking away with the help of NATO air strikes in 1999 and declaring independence, with Western backing, in 2008.
To those of the far-right, like 45-year-old Mirkovic, it was a land grab, the culmination of decades of colonisation of historical Serbian lands by Muslim Albanians, and is a cautionary tale for the European continent.
The West says it acted to halt a wave of ethnic cleansing and mass killings by Serbian forces trying to quell a Kosovo Albanian guerrilla rebellion against years of Serbian repression.
That the far-right narrative sits on such shaky foundations, however, has not stopped it taking root among followers across the continent, as a case study of the ‘great replacement’ theory endorsed by movements such as Generation Identity and that warns of white Christians becoming a minority in Europe.
“Historically, the far right perceives a bulwark between Christianity and Islam and can find it in the Balkans,” said a European diplomat based in Belgrade and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Serbia is a very good place […] to foster anti-EU sentiments, because it’s easy to say: ‘Look at what the EU did to Serbia! The EU is allying with Muslims!’”
Serbian sociologist Jovo Bakic told BIRN: “Kosovo has symbolic significance for the Serbs and, thanks to the Serbian Christian identity and the Albanian mostly Muslim identity, it is the perfect case for the European far-right too.”
Mirkovic is not a member of Generation Identitaire, but of Solidarité Kosovo, a French association that provides humanitarian aid to Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs, a small minority in a country of 1.8 million mainly Albanians.
In 2004, when Albanian mobs in Kosovo attacked Serb enclaves, leaving 19 people dead and hundreds of Serb homes and dozens of Orthodox churches torched, Solidarité Kosovo was born to bring “material and moral support to the Serbian Christian people in Kosovo,” according to the organisation’s website.
“I realised that Serbs were being exterminated in Europe, just two hours by plane from Paris,” Solidarité Kosovo’s 33-year-old founder, Arnaud Gouillon, told the French-language website Orthodoxologie in March 2015. “Every church in flames was a piece of Christian civilisation that had disappeared,” he said.
Both Mirkovic and Gouillon, a naturalised Serbian citizen and convert to Orthodox Christianity, say Solidarité Kosovo is a strictly humanitarian organisation, but its roots are deeply entwined with the Identitarian movement.
At the time he founded Solidarité, Gouillon had just taken over as head of the Grenoble branch of Juenesses Identitaires, soon to be renamed Identitaires, the street movement and forerunner of Generation Identitaire.
He rubbed shoulders with figures such as Philippe Vardon, now chief of communications for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, and members of the far-right militant group Unité Radicale – Gaetan Bertrand, Fabrice Robert and Guillame Luyt – which was disbanded by the government in 2002 after one of its members tried to assassinate then French President Jacques Chirac. They went on to form Bloc Identitaire, of which Gouillon’s Juenesses Identitaires was the youth wing.
In 2012, Gouillon was the Identitarian party candidate for the French presidential election, but withdrew before the vote. He foreswore politics and in 2015 received honorary Serbian citizenship from the Serbian government.
Mirkovic was an activist with the far-right Movement National de la Jeunesse and a drummer in the 1990s’ French Identitarian rock band Elendil.
“In France, Solidarité Kosovo organises venues where it presents the unheard testimonies of Serbs from Kosovo and collects funds to help them at home,” Mirkovic told BIRN in a telephone interview.
“I’m very happy because, thanks to our work, we’re finally contributing to opening people’s eyes.”
Some observers of far-right trends in Europe, however, see in Solidarité Kosovo and its leadership the concept of far-right ‘metapolitics’ in action, a long-haul strategy of effecting political change by shifting opinion and culture.
These observers say the Identitarian movement uses ostensibly independent satellite associations to spread the message, reaching audiences the movement might not otherwise reach while protecting it from the potentially extremist actions of fringe followers.
A trademark of the movement is “the establishment of charitable groups, whose only scope is to enhance their propaganda,” said Simon Murdoch, a researcher with the British anti-fascist political action group Hope Not Hate, to BIRN.
French journalist Mathieu Molard, who has reported extensively on the ranks of the Identitarians and the French far-right for the independent online platform StreetPress, is in little doubt:
“Solidarité Kosovo is a small satellite of Generation Identitaire,” he told BIRN.
Mirkovic dismissed this, telling BIRN: “Of course it’s false that SK is a satellite association of GI, but since I am not SK’s spokesperson, I’m not entitled to give further details.”
BIRN put the same question to Solidarité Kosovo directly and Gouillon himself by email but received no reply.
In a 2018 study titled “Migration Crisis and the Far Right Networks in Europe; a Case Study of Serbia”, Marina Lazetic, a Bosnian-born, US-educated researcher of extremist movements, wrote:
“Radical far right movements disguised as humanitarian and human rights organisations helping Serbs in Kosovo have started multiplying, and nationalists from across Europe have started arriving in Serbia to support one of the few strongholds of white European civilisation in resistance against Muslims and Western aggressors.”
If the EU fails to take action, and make European integration more attractive to Serbs, Lazetic warned, “the rise of radical movements in the region could present a serious security threat.”
Observers of the European far-right say that, even before Vorkapic and Co created the Serbian branch of Generation Identity, the Identitarian movement had identified Serbia as a valuable tool in the ‘great replacement’ narrative. The latter would prove more resilient than the former.
As part of her research, Lazetic looked at the Serbian GI branch – Generacija Identiteta – that Vorkapic had helped create, as well as a right-wing group called Anti-Immigration Initiative. She came across something interesting.
“When I talked to the people who ran the anti-immigration pages, it turned out they all belonged to SRS,” Lazetic told BIRN, referring to Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party.
“They are running these things as a hobby, to prove they are different from the old nationalist and fascist organisations,” she said. “They are small, and kind of insignificant, but they are trying to change face, by distancing themselves from the image they got in the 90s.”
Once a major force in Serbian politics and coalition partner of Milosevic’s Socialists during the Kosovo war, the Radical Party saw its support base ripped away by a former disciple of Seselj, Aleksandar Vucic, when he formed a splinter party in 2008 and embraced eventual EU accession as Serbia’s best hope for a brighter future.
Vucic is now president of Serbia, his Progressive Party arguably more powerful than Milosevic’s Socialists ever were, rebranded as pro-European conservatives with a lingering soft spot for Russia.
Bakic said Vorkapic was a candidate for the Radical Party in Belgrade elections in 2016, something Vorkapic denied. “That is not true,” he said. “Some former members of SRS were members of the GI movement but, as they joined GI, they left the SRS.”
The Identitarian movement in Europe has long rejected the label ‘extremist’ and kept overtly violent, extreme right-wing groups at arm’s length.
The leader of GI Austria, Martin Sellner, has come in for police scrutiny over his connections to the Australian man on trial for the killing of 51 people and wounding dozens more in a gun assault on two mosques in the city of Christchurch in March 2019.
With skinny jeans and a Peaky Blinder haircut, Sellner was, and remains, a poster boy for the Identitarian movement, the fresh face of the far right.
“I think people need to be realistic and serious and understand that if the demographics continues like this we will become a minority in our own country and if the integration policies continue like this we will become Islamic or an Islamic-dominated country,” Sellner told this reporter in 2016.
The Serbian chapter of GI was far more modest than Sellner’s, its members meeting in apartments and bars in the absence of an actual office. Its leaders met other Identitarians in France and Austria. While its Facebook page had thousands of ‘likes’, its public events would gather up to 300 people maximum. It is not clear how many were actual active members.
In the space of two years, said Vorkapic, the movement held “public speeches on issues like Islamisation, migration and liberal thinking,” mounted road blocks and staged a demonstration against NATO.
The public face of the movement was medical student Filip Milinic, a former member of Seselj’s Radical Party. Milinic exchanged a few Facebook messages with this reporter but declined to be interviewed.
He has also been active with the fascist Serbian National Front group which, according to a Generacija Identiteta sympathiser who asked not to be named, Milinic tried to rebrand.
“He was at the forefront of this mission,” the activist said.
That the Identitarian movement has found Serbia a hard nut to crack comes down to several factors, observers and insiders say.
The issue of immigration, so central to the Identitarian narrative in Western Europe, remains a fairly distant concept to Serbia, where very few of the migrants and refugees reaching Europe wish to stay for very long.
“If Europeans see migrants living around them, the Serbian general public isn’t really aware of the danger represented by this question in the future because it can barely see them,” said Tesa Tesanovic, a member of the Radical Party and founder of the right-wing news website Balkan Info.
A backlash against the Identitarian movement in Europe, in particular after the Christchurch massacre, was felt in Serbia too where, Milinic told BIRN in brief correspondence, Facebook shut down their account.
“Facebook started associating the [Spartan] lambda symbol as a hate symbol and banned our pages,” Milinic said, writing in English.
Vorkapic said GI branches in Eastern Europe had also bristled at the perceived patronage and supervision of their western European counterparts.
The anonymous GI sympathiser, however, said the animosity went both ways.
“There were talks about western European branches denouncing the eastern European ones, because of their excessive extremism and ideological disagreements,” he said.
Some point to a decision by Generacija Identiteta to hold a joint demonstration on January 9, 2018 in front of Belgrade’s St Sava church with the neo-fascist organisation Srbska akcija [Serbian Action].
Serbian Action is affiliated with the Serbian National Front led by Goran Davidovic, known as Fuhrer.
When the group folded in mid-2018, Vorkapic took a leaf out of Mirkovic’s book and turned to humanitarian work, distributing aid to Serbs in Kosovo.
“My people in Kosovo need someone to help them because no one has ever asked them how they live or feel,” he told BIRN. “The Western world bombed us, invaded Kosovo and turned those people into the prisoners of terrorists and NATO.”
Vorkapic rejects the characterisation ‘far-right’. He says he is simply a patriot.
“There’s no politics involved,” he said.