Far-Right Extremists Are Working Harder Than You Are

From the archives: “The Serbian ultranationalist and neo-fascist far right have somehow managed to put the internet to better use than the majority of Western-backed NGOs. Why is that?”

When they aren’t torching garbage bins or throwing petrol bombs at their their fellow Serbs, members of the far right extremist group SNP (Serbian People’s Movement) 1389 organize blood donations for charity. The group posts photos of the blood drives on their website, so visitors can see rows of smiling young men sitting in a reclining position, literally giving their blood for Serbia on a Saturday morning.

What is troubling about this? The fact that the Serbian ultranationalist and neo-fascist far right have somehow managed to put the internet to better use than the majority of Western-backed NGOs. In addition, it appears that cretinous neo-fascist organizations have better public relations and recruitment skills than the majority of their counterparts on the other side of the “ideological divide”. And while it may seem unfair to compare progressive NGOs to a group like 1389, which is more of a movement united by a common desire to burn shit and kill people, it does beg the question: why doesn’t a similarly united, peaceful front exist on the left?

The far right’s “web literacy” and ability to market themselves strategically is striking, and is something that progressive NGOs should give some serious thought to. In addition to the well-publicized blood drives, SNP 1389 has its own magazine, Sovereignty. The cover of the latest issue is clearly aimed at recruiting more young women, who are an underrepresented demographic in the male-dominated movement. In an attempt to attract more of the female population, the cover image depicts a young woman with a good manicure holding an iPhone in her hands. The image on the iPhone is SNP 1389’s logo, and a headline reads, “Young but socially aware”. There’s an obvious message being communicated here: you can be a young, attractive, modern iPhone user, but still be part of a violent neo-fascist group.

This well calculated strategy, about how to attract the unconverted to the group and the group’s particular set of values, is something missing from the activities of most donor-backed Serbian NGOs. Many appear to have given up on recruiting individuals outside of the established civil society elite, which seems to operate behind an impenetrable wall of entitlement in central Belgrade. And it’s difficult to name more than a handful of Serbian NGOs that publish regularly updated blog posts, let alone a magazine.  

Many NGOs will counter this claim by complaining that they do not have the money or the time to produce such things. But then how does Misa Vacic, the leader of 1389, manage to do it all? How does he manage to attract millions of YouTube views, or get more than 15,000 Facebook fans? And in between arrests, he still finds the time to organize fucking fashion shows. Passion obviously has a way of motivating individuals and groups to allocate more time and resources to their cause. While many well-meaning leaders of “left liberal” NGOs will spend endless hours at tedious roundtable discussions griping about the current political hive mind in Serbia (which is, to be fair, often suspicious or downright hostile to NGOs), but as one old song says, “if you want to be a martyr, try harder”.

Of course, some of the blame for the bloodlessness of pro-western civil society in Serbia must be assigned to foreign donors. In 2009, Hillary Clinton announced a new State Department program called “Civil Society 2.0”. The goal would be to train pro-Western NGOs to use the Internet and other new technologies to spread their various pro-Western messages more effectively in countries where democratic institutions were thought to be weak. Naturally Serbia fell into this camp, along with several other countries in the region. After hours of expert instruction, these organizations would know how to get more “likes” on Facebook, navigate their way around a Twitter feed, write engaging blog posts, and use smartphones to send and receive updates about organized protests and campaigns. Still high off the fumes of the 2008 Obama campaign and the so-called “Twitter revolution” in Iran (which, in case you’ve forgotten, failed), the State Department believed that the Internet was an inherently liberating tool, one that would promote social change even in the darkest corners of the world.

But a quick tour through the websites of several liberal NGOs reveal some pretty bad Geocities-style pages. I think I may have even seen some clip art in there. Definitely not the sophisticated tools of communication and outreach they are supposed to be. Some of these websites, of course, were better than others, but it doesn’t appear that any of them are as frequently updated or popular as those of SNP 1389, and its cuddlier, “family values”-oriented cousin, Dveri. None of them regularly produce magazines, as both of the aforementioned extremist groups do, or give specific addresses across Serbia, in villages and small towns, where those publications can be purchased. None of them seem to have online stores like 1389 or Dveri, where you can buy things that identify you with a cause or movement, and at least hint at some potential form of future self-sustainability.

Which again begs the question, why do the far right extremists seem to be working harder? Do they have more “passion” or just more money? While we can safely assume that many of these groups receive money from members of the diaspora, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and quite possibly the Serbian government itself, some of the well-established pro-Western NGOs have certainly received millions of dollars in Western aid over the years. And while new and smaller NGOs certainly struggle to secure funding for a number of laudable causes, and are forced to spend much of their time securing grants for projects just to stay afloat, larger NGOs led by increasingly irrelevant personalities from the 1990s cannot complain that donors have not given them enough money or trust.
So until the younger, more energetic elements in the progressive NGO community can unite around values antithetical to the deplorable bigotry of the violent cretins in SNP 1389, civil society in Serbia is likely to weaken, the Serbian Radical Party will return to power — and just as the foreign donor cash begins to dry up. 

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia. https://www.instagram.com/lynch.lily/