In rescuing dogs and promoting ‘traditional’ rural life, far-right groups are seeking to encroach on the political mainstream in Europe.
By Vladan Djukanovic, Predrag Milic, and Jelena Djureinovic
Anastasija first came across Levijatan [Leviathan] in 2017 on Facebook.
The 23-year-old student from the Serbian capital, Belgrade, had long been interested in environmental protection and ecology, and was drawn to the group’s focus on concrete action to protect defenceless animals from cruelty.
“At last someone is actually working on the ground to protect animals,” she recalled thinking. But the burly, tattooed men of Levijatan aren’t your average dog rescuers, as Anastasija eventually found out.
“It took me more than a year to discover and understand that Levijatan isn’t quite as caring as it makes out and that behind the protection of animals stands the spread of intolerance of and hatred towards different social groups,” Anastasija, who declined to give her surname, told BIRN.
In fact, with more than 220,000 followers on Facebook and roughly 22,600 votes in Serbia’s last parliamentary election in June, Levijatan is the latest offshoot of a Europe-wide phenomenon that has appropriated the fight for animal rights in the service of a far-right political agenda targeting minorities.
But while ‘far-right ecologism’ – as PhD candidate Balsa Lubarda of the Central European University, CEU, calls it – can be traced to underground movements of the 1960s and 70s, its newest practitioners are encroaching on the mainstream in countries like Serbia and Hungary, where their discourse frequently dovetails with the policies espoused by increasingly authoritarian and populist governments.
“The whole spectrum of right-wing politics is invariably actually contributing to thinking about the environment, thinking about ecologically sustainable politics and that link is exactly what far-right and right-wing populism is now trying to play on, given the salience of the topic,” Lubarda said in an interview.
Via grassroots activism, they seek to influence public policy and infiltrate state structures. Far-right parties with similar interests in the environment are represented in parliaments across Europe.
Means of ‘deflecting criticism’
Where Levijatan traces its founding five years ago to the rescue of a tortured pit bull called Grof, the Hungarian organisation Szurkolok az allatokert [Sports Fans for Animals] began with a dog called Fulop.
Both groups reject the label ‘far-right’, but their politics are clear:
Levijatan used to share an office with the Serbian Right, a far-right political party, and Levijatan’s leader, Pavle Bihali, is seen in pictures on his social media accounts posing with neo-Nazis.
In an emailed response to questions for this story, Bihali said that, on the current Serbian political spectrum, Levijatan is “right of centre” and committed to fighting against “the remains of communism that have brought us to where we are.”
Its tactics can be brutal.
In mid-October, Serbian police arrested six members of the group on suspicion of attacking a man on a street in Belgrade, the Serbian daily Danas reported.
According to prosecutors, the six – identified only by their initials – demanded the victim repeat certain words while they filmed on a mobile phone and, when he refused, they beat him. Two days later, prosecutors say one of the suspects threatened the victim, telling him to apologise on Facebook for his earlier criticism of Levijatan.
Szurkolok az allatokert, meanwhile, has received coverage on media outlets close to Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party and Jobbik, a once virulently anti-Semitic far-right party that has sought in recent years to move closer to the centre.
Szurkolok az allatokert, which did not respond to questions for this story, has shared speeches on social media by members of Our Homeland Movement, a far-right offshoot of Jobbik, while the think-tank Political Capital featured the group in its 2017 and 2018 reports on the far-right.
Animal rights activism is a shield, said Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. “It is a very good way of avoiding and deflecting criticism.”
Long tradition of far-right ecologism
Lubarda at CEU traces the ideological beginnings of far-right ecologism to the 19th century. Its contemporary form emerged in the 1960s, however.
“The 1960s was the time, generally speaking, when environmentalism became a mass movement issue, gathering people interested not only in the ecological component of it, but also in the very social component of the whole topic,” he said.
Bieber, in Graz, said there was always a far-right dimension to environmentalist movements in Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, but it clearly involved a minority within what was overwhelmingly a leftist movement.
In Germany, the extreme right National Democratic Party was established in this 1960s context. The party’s current program includes a section on the environment that looks at agriculture, nature protection and alternative energy sources.
But while environmentalism is intrinsically transnational, far-right groups and parties confine it to national borders.
Far-right political parties in Western and Eastern Europe have embraced environmental politics and placed it at the core of their programs.
Ecology represents one of the policy issues used to appeal beyond the core constituency for far-right groups and distract from their very radical and violent exclusionary ideas, said Bieber. “It is also to reach out, to become more mainstream,” he said.
In Germany, far-right activists operate organic farms and shops, particularly in the east where some live in rural communities inspired by the interwar Artaman League, an agrarian and volkisch movement that was eventually absorbed into the Nazi Party. The cheap price of land in the 1990s made the region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the north-east a centre of far-right agricultural activity.
Most of these people take part in local environmental initiatives but keep their political views largely to themselves.
Across Germany, right-wing extremists take part in initiatives to clean forests and clear litter, protest against animal cruelty and green gene technology and take part in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
A 2011 study by Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a foundation affiliated with the German Green Party, found that the demands of “brown ecologists” are not so different from those of environmental activists and green parties, but they are motivated by clear far-right, ‘blood-and-soil’ ideology.
The German magazine Umwelt & Aktiv [Environment & Active], whose publishers have links to the NPD, exemplifies what the concern of the far-right for the environment looks like in practice.
Its subtitle used to be “Environment protection – animal protection – homeland protection”. The content is a mix of gardening tips and racist tropes branding other cultures as uncivilised and inferior for their treatment of animals.
In Central and Eastern Europe, far-right political parties are represented in parliament, advocating environmental policies based on the idea of how a nation is rooted in its land, the preservation of nature in that homeland and the idealisation of ‘traditional’ rural life.
Hungary’s Jobbik, for example, advocates living in harmony with nature. Mi Hazánk, or Our Homeland Movement, a hard-line faction that split from Jobbik and is represented in parliament, also has a green wing. Jobbik did not respond to a request for comment. Its platform calls for preserving “the achievements of Hungarian rural culture and the centuries-long traditions of sustainable agriculture” via “economical bio- and eco-farming”.
In Slovakia, the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia of Marian Kotleba, the fourth biggest party in the country, has a strong focus on environmental protection and farming.
Like the NPD, these parties use environmental politics to mask their radical right-wing ideology, experts say. But they have built their ecological platforms around the far-right discourse of ‘blood and soil’.
They all share a disdain for the Roma community in their countries and strong opposition to immigration.
Likewise in Serbia, “The idea of the Levijatan Movement is mirroring the global trend of the right wing movements, trying to incorporate the topics traditionally encompassed by the left political mobilisation spectre, such as ecology, and, within it, animal rights,” said Irena Pejić, a Belgrade-based sociologist and journalist of the Mašina portal.
On Levijatan’s decision to formally enter politics, Bihali said it was “simply a wish for laws to change as soon as possible in the direction we think they should.” Animal abusers, rapists and murderers should “rot in jail,” he said. “So we are not interested in power, but we are focused on what we have been doing for five years”
In their behaviour and rhetoric towards Roma and their anti-migration activities, Levijatan and Hungarian Szurkolok az allatokert are rooted firmly in the Europe-wide phenomenon of far-right ecologism and its preoccupation with a nation’s ecosystem and unwelcome foreigners who dwell in it.
According to Lubarda, in the eyes of the Hungarian far-right, Hungarians exist as the “natural species” within the borders of Hungary before the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which cost the country two thirds of its territory and stranded half its population outside the borders of the redrawn state.
Roma in Hungary are perceived as a foreign species and as immigrants, said Lubarda. When discussing refugees, many far-right activists use analogies of the disruption caused by the import of foreign plants or animals to a particular ecosystem.
Levijatan’s opposition to immigration is clear.
In May 2020, Filip Radovanovic, a member of both Levijatan and Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, drove a car at a refugee reception centre in Obrenovac, an outlying municipality of the capital, Belgrade. No one was hurt in the incident.
Upon his arrest, Levijatan organised a protest in front of the centre under the slogan “Stop Illegal Immigrants”.
Levijatan, like Szurkolok az allatokert, often targets the Roma population in its animal rescue missions.
In April 2020, around ten members of Levijatan entered the home of a Roma family, harassed them, hurled insults and seized their dog, according to Kosta Ristić, the director of a film involving members of the family.
As in other cases, Levijatan uploaded video of the ‘rescue mission’ to its Facebook page, causing the Roma family further anxiety, Ristic said. The incident drew criticism in the media and online, marking a small victory for those opposed to the far-right in Serbia, said Ristic.
Today, Anastasija is one of those critical voices as a member of a network of progressive green organisations, working to educate her peers about the reality of Levijatan’s activities.
“I see critical education as one of the ways for young people to inform themselves and decide on the basis of facts whether they would support a certain group.”
Jelena Djureinovic is a historian and author of book The Politics of Memory of the Second World War in Contemporary Serbia: Collaboration, Resistance and Retribution, published by Routledge in 2019. She works at the University of Vienna. Vladan Djukanovic is an activist living in Belgrade, engaged in a field of communications with civil society organizations in Serbia and the Western Balkans. He works as outreach manager at Humanitarian Law Center. Predrag Momcilovic is a journalist and PhD student from the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where he focuses on ecology and political ecology, green technology, and public goods. He also works as a journalist in Serbia and abroad, and is a member of the editorial board of the online portal, Masina.
This article has been produced as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU, funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police.
The content of this story represents the views of the author and is the sole responsibility of BIRN. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.