For decades, the Balkans was seen as exporting instability to Western Europe. Now, Germany’s far-right is trying to extend its own ideology into southeastern Europe.
A flash of anger passed over Markus Frohnmaier’s face like a shadow. The Bundestag MP bristles at being portrayed in the media as a Russian-controlled right-wing radical with links to extremists.
It’s “insane” to say he is a racist, he argues, given his own life story – born in Romania, adopted by a German family and married to a woman from Uzbekistan.
“We’re what Germans call a ‘multi-kulti’ family,” Frohnmaier told BIRN on the terrace of a lakeside café in the small southern German town of Boblingen, near Stuttgart.
“I think I defend normal positions.”
At 28 years old, Frohnmaier is the youngest MP for Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the right-wing populist party that shot to prominence in Germany in part by railing against an influx of mainly Muslim refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa since 2015. It is now the third largest party in the Bundestag.
Frohnmaier’s own immigrant background has proved no obstacle to his rapid rise up the AfD ranks.
And since seizing a national platform, the balding, bespectacled MP is now putting his Balkan roots to good use by seeking out like-minded figures in the region, Croatia and Serbia in particular.
Contrary to a widely-held perception in the West of the Balkans as a source of ethnic nationalism and instability endangering Europe, recent years have seen the emergence of a reverse trend, with the export of far-right ideology from Western Europe to the countries of the Balkans, fanning the flames of Islamophobia and historical revisionism.
The targets are not just politicians and political parties, but church figures and intellectuals too, via dozens of meetings, conferences, panel discussions, seminars and other events, according to the findings of a BIRN investigation.
The outreach is designed to rise above divisions rooted in the wars of Yugoslavia’s collapse in the 1990s.
While others in AfD are making inroads in Croatia, Frohnmaier said the party was actively inviting Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church to see the AfD as “a place where their needs are taken seriously,” tapping a rich vein of hostility towards NATO and the EU and an affinity for Russia among Serbs.
“We are natural partners,” he said. And AfD is not the only party looking to the Balkans.
Boris Buden, a Berlin-based philosopher and analyst of fascist trends in Europe, told BIRN:
“In the international networking of these groups, we are witnessing the creation of the right-wing pro-fascist International. And it is being created in the heart of the West.”
Founded in 2013, the AfD is at the forefront of a far-right resurgence in Europe, eclipsing the likes of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, NPD, which is more than half a century old.
The NPD, said Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz, is “a classic right-wing extremist party”. The AfD, on the other hand, is “much closer to the radical right-wing populist party template.”
The most radical elements of the AfD are its youth organisation, Young Alternative, JA, and the Wing [Flugel], a hardline faction that has frequently been at odds with more conventional conservatives within the party. Both are monitored by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, BfV, for their potential threat “to the liberal democratic principles of Germany’s constitution,” the BfV confirmed in January.
After joining the AfD, in 2015 Frohnmaier became the head of the JA and was one of the first signatories of the Erfurt Resolution, which led to the creation of the Wing.
Frohnmaier told BIRN he saw nothing “super radical” in the AfD ranks.
“My positions would be super normal in all other countries all over the world,” he said.
In 2016, however, a German media investigation identified Frohnmaier as an AfD hardliner, along with close associate Dubravko Mandic, a Wing member recently elected to the city council of Freiburg, a well-heeled university city in southwestern Germany.
Like Frohnmaier, 39-year-old Mandic was born abroad, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then part of Yugoslavia. The child of an ethnic Croat father and a Serb mother, Mandic was raised from the age of three in Germany.
Between them, Mandic and Frohnmaier have been trying to spread AfD’s message to Croatia and Serbia.
“We are their voice,” Mandic said, “even if here we are considered to be right-wingers, racists and opponents of foreigners.”
Frohnmaier has visited Serbia at least once a year for the past six years, building an alliance with the small right-wing People’s Freedom Movement [Narodni Slobodarski Pokret] and its 35-year-old leader, Miroslav Parovic.
Since 2014, both Parovic and Frohnmaier have said publicly that they are working on the creation of a “Paris-Berlin-Belgrade-Moscow Axis.”
In March 2017, Frohnmaier spoke at an election rally in the town of Smederevska Palanka in central Serbia during Parovic’s unsuccessful run for the Serbian presidency. Parovic took barely 11,500 votes, or 0.32 per cent, yet thanks to his alliance with Frohnmaier he and his party colleagues – who are not represented in the Serbian parliament – have been invited to attend conferences in the Bundestag and the European Parliament.
In an interview with BIRN, Frohnmaier said the fact the AfD and Parovic’s party were not in power was a “problem” but that he believed Serbia could take on the role of “bridge” between the West and East.
The AfD as a party backed another candidate in the 2017 election – Bosko Obradovic of the right-wing Dveri party, which has seven MPs in the Serbian parliament and has emerged as a fierce critic of the country’s ruling conservatives under President Aleksandar Vucic.
Obradovic was a guest of an AfD leader, Jorg Meuthen, at his Stuttgart office in March 2017.
“They talked about family policy, problems with Brussels bureaucracy and migration,” Dragana Trifkovic, a senior member of Dveri, told BIRN.
Trifkovic said the two parties had not met formally since then, and noted that in March 2019 an AfD delegation visited the Serbian parliament but met only MPs of the ruling coalition.
In October, AfD deputy and head of the party’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Armin-Paul Hampel, went a step further in his second visit to Belgrade in five months, meeting Marko Djuric, Serbia’s pointman on Kosovo, the majority Albanian former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008.
Unlike the AfD’s more formal Serbian outreach, the party’s mission in Croatia relies heavily on the “private initiative” of Mandic, Frohnmaier told BIRN.
Via the right-wing Croatian talkshow host Velimir Bujanec, in July 2018 Mandic was introduced to two right-wing Croatian MPs – former Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic and retired General Zeljko Glasnovic.
Mandic was interviewed by Bujanec on his talkshow, Bujica, that month, telling Bujanec: “Germany has been enslaved by anti-fascists.” Such a choice of words would resonate with conservative and right-wing Croats who play down the crimes committed by the fascist WWII Croatian puppet state and pour scorn on liberals as the ideological heirs of the Yugoslav communists.
In April 2019, Mandic and AfD deputy Dietmar Friedhoff organised a panel discussion in Freiberg regarding ‘The Future of Croats in a Nationalistic Germany’. A sponsorship panel declared it was ‘supported by Bujica.’
In an interview with BIRN, Mandic described Hasanbegovic and Glasnovic as belonging to a “similar milieu opposed to political correctness”.
He backed a growing trend in Croatia to sanitise the crimes committed under the WWII Ustasa regime, when thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma perished in the Jasenovac concentration camp.
Mandic said much was changing in how people looked on WWII and the role of Croatian fascists. “It’s not okay to immediately surrender and confess crimes if it’s not necessary,” he said. “In Croatia, there’s no point in everything revolving around Jasenovac.”
“That’s not Croatian identity,” he said.
While Glasnovic, 65, told BIRN he did not recall meeting Mandic and that he had no cooperation with AfD, there is no disputing his German far-right links.
In 2014, three years before a court ruled it resembled the Nazi party and was anti-constitutional but stopped short of imposing a ban, the NPD went in search of collaborators in Serbia and Croatia.
That year, an NPD member made contact with members of the far-right Srbska akcija [Serbian Action], their collaboration eventually made official by the latter’s participation in the annual congress of the NPD’s Young Nationalists, JN, youth wing, said Marko Dimitrijevic of Serbian Action.
Then, in November 2018, the annual NPD congress publicly exposed the party’s cooperation with Glasnovic, a member of the parliamentary bloc Independents for Croatia.
“He is their hero,” Buden said of Glasnovic. “He represents what they want in their own country – to have an armed historical revisionist almost in power.”
Attending the congress, Glasnovic told Deutsche Welle that NPD members fought under his command during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The German government says that more than 100 far-right German mercenaries fought with the Croats.
While Glasnovic missed out on a European Parliament spot in elections in May this year, thanks to his links with the NPD the former French Foreign Legion fighter visited Lebanon in June as a delegate of the Alliance for Peace and Freedom, a far-right European political party co-founded by the NPD.
In Croatia, the media picked up on Glasnovic’s attendance at the NPD congress in 2018 given the fact Serbian nationalists were also present, putting the NPD in the unlikely position of bridge between sworn enemies.
Glasnovic told BIRN he did not see any Serbian representatives at the event. But Marko Dimitrijevic, of Serbian Action, told BIRN: “Of course we don’t like NPD’s contacts with those anti-Serbs, but that still doesn’t pose an obstacle to our good cooperation with the NPD.”
Dimitrijevic said Serbian Action had cooperated with the NPD on joint panel discussions in Belgrade, on publication of the English-language online magazine The Spear and a demonstration in the Czech capital, Prague, to mark the 20th anniversary of the NATO bombing of Serbia during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
BIRN has discovered that Serbian Action has been mentioned several times in annual reports regarding right-wing extremism drawn up by the domestic intelligence agency of the German federal state of Saxony.
Dimitrijevic said that collaboration with the NPD was based on “a shared awareness of the fateful cohesion of all nations of Europe, which represents our wider homeland.”
“That ‘homeland’,” he said, “is under Atlantic occupation of NATO, the EU and the banking system.”
This occupation, in turn, “encourages the settlement of migrants in Europe”, the Islamisation of the continent and the promotion of “anti-Christian, liberal-fundamentalist and cultural Marxist ideas”, he said.
Islamic bogeyman a bridge
The perceived threat posed by Islam is used heavily by both AfD and the NPD in their Balkan networking, adjusted according to the target.
With Serbs, the accent is on Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians, many of whom declare themselves as Muslims, broke away in war two decades ago and declared independence in 2008 with the backing of the major Western powers.
With Croats, the focus is on the position of their ethnic kin in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Croats complain they are subordinate to the more numerous Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks.
Parovic, the AfD contact in Serbia, said it came down to the same thing – in the 1990s, he said, the West “declared Muslims in Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina as good Muslims.”
Frohnmaier said that Germans could “learn from Serbs and their experience with Islamic terrorism, especially during the 1990s,” and he backed “peaceful” Serbian efforts in Kosovo “to take your country back.”
At the European Congress of the NPD’s youth wing, in May 2018, Ivan Bilokapic argued that the fight against Islam in Bosnia and Kosovo had the potential to reconcile Serbs and Croats.
Bilokapic is a Germany-based Croatian nationalist and board member of the Europe Terra Nostra, the official European political foundation of the far-right Alliance for Peace and Freedom.
He told BIRN that Serbia and Croatia should overcome “shallow chauvinism”. In Bosnia, he said, Bosnian Serbs and Croats “could support each other in these efforts to get rid of the Sarajevo influence and Islamism.”
NPD vice-president Thorsten Heise, a prominent German neo-Nazi, told BIRN: “If we bring together European comrades who didn’t speak to each other before, we have laid the foundations for future networking.”
Spreading the gospel
The networking, however, goes beyond political circles.
Conservative intellectuals and church dignitaries from the Balkans have become regular participants in AfD and NPD gatherings with their Serbian and Croatian collaborators.
AfD’s Frohnmaier told BIRN that his party had initiated cooperation with the Serbian Orthodox Church in Germany by inviting the then Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Frankfurt and all Germany, Sergije Karanovic, and his associates to attend a conference on family values that the party organised in Stuttgart in December 2015.
Frohnmaier said political parties in Germany had “never tried to be a voice” for Orthodox Christians in Germany.
“I would say it was the first time that a [German] party had an official meeting with such a large group of Orthodox Christians in Germany,” he said. “And it was a pleasure for us.”
“For me, it’s very important to have a good relationship with our partners in Serbia,” Frohnmaier said, “not just with parties, but intellectuals.”
Likewise, the NPD’s Heise said the NPD “worked closely” with a small Orthodox sect known as the True Orthodox Church, which resists modernisation.
During his last visit to Belgrade in November 2017, Heise and the NPD’s then president, Udo Voigt, met Bishop Akakije, head of the Serbian True Orthodox Church.
A group of at least six Serbian and Croatian conservative and far-right intellectuals are also regular speakers at NPD and AfD events, according to BIRN’s findings.
Bilokapic and the far-right Croatian-American former professor and activist Tomislav Sunic were among the main speakers at the European Congress of the NPD’s youth wing, in May 2018.
At NPD-affiliated panel discussions in Belgrade in September 2016 and in November 2017, university professor Branislav Filipovic and Russian language professor Zoran Buljugic joined Heise on the floor.
In July 2018, Serbian conservative intellectual Dusan Dostanic and Croatian publicist and international secretary of Croatian identitarian group Generacija obnove [Generation Renewal], Leo Maric, were among the main speakers at an AfD-affiliated seminar in Germany.
Their German counterparts travel the other way.
In Serbia, civil society groups and left-wing activists were outraged when Gotz Kubitschek, a right-wing publisher and one of the founders of the AfD-affiliated think tank Institute for State Policy, IfS, gave two lectures in the country in August 2017.
Marc Jongen, a philosopher and AfD deputy in the Bundestag, received a similar reaction when he appeared in public in Serbia in July 2017.
Dostanic, a research associate at the Belgrade-based Institute for Political Studies, said both men only spoke of “academic” matters.
“It was far from any sort of networking,” Dostanic told BIRN.
The seminar Dostanic attended in July 2018 was the regular Schnellroda meeting organised by Kubitschek’s IfS and supported by AfD near the eastern city of Leipzig.
“Kubitschek tries to help the AfD,” Dostanic said. “That’s only normal, because the German conservative scene considered it needed its own party.”
But Arzheimer, the Mainz politics professor, said Kubitschek had far bigger plans.
“He claims to be a meta-politician, someone who is less interested in day-to-day party politics but takes the long view by educating future elites and shifting the societal consensus towards the far right,” Arzheimer said.
“In a sense, his project is much bigger and more ambitious than the AfD.”
Mandic said that AfD would like to cooperate with all “alternative” right-wing parties.
“That’s a movement we see in the whole West,” he told BIRN. “That’s Trumpism.”
Frohnmaier said AfD’s inroads in the Balkans and the ex-Yugoslav diaspora in Germany had made mainstream parties “nervous” because of the diaspora vote power.
“We are really trying to have good relations especially with the countries in the East,” he said.
Nenad Radicevic is an experienced journalist and editor from Serbia, specialised in international reporting, who has been working for the last four years as a Germany correspondent for a number of media outlets in the Balkans.
After a decade working in print media, last years he is engaged in mobile and video journalism as well.
He was a 2007 fellow of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.
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.