Originally published in the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung brief, "Political Trends and Dynamics: The Far Right in the EU and Western Balkans" Volume 3, 2020
By Heidi Beirich
A revisionist interpretation of the history of Southeast Europe, in particular the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, has become inspirational to American white supremacists. As white supremacy is an increasingly international movement, Southeast Europe has become a destination for extremists who view immigrants and Muslims as the primary threat to white supremacy worldwide. For this movement, the Yugoslav Wars have been mythologized as a successful enterprise that reduced the demographic threat of the Muslim population to white people living in the region. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who was sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, is seen as a hero for ethnically-cleansing Muslims from what is now Republika Srpska (Karadzic is imprisoned in the Dutch city Scheveningen). For American white supremacists, Karadzic’s ethnic-cleansing campaign in the 1990s is regarded as a roadmap for white supremacists to emulate.
This interpretation of the Yugoslav Wars dovetails with the most popular propaganda pushed today in white supremacist circles, The Great Replacement, which argues that white people are being “replaced” in their home countries by non-white immigrants. In Europe, this applies particularly to Muslims who are viewed as an “invading” people, whether they are citizens or not. As white supremacists increasingly see demographic change as the main threat to their existence, a handful have engaged in mass violence to stem the tide of migrants and refugees. This propaganda has inspired six mass attacks just since October 2018. These included the mosque attacks in Christchurch, N.Z., attacks staged at two American synagogues, an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, a synagogue in Halle, Germany, and two shisha bars in Hanau, Germany. The mass murderers in these incidents, and many similar ones in the last decade, are extolled for taking a stand against demographic change. What’s interesting is many of these terrorists were inspired by the white supremacist reinterpretation of the events of the Yugoslav Wars.
Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people at two New Zealand mosques in 2019 was an admirer of the Serbian forces in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, particularly those involved in the genocidal violence. Tarrant, who traveled through the Balkans, views the battle against Muslims in the region as a centuries long campaign. He inscribed the names of historical Balkan leaders who fought the Ottoman Empire on the rifle he used to carry out his massacres. During his Facebook livestream of the attacks, he played a song performed by Bosnian Serb soldiers during the war originally called “Karadzic Lead your Serbs” and intended to boost troop morale, but later renamed by white supremacists outside the region as “Remove Kebab,” an anti-Muslim reference. In the video of the song, widely shared in white supremacist online forums, the tune is performed by three males in Serbian paramilitary uniforms. The video displays footage of captured Muslim prisoners being held in Serb-run internment camps. In Tarrant’s manifesto on the reasons for his shooting spree, he described himself as a “Part time kebab removalist” in reference to the song.
Another anti-Muslim killer extolled by white supremacists is the Norwegian Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people during a 2011 shooting and bombing rampage around Oslo. He was obsessed with the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, praising wartime Serb leaders in his manifesto. A domestic terrorist in Pennsylvania, Eric Frien, who killed a state trooper in 2014 was similarly infatuated with the wartime Bosnian Serb military, posting images of himself on social media in a uniform from the notorious Drina Wolves unit.
A handful of American hate movements have had a presence in Southeast Europe for decades. These have included white supremacist, neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups. The Hammerskin Nation, a violent racist skinhead group founded in 1988 in Dallas, Texas, has long had chapters throughout the region and still does. A Europol report from 2019 documented two other skinhead groups that have had American chapters over the years—Blood and Honor and Combat 18—active in Serbia. In May, Balkan Insight reported that symbols from both groups were found on buildings in Prijedor, Bosnia, alongside a blog address promoting the far right in the region.
The Europol report says these organizations and networks are getting “increasingly popular among younger and better-educated demographics.” It found that international extremist movements including Soldiers of Odin, which has American members, were actively seeking to recruit members from European army personnel and police forces, including in the Southeast. The Hammerskins continue to hold events, many attracting members from other country’s chapters, including the U.S. In February 2020, members of the neo-Nazi Rise Above Movement (RAM) attended a “Day of Honor” event the Hungarian Hammerskins organized to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Nazi and Hungarian forces killed by the Soviet army during the 1945 Siege of Budapest. The RAM members then headed to Sofia, Bulgaria, where they attended the Lukov march along with neo-Nazis from Germany, France, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Scandinavia. And then they traveled to Belgrade to meet with members of Kormilo, a radical Serbian nationalist organization. In April 2018, members of RAM then traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, to visit and train with the Azov Battalion, originally a paramilitary force that fought against Russian irregular forces working with separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
A group that is quite similar to RAM, the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), also sent members to events in the region. AWD is a neo-Nazi group whose members have been responsible for five killings since 2017. It is now mostly defunct, but in December 2018, AWD members Aiden Bruce-Umbaugh and Kaleb James Cole traveled to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Ukraine, posting pictures of themselves online posing with the AWD flag. One photo was taken at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Other relationships have been longstanding between white supremacists in both regions. Members of the Greek neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn have a long history of working with American neo-Nazis (and interestingly, were known to have participated in the Srebrenica massacre of Muslims in 1995). In 1998, Golden Dawn hosted William Pierce, leader of the most important American neo-Nazi organization, the National Alliance, for a speech in Thessalonica. By 2013, Golden Dawn had three offices in the U.S. and connections to multiple American neo-Nazi groups including the American Nazi Party, the National Socialist Movement, which directed its supporters to the American Golden Dawn website, and with Craig Cobb, who led an effort to takeover a North Dakotan town by buying up land and giving it to prominent white supremacists. In 2014, the party also hosted in Athens one of the most prominent America neo-Nazis, Andrew Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer, which has an international reach.
With the recent migrant crisis, particularly the refugee camps on Lesbos, white supremacist members of Generation Identity (GI) have traveled to Lesbos, Greece, in the last year to confront refugees. GI has chapters in dozens of countries and prominent adherents in the U.S., particularly Brittany Pettibone Sellner, wife of the unofficial leader of the entire movement, Martin Sellner. News reports have documented Identitarians from France, Austria, the Netherlands, the UK, and the U.S. attempting to stoke violence on the island. Several aid groups on Lesbos announced in recent months that they were suspending work and evacuating personnel because of attacks on staff.
One prominent American white supremacist has extremely close ties to the region and works to bring Croat and American extremists together. Tomaslav Sunic is a Croatian-American who lives in Zagreb and ran unsuccessfully for a European Union parliamentary seat on the Sovereigntists platform, an alliance of three far-right parties which came in at a surprise third place in the Croatian May 2019 elections. The alliance intended to focus on Croat identity, rejecting globalism and the European Union.
Though his involvement in Croatian politics is more in the vein of far-right populism, in the U.S. Sunic works with white supremacist groups. He serves on the board of the racist American Freedom Party and has spoken many times to the neo-Nazi National Alliance, the National Policy Institute and the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. Sunic also has connections in Ukraine and believes its struggles are similar to those facing Croats. He is a fan of the Azov Battalion and in regular touch with its leadership. “On a more sentimental, subconscious level for Croats, Ukraine is a friend,” Sunic has said. Like other far right Croats, Croatia’s fight for independence in the early 1990s against Serb rebels backed by its larger neighbor Serbia has echoes in the ongoing fight against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.
Foreign Fighters Travel Through Southeast Europe to Ukraine
As these narratives reinterpreting Karadzic’s actions and the Yugoslav Wars have pulsed through American white supremacist circles, a host of extremists have finished off their travels through Southeast Europe with stops in Ukraine. In the minds of American white supremacists, these Eastern and Southeast European regions are one entity, seen as communities that have been able to maintain white dominance and, in the case of Republika Srpska, used violence successfully to reduce the size of the Muslim population.
American white supremacists have traveled to Ukraine to train with the Azov Battalion, which was originally formed as a volunteer militia to fight Russian irregular forces working with eastern Ukrainian separatist forces starting in 2014, in particular with the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Foreign fighters have been drawn to both sides of the conflict in the Ukraine, but research suggests that right-wing extremists have been more likely to be involved on the side of Azov and other groups that worked to repel Russian involvement in the region. There is a parallel here to the history of foreign fighters during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Americans, as well as Italians, Spaniards, Brits and French fighters joined Croatia’s Black Legion in 1991 and the majority of were linked to extreme-right organizations within their own countries.
The Azov Battalion’s politics are infamous. The regiment has been accused of engaging in torture and war crimes and for using neo-Nazi symbology. Azov representatives claim this has nothing to do with Nazism, but in 2014 a spokesman for the regiment said 10 to 20 percent of the unit were neo-Nazis. Other reporting has documented members’ neo-Nazi beliefs and widespread use of Nazi symbols, including the Wolfsangel and the Black Sun, by its adherents. In 2018, the American Congress banned any form of military assistance to Azov.
American white supremacists have gained even greater exposure to the ideas of racial extremists from Southeast Europe through their involvement with Azov, as it has attracted white supremacist foreign fighters from many countries including Greece and Croatia, with some 20 Croats joining the battalion in 2015. Also, Azov moved to form a “foreign legion” of sorts under the leadership of a Croat living in Zagreb. According to BIRN, Bruno Zorica, a retired Croatian army officer and former member of the French Foreign Legion, was repeatedly mentioned in Azov social media posts as a key figure in the unit’s creation. Zorica commanded a special forces unit of the Croatian army during the country’s war against Belgrade-backed Serb rebels in the early 1990s.
According to a 2019 report by The Soufan Center, approximately 35 American fighters have traveled to Ukraine in recent years with far-right extremists attracted mostly to the anti-Russian side. This mixing of white supremacists from around the world in Ukraine is now seen as a terrorism threat. “I believe Europe is in great danger,” Alberto Testa, an expert on far-right radicalization at the University of West London told Vice News in 2019. Testa believes eastern Ukraine has become a critical staging ground for the international “white jihad struggle” of the far right, where extremists could “train for what some would call racial holy war.”
Azov successfully recruited well-known American white supremacists to train with the unit. Joachim Furholm, a Norwegian citizen and self-described “national socialist revolutionary,” led Azov’s effort to bring Americans to Ukraine. Azov framed participation in Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression as an opportunity for Americans to acquire combat and other training for use in the United States after returning home. In 2018, members of the American, neo-Nazi group, Rise Above Movement (RAM), traveled to Ukraine to visit Azov as part of a tour that started in Southeast Europe. Robert Rundo, head of RAM, was depicted in a now deleted Facebook video in a cage match with an Azov fighter. Azov’s hierarchy was thrilled to have the American neo-Nazis on hand. “We think globally,” Olena Semenyaka, an Azov official, told Radio Free Europe in 2018. She hosted Rundo along with RAM members Michael Miselis and Benjamin Daley, who participated in the white riots that occurred in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and ended in the murder of antiracist counter protester. In the case of Rundo, Miselis, and Daley, Semenyaka said, “they came to learn our ways” and “showed interest in learning how to create youth forces in the ways Azov has.” Semenyaka has spoken of other important Azov allies in Southeast Europe, in particular Greece’s Golden Dawn.
Other American extremists have been in contact with Azov. In October 2018, American white nationalist Greg Johnson, who runs the San Francisco, Calif., based Counter-Currents Publishing, visited Ukraine and attended a series of events hosted by Azov. According to Bellingcat, the late Andrew Oneschuk, a prominent member of the now defunct but very violent American neo-Nazi organization Atomwaffen Division (AWD), was in contact with Azov on its podcast. Also, an alleged U.S. Navy veteran, “Shawn Irwood,” enlisted in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and maintained contact with Azov’s National Corps.
The white supremacist online space is filled with networking between Americans and Southeast European extremists, where they share the sentiments expressed by Tarrant and Breivik about the Yugoslav Wars. Since the 2000s, an array of white supremacists and other aspiring extremists worldwide have seized on this mythologized version of the Yugoslav Wars, demonizing Muslims and recasting them as non-white “immigrants,” ideas widely shared online.On the unregulated message board 4chan, it is not hard to find the Bosnian genocide favorably discussed as an example for racists in other nations. A typical 4chan post reads, “god praise Milosevic and Karadzic, shame amerimuts had to bomb us and prevented us from cleansing the muslims [sic] from our lands.”
Other parts of the Internet circulate similar material. The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) found in 2019 both pro-Azov and pro-Serbian extremist comments on Discord, a voice and chat application. BIRN scoured leaked Discord messages and found no shortage of Azov devotees. One user wrote that Azov “will have the foreign legion set up within the next 18 months or so,” a project that was launched from Zagreb.
Another node distributing these ideas developed in 2018 was run out of Belgrade with the help of British anti-immigrant hardliner Jim Dowson, who founded Britain First. The Knights Templar International (KTI) distributed inflammatory material across its online platforms, referring to Muslim communities as “rat’s nests” and Roma as a “criminal scum caste.” Balkan Insight documented Dowson and those working on the site filming “news” videos from Belgrade, and helping to launch websites and training far-right groups and activists in the region on how to win an “online war.” Beginning in March 2018, more than a dozen KTI news segments were filmed in Serbia and uploaded to YouTube channels and shared on social media. The presenter of these reports was Marina Milenov, a young Serb who read out far-right material in front of a superimposed panorama of Belgrade. Showing ties with American extremists, Dowson explained these activities in an interview with American white supremacist Jamie Kelso, a one-time moderator of the oldest hate site in the world, Stormfront, in January 2018.
The site Kelso once moderated, Stormfront, has an entire section devoted to “white nationalists in Serbia & Southeast Europe.” In Stormfront’s library section, the thread has links to “My Defense” by Karadzic, Serbian epic poetry, and a piece on the “Battle on the Kosovo field 1389.” These texts glorifying the Serbs are in a list with others by prominent American white supremacists taking the Serbian side in the Balkan Wars. Louis Beam, a one-time Klansman and advocate of terrorism in the form of leaderless resistance, penned “Kosovo, The Alamo of Europe,” which praised the “Alamo-like stand of Serbian manhood against the invading foes of Western Christian Civilization.” Another is by William Pierce, the now deceased leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, who wrote “Hands Off Yugoslavia!” which blamed President Bill Clinton’s decision to use military force in the region on Jewish multiculturalists.
Other forums where these sentiments can be found include Telegram, VK, and Bitchute, all of which are largely unregulated. A BIRN investigation found Balkan activity on the neo-fascist Iron March forum, which is where the American Atomwaffen Division was conceived, after it was leaked.
Nationalist Governments & Extremism
The growing links between American extremists and those in Southeast Europe are of great concern. But so too is the fact that increasingly illiberal governments in the region provide a ripe environment for these groups to grow their relationships and spread the white supremacist ideas they share.
A 2020 report from Freedom House, an independent human rights group that rates countries’ support for liberal democratic government, found that in the Balkans region, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania and Slovenia remained “free” in 2019. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia were “partly free.” In general, the report found that “illiberal populists in Central and Southeast Europe defended their ground or made gains in 2019, undermining democratic norms even in the face of mass protests.”
Far right parties in other parts of the Southeast have also had successes. Perhaps most notable is the anti-immigrant Slovenian Democratic Party, which entered into government in March of 2020. The party is led by former Prime Minister Janez Jansa, a staunch supporter of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, with a long record of attacks on immigrants and the press. Jansa, sounding much like the Croatian Sovereigntists, has advocated that Slovenia “become a country that will put the wellbeing and security of Slovenians first.” Bulgaria’s center right government includes three anti-immigrant parties and wants the EU to close its borders and move refugees outside the bloc. The anti-immigrant Greek Solution received 3.7% of the votes in Greece’s 2019 national election, giving it 10 seats in the 300-seat parliament.
Xenophobic hate speech against immigrants that is very similar to what is argued by white supremacists is pushed by governments in Eastern European countries that influence the politics of Southeast Europe. Viktor Orban, head of the Hungarian government, has reviled immigrants, particularly Muslims. “If things continue like this, our culture, our identity and our nations as we know them will cease to exist. Our worst nightmares will have become reality. The West will fall, as Europe is occupied without realizing it,” Orban said in February 2018, even though Hungary has only accepted a handful of refugees. After Hungary built a barrier along its borders with Croatia and Serbia at the end of 2015, the number of arrivals dropped from more than 7,000 people a day to ten.. In 2018, Czech President Milos Zeman was re-elected on a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment even though only a handful of individuals had lodged asylum claims in the country.
This xenophobia is beloved by white supremacists worldwide, who have reframed the Serbian agenda in the Yugoslav wars as necessary violence against Muslims to protect against a mortal demographic threat. For white supremacists, no matter how incorrect or ahistorical this recrafted history is, it serves to legitimize the ethnic cleansing that took place of Muslims during the war and their own wish to ethnically cleanse their own countries of immigrants and non-white populations. In their view, the Yugoslav Wars were successful and glorious, not destructive. As Murtaza Hussain has written, “their vision lives on in the imaginations of the international far right and among a young, ultranationalist generation present not just in Serbia, but across the Balkans” and now the world. Hussain concludes, “The parallelswith how Serbian leaders psychologically primed their society for violence are unsettling. The manifestos left behind after every new shooting are the calling cards for a new era of violence — driven by a sense of demographic threat — that we are only starting to understand.”
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