The vision of Andrej Šiško leading a group of masked men brandishing rifles, performing training drills and pledging to protect Slovenia was enough to spark international alarm after videos were posted on social media this month. But what to make of a right-wing paramilitary leader and the fringe presidential candidate who still lives with his mother at age 49? As it grapples with a rightward anti-migrant turn, not unlike many of its European neighbors, Melania Trump’s home country remains somewhat baffled by it all.
A relative newcomer to national politics who formed Zedinjena Slovenija (United Slovenia) in 2014, Šiško sits firmly on a nationalist and anti-immigration platform. Even with just 2.2 percent of the vote, for the largely unknown outsider to finish fifth in last year’s nine-candidate presidential race stunned much of the country. The center-right Slovenian Democratic Party won the most votes in this year’s parliamentary elections, but without achieving a majority, it was stopped by a coalition of centrist and left parties.
These gains are reflective of a shift to the right in many European countries. While this has been happening more gradually in Slovenia than elsewhere, Donald Trump’s win in the U.S., with his Slovenian wife by his side, emboldened those with the same politics whose anti-immigration sentiments were galvanized by Europe’s refugee crisis. At its height, 470,000 refugees and migrants passed through Slovenia — a country of only 2 million –- between September 2015 and March 2016.
Šiško is seen as an unlikely hero by some, a symptom of government dissatisfaction by others and an attention-seeking idiot by others still.
“People were naturally wary,” explains Iztok Prezelj, a national security expert in Slovenia. “When refugee camps are burning near their homes, it’s scary.” He is quick to point out that Slovenia cannot claim the perceived problems that other parts of Europe do. Slovenia’s intake of refugees has been quite low, and fears of terrorism haven’t been confirmed by an actual threat. Economically, the country has recovered from a low point in 2013 when it was close to an international bailout.
But Prezelj sees Šiško’s gains as worrisome. That a man who has a history of violence, an alleged soccer hooligan who served time for attempted murder, could gain the confidence of enough people to form the Štajerska Garda, an apparent paramilitary group, should raise alarm bells.
“It was a publicity stunt,” says Anica Bidar, vice president of United Slovenia. “Andrej is trying to raise awareness of what is happening in this country.” And what’s happening, Bidar says, is “illegal migration. He has no problem with people who come to stay here legally and adopt our ways and our culture. He is not a racist. It’s not about the color of skin.”
While Slovenia’s center-right parties have stepped up their anti-immigration rhetoric and rejected European Union quotas on refugees, United Slovenia takes an even more nationalist approach, which shapes everything in its agenda. The party wants to leave the EU and NATO, boost agriculture so the country is less reliant on imports and preserve an “original Slovene people.” It also wants to introduce social safety nets and crack down on the abuse of power.
Born in Koper, on the Adriatic Sea, Šiško grew up in the northeastern city of Maribor, where he now lives. He studied at the Secondary School for Catering and Tourism and then as an IT engineer. After forming his first subversive group during high school, the Anti-Communist Organization of Slovenia — back when the nation was part of Communist Yugoslavia — Šiško later founded the Independent Slovenian Front and is president of the Hervardi Association, a patriotic society.
Initially warning against the threat of Balkanization — the breakup of the former Yugoslavia created hostilities among the resulting nations — Šiško now has focused his energy on the perceived threat of migrants. In addition to his imprisonment on the 1992 attempted murder charge, Šiško served time following a verbal dispute with another officer during his brief stint in the Yugoslav People’s Army, according to his biography. He is married with two children.
Among the Slovenian public, Šiško is seen as an unlikely hero by some, a symptom of government dissatisfaction by others and an attention-seeking idiot by others still.
Aljaž Pengov Bitenc, a journalist at Radio Kaos and blogger at Pengovsky, considers him the latter. He says Šiško has been afforded too much attention and that the video of his so-called paramilitary group is no more than middle-aged men playing out fantasies in a field. “He lives with his parents, for goodness’ sake, a man almost 50,” Bitenc says. “That gives you an idea of the kind of resources he has,” and perhaps the level of threat as well.
Bitenc points out that there are actual violent far-right groups that do pose a threat in Slovenia, where the neo-Nazi subculture has found a breeding ground. Prezelj agrees there are groups with track records of violence but that the threat of Štajerska Garda shouldn’t be dismissed: “It’s like putting a man with an ax in the middle of a paintball game.”
United Slovenia vice president Bidar seems to hint that Šiško is merely showboating. “Since 2014, the media have not paid any attention to Zedinjena Slovenija,” she says. Now they’re sitting up and taking notice, she remarks, adding that there are no grounds for Šiško’s arrest for his military drills stunt. “He never said he was going to overthrow the government and secure the borders by force,” she says. “He wants to work with the police and the security forces.” Bidar points out that, in addition to his leadership skills, Šiško is a scholar who has written 13 books on Slovenian history. Almost predicting an inquiry, she pipes up: “Yes, he does live with his parents, but that is common in Slovenia.”
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