Populism and nationalism offer dangerously simple answers to complicated issues and win voters' support in economically trying times. Recent polls in Greece as well as across southeast Europe are examples of the trend.
Serbia's newly elected president used to be known as an extremist and opposed to his country's European integration. But after his election, Tomislav Nikolic promised to keep his country on course for EU membership. Belgrade writer and journalist Sasa Ilic, however, has his doubts about the president's credibility and said Nikolic's polices will likely be a continuation of his personal convictions.
"He used to be a member of Vojislav Seselj's voluntary guard. He took part in the war in Croatia and has expressed his support for Ratko Mladic and a greater Serbia," the Serbian journalist said at the conference "Nationalism and Populism in Southeast Europe," held in Tutzing near Munich.
Massive support on Facebook
Illic criticized former pro-European President Boris Tadic who was unwilling to make concessions over Kosovo. Serbia has not recognized Kosovo's independence. With this position, Tadic has always kept the nationalist sentiment alive and the country's intellectuals have long warned that this policy would lead to a shift to the right in the Serbian population, Ilic said. As publisher of the cultural magazine "Beton," he is part of a small minority of Serbians who accept Kosovo's independence and want to work towards a better understanding between the two countries.
The rhetoric of nationalist populist movements in southeast Europe is taking on an almost fanatical form. Albania's Aleanca Kuq e Zi (Black and Red Alliance) wants Albanian passports for anyone who is ethnically Albanian - including citizens of the country's neighbors Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. Kosovo's Vetevendosia (Self Determination) movement has similar demands and is represented in parliament.
Both movements have a lot of support among young Albanians, partly thanks to their effective way of using social media and the Internet, according to Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers of Roehampton University London.
"Albanian nationalism has the image of young, hip and sexy and is being aggressively advertised," she said. Albania's Aleanca Kuq e Zi - within months - got some 80,000 fans on Facebook. The Socialist Party, the country's largest opposition party has just over 29,000 fans.
The rise of the right-wing Jobbik party in Hungary also served to illustrate just how important the Internet has become for the region's extremists.
"The party has established itself in the media by focusing on the issue of Roma crimes," said Aron Buzogany of Speyer University. He pointed out that Jobbik is tapping prejudices that in Hungarian society have existed for a long time.
Jobbik's nationalism is similar to that of the other populist movements of the region. Islam expert Armina Omerika of Bochum University said the trend also has reached the neo-fundamentalist Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the country's radical Salafists used to preach universal Islam, they have recently moved towards an ethnic national brand.
"Their former enemy, the country's Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, is now being hailed by them as the greatest son of the nation."
The media are often helpless when it comes to taking on the nationalist rhetoric. The media have not found a way to deal with Greece's extreme right-wing party Golden Dawn, said Elena Panagiotidis of the Swiss daily Neue Züricher Zeitung.
"After the elections they often were guests on the morning or evening news and you got the impression that it was not the host, but the Golden Dawn politicians that were running the show," Panagiotidis said.
Jobbik, Aleance Kuq e Zi and Golden Dawn all have something in common, according to Austrian political scientist Werner Bauer: A focus of national identity portraying the national people as a homogenous group with certain moral attributes in opposition to a corrupt elite.
Germanytoo is not safe from populism
Extremist parties are affecting the entire political spectrum, said Heinz-Jürgen Axt of Duisburg-Essen University.
"The bigger the influence of extremist parties, the bigger the temptation for the established parties to go fishing for votes in extremist waters," Axt said.
The recent election in France has shown how conservative Nicolas Sarkozy had picked up some of his right-wing competitor Jean-Marie Le Pen's political points to woe some of her voters. But Axt cautioned against such political campaigning, "Politicians should offer solutions, rather unrealistic promises."
As long as the electorate is economically well off, the right-wing sentiments remain hidden. But there always is the danger that come the next crisis, these nationalist feelings erupt.
In light of the current euro crisis, that might even happen in Germany, Axt said.
"German politicians have to explain why in this situation the financial help for Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy is important," he said, adding that Berlin needed to rely on transparency to keep the euro crisis from being exploited by populist movements in Germany.
Author: Anila Shuka /ai
Editor: Sean Sinico