In photo after photo on their website, they show their volunteers doing everything from delivering food and supplies to people on low incomes to driving health-care professionals to work in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. They say they’ve already helped thousands of their fellow citizens, warning people about the country’s quarantine regulations and providing phone numbers and email to anyone who wants to join their volunteer corps.
Who are they? Ukraine’s far-right Azov Regiment and its political party, the National Corps. Well-organized far-right movements like Azov aren’t just lending a hand during the current COVID-19 crisis, but taking advantage of the occasion as a clever branding and public relations opportunity.
Efforts like these are part of a broader strategy for the far right, and, ironically, it’s not a strategy that necessarily has their countries’ best interests at heart. As members of far-right organizations themselves will state, efforts to be active in the community are part of a means to overcome what one far-right representative once described to me as “resistance” to “nationalist, far-right ideas” among the general population.
Of course, it’s hardly just Ukraine’s Azov movement that’s doing this. In Italy, a country that has already lost at least 20,000 lives to the pandemic to date, the neo-fascist CasaPound Italia (CPI) has been promoting its members’ activities on its social media feeds. CPI, with a claimed 10,000 in its ranks and with a presence in dozens of cities and towns across Italy, has been promoting how its members have been doing everything from delivering groceries to the elderly and giving food to local orphanages. For them, this is literally a branding exercise as some of those groceries have been delivered in branded CPI bags — in case the recipients were to forget the affiliation of those “volontari militanti” who brought their food.
In Germany, members of Die Rechte (The Right), described as a “right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi micro party” with a focus in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has been busy playing up its coronavirus community work. The Right — who had suggested that the German government should have long ago sealed off the border to all “non-Europeans” to stop the pandemic — has been doing grocery shopping for the elderly and delivering grocery packages to low-income residents in Dortmund, accompanied with branded notes calling low-income workers the “backbone” of German society. Its supporters are even using these activities as a cudgel against their opponents: “Why didn’t the left-wing radicals come up with this idea?” noted one commenter on an article on The Right’s website.
The Right isn’t the only German extremist micro-party hard at work. Der Dritte Weg (The Third Way), a group that “perceives itself as the elite action-oriented neo-Nazi group in Germany,” is also offering up its members as volunteers to help with grocery deliveries for those in need. True to form, The Third Way has speculated on its website that the pandemic is being manipulated by German authorities as a “diversionary tactic” to distract from a “flood” of migrants.
These Guys Are OK
Why would far-right groups devote so much energy to volunteer work during the pandemic? Of course, leaders and members of these groups will likely tell you it’s because these folks are patriots, only interested in helping out their country and their fellow citizens during one of the most disruptive and destabilizing events in more than a generation. That may well be part of it, but work in the community like this, which has obviously been more heavily pushed and promoted during the pandemic, serves a much more basic purpose — self-promotion.
I’ve been reminded, watching far-right groups push out volunteers to help respond to the pandemic, of when I spoke to National Corps’ international secretary, Olena Semenyaka, in December 2018. She told me then in fairly forthright terms why her movement engages in so much community work — 40 different initiatives, by her reckoning — and it applies well beyond Azov.
“It’s a way to overcome this psychological resistance to nationalist, far-right ideas,” she told me.
Our discussion in December 2018 was revealing:
Semenyaka: “… not all of [Azov’s initiatives] are instantly recognized as nationalist, or associated with Azov or National Corps, but people just support our initiatives. For example, for young families, some social protection for families, some festivals for children, quite convenient facilities. People support it, then they announce that it’s also sponsored or supported by National Corps, then they, they support us eagerly. They don’t associate it with some far-right radicals who do some violence in the streets.
Colborne: They see what you’re doing and think, Oh, these guys are OK …
Semenyaka: Yes, ‘These guys are ok, they’re doing something for us, the government doesn’t have such programs for us … why wouldn’t we support them?’ One can say it’s like a cunning step, but in fact we just want to overcome this demonized image and want not only to show that we do something not only for state – we really do something and we want people to notice it. That was our biggest achievement [in 2018].”
As the weeks (and months) carry on, and as our societies continue to face a level of disruption and death most of us have never personally seen, we should also expect to see more far-right movements taking advantage of the opportunity. All of our health and social systems are under significant stress (some more than others) and all of our politicians have been the target of criticism — both unjustified and justified — for how they’ve responded to the pandemic. It’s the perfect opportunity for a far-right movement to step in and try to frame themselves as the “real” defenders of the people, the only ones who truly care and can save the country from ruin.
How should we react when the far-right comes bearing gifts during the coronavirus crisis? As the peak of the pandemic has still to hit most countries, it’s hardly ethical to tell a group of people, even if we vehemently disagree with their views and how they’d like to transform our countries, that they can’t delivery groceries or arrange shopping trips for those in need. If anything, that could play right into their hands. As the pandemic goes on, it’s important that people know why these kinds of groups are doing what they’re doing — and to stress that, ironically, they’re not necessarily doing it because they have their countries’ bests interests at heart.
*[Update: An earlier version of the article referred to the Azov Regiment as Azov Battalion. ]
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.