The Challenge of Paramilitarism in Central and Eastern Europe
In recent years paramilitarism has resurfaced with new vitality in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The appearance of this war-related phenomenon in a predominantly peaceful and stable region might seem paradoxical. Yet a closer look at the historical roots of statehood there (many organizations are building on a heritage of pre-war predecessors), the sociocultural context (insecurity and a lack of alternatives for interested individuals to engage in military and related activities aside from professional service), and major changes in the security environment (the war in Ukraine and the migration crisis) provides some explanations.
From self-defense militias to vigilante migrant “hunters,” state-loyal groups, and paramilitary formations officially integrated into national defense systems, CEE paramilitarism is a highly diverse phenomenon. There are two distinct models in the region: the state-centric and pro-social model in the Baltic states, and the decentralized and often extremist-influenced model elsewhere, with Poland and Ukraine as exceptions. Both models require different sets of approaches by the state to mitigate paramilitarism’s negative aspects and exploit its positive aspects—such as the risk of giving extremists access to military training and structures versus enlarging the recruitment pool for national defense and binding youth to their communities through civic-patriotic education.
This paper maps the paramilitaries of Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. It analyzes and evaluates the main stakeholders, their tasks and activities, and offers recommendations for policymakers. The cases of Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia show that the role of the state is crucial. Formations like active reserves, national guards, or territorial armies should be accessible to those interested in taking part in military activities but not as their primary, full-time profession. These creates platform for voluntary civic participation in defense, which can satisfy such individuals in a legitimate, professional, state-controlled environment.
With regard to youths, civic-patriotic, national-defense, or even military-like training should be understood as a part of broader prevention strategies against extremism and delinquency. Such programs can be implemented in schools or supported as civil society activities. In the Baltic states, several state or semi-state organizations are systematically engaging young people, providing them ways and means to spend their free time meaningfully, developing their bonds with the community, and building a broad spectrum of soft skills. The participation of young people from socially disadvantaged background can be ensured through state support.
These two approaches together can generate the necessary space, opportunities, and incentives for individuals interested in military activities to choose these structures over informal, non-state paramilitary formations. In the CEE region, a majority of the latter have a ultranationalist, far-right political profile, in some cases with vigilante features. Such groups must be closely monitored and scrutinized. While some may present no threat at all, others may lead to radicalization of their members or in extreme cases even creation of “lone wolf” attackers. The high-risk indicators to be monitored are the presence of an extremist ideology, the possession of firearms, the active participation of active or former soldiers, and the presence of foreign influence.