Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

The Paramilitary Phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

The Paramilitary Phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

One of the less publicised consequences of the geopolitical turmoil that came to characterise 2015 was the surge in popularity of paramilitary units across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

If this trend is particularly observable in countries directly affected or alarmed by the violence in eastern Ukraine or the large influx of refugees from conflict areas, it has nevertheless manifested itself in strikingly different ways across the region. Indeed, the generic term "paramilitary" refers to "a group that is not an official army but that operates and is organised like an army"1 and as such these organisations take on a variety of forms, such as militias, vigilante groups or home guard units.

Although they all operate in parallel to their national armed forces and share features including military training, uniforms and in some cases access to weapons, they have varying degrees of legitimacy and state support, depending largely on the nature of the perceived threat and the ideological foundations of the groups.

Bolstering Baltic Defences

In the Baltic States and Poland, this development is mostly the result of renewed fears over Russian expansionism. Harbouring large Russian minorities (in the case of Estonia and Latvia), unnerved by the military buildup in the neighbouring Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and traditionally wary of their powerful eastern neighbour, these states view "Russian propaganda" with unease and are concerned about a "potential repetition of the Donbas scenario," says Ilvija Bruge, a researcher at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.2

As a result of this volatile security environment, the enthusiasm for home guard groups has been welcomed by respective governments as a "valuable contribution" to national defence, according to Martin Hurt, former deputy director of the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn.3

In Lithuania, the Lietuvos saulip spjunga (Lithuanian Riflemen's Union) now has around 8,000 members, up from 6,000 two years ago,4 while Latvia's Zemessardze (Latvian National Guard) has also seen its popularity increase, confirms Bruge. In Estonia, the Kaitseliit (EDL, Estonian Defence League) has seen its ranks swell by roughly 10%, to 15,577 members, dwarfing the Estonian military which numbers 6,000 personnel in peacetime.5

Unsurprisingly the recurrent, yet unofficial, theme in the war games conducted by these reservist forces has been Russian intervention, in one form or another. As numerous interviews in The Wall Street Journal,6 The Independent1 and The Washington Post8 have highlighted, different simulations have focused on tackling a variety of scenarios, from fullon warfare to Russian-instigated separatism and neutralising soldiers in unmarked uniforms ("little green men") sent over the border (for instance during Operation Wenden,9 jointly conducted by Estonia and Latvia in 2015).

Often trained by active military personnel and falling under the responsibility of the national defence ministry, the units in the Baltics serve the clear purpose of shoring up the regular armies' capabilities and act as an additional deterrent against external aggression. All share a commitment to constitutional order and the preservation of national independence, and observe "the codes of conduct of the Defence Forces" (EDL)10 in order to "assist and support military operations" (Latvian National Guard).11

Reining in Volunteer Groups in Poland

Even in Poland, where such organisations are not as institutionalised and a number of them allegedly have affiliations to extreme right groups (for example, Ruch Narodowy), the government has taken it upon itself to engage actively with these paramilitary formations and to supervise their rapid expansion.

On 18 March 2015, a conference gathered about 800 participants from various volunteer militias and citizen's defence groups in Warsaw under the initiative of the Polish administration. …

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