Far Right Anti-Immigrant Groups Grow In Eastern Europe
One of the responses we’ve seen in Western Europe over the past two decades is the rise of groups on the right vehemently opposed to immigration that has coincided with the increased numbers of immigrants, both refugees and otherwise, from the Middle East and other parts of the world. It’s manifested itself in the form of groups like the English Defense League in the United Kingdom, anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim political parties in nations like The Netherlands and Denmark, and the strengthening of the French far right party National Front formerly headed by Jean Marie Le Pen and now headed by his daughter Marine Le Pen. In some cases, such as the EDL, those groups have resorted to violence rather than politics to make their point. Now, similar developments seem to be occurring in Eastern Europe:
SVILENGRAD, Bulgaria — After spreading turmoil and desperate refugees across the Middle East, Syria’s brutal civil war has now leaked misery into Europe’s eastern fringe — and put a spring in the step of Angel Bozhinov, a nationalist activist in this Bulgarian border town next to Turkey.
The local leader of Ataka, a pugnacious, far-right party, Mr. Bozhinov lost his seat in the town council at the last municipal elections in 2011 but now sees his fortunes rising thanks to public alarm over an influx of Syrian refugees across the nearby frontier.
Membership of the local branch of Ataka, he said, had surged in recent weeks as “people come up to me in the street and tell me that our party was right.” Ataka, which means attack, champions “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” and has denounced Syrian refugees as terrorists whom Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest nation, must expel. An Ataka member of Parliament has reviled them as “terrible, despicable primates.”
With populist, anti-immigrant parties gathering momentum across much of Europe, Ataka stands out as a particularly shrill and, its critics say, sinister political force — an example of how easily opportunistic groups can stoke public fears while improving their own fortunes.
The influx of Syrian refugees has sown divisions across the European Union as the refugees add burdens on governments still struggling to emerge from years of recession. But Bulgaria is perhaps the most fragile of all the European Union’s 28 members. Modest as the numbers of refugees are here, the entry of nearly 6,500 Syrians this year has overwhelmed the deeply unpopular coalition government and added a volatile element to the nation’s already unstable politics.
The arrival of the refugees and public fury over the stabbing of a young Bulgarian woman by an Algerian asylum seeker “has opened the floodgates” for far-right nationalists, said Daniel Smilov of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a policy research group in Sofia, the capital. “They see this as their big chance.”
No matter how inflammatory its message or small its numbers, Ataka has had outsize leverage since inconclusive parliamentary elections in May left it critical to the survival of Bulgaria’s new socialist-led government, which has been besieged for months by protesters demanding its resignation over complaints of cronyism and corruption.
Ataka’s denunciations of foreigners and local minorities like the Roma, or Gypsies, along with its demands for the return of “lost” Bulgarian territory, have pushed it to the forefront of a chauvinistic, nationalist trend gaining ground in several former Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe.
Like many populist parties in Western Europe, Ataka mixes right-wing calls for law and order and restrictions on immigration with economic policies that veer sharply to the left. But more than nationalist groups in richer countries to the West, Ataka is “virulently racist and anti-Semitic,” said Krassimir Kanev, head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, an advocacy group working to improve the often dire conditions in government-run camps now housing the refugees.
The party was more comparable to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn movement in Greece, he said, but conceded, “Ataka’s strategy works.”
The article goes on to note the growth of a similar movement in Hungary, although it doesn’t seem to be growing as quickly as Ataka is in Bulgaria, perhaps because economic conditions are slightly better. In either case, developments like this serve as a constant reminder that nationalism remains a powerful force in Europe notwithstanding the supposed unifying force that the European Union is supposed to be, and that Europe’s long history of fascism and bias against outsiders hasn’t really gone away no matter how much Europeans like might to think otherwise.