Since the 1990s, nationalism has become a major part of politics and society in Bulgaria. Racist violence, too, is becoming more and more a part of everyday life. The state, however, is doing little to counteract this.
Right-wing violence is more and more a part of life here
Soccer hooligans beat up Roma youth after a game. An Afghan refugee is assaulted just because he has dark skin. Following a protest march of the openly xenophobic party Ataka against a mosque in Sofia, violence breaks out between members of the party and practicing Muslims. Members of another right-wing party together with hooligans attack a Jehovah's Witnesses prayer house and beat up the people inside.
These are just individual incidents of extremist violence that have occurred in the past year in Bulgaria, an alarming escalation of violence against ethnic and religious minorities that was pointed out by the Bulgarian section of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in their latest report.
No new phenomenon
Racist- and xenophobic-tinted nationalism, however, is nothing new for Bulgaria. After the fall of the Iron Curtain it spread throughout the former communist state in the 1990s, said Krassimir Kanev, president of the Helsinki Committee.
He said that already at the beginning of the decade, extremist groups like neo-Nazi skinheads were becoming apparent. "The state, however, has yet to react to this kind of violence in an adequate way. With regard to this form of toleration there has already been a ruling issued by the European Court of Human Rights against Bulgaria," Kanev told Deutsche Welle.
That ruling in 2007 concerned the Bulgarian authorities' handling of the murder of a Roma. The court found that the investigation was conducted in a sloppy manner and that the racist background of the crime wasn't taken into proper consideration. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) points out the fact that such racist crimes are often officially described as simply "hooliganism" or even "normal" assault.
Xenophobic chants are often mixed together with soccer hooliganism
Anchored in politics
Even in politics, Kanev said nationalism has been a major force since the democratic turn in Bulgaria. "When the constitutional committee gathered in 1991, there were protests outside the building by members of the Bulgarian National Radicals Party who chanted against the parliamentary representation of Bulgaria's Turkish minority," he said. This racist party was never able to materialize, but that's only because the country's major parties already propagated nationalist sentiments.
Pressure from the EU
Only after the European Union began to exert some pressure did Bulgaria's major parties "clean" their ranks of nationalist elements, said Kanev. The Bulgarian socialists and the conservatives wanted to be accepted in the European parliament, and they were forced to make changes to their respective platforms in order to be accepted.
The scene of an Ataka party meeting
"This gave room to the more extreme nationalist movements. In 2005 Ataka was founded, a party that is far more extremist than Jörg Haider's Alliance for the Future of Austria," Kanev stressed. The party's leader mobilized voters during campaigns with slogans such as "Convicted Gypsies belong in work camps!" or "Bulgaria for Bulgarians!"
Two months after being founded, Ataka made it into the Bulgarian parliament as the country's fourth most popular party. Ever since, the group has routinely used racist slogans directed against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities to gain the interest of potential voters.
Even in Brussels, an EU parliamentarian from Ataka dared to verbally assault one of his Roma colleagues. The party was expressly criticized in the latest ECRI report, with the Commission calling for "appropriate behavior."
No threat yet
The established liberal and democratic parties, however, are too weak to counteract the nationalist trend in Bulgarian politics, said Daniel Smilov, program director at the NGO Centre for Liberal Strategies.
"At the moment the entire political class can't resist nationalist ideas," said Smilov, adding, however, that the movement currently poses no threat to the state. But this is no reason to bask in false security, Smilov warned.
"Many believe that just because Bulgaria is in the EU and has reached a certain sense of stability that the system is strong enough to withstand deviations," he said, adding that this may not be the case.
There is little reason to expect resistance to such extremism from the population, but despite this, there have been protests against right-wing violence and xenophobia in Bulgaria. This is a sign that a democratic culture is growing in the country, according to sociologist Svetla Encheva of the Center for the Study of Democracy.
Anti-Roma violence can get out of control in Bulgaria
In the past months an apparent change has been witnessed in the way politicians approach the subject of extremism. Following the death of a 19-year-old Bulgarian who was run over by a Roma driver, Bulgaria was overtaken by a wave of anti-Roma protests. Most of these took place in a peaceful manner, apart from a few individual exceptions. Above all, young demonstrators marched through the streets chanting racist slogans.
In response, Boris Velchev, Bulgaria's chief prosecutor, announced that cases of "racially motivated agitation must be treated with priority." At the beginning of October a 27-year-old man was sentenced to 10 months of probation because he called for the "slaughtering of Gypsies" on Facebook.
Human rights activist Krassimir Kanev welcomed that ruling, adding, however, that the Helsinki Committee would keep a close eye on whether the Bulgarian prosecution would remain consistent when it came to cracking down on extremist violence. It's precisely this that's been lacking in the past years.
Author: Blagorodna Grigorova / glb
Editor: Andreas Illmer