Posted on December 16, 2013

Far Right in Eastern Europe Makes Gains as Syrians Arrive

Andrew Higgins, New York Times, December 15, 2013

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. {snip}


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.” Yet while Greece’s government has cracked down on Golden Dawn, in Bulgaria, Ataka is in effect a government ally. “They have made the political debate harsher and harsher,” Mr. Kanev added, as Ataka and like-minded parties have defied predictions that xenophobic extremism would fade away as Europe’s poorer nations, particularly former Communist ones, became integrated into the European Union.


Though Ataka won only about 7 percent of the vote and 23 seats in Bulgaria’s 240-member Parliament in the May election, this political shape-shifting has helped make it a kingmaker in the finely balanced assembly. It has used its ever-changing alliances to push through Parliament a ban on land sales to foreigners, in violation of Bulgaria’s commitments to the European Union, and also to prod the authorities to start building a high fence along part of the border with Turkey to keep out the Syrians.

Despite its apparent opportunism, Ataka’s one constant has been its vicious rhetoric against foreigners and minorities. Alfa Television, a station operated by Ataka, denounces the refugees as radical Islamists and scroungers who will only bring violence and deeper poverty to Bulgaria.

Speaking recently on Alfa, which calls itself the “television of truth,” Magdelena Tasheva, an Ataka member of Parliament, said, “They are not refugees; they are terrorists.” She has also called them “savages,” “scum,” and “mass murderers.” She compared them to monkeys.

Alarmed that Ataka’s rhetoric is stoking sometimes violent xenophobia, a group of longtime Syrian residents of Sofia recently filed a formal complaint against Ms. Tasheva with the country’s Discrimination Protection Commission, which said it was examining the matter. Ms. Tasheva declined to be interviewed.

Mohammad Albramawi, a Syrian computer expert who emigrated to Bulgaria years ago and helped initiate the complaint, said he had received threatening telephone calls and was so intimidated that he had stopped speaking Arabic outside his home. “I have lived in Bulgaria for all these years,” he said, “and now I am frightened for the first time.”


The refugees, who mostly dreamed of getting to Germany or Sweden, say they never expected Europe to be like this. “This country is too poor,” complained Mohammed Hussein, a 24-year-old Syrian who has spent the last six weeks confined to a former military base at Harmanli, a desolate town near Svilengrad. “It is like living in a prison,” he said.

Nikolai Tchirpanliev, a retired army colonel recently appointed to head the state agency charged with taking care of the refugees, said that the Syrians had helped wear out their welcome by complaining too much about stinking, clogged toilets and other problems in the camps and holding centers.

“It is like when the Huns came to Europe,” he said, comparing the influx of Syrians to the wild, nomadic warriors who conquered much of Eastern Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries. Amnesty International and other groups that criticize conditions, he said, should stop condemning the Bulgarian authorities and “ask, ‘Why don’t these people know how to use toilets?’ ”