Postcard from Sofia

Posted January 4, 2007

Categories: Articles


Ataka’s party car. Photo by Don Russell

You can find anti-Turkish and anti-Roma slogans spray-painted on the walls of Sofia, in Bulgaria, just as you can elsewhere in the Balkans. But in Bulgaria, the slogan has moved up a level to appear on the side of cars.

Like its Balkan neighbors, Bulgaria has significant minority populations, including ethnic Turks (nearly 10% of the population) and Roma (perhaps as high as 8%). The ethnic Turks created a powerful political party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has entered into governmental coalitions and captured key ministry positions. Their success has generated a measure of resentment in the majority population. The Roma — known pejoratively as tsigane or gypsies — have virtually no political power and suffer discrimination at all levels of society, in Bulgaria as in other countries in Europe.

In 2005, though, anti-minority sentiment went from spray-painted slogans to a much slicker form, courtesy of the new political party Ataka (Attack). Founded by TV station owner Volen Siderov, echoing the rise of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Ataka capitalized on anti-government sentiment, public perceptions of corruption within the ethnic Turkish party, and deep feelings of racism. His campaign mantra was the rather expected and unimaginative “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” (it’s not clear whether anyone else has recently put in a bid for the territory). According to survey data from Bulgaria’s Helsinki Committee, negative attitudes toward ethnic minorities had gradually but significantly declined from 1992 to 1997. Asked whether they would support a competent Roma political candidate, for instance, 82% of respondents said no in 1992 but only 66% said no in 1997. In 2005, with the emergence of Ataka, this figure went back up to 76%.

Ataka received 8% of the vote in the 2005 elections. Some polls have shown their popularity rising precipitously before settling down around 14%, their showing in the May 2007 European Parliament elections. Ataka’s representatives in the European parliament helped to form an extremist coalition called Identity, Tradition, and Sovereignty with some of Europe’s ugliest parties, such as France’s National Front, Italian neo-fascists, and Austria’s xenophobic Freedom Party. A multinational coalition of xenophobes might seem a contradiction in terms, but the European project of integration has generated some strange offspring.

Although racism permeates Bulgarian attitudes and institutions, Ataka has not led to a significant upsurge in violence, nor has it transformed the political landscape of the country. Indeed, it seems as though Ataka itself has become transformed. With its support stagnant and perhaps declining, the party is trolling for support from constituencies that might oppose the current government coalition of royalists, ex-communists, and ethnic Turks. That might help to explain the appearance of a program on Ataka’s TV station devoted to exploring issues in, of all things, the Roma community.

FPIF, September 14, 2007

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