Why is xenophobia the most prevalent conviction in Bulgaria?

Growing gaps in education and political culture, combined with economic and social destitution, have resulted in the growth and normalization of far-right views, creating a fertile ground for dangerous extremism. Such are the depressing findings of a recent Bulgarian study.

The Bulgarian population is rife with negative stereotypes about others — Turks, Roma, Jews, refugees, and sexual minorities. Anyone familiar with the situation on the ground will recognize that such sentiments have always been a significant part of Bulgarians’ worldview. Those emotions and convictions, however, have significantly deepened and intensified, and the entire society appears to be becoming increasingly closed off to the outside world, with sharp division lines between its citizens. As a result, 

dangerous resentments have accumulated, 

and Bulgarians are increasingly suspicious and hostile to their fellow countrymen. Over the last ten years, that phenomenon has definitely taken on a new dynamic, which exacerbates the majority of the negative consequences; bigotry reigns. These are some of the findings of the June 9 study Radicalization of non-acceptance — Group hatred and right-wing extremist attitudes in Bulgaria.

Prof. Dr. Antonyi Todorov provided an in-depth analysis based on a national representative survey conducted on behalf of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Bulgarian branch by the AFIS agency. According to the survey results, there are various levels of intolerance in society, with the Roma being the most reviled ethnic group. The study’s authors believe that widespread anti-Roma sentiment stems primarily from “social jealousy” of so-called integration policies and presumed positive discrimination experienced by this group. According to the report, “this social jealousy is superimposed on racist ideologies, whose vectors are various far-right, but also nationalist right-wing and left-wing organizations and the intellectuals who represent them.”

According to Prof. Todorov’s analysis, “Prejudice against others is also aided by society’s lack of civic competence and basic understanding of the fundamental concepts used to explain politics. The meanings of the terms left and right, liberal and conservative, socialist and far right, are widely misunderstood. This makes it difficult for many people to recognize far-right extremism, understand it, and distinguish it from other ideological positions. He also points out that “some intellectuals play a role in this as well, insisting on the ideological closeness of the far right and far left, which further confuses the general public’s perceptions.”

AFIS conducted the survey between August and November 2020. It consists of 1,200 random phone interviews, IDIs with opinion leaders, and two focus group interviews in Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo (town in north-central Bulgaria). AFIS’ Stefan Georgiev explained during the presentation that the research was based on a similar study that has been conducted every two years in Germany since 2006. Additional indicators, however, have been added to the Bulgarian survey to allow comparisons with the results of a similar study conducted by the agency in 2011.

According to the survey results, interethnic contacts in Bulgarian society are not as common as one might expect, given that non-Bulgarian ethnic groups account for nearly 24% of the total population. More than one-fifth of those polled say they have never communicated with members of other ethnic groups, and more than 46% say it happens only rarely to them. A significant part of those who stated that they have never interacted with representatives of other ethnic groups are residents of villages, which is logical. However, many of those who self-identify as the most politically right-wing also fall into this group. These seemingly contradictory findings are consistent with many studies in Western Europe that show far-right people frequently live in areas with no direct contact with people of other ethnic groups.

The study paints an even more alarming picture: a low tolerance for close contact with members of various ethnic and sexual-cultural minority groups.

Bulgarians are particularly reserved when it comes to Roma and refugees, but they are equally reserved when it comes to homosexuals.

Only 22% of respondents said they would accept a Turk as a fellow citizen, with that figure dropping to 15% for Roma and 13% for refugees and homosexuals. Acceptance as a neighbor or houseguest is even lower in the last three groups, and the ratio is even smaller when it comes to becoming a relative with someone from any of those groups.

When compared to the 2011 survey, acceptance of those groups has deteriorated dramatically, as has social distance. Furthermore, Bulgarians continue to believe that negative phenomena like unemployment, violence, and crime are more likely to be explained by ethnic origin than by social and economic factors. In comparison to 2011, attitudes have shifted slightly in this regard. This is most visible in the areas of unemployment and begging, which have become less linked to ethnicity.

When presenting the findings, AFIS’ Chavdar Naidenov said, “The very reality surrounding the Bulgarians, regardless of their convictions, forced this conclusion on them.” In other words, we cannot interpret this as a sign of increased open-mindedness or acceptance of others, but rather as a result of ethnic Bulgarians becoming so visibly impoverished recently that no one, no matter how prejudiced, can ignore this fact. Naidenov also claims that right-wing views are becoming more prevalent in Bulgarian society, providing fertile ground for racist propaganda and xenophobic worldviews. According to the survey results, nearly half of the respondents’ attitudes are “extreme ethnocentrism,” while less than 10% are completely tolerant. According to the survey, those who accept one of the many negative stereotypes about people who are different from them are generally quite willing to accept other prejudices and stereotypical views.

Overt or extreme ethnocentrism has a diverse social profile, but there are a few outliers who do not neatly fit into the usual political and ideological divisions. People over the age of 60, as well as residents of Sofia, are overrepresented among those who fully accept the statement that “everyone should be proud of Bulgaria.” Those with lower levels of education and higher-than-average incomes, in particular. People who live in the country, on the other hand, are opposed to mandatory patriotic pride. What’s more, people who identify as far right tend to agree with compulsory pride in their motherland less than any other social group among the respondents who were asked to declare where they belong politically on the broad spectrum.Right-wingers (including the far right) may today be critical of Bulgaria and see no reason to be proud of it. According to the survey report, “the question posed in this manner is likely indicative of contentment with one’s own situation rather than ethnocentrism.”

Residents of Sofia and regional cities, as well as 

homeowners and wealthy individuals, believe that Bulgarians are superior to others.

Supporters of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) are heavily represented in this group, whereas supporters of Democratic Bulgaria (a minor liberal party popular primarily among young people in major urban areas) have very little representation. People with a secondary education and the unemployed are among those who believe Bulgaria has an overabundance of foreigners. This group includes nationalists and GERB (Boyko Borissov’s right-wing party) supporters. It is concerning that young people and students are highly represented among those who strongly support this viewpoint. The rejection of new Muslim migrants (refugees or migrants), as well as the belief that “Islam is foreign to Bulgarian culture,” is primarily shared by the middle generation (40-49 years old), but BSP supporters and nationalists share it as well.

The rise of right-wing extremism and its normalization 

in political and social life is a global phenomenon affecting many parts of the world. In their data analysis, Todorov and the AFIS experts identify several specific factors for the rise of authoritarian and xenophobic attitudes in Bulgarian society. The first is increasing inequality and the marginalization of large sections of society. “This gives rise to an emotional need for affirmations that there are undeniably worse-off sections of the population. Media reports on the living situation of the poor and illiterate are popular with audiences and offer the comforting illusion that only those who have become the cause of their own suffering suffer”, according to the analysis.

“Attempts to explain right-wing extremism ideologically, through ideals or convictions, lead us away from the truth, in my opinion,” said AFIS’ Yuri Aslanov during the presentation of the study. “In my opinion,

poverty and inequality are the true sources of evil,

of right-wing extremist attitudes.” “Always, but especially in crisis situations, people start looking for answers by blaming the poorest for their misfortune”, he continued. 

According to the researchers’ recommendations, the government’s overall course should change in the direction of reducing material inequality, increasing the share of output value going to working people and disfavoring capital; ensuring equal access to education for all citizens; restoring access to health care regardless of patient’s income; and reinstating municipal housing policy (which is practically absent). Except for that, what is required is an increase in the media’s social responsibility, as well as an increase in public defense of deliberately marginalized, classical liberal and socialist values such as humanistic optimism, faith in reason, equality, cooperation, trust between people, and the dignity of the individual and the citizen.

The authors of the analysis point to chaotic socio-urban processes, which result in hermetic neighborhoods with very different income, occupational, and ethnic profiles, as one of the reasons for the rise of far-right attitudes. This results in a suffocation of social interactions, which reinforces prejudices. Analysts also cite the 2015-17 immigrant-refugee wave and the failure of the EU’s massive integration idea, the Eurozone crisis, the economic depression in Southern Europe, and Brexit. All of these factors loosened the reins on the aggressive nationalist projects left over from the pre-World War II era. Except for that, the researchers highlight the drastic disempowerment of state institutions as a result of global ideological pressure from liberalism, as well as the growing momentum of the so-called alt-right with its extravagantly traditionalist claims. The inclusion of a coalition of nationalist parties in GERB’s government is also not to be overlooked. According to the analysis, this move has normalized, legitimized, and even granted a semi-respectable status to a wide range of bigoted positions.

The study’s authors also focus on the brutalization of political discourse during Boyko Borissov’s reign. According to them, this has made an “invisible but significant contribution to reducing dialogue between different categories and communities.” This refers to a “rhetorical style in which 

verbal humiliation, denigration, and slander are used not only against political opponents.

Human dignity is being systematically eroded in a variety of categories, beginning with the Roma minority and progressing to pensioners, doctors, those on sick leave, the unemployed, and even protesting mothers with disabled children, to name a few.”

“Public figures’ arrests are being broadcast on television. A wide variety of social stereotypes, myths, and prejudices prevail. Minimum standards of credibility are being abandoned, and there is widespread denial of facts. These deviations from the very premises of representative democracy were not punished and were trivialized by the voter. Because of the authority of their party, the majority of right-wing voters who had switched to GERB by 2009 are gradually losing respect for liberal models and increasingly finding coercion and domination acceptable,” the analysis states.

“In Bulgaria, we have a serious problem identifying and understanding far-right attitudes,”

Antonyi Todorov said. The report was presented on the anniversary of the June 9, 1923 military coup, which overthrew a democratically elected agrarian government and ushered in a period of massive repression and right-wing terror in Bulgaria. Todorov expressed his displeasure in this regard with a recently published text by a “otherwise respected journalist” lauding the benefits of the coup and, in particular, the “blood-stained professor” Alexander Tsankov, who led the government after the putsch. “Today, it appears that there is something like a veil in front of our eyes, a specific kind of distortion of our vision that causes us not to notice very dangerous processes in society, right-wing extremist attitudes that undermine not only democracy but the foundations of coexistence,” he said.

Todorov adds the specific 

Eastern European legacy of so-called post-communism

to the list of factors mentioned in the report that point to dangerous trends. “The epic battle against communism, which some people continue to fight 30 years after 1989, has resulted in a synthesis of two concepts: anti-communism and democracy. It is frequently overlooked, however, that the majority of anti-communists are anti-democratic.” He cited a recently announced political coalition that includes a party claiming to be the successor of progressive peasantry movements and an organization claiming to be the descendant of the infamous fascist organization of the inter-war period as an example of the confusion and unprincipledness caused by this continuing obsession with anti-communism. According to him, agrarian leaders from the 1920s and 1930s would “turn in their graves if they saw this.”

Todorov cited as a major issue a lack of knowledge of twentieth-century history, which has been largely absent from Bulgarian history and literature curricula for the past 30 years, as well as a misunderstanding of political benchmarks, which affects even highly educated and intellectual people. “When you mention far-right extremism and attitudes, you’re told they’re similar to the far-left. When you bring up Hitler, they immediately respond, but what about Stalin? Far-right extremism, on the other hand, is the most visible threat in our society. In Bulgaria, a microscope is required to locate the extreme left. This mindset, which can be found in academic circles, is dangerous. This understanding pervades how the social sciences are taught – all extremes are grouped together under a common denominator. As a result, we lose sight of important specificity.” Prof. Todorov warned.

As a result, the authors of the study advocate not only integration and equality policies, but also educational policies to address these historical, political, and social culture deficits. “There is no widespread agreement that society should be integrated and that everyone should feel like they belong to it. As 

some poor people are pitted against other poor people, there is no social empathy, only social envy,

which is very convenient for some political and economic actors. Neoliberal hyper-individualism is one of the causes of the loss of social empathy and solidarity. This hyper-individualism, which replaced officially declared collectivism prior to 1989, results in a loss of solidarity and an unwillingness to accept difference” Todorov’s point of view.

Photo: ”People, be vigilent!”, urged in 2020 protesters against Lukov March – the annual Nazi gathering in Sofia (source: The Barricade)

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