Education and suppressing hate speech are the ways to fight xenophobia in Bulgaria, experts say.
By Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Kran and Sofia -- 23/05/14
The issue of Syrian refugees is helping to fuel nationalist attitudes by some in Bulgaria. [AFP]
A wave of nationalism, fuelled by a flow of Syrian refugees, integration of the Roma community and Russia's interference with Ukraine, is expected to have an effect on Bulgaria's European Parliament vote on Sunday (May 25th).
The situation has provided a fruitful terrain for nationalist movements and parties, including the Ataka party, which is represented in the parliament, as well as the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and some newcomers like the Bulgaria Without Censorship party, which has allied with the country's oldest nationalist party, the Bulgarian Nationalist Movement.
Although nationalist movements and parties are unlikely to gain substantial representation in the EP, their influence is extremely negative.
"We are talking about 10 percent of all voters at most, but nationalist messages and hate speech set a negative tone for the whole media environment," Dimitar Bechev, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told SETimes.
He added that in many cases "the prosecution and the court fail to apply the criminal code" to punish such speech or actions.
Nationalism and xenophobia have been rising not only in Bulgaria, but in Europe as a whole. The reasons have had to do with the financial crisis, the wave of immigrants looking for better lives in the more developed part of the continent and the lack of perspective of many of its citizens.
A recent case of four Syrian refugee families being banished from a village in central Bulgaria illustrated how political hate speech and populism can affect public moods and opinion.
The families left a refugee camp where they had spent seven months and rented a house in the village of Rozovo in central Bulgaria. There, however, they found people threatening them with violence unless they left their "ethnically clean" village.
The police had to intervene to help the family move to Kran, a nearby town.
Ruslan Trad, chairman of the Forum for Arab Culture NGO, said politicians use nationalist moods to win voters.
"They take advantage of people's lack of information and awareness to create fears, and these fears among people create moods that benefit politicians. Once there is fear, it is much easier for populist statements to reach the potential voters. Dissatisfaction with the lifestyle of people and their living standard is an important element as well," Trad told SETimes.
Bechev said the education system also plays a crucial role in building lasting stereotypes.
"These stereotypes are then used by political leaders, parties and movements in the public space," he told SETimes.
Trad said the best way to fight the rise of xenophobic moods is education.
"Informing the public is a key element of understanding the problem of lack of solidarity and our attitude towards cases, such as the one in Rozovo, and the state of our society in general," he said.
Bulgarians will choose 17 people to represent them in the 751-seat European Parliament. The battle for these places will be among 18 parties, six coalitions and five initiative committees.
According to the latest surveys, the main competition will be between the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party and the main opposition GERB party. Bulgaria Without Censorship is the only newcomer who stands some chance to enter the EP, according to an April survey by the Institute for Modern Politics.
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