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Racist attacks escalating in Bulgaria in the run-up to European election: Who reaps the benefits?

A grafiti at the Sofia Railway Station. Photo credit: LevFem.

Since the beginning of March, there has been an unprecedented campaign of violence against refugees and foreigners in Sofia. Polarising and racist statements by politicians and uncritical, sensationalist media coverage have unleashed a wave of attacks. The Bulgarian capital, which is where most institutions and facilities dealing with migrants are located and where most economic opportunities are concentrated, is increasingly dangerous for those who in one way or another do not fit the profile of “pure” ethnic Bulgarians. Openly fascist groups now terrorise foreigners on a daily basis and xenophobic and racist reactions are mainstreamed by political and media outlets. An urgent response is needed to confront this wave of racism and xenophobia with all our might before it is too late. But to do that, it is important to look deeper into what triggered this wave of violence in the current political climate, and who benefits from it.

Amidst a larger fascist revival wave rising in Europe, the issue of migration has traditionally occupied a central place in the repertoire of far-right and conservative politicians and parties that seek to reap political benefits by inciting fear and activating racist sentiments and panic. Politicians of all parties talk about combating so-called ‘illegal’ migration, support the building of walls on the border with Turkey, and tolerate the abundant police and vigilante violence against migrants. For several months now, on the occasion of Bulgaria and Romania’s partial entry into Schengen, the issue of migration was raised, particularly by Austria, in order to blame the two countries for ‘inaction’ in protecting the EU borders. This was taken up by MPs from the conservative Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the far-right “Revival” Party, who have persistently and systematically threatened waves of allegedly criminal migrants would be transferred to Bulgaria – despite constant rebuttals about the procedure for returning migrants from other European countries, and despite the data on how few migrants actually cross the border.

A Wave of Racist Violence

In the middle of this anti-migrants campaign, in early March, a widely publicised incident involving asylum seekers residing in the Ovcha Kupel neighbourhood in Sofia was blown out of proportion for political gain, becoming a rallying point for politicians and media to talk about a security problem around migrants in the capital. This was followed by several attacks on people of colour (including British medical students who were beaten up on Vitosha boulevard on March 8) by neo-Nazi groups. Yet, the police refused to categorise the attacks as motivated by racial hatred. Instead, the media continued to talk about ‘incidents with migrants’, which only added to the confusion and to the impression that refugees posed some kind of security problem. Even everyday behaviour that would not have attracted any attention in other circumstances (‘they move in groups’, ‘they are out in the evening’) was pathologised in the media as a sign of danger.

The issue was immediately taken up by representatives of various political parties: the local structure of centre-right GERB (led personally by party leader and ex-prime minister Boyko Borisov) called an extraordinary meeting of the municipal council, where they attacked the Mayor Terziev for his (in)action. Terziev, supported by the liberal-to-centre-right coalition between We Continue the Change (PP) and Democratic Bulgaria (DB), and other members of the coalition called for more police and checks against migrants. In the National Assembly, deputies from the BSP, “Revival” and “There Is Such a People” parties also tried to take advantage of the situation and took strong anti-migrant positions. Amid the insinuations and racist innuendos from these parties, there was little attention paid to the hearing of the Chair of the State Agency for Refugees, who presented shocking data on the lack of funding, overcrowding and poor living conditions for asylum seekers in Bulgaria.

In the meantime, the police have unleashed a repression campaign on refugees. Instead of taking action against attacks on migrants and foreigners, the police detained over 100 of them. The number of police officers and ID checks, which specifically target people of colour, has dramatically increased. At the protest against racism and xenophobia, homeless people, Roma, and refugees shared accounts of being subjected to increasing police violence in the very centre of the capital. The culmination of this escalation took place on 28 March, when the policing of refugee centres – previously handled by private contractors – was entrusted to the Ministry of the Interior. Thus, the provision of protection and asylum is increasingly being transformed from a humanitarian and legal problem to a supposed public security problem. The police welcomed the changes with a large-scale action in all refugee centres in Sofia. A statement from the police made it clear that this was just the beginning and such raids would take place frequently “until we are convinced that the rules are being followed”. As a result of the raids one person was arrested.

The massive media and political campaign against refugees activated virulent ultra-right and neo-Nazi groups in Sofia, who organised a number of attacks on refugees and several protests against migration (on 10 and 31 March). Additionally, a former candidate for district mayor from GERB organised a “spontaneous civil protest” against migrants and against the asylum seeker centre on the territory of his district. Several far-right organisations known for organising teenagers and even underage boys are behind the increased physical attacks on migrants and foreigners. Organisations such as Young Guard and Youth for Bulgaria are tied to longer-standing fascist groups and parties in Sofia such as the BNS, IMRO, and the like, and are known for having taken several public actions against feminist and LGBTI protests and for being participants in the neo-Nazi Lukov March.

On 28 March, an Afghan man and his wife (a Bulgarian) were attacked and beaten in broad daylight in front of their own apartment in a district of Sofia. The same evening, another attack on a boy of Afghan origin followed in front of the Mizia metro station, and the media reported on a number of cases targeting “Arab” and “coloured” people organised by neo-Nazi youth organisations.

The attacks by the ultra-right and fascist groups and institutions fit into their overall strategy. In recent years, there has been abundant evidence of the mobilising actions of proliferating far-right youth organisations: memorial marches, events, volunteer initiatives, and neighbourhood events such as creating and maintaining Nazi graffiti. These activities testify to a particular interest of the far right in indoctrinating and recruiting supporters among the youth and using them for political purposes. The new groups received their militant ‘baptism’ in several raids on left-wing social centres and protests. Their recent actions against refugees testify to their successfully built capacity, which can now be mobilised in times of political and media tolerance. Similar tactics were used by the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s.

Who benefits?

In Bulgaria, for the far-right politicians, the moral panic produced through the renewed focus on migration issue is an occasion to undermine the PP-DB government, which has remained in minority after breaking off from power-sharing agreement with GERB. For the government, the dehumanisation of refugees is necessary to excuse and cover up the border violence and harassment of refugees in the country, necessary to demonstrate to the European partners the “successes” in the fight against migration. There are very few voices in the media and public space defending refugees and an avalanche of sensationalist and uncritical coverage of the view of the ruling class. It is in this environment of carefully cultivated intolerance towards people of Arab, South Asian, and African origin that fascist groups have found a free pass for aggressive action.

Growing xenophobic violence does not, however, benefit the Bulgarian political class alone. In Italy, Finland, and Hungary there are openly far-right governments and/or ruling coalitions between brown and dark blue parties with a markedly anti-immigrant course, and in almost all other countries in Europe far-right parties are among the largest political forces. In Switzerland and the Netherlands, they are the largest parties, and in France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and Germany, they are gaining considerable strength and popularity, also driven by the vision of ‘Fortress Europe’. Attracted by the success of the far right and predictions of a far-right turn after the June 2024 European elections, neoliberal technocrats like Ursula von der Leyen, supposedly acceptably conservative parties like the EPP (whose members in Bulgaria are GERB, the SDS, and the DSB), but also centre-left governments like the ruling triple coalition in Germany and the Social Democrats in Denmark and Sweden, have directly started to impose anti-immigrant policies and discourse, hoping to appeal to voters.

In reality, the ruling class are once again, despite their democratic claims, creating a real bureaucratic and humanitarian hell for people seeking protection and a better life and are occupying increasingly xenophobic and racist political positions. National and EU policies deepen the criminalisation and violence against migrants at borders. These policies are coupled with concerted efforts to transfer the problem to authoritarian regimes outside the continent. The European Union struck deals with Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt, in which it provides funding to the regimes in these countries in exchange for forcibly detaining and repatriating refugees. With the far right winning election after election, they gain control of the capacities and political mechanisms already built up in this way, so that they can optimise them and govern the way they like. All this is happening while leading mainstream parties are supposedly waging a noble struggle against far-right extremism.

The developments in Bulgaria in this sense closely follow “good European practices”, as the country’s strategic geopolitical position as an external border of the EU implies even more escalations of the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in the coming months and years.

The Root Cause

All these developments are far from being the result of some “cultural” clashes and wars, as we are persistently led to believe day and night from the media and political discourses. Migrant workers have a specific role in the capitalist system as a means of raising the level of exploitation. The restrictive residency regime, which deprives migrants of civil, social, and labour rights, serves as a mechanism for direct exploitation. And once normalised for one group of people, certain practices of exploitation quickly begin to be applied to other groups of workers. Border regimes, fearmongering, hatred, and division aim to criminalise migrants who are often considered “illegal” but who are also part of the working class. In this way, the capitalist system exploits low-paid and sometimes criminalised labour and appropriates the surplus value produced by workers. The exploitative nature of capitalism needs such ethnic hatred to reduce the ability of workers and migrant workers to resist poor working conditions and low pay in different sectors and individual workplaces. It is unlikely that workers from another country, who often do not speak the local language and are considered illegal because they do not have all the necessary documents, will attempt to challenge their employers in any way – due to fears of being deported to the even more deplorable conditions of wars or poverty they escaped in the first place.

Besides economic benefits, this anti-immigrant regime also maintains white supremacy and the racist system of Western countries. The militarisation of borders, border violence, and the dehumanisation of migrants from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa aim to stabilise views of “expendable” lives that do not deserve humane treatment. This treatment of migrants is a logical extension of the imperialist wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Palestine, and Yemen by the US, Russia, Israel, the majority of European countries, and their allies; wars that are the greatest direct cause of instability, terrorism, and chaos in these countries, which have led to internal displacement and increased number of refugees. Moreover, the West’s colonial and post-colonial exploitation of the countries of the Global South continues to cause famine, suffering, and conflict in former European colonies: exploitation of natural resources, control of monetary policy, and the maintenance of economic dependency is still widespread today. Instead of Western states accepting historical responsibility for the impoverishment and exploitation of the rest of the world, they are turning the tragedy of refugees into yet another tool for subjugation and an opportunity to accumulate capital.

It is obvious that the synchronisation between media, political actors, institutions, and neo-Nazi paramilitary groups is not at all accidental, nor is it just a product of some Balkan backwardness. On the contrary: racial hatred, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, the careful construction of the image of the ethnically pure “European” or “Bulgarian” who fights for “Fortress Europe” or “Bulgaria of the Bulgarians” aim at preserving AT ALL COSTS the existing system. A system that is all the more hierarchical, cruel, exploitative, and abusive the further down its hierarchy you go.

Save for their EU passport, “ordinary” Bulgarians, whose image is drawn and used mostly through the motif of “ethnic purity”, are much closer in class position and living conditions to migrants, crossing borders legally or not, while fleeing wars, famine, misery, and climate catastrophes, than they are to the rich and the politicians, pitting one social group against another in the name of more political power and profit for themselves and their own class. With 2 million Bulgarians abroad and labour migration affecting almost every family in the country, it is hard not to see how the same mechanisms of racial hatred and fantasies of racial purity that are currently being used to brutalise migrants in Sofia are also affecting Bulgarians abroad. Just a week ago, a Bulgarian family and their two children died in a fire in their home and in a small German town, with investigators suggesting deliberate arson and human rights organisations in the town suspecting racist motives behind the fire. As Javed Nouri said in his emotional and heartbreaking speech at the migrant solidarity protest in Sofia on 28 March after a group of Nazis had beaten him and his wife earlier that day, “What if I am black? As if there are no Bulgarians who are migrants somewhere?”

The current wave of violence raises serious concerns among the tiny and currently rather weak activist new Left circles in Bulgaria. We find ourselves betwixt and between, antagonised profoundly by two competing agendas – the extreme right turn of the old neoliberal Left, and the use of the liberal subservience to capitalist interests of core European countries through providing a reserve army of precarious Bulgarians and migrant workers alike. At the same time, it is clear that the current situation does not affect Bulgaria alone – racism serving the rise of extreme right and openly fascist movements is spreading like wildfire across Europe and beyond. The European Parliament election is approaching and a continent-wide campaign and international organising that links migration from our region to the core of Europe to migration coming into our countries is way overdue, and so is renewed attention to the postsocialist periphery of Europe which has long served as its shock absorber for multiple crises that threaten to turn the continent into a hotspot of racist violence and bigotry.

LevFem is a Bulgarian left-wing feminist organization founded in 2018. It addresses issues related to the socio-economic inequalities produced in a capitalist economy, which are directly linked to the increase in gender inequalities. LevFem works primarily towards the alignment of women workers in feminised key sectors such as health, social services, education, care work, and representatives of marginalised communities with the goals of the feminist movement. The organisation links the feminist movement to the LGBTI+ cause and anti-racism, building on the principles of intersectionality.