Economy & Trade, Europe, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Human Rights | Analysis

EUROPE: The Right Rises

Analysis by Pavol Stracansky

BRATISLAVA, May 5 2009 (IPS) - Human rights activists have warned of a “proliferation” of far-right groups in central and eastern Europe amid an economic crisis fuelling support for extremist movements and political parties.

They say more and more far-right groups are becoming “paramilitary”, carrying out violent attacks on Roma and other ethnic or religious minorities, while extreme right-wing political parties see a surge in voter support.

“There has been a rise in right-wing extremism in eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and the Czech Republic where paramilitary-style groups have been formed,” Georgina Siklossy, spokeswoman for the European Network Against Racism told IPS.

“There is a distinct danger that, in times of economic crisis as at present, right-wing extremism and right-wing groups will proliferate.”

Analysts say that ever since the fall of communism across the former Eastern bloc, there has been a steady growth in right-wing extremism.

Historical antipathy towards minority groups, such as Jews and Roma, were nominally suppressed under communism, but the nature of the hard-line regimes in communist countries also fostered an atmosphere of suspicion towards foreigners which, when communism fell, continued and became focused on immigrants, they say.

And with the subsequent freedom of speech and travel that came with the new democracies, right-wing extremist ideology spread from western countries into eastern Europe in the 1990s, giving a boost to fledgling right- wing movements.

Eva Dobrovolna, spokesperson for Amnesty International in the Czech Republic, told IPS: “Many such groups have been in contact with and learnt from more established right-wing movements in places such as Germany. They have been inspired by them and become professional and organised.”

The depth of the problem has been evidenced in a string of brutal, and in some cases lethal attacks, on minorities across the region.

In Hungary seven Roma have been killed over the last year, with community leaders reporting scores of firebomb and gunfire attacks on their homes.

In the Czech Republic just weeks ago a two-year-old Roma girl was left fighting for her life after a racist gang firebombed her parents’ home. Roma community leaders say they are living in fear of their lives amid rising racial tensions and attacks from neo-Nazi gangs. Other Roma leaders are calling for Roma to leave the country en masse.

The attack came on the same day as 300 neo-Nazis marched in the town of Usti nad Labem, north Bohemia, to mark the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth, and it emerged that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke had been invited on a speaking tour of the country.

In neighbouring Slovakia rights groups last month called for the resignation of the head of the police and the country’s interior minister after a video emerged of police officers forcing Roma boys to undress, kiss and hit each other. They said it was evidence of systematic and institutionalised persecution of minorities.

The situation is similar in other countries.

In eastern Germany, where many regions are severely economically depressed, race-hate crimes are on the rise, according to local authorities. Figures from the interior ministry in the state of Saxony show that the number of reported crimes against foreigners rose 55 percent last year, while anti-Semitic incidents almost doubled.

And in February in Dresden, where tens of thousands of people have, or are expected to be, laid off by companies struggling in the recession, 6,000 members of neo-Nazi groups held one of the biggest anti-immigrant protests in Germany in the last 20 years.

Meanwhile in Russia human rights groups say that in the last year incidents of right-wing violence have reached a historic high. In one incident in December a right-wing group called the ‘Combat Organisation of Russian Nationalists’ brutally beat and then beheaded a Tajikistan man in Moscow. This was followed by planned demonstrations in the capital by right-wing groups against foreigners.

The EU has also warned of the extent of the extremist problem.

A report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights released Apr. 22, which the agency claims is the first ever EU-wide survey on immigrant and ethnic minority groups’ experiences of discrimination and racist crime, showed that 55 percent of migrants and minorities surveyed by the FRA think that discrimination based on ethnic origin is widespread in their country.

Thirty-seven percent say that they have personally experienced discrimination in the past 12 months. Twelve percent personally experienced a racist crime in the last year. But 80 percent of these did not report the incident to the police, many believing no action would be taken by authorities.

The growth of right-wing extremist attacks has been mirrored by a rise in popularity of far-right political parties in the region, some of whom are enjoying record levels of support.

The Slovak National Party, whose leader Jan Slota has publicly and repeatedly launched verbal and denigrating attacks on minorities, is the third most popular party in the country, according to recent polls, and is part of the ruling government coalition.

In neighbouring Austria two far-right parties, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Alliance for Austria’s Future (BZÖ) won 29 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last September.

And in Hungary the far-right Jobbik party which has openly campaigned on the issue of what it refers to as “gypsy crime” has seen its popularity soar to near the five percent threshold it would need to get elected to parliament for the first time in elections due next year.

The European Parliament elections Jun. 7 are expected to reveal the full extent of the rapidly growing support for right-wing political parties across the region.

Some members of the European Parliament like British Labour MEP Glyn Ford and Bulgarian MEP Kristian Vigenen who have led anti-extremist watchdog groups and headed studies on extremism, have already told media they expect strong support for extremist, anti-immigrant and neo-fascist parties at the elections, largely on the back of the increasing disaffection of voters with mainstream political parties during the economic crisis.

Rights activists agree the results of the elections could be a telling barometer of the situation.

“The European Parliament elections, and the performance of far-right parties, will give a very good indication of the extent of the rise of extremism in central and eastern Europe,” the European Network Against Racism’s Georgina Siklossy, told IPS.

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