BALKAN BLOG: The creeping success of the far right in Southeast Europe

BALKAN BLOG: The creeping success of the far right in Southeast Europe
Kostadin Kostadinov, leader of Bulgaria's far right, pro-Russian Vazrazhdane at a campaign event ahead of the European Parliament elections. / Vazrazhdane via Facebook
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow June 10, 2024

The June 9 European Parliament elections in Southeast Europe were first and foremost victories for more or less centrist parties, with the victors in Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia all hailing from either the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping or (in Romania’s case) the centre-left Socialists & Democrats. 

This contrasts with the dramatic shift to the far right seen in France, where the victory for the National Rally prompted President Emmanuel Macron to call a snap general election, and other West European countries. However, while far-right parties were not among the winning parties in Southeast Europe, the European elections continued the trend of their creeping success that has turned them into the main opposition in Bulgaria and Romania, and as of last month the junior ruling party in Croatia

Exit polls show a strong performance for the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) and Bulgaria’s Vazrazhdane, while Croatia’s Homeland Movement won its first MEP seat on June 9. 

Competing for second place in Bulgaria 

In Bulgaria, the populist Gerb party (a member of the EPP) was first placed in both the European Parliament elections and the snap general election held on the same day. Turnout was extremely low at around 30% as Bulgarians were fed up with going to the polls, and with the political options on offer in their sixth general election in three years. 

The results are as yet unclear, but exit polls show the hard right, pro-Russian Vazrazhdane (Revival) is one of three parties currently competing for second place, alongside reformist Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB) and the ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). Vazrazhdane has already become a regular part of the political spectrum in Bulgaria, having been the third largest group in the last parliament. 

At European level, Vazrazhdane is a member of the extreme right Identity and Democracy (I&D) group in the European Parliament. Its leader Kostadin Kostadinov recently proposed creating a new far-right group after I&D ejected Alternative for Germany (AFD) from its ranks. Kostadinov said the expulsion was good news as Vazrazhdane now can form an "authentic conservative and sovereigntist group" in the EU alongside AfD.

Vazrazhdane is is openly supported by the Russian ambassador in Sofia, Eleonora Mitrofanova. The party submitted a bill to parliament on the country’s exit from Nato, and has also sought a referendum on Bulgaria’s adoption of the euro.

The party has a history of violence. In May, members and supporters of Vazrazhdane attacked a car transporting a Ukrainian delegation to inspect Russia-made equipment for two nuclear reactors for the now-defunct Belene project, with a view to buying them to replace their own ravaged infrastructure. 

There have been numerous other incidents. Vazrazhdane MPs clashed physically with their Western-oriented colleagues in parliament last year after exchanging taunts in the chamber. Previously, Vazrazhdane activists attacked people trying to watch the Belgian film Close, claiming it was promoting homosexuality. In an earlier incident Vazrazhdane supporters tried to storm the parliament during an anti-vaxxer protest, laying the party open to accusations of hypocrisy as one third of its MPs were revealed to have been vaccinated against coronavirus (COVID-19). 

Vazrazhdane is one of several far right parties in Bulgaria, but has gradually eclipsed rivals such as the United Patriots (UP), a group of three far-right parties that joined a Gerb-led coalition government back in 2017.

AUR to enter European Parliament 

In Romania, AUR — the name is a pun on the Romanian word for ‘gold’ — has also been making gains and was second-placed after the ruling coalition parties, albeit trailing them by a wide margin. It came in well ahead of the reformist United Right Alliance, led by Union Save Romania, previously seen as a rising star on the Romanian political scene. 

AUR president George Simion commented on the results, pointing out that more than 2mn Romanians backed his party. This was in a country where far-right parties have been on the political fringes during the decades since the collapse of communism. AUR shot to prominence during the pandemic, when public discontent with tight restrictions and exposes of rule-breaking by top officials was riding high. AUR has then gone on to capitalise on fears related to the war in neighbouring Ukraine and the impact of high prices on Romanians’ living standards and disposable incomes.

It advocates for national sovereignty and traditional values, a tougher line on migration, and the reunification of Romania and Moldova. At a pre-election campaign event, the party’s charismatic leader positioned himself as a patriot in the mould of Vlad the Impaler, whose image was prominently displayed at the event.

However, AUR is generally softer than Bulgaria’s Vazrazhdane. The party does not present itself as pro-Russian — which would be a highly unpopular stance within Romania — and has sought to moderate its message to make it more appealing to voters. Simion expelled the hardline and openly anti-Ukraine MP Diana Sosoaca, who went on to form her own fringe party SOS Romania. Despite this, a poll earlier this year showed Simion and Sosoaca are among the most trusted politicians in Romania. 

Homeland Movement in government 

While AUR and Vazrazhdane have emerged as the main opposition forces in their respective countries, in Croatia the rightwing Homeland Movement is now part of the government alongside Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). 

Reflecting the results of the recent general election, the HDZ was first placed in the European Parliament election in Croatia, followed by its main rival the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Homeland Movement took its first MEP seat in the election. It is not yet known whether the party will join the ECR or the more extreme I&D. 

Homeland Movement was founded by Miroslav Skoro, a popular former singer and failed presidential candidate. In the past, Skoro courted controversy by speaking out against the decision to outlaw the "For the homeland ready" salute that was used by the Nazi-allied Ustasha forces and later by the Croatian Defence Forces (HOS) in the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. 

As Plenkovic overhauled the HDZ, taking it closer to the centre in an attempt to appeal to a broader base of voters — this strategy has ensured the HDZ is now on its third consecutive term in power — Homeland Movement gathered many disaffected nationalists. 

While it is early days for the new HDZ/Homeland Movement government, its formation led to speculation there could be a shift to the right in Zagreb, as well as the potential for a deterioration in Croatia’s still-troubled relationship with Serbia.

Left rejected in Slovenia 

Slovenia is the exception in the region, as it has no prominent far-right party. Instead, the opposition right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by former prime minister Janez Jansa, was the victor on June 9, securing the largest share of the seats allocated to the small country. 

Jansa’s SDS will have four seats in the next European parliament, twice as many as Prime Minister Robert Golob’s ruling centre-left Freedom Movement. The other parties expected to take single seats are all either centrist or centre-left. 

The lack of headway for far-right parties in Slovenia is likely because of Jansa’s own illiberal stance, which has seen him placed alongside rightwing Central European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Law and Justice (PIS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland. Like them, he has clashed with Brussels over EU values. 

Elsewhere in the region, the shift to the centre in both Romania — ruled by a broad coalition comprising the main centre-left and centre-right parties — and Croatia, as well as the ongoing fragmentation in Bulgaria, have left room for far-right parties to become more prominent. 

Bulgaria’s Gerb already partnered with the far right United Patriots in a previous government. With the continued strong share of the vote cast for both AUR and Vazrazdenie, it may only be a matter of time before the two radical right parties also become parties of government.