The social, political and economic restructuring that followed the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union had dramatic and lasting effects, providing fertile ground for the far right. Membership of the EU brought new opportunities to the countries of Eastern Europe, as well as heightened levels of scrutiny and demands for transparency. However, the onset of the global financial crisis from 2007, combined with a broader challenge to democratic norms, strengthened the claims of populist movements of the left and right. Far right movements have capitalised on this opportunity across Europe, claiming to challenge the actions of the elite in the interests of the people and gaining representation in countries such as diverse as Austria, Greece and Poland. Such groups emerge in periods of political uncertainty and fluidity, playing on themes of nativism and ethnic purity to advance their interests. They are motivated by a range of issues including unemployment, housing, and changes in socio-cultural patterns.
Romania has seen a flourishing of nationalist and far right attitudes following the removal of Nicolae Ceauşescu in December 1989. Politicians such as Vadim Tudor of the Partidul România Mare (Greater Romania Party) were prominent during the early transition period, fading from view as the country joined the EU. As the benefits of EU membership have been muted by the effects of the financial crisis, far right groups have gained more purchase by drawing on dissatisfaction amongst the population. One such group is Noua Dreaptă (ND – New Right). Founded in 1999, the group draws on fascist, interwar imagery to build a state which is ethnically pure, deemed to be serving the interests of the native Romanian population. ND has been able to generate a support base across Romania by appealing to the need to protect such identities, with the formation of a political party (Partidul Noua Dreaptă – New Right Party) in 2015 suggesting normalisation in order to gain political representation.
As the practices and claims of such groups are rooted in local realities it is necessary to consider the actions of ND in a particular location. Timişoara is a city in the Banat region of Western Romania, a region generally given as a model of good ethnic relationships. It was the seat of the 1989 Revolution that saw the removal of Ceauşescu, as protests and clashes with the security forces started there and spread across the country. The 2011 census recorded the city’s population as consisting of 86.79% Romanian, 5.12% Hungarian and 0.69% Roma. Vilification and stigmatisation of the Roma community has been a key issue for ND, as they claim that the rights of native Romanians have been sacrificed in favour of special treatment of Roma and other minorities. Such perceptions and associated stigmatisation are common across Europe, providing a foundation for the group to build on pre-existing identities and perceptions.
Two groups of Roma are targeted by the ND in Timişoara. First, middle class and lower-waged Roma families in Piaţa Traian, living in houses provided for rent under the 1995 Law of Nationalized Houses (and subsequent legislation) and purchased under the Restitution Law on Property. Secondly, wealthy Roma, labelled ‘Gypsy mafia’ by ND, were able to purchase land in Timişoara in the 2000s, also under auspices of the Restitution Law. Identity trumps socioeconomic considerations in ND’s presentation of claims against the Roma, as the lower-waged Roma are stigmatised as beggars and prostitutes, while wealthy Roma are seen as part of the mafia. Linking the stigmatisation of the Roma community to concerns around crime, security, and clan behaviour they built on existing feelings of threat and insecurity within the community. Framing their claims in terms of local issues in this way enables ND to connect ethnic identity to existing perceptions and socio-economic tensions in the community. Drawing on discontent and uncertainty regarding apparently uncontroversial issues, given the overt discourse against the Roma by local officials, the group is able to highlight and reinforce boundaries and divisions based on ethnicity.
The rise of far right groups has accelerated as the effects of the financial crisis have fostered disillusionment with politics and the rise of populist actors and claims. The Eastern European region has experienced significant upheaval in this regard, as the promises of democratisation have failed to materialise. The effects are reflected in the success of groups such as ND in Timişoara in generating support for their claims. In the case of ND, this has been achieved by its ability to tie claims to existing perceptions within society regarding a marginalised minority group, the Roma. ND are able to reinforce boundaries between the Roma community and the rest of the city’s population by drawing on culturally and historically recognised symbols. The group’s actions are framed by local concerns in order to mobilise potential supporters, while also harking back to idealised depictions of Romanian society. In habituating the population to their actions and demands, ND are increasingly able to normalise the claims being made. Stigmatisation of minority groups in this manner resonates across cases, demonstrating the way commonly accepted beliefs in society can be amplified to the detriment of those excluded.
Remus Creţan, West University of Timişoara, Romania email@example.com
Thomas O’Brien, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom firstname.lastname@example.org