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Far-right extremism spreads among young people in Central and Eastern Europe

Several studies have found that nationalism is growing among millennials and Gen Z in countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, which show waning support for the EU and NATO

Neo-Nazi demonstration in Bulgaria on February 12, 2022.
Neo-Nazi demonstration in Bulgaria on February 12, 2022.Georgi Paleykov (NurPhoto/ Getty Images)

Extremist ideas are spreading rapidly among young people in Central and Eastern Europe. According to several studies, ideologies that favor autocratic leadership or question the usefulness of democracy are gaining ground among this demographic.

Rumena Filipova, director of the independent organization Institute for Global Analytics (IGA), argues that millennials and Gen Z “are politically aligned, inclined to autocratic leadership and susceptible to pro-Russian disinformation.” “Contrary to expectations that young people are more forward-looking than their parents, the evidence shows that young people do not have greater affection for democracy, social tolerance or pro-Western attitudes than the rest of society,” says the Bulgarian expert, who has just published an article on this topic in the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

For young people in Central and Eastern Europe, the fact that scant democratic progress has been made in the more than three decades since the fall of communist dictatorships is a source of disappointment. “They feel excluded from political processes and economic benefits, which makes them less satisfied with democracy,” explains Filipova. Proof of this is the low voter turnout in these countries.

According to a survey conducted by the Bratislava-based think tank GLOBSEC, more than half of Bulgarians aged between 18 and 24 would prefer a strong leader so as not to have to worry about possible challenges in parliament. The survey also highlights that nationalist feelings are gaining ground in Bulgaria: only 32% of young people in the mentioned age range perceive the far right as a threat; a percentage that rises to 37% in the 25 to 34 age group.

On the other hand, support for international institutions, especially the EU, is waning. An overwhelming 71% of the under-35-group believe that Brussels “dictates” what to do in Bulgaria. Furthermore, young people are more divided when it comes to condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine: almost 40% blame the invaded country for inciting the war. “The educational system is partly responsible. Stereotypes that present Russia favorably are still transmitted in Bulgaria,” says Filipova.

A similar panorama is seen in other countries in the region. High voter abstention and nationalist-authoritarian inclinations are spreading among the younger generations. According to the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, less than a third of young people in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are satisfied with the current political situation in their countries.

In Hungary, for example, the prime minister, the ultra-conservative Viktor Orbán, uses social media influencers to champion the government, and this has fostered a sociopolitical environment that favors traditionalist and pro-Russian positions. Even if young Hungarians do not vote for the ruling Fidesz party, polls with the under-30 demographic show that this age group is more likely to align themselves with far-right opposition forces like the Our Homeland Movement. According to a survey carried out by Median a little over a year ago, the far-right faction is the most popular among young people. “The Hungarian authorities also increased control over education,” notes Filipova.

Along the same lines is neighboring Romania, which has just partially entered the Schengen area along with Bulgaria: both countries have lifted controls on air and sea borders, but maintain land borders. A survey carried out in March by the company IRES reveals that the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR, which means gold in Romanian) is the favorite of Romanians under 35 years of age. “Young people distrust democracy and institutions, especially the government and Parliament because endemic corruption has made them susceptible to far-right propaganda,” says Madalina Voinea, an analyst at the think tank Expert Forum. She also blames this drift on the inaction of the traditional parties. The rise of anti-democratic ideas is also explained by far-right politicians campaigns on social networks, especially TikTok, the fastest-growing platform in the region.

According to Daniel David, rector of the Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca (UBB), the largest university in Romania, half of the young people in the country who opt for far-right groups have secondary education and 22% have basic education. “That a party with a more pro-nationalist discourse attracts this type of young people is not a surprise,” says this sociologist, who believes that their frustration lies in the current democratic institutions.

In Serbia, the younger generations do not deviate significantly from their elders when it comes to their attitudes on nationalism or authoritarianism. A survey revealed that only 36% of young Serbians positively view democracy, while 40% prefer their country to maintain a “balanced” foreign policy between East and West. Only 13% want the country to be aligned with the EU and NATO. “For Gen Z, the accession to NATO and the EU of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe in the 2000s happened a long time ago, they don’t have as vivid a memory as millennials, so they are more open to the diatribes launched by nationalists,” says Filipova.

Perceptions of political and economic exclusion, fueled by inequality, declining opportunities and governments’ limited consideration of young people’s concerns have fueled disaffection. “Democratic political forces should devise policies that take young people into account and promote their inclusion in the political process so that they perceive themselves as a key constituency, rather than an afterthought in democratic renewal,” the expert concludes.

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