Bulgaria and the issue of "Otherness"

Bulgaria and the issue of “Otherness”

OTHERNESS THROUGH THE EYES OF THE GENERATION OF TRANSITION IN BULGARIA

The biggest and arguably most important group of people in Bulgaria today is the so called “generation of transition”. Those are the individuals, born between the late 1960s/early1970s and 1989. They are currently taking most important decisions and serve as a driver in today’s society. They largely shape the societal attitudes towards certain events or phenomena and have the influence to steer society in a direction of their choice.

These are also the people whose life is marked by the profound change which occurred in Bulgaria after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 and the subsequent transition period. They have experienced life in both communist and democratic Bulgaria. The large extent to which these changes were fundamental for the Bulgarian society makes it possible to hypothesise that the behaviour and attitudes of the generation of transition are, at least partly, influenced by their experience in both political systems and the transition between the two.

Following this line of reasoning, we decided to address one of the most salient topics in Bulgaria today, namely the refugee crisis, and see “otherness” through the eyes of the generation of transition. It is a puzzle how from a functioning multicultural society only 70 years ago, where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived peacefully together, today Bulgarians have such a negative attitude towards “the other” in the face of the refugees. Paradoxically, while we are a nation with strong emigration, we perceive those fleeing war as too different to live in our country.

In order to address this puzzle, we asked representatives of this generation with diverse educational, professional and cultural background a number of questions about Communism, transition and the way they perceive “the other”. The analysis below is based on the findings from seven in-depth interviews with representatives of different Bulgarian communities, including an intellectual, an entrepreneur, an office worker, a person from a minority, a civil servant, a physical labour worker and a civil society activist.

“Others” during Communism

In order to understand the negative stance in today’s society towards the refugees, we explored the way the state handled “the other” in the different systems before and after 1989.

When the Communist regime was in power, integrating minorities was a matter of attempting to fit them within the framework of what was considered “normal”. Nobody was allowed to be different from the rest or if they were, their identity had to be hidden and changed. Repressions were commonplace but somewhat invisible for the Bulgarian population that did not belong to a minority. The most striking illustration of this type of policies is the so called Revival Process in Bulgaria – a campaign designed to change the names, and ultimately, the identity of the Bulgarian Turkish minority. This effort resulted in protests and the subsequent arrests, resettlement within Bulgaria and ultimately the expulsion of 350 000 Bulgarian citizens from a Turkish origin from Bulgaria to Turkey.

The attitude towards the other large Bulgarian minority – the Roma – was also one of forced integration. Many of the interviewees recalled that in the period before 1989 all Bulgarian Roma went to school and were subsequently given a job by the state. However, these achievements were attributed to the fear the Roma had from the state apparatus rather than on a genuine integration that was taking place.

In those times foreigners that did not come from the Eastern Bloc were rare in Bulgaria and almost worshiped. People from the West were well off and possessed items and knowledge that were unattainable for the ordinary Bulgarian citizen. They also illustrated the clash between what the state propaganda was claiming and the reality.

“Otherness” and transition

When the wall came down, a period of volatility and narrative change followed. The social security which was guaranteed by the Communist regime suddenly disappeared and the people who were used to depending on these safety nets had a hard time adjusting. The order and discipline, imposed by the regime were gone. Nevertheless, many of the restrictions associated with Communism were now gone as well. The freedom of choice, the increase of opportunities and the possibility to travel abroad are often cited as the greatest benefits of democracy.

Bulgaria entered a globalising world that was very diverse and colourful. There was access to all the previously unavailable information and many travelled outside the country for the first time only after 1989. Many of the Bulgarian Turks who left the country during the Revival Process returned to their homes in Bulgaria. Foreigners from all over the world visited Bulgaria much more often. The reaction of the Bulgarian society towards these changes was split – some embraced the diversity around them and took advantage while others felt that core elements of their identity were being threatened.

While the freedom to travel, study or work abroad is generally considered a good thing, many do not approve of immigrant coming to live in Bulgaria. Some immigrants, namely those from the West, are more welcome than those who come from poorer regions. Still, the societal uniformity imposed during the Communism tends to make Bulgarians suspicious towards everyone who deviates from what is “normal”. The efforts to integrate the Turkish and Roma minorities within the Bulgarian society are largely judged as fruitless and the stereotypes, associated with these groups are widely spread.

The refugees as a threat to the Bulgarian identity and way of life

Against the background of everything discussed above, it is hardly surprising that the majority of Bulgarians consider the influx of refugees to be a threat. Most often, their fears are justified through one or several of the following arguments: the majority of refugees are Muslim and will bring their Islamic culture and traditions here without being able or willing to integrate within the Bulgarian society; refugees need help but if we leave our borders open nothing will stop terrorists to enter as well; the number of refugees is too great and due to Bulgaria’s negative birth rate they will soon outnumber us; refugees demand rights and privileges that they are not truly entitled to and are unwilling to obey Bulgarian laws; most refugees are in fact just immigrants trying to get to Europe. Interestingly, these convictions are usually coupled with the idea that someone should in fact help the real refugees in some way because they are the people who run away from a war and fight to protect their lives and the lives of their families. This attitude, exhibiting a striking lack of solidarity and empathy, can be summarised in a single sentence: “Refugees are not a Bulgarian problem”.

In contrast to the discussed above widespread opinion, there is also a minority group of people who perceives the refugee crisis as an opportunity rather than as a threat. They believe that refugees can be used for both our benefit and their own. The large number of young people who come to Europe have untapped potential that can serve well in an aging society.

Conclusion

Bulgarians attitude towards “the other” is often one of suspicion, distrust and fear. The idea that everyone should not only be equal but also the same as everyone else, imposed during the Communist period, is still prominent in the minds of many representatives of the generation of transition. Although this outcome is certainly disappointing, there is also cause for optimism. On the basis of the small-scale research we conducted in Bulgaria a tentative conclusion can be drawn. Those who travel abroad and have frequent contact with people from other cultures and religions are less likely to consider refugees as a threat. It appears that the personal contact with “the others” dissolves many of the existing stereotypes and leads to more understanding and ultimately, empathy.

21/10/2015

Iva Kopraleva (Sofia Platform)