The Rise of Nationalism: Bulgaria

The Bulgarian economy is primarily based on neoliberal models of free trade and a large private sector, having transitioned to a free market economy after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the Comecon market it was a member of.  Besides a collapse of the economy in 1996 due to Jean Videnov’s socialist government, Bulgaria has experienced consistent years of economic growth, albeit at a slow pace.  Joining the European Union in 2007 did not cause any major shocks to the economy, since the preexisting neoliberal structures the EU requires were already in place.  Although Bulgaria has had positive annual growth trends since then, it is still incredibly poor in comparison to other European countries and joining the Eurozone has been postponed until the economy is stronger.

Bulgaria has the lowest personal and corporate income taxes in the EU (Lomas, 2010), which also means there is less money allocated to social welfare programs.  With the arrival of refugees, the issue of government assistance has produced tensions and rumors between citizens and refugees.  During an interview at the Red Cross with the Coordinator of Refugee and Migration Services, the Coordinator spoke of a rumor being spread that the Bulgarian government was giving monthly assistance to refugees that was significantly higher than what Bulgarian citizens receive (Red Cross Bulgaria, 2016).  However, this rumor is entirely false, as the government maintains its position of discouraging refugees from staying, therefore providing no monetary assistance to refugees.  Overall, Bulgaria is still considered a poor country and is concerned with its own socio-economic problems, thus refugees are seen as a direct threat to economic prosperity (Red Cross Bulgaria, 2016).

Uncertainty over economic prospects and the arrival of thousands of Muslim refugees has turned many Bulgarians towards far-right political parties.  The major extremist party in Bulgaria is the ATAKA party, which was founded in April 2005.  “At the parliament elections held in June, 2005 ATAKA Political Party won 8.9% of the votes, which gave it the right for 21 MPs at the Bulgarian Parliament” (ATAKA, 2008).  As a nationalist party, two of its principles include: “1. Bulgaria is a unitary, monolith state, not liable to secession on either religious, ethnic, cultural, or any other basis.  Differences by origin or faith shall have no priority over nationality.  Whoever violates this principle, detaches oneself off from the Bulgarian nation and the Bulgarian state and shall not be eligible to lay any claims to both of them” and “2. The official language in Bulgaria is the Bulgarian language; the national media supported by the state budget shall not feature broadcasts and editions in other languages.  Bans and clear sanctions shall be imposed on ethnic parties and secessionist organizations” (ATAKA, 2008).  This narrative can be explained by Smith’s perspective on nationalism, which states, “that national cultures, like all cultures before the modern epoch, are particular, timebound and expressive, and their eclecticism operates within strict cultural constraints” (Smith, 1990).

These cultural constraints, in regards to Bulgarian’s ethno-history, find its identity within the legacy of Ottoman rule.  “Given that Bulgaria was for 500 years a part of the Ottoman Empire, gaining independence only in 1878, the country’s national identity has developed, to a large extent, by setting itself apart from ‘the Turks’ and employing anti-Turkish rhetoric.  This us-them, anti-Turkish attitude remains the bastion of Bulgarian nationalist sentiment even today” (Vaksberg and Andreev, 2014).  While the ATAKA party has since lost seats in parliament, currently holding about 4.5% of MP seats, gains are expected in the upcoming elections in late 2016.  New nationalist groups are also being formed, such as the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB).  Founded in 2011, NFSB has “urged banning Roma children from public education unless they speak Bulgarian.  [They] also plan to fight the construction of new mosques, Muslim worship and the wearing of headscarves by women” (Vaksberg and Andreev, 2014).  Currently, the ATAKA party holds 11 seats in parliament and NFSB holds 17 seats in a coalition with the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO).  Together, these far-right nationalist groups hold 12% of the seats in parliament (Parliamentary, 2016).

Bulgaria is home to additional nationalist movements outside of parliament, who still have a large presence in the media and across society.  One such movement, the Bulgarian National Union (BNU) is a nationalist socialist political party, which considers itself a patriotic, right-wing, fringe party (BNU, 2016).  In an interview with BNU’s leader, Bojan Rasste, topics ranged from Bulgarian identity and Ottoman rule to economic frustrations related to the refugee crisis.  Reiterating the rumors of government monetary assistance, Rasste believed that the average Bulgarian citizen receives 250 Leva per month and refugees receive 500 Leva (Rasste and Wataschka, 2016).  A supporter and friend of Rasste, Elena Wataschka, agreed, stating, “Many Bulgarian parents are deprived of their monthly payments for children… and here come people with three wives and ten children,” so the government is giving the money to the refugees instead of the Bulgarians (Rasste and Wataschka, 2016). 

Both Rasste and Wataschka agreed that Bulgarians could never trust Muslims— “We have seen Islam at its worst. Some people may be too modern to understand how dangerous it can be”—, illustrating the salience of this aspect of national identity (Rasste and Wataschka, 2016).  It was clear both Rasste and Wataschka directly correlated the presence of Muslim refugees with negative economic circumstances for Bulgarian citizens, and the frustration of Bulgarians are leading more people to the far-right, “arousing the instinct of self” (Rasste and Wataschka, 2016).

In an early 2016 domestic poll of public opinion, 1,000 Bulgarians were asked questions regarding their feelings towards refugees.  The poll found that, “three in five Bulgarians think that refugees are threatening the country’s national security” (Sofia News Agency, 2016).  46.5% of the respondents stated that the EU must not help refugees.  From that group of people, “18.8% of the respondents reply that the reason is the presence of terrorists among refugees; 16.7% say that Bulgaria cannot cater for its own people due to the poor shape of the economy, while 6.9% see refugees as a threat to the economy and the social safety network of the EU” (Sofia News Agency, 2016).   Negative attitudes towards refugees were often attributed to identity, as the roughly 53% of 1,000 respondents who said they were afraid of refugees, 34.1% believe that refugees are a threat because of their religion, 23.6% are afraid of the ethnic origin of the refugees, while 4.6% plainly say that they hate foreigners” (Sofia News Agency, 2016).

Overall, the Bulgarian government has done everything in its power to discourage refugees from seeking asylum within Bulgaria and stopping refugees from passing through illegally.  Bulgaria was one of the first countries to close its borders in late 2015, as refugees were arriving from both Turkey and Greece.  Because of this decision to close the borders, “the rates of illegal migration through Bulgaria are relatively low, the impact of refugee crisis on Bulgarian society at this stage being primarily in political and psychological terms, while the actual pressure, including that which is economic and social, remains relatively low in comparison with a number of other European states, especially those from South and South-East Europe” (Kyuchukov, 2016).  Anti-refugee sentiment appears to be relatively contained to a small percentage of Bulgarian citizens, yet the government allows them to be outspoken about their opinions in the media as a way of influencing others and warning refugees to stay away.  “In an Arabic language ‘Refugee Handbook,’ Bulgaria ranks first among countries asylum seekers should avoid.  Refugees say xenophobia and Islamophobia are widespread and that they try to skirt around the country” (Andreev and Vaksberg, 2015).

Written by: Kaitlyn Lynes