Bulgaria and the issue of “Otherness”


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.


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.


Iva Kopraleva (Sofia Platform)

Country Profile – Bulgaria

Can you mark the beginning and the end of the transition period? What marked it? When was the moment “when history stopped”?

The initial point of the transition period in Bulgaria is fairly easy to pinpoint as it coincides with the fall of the Communist rule in the country – 10 November 1989. At the same time, the question of the end of transition is a complex one as some Bulgarians would question whether transition has even been completed. Having in mind the rich variety of viewpoints that exist on the subject matter, it is still useful to introduce a framework for the transition period that will serve us in further analysing the issue. Dr. Mihail Gruev introduces an interesting periodization of the Bulgarian transition in Sofia Platform’s publication “25 Years of Changes: Boundaries and Periodisation of the Transition, the Institutions and the Democracy Quality in Bulgaria”. According to him, transition in Bulgaria extends from 1989 to 2007 and there are three main stages of this process:

1989 – 1991 – This period was characterized by the demise of the Communist regime in Bulgaria and the planning of the new democratic institutions. The period ended when the new democratic Bulgarian constitution was adopted in July 1991.

1991 – 1997 – During this period society was somewhat disoriented amidst the new realities that come with transition. There was no consensus among the political elites as to the direction in which Bulgaria should develop and especially on whether it should be oriented towards the West or Russia. This bifurcation of the Bulgarian society and the elites came to an end with the major economic crisis in 1996-1997 that served as a benchmark for Bulgaria’s decision to head West.

1997 – 2007 – This period was marked by visa liberatisation and Bulgaria’s accession to the Euro-Atlantic structures, including NATO and the European Union. Bulgaria’s transition was arguably completed when the country became a member of the EU.

Who drove transition? What happened to these people during the time of transition?

Transition in Bulgaria was an elitist project in the sense that it was led mostly by the political elite in the country. Bulgaria did not have a developed and well-organised dissident movement before 1989 as in some other Eastern European countries. As a result, those in power had little resistance and tolerated only the opposition figures that did not pose too much of a threat to the regime. After the change in the political system after 1989, due to the lack of an authentic opposition, many who were affiliated with the former Communist party changed colour and became supporters of right-wing policies. Gradually, however, the free elections started to create, at least to a certain extent, a real competition among the political players. The financial crisis in Bulgaria in 1996 – 1997 marked a turning point in this process as this was the time when an overwhelming majority of the Bulgarian society saw the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the formal Bulgarian Communist Party, as unfit to govern the country any longer. Since then, the right Bulgarian parties started to push strongly for integration with the West. This push was subsequently embraced by the Left as well, leading to a national consensus on Bulgaria’s foreign policy future.

What was the role of civil society in the transition period?

The lack of an active dissident movement in Bulgaria resulted in a slow development of civil society after 1989. A number of organisations emerged but were not very effective in engaging the general public. In addition, the funding for civil society activities has been and continues to be limited. This means that only the civil society organisations backed by large international donors managed to survive. As a result, the civil society had an important but limited role in the Bulgarian transition.

How contested was the path of transition? What options have there been?

Initially, there was a serious contest about the direction in which Bulgaria should follow after 1989. There were two possible paths – East and West – and in was unclear which one will be chosen. The former Communist party was advocating for a closer relationship with Russia while the right-wing movements that emerged after the change promoted integration with the West. The latter path was unanimously embraced by the Bulgarian elites only in 1997, after a major economic crisis shook up the economic and banking system of the country and resulted in hyperinflation and default for many businesses and individuals. The Socialist Party was largely blamed for the crisis and the socialist government, then in power, was forced to resign. In the subsequent interim parliamentary elections, the right-wing political movements had absolute majority and Bulgaria was set on the course of integration with the West. The first step in this direction was the introduction of a currency board which tied the Bulgarian lev to the German mark in 1997. This was undertaken by the provisional government appointed by the Bulgarian President event before the interim elections took place. Since then, the newly established consensus regarding Bulgaria’s political future has rarely been challenged.

What key event were crucial for the transition?

Several points in the Bulgarian transitional experience can be characterized as game-changers. The change of the political system in Bulgaria in November 1989 was certainly crucial as this event initiated the transition. The new democratic Bulgarian constitution, adopted in 1991 cemented the democratic foundation of the country and made it possible for the transition process to go forward. In the aftermath of the Bulgarian economic crisis in 1996-1997 the Bulgarian elites finally agreed on the direction in which Bulgaria should be headed – namely towards integrating in the Euro-Atlantic structures. The 2002 visa liberalization represented a tangible progress in this quest. Bulgaria’s accession to NATO in 2004 demonstrated the firm commitment of the Bulgarian elites when it comes to the chosen course of the country. In 2007 Bulgaria became a member of the European Union – an event that arguably marked the end of the Bulgarian transition process.

Is there something like a common narrative about transition? Is that narrative contested? How and by whom?

In the Bulgarian society there are arguably two opposing narratives of transition. The first one is the narrative of nostalgia. People who hold this view have created in their minds an idealized version of the communist period and regard the shift towards democracy as something that has had a detrimental effect on their lives and society as a whole. Communism is associated with security and stability, lack of unemployment, free education and healthcare, cheap vacations and other social benefits. Within this narrative fits also the pro-Russian geopolitical orientation. The second narrative is about the freedom which resulted from the fall of the Berlin Wall – freedom to speak, think, travel, vote and disagree. In this view Bulgaria has to strive to integrate itself within the Western world to which it belongs. When discussing this issue, it is worth keeping in mind that the black and white picture these two narratives paint is clearly oversimplified and there are many nuances in each of the two positions. Nevertheless, it can serve as a useful tool to map the current situation in Bulgaria. For the moment, it appears that the second narrative prevailed, at least among the political elites – Bulgaria is in the EU and NATO and the ruling coalition is certainly relying on a discourse, related to democracy promotion, civil society engagement and anti-corruption. However, the voices that challenge this predominant point of view have hardly disappeared from the Bulgarian political landscape.

What values shaped the transition period and was there a conflict between the different sets of values and worldviews?

The different sets of values that existed in Bulgaria during the period of transition are very much related to the two narratives, discussed above. For the people who feel nostalgia towards the past, security is the primary value. They prefer to be certain that there is a state safety net that will supply them with a job, healthcare and education. In addition, the idea that everyone is equally deserving of these benefits regardless of their personal or professional qualities has its appeal. For those, who consider the shift towards democracy to be a good thing, freedom and individualism are to a large extent the primary values. The freedom to do, say and think whatever you want and to be able to express yourself with no consequences is one of the most valuable benefits of democracy. However, there is much misconception in both sets of values. On the one hand, the security and equality during the Communist time can be associated with lack of initiative, lack of incentive to improve and penalty for everyone who deviates from what is considered to be “normal”. On the other hand, one might argue that the freedom and individualism after the transition have been taken to an extreme and have resulted in egoism and a remarkable lack of solidarity and empathy in today’s society.

What are the typical representatives of the generation of transition in your country and what are their characteristics?

In Bulgaria the generation of transition can be defined as the people who were not old enough to drive the process but were nevertheless influences strongly by it. In addition, today these people are at an active age and are the leading force in many societal spheres. Arguably, these are the people born around the period 1970 – 1989. It is difficult to define a typical representative of this generation but it can arguably be split into three major groups – those you perceive themselves as winners of the transition, those who think they lost from transition, and those who do not think their lives were affected by transition. The winners of transition are typically those who take advantage of all the freedoms gained after 1989. For them, the change meant gaining the opportunity to think, speak and travel freely, to have their own business or a high paying job, to be an individual. Those who consider themselves losers from transition are the ones who feel nostalgia towards the social security which came with Communism – a secure job, free healthcare, free education. Loosing these social perks invokes a feeling of being abandoned by the state and by society. The group of people that are neither winners nor losers is indifferent towards this debate and in a way detached from the political realities in Bulgaria. They do not feel empowered to change the situation in the country and do not believe that anyone else can. They are inherently passive and not likely to vote or to engage in any civil activity. There three types of typical representatives are clearly overly simplified but they give the reader a rough idea of the generation of transition.

How is the period of transition relevant to the way the generation of transition thinks and acts today? Does it influence how they make decisions or how they attempt to tackle contemporary challenges?

The relevance of the period of transition in Bulgarian society today is undeniable. The competing narratives and value systems certainly influence strongly Bulgaria’s political life. The education the generation of transition received in the two periods – before and after 1989 – has a strong impact on the way they perceive the world and the contemporary challenges that they face. Many examples of this can be found, from the way the generation of transition thinks about this period in mostly black and white and fails to analyse it properly to their relative civil inactiveness and notable egoism towards everyone outside their close family and friends circle. The confusion which resulted from the change from one system to another led to indifference. It is important to note that even though the described above profile encompasses a fair amount of people who belong to the transitional generation, there are also many exceptions. The behaviour of each person is a complex mix of different factors and living through the period of transition is just one of them, albeit important.

Louisa Slavkova & Iva Kopraleva (Sofia Platform)