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For Bulgarian citizens when populism is mainstreamed, contestability is more important than consent

Protests may not achieve their goals or provide a new democratic model, but they have been a laboratory for citizenship through contestation.

lead lead Sofia Pride 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

“I feel that I can change the world,”[1] a volunteer said. Such unqualified confidence seems paradoxical: how can volunteer work with refugee children – rendered invisible in the public space by hegemonic securitarian and anti-refugee discourses – change society, politics, ‘the world’?

However, it deftly captures the emergence of a new type of citizenship and its transformative power. Hannah Arendt once said in The Human Condition: “To act ... means to take an initiative, to begin… to set something into motion... This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world; it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself”.

For Arendt, acting blends together agency, initiative, beginning, change – of the world and of the active Self. This conceptual blend underlies our concept of citizenship as commitment, participation, transformation.

Contestatory citizenship

The 2013 Bulgarian summer of protests started on the day when an oligarch with a particularly negative reputation was appointed director of the governmental agency for national security. Tens of thousands of people gathered in downtown Sofia, and the protests lasted a whole year.

In this Bulgarian Occupy, oligarchization had a concrete face, but those protests also had a more global goal. “The problem isn’t with people; it’s with the system”[2] and “We’ve had enough of hierarchy. We want direct democracy”: those slogans from the June 2013 protests in Sofia sum up the high ambitions to reject outright the existing model and invent a new one. The Оccupy mobilizations in post-communist Bulgaria have had a great impact in two directions: taking the floor to have a say in the Bulgarian political agenda; and affirming contestation as the other face of democracy.

The protests of both international and Bulgarian Indignados have however been severely criticized. Two of these criticisms are relevant to our study: the absence of an alternative project, and the lack of genuine political change. According to Chantal Mouffe in Agonistics. Thinking the world politically (2013), “the Occupy and similar movements are strategically ineffective since they are not able to develop a counter-hegemonic political project that truly challenges the existing order”. Meanwhile Valentina Georgieva, in her Multiple Disagreements. Anthropology of the protest movements in Bulgaria, 2009 - 2013, (2016) focuses pessimistically on the failure of Bulgarian protests to yield results, instead becoming tamed by the elites: “The same elites took power and reproduced the old model of democracy with a limited civic participation”. Analyzing the protests through the lens of evolving civic agency, Anna Krasteva reached the opposite conclusion: the protests may not have achieved their goals or provided a new democratic model, but they have been a laboratory for citizenship, through contestation. Their impact is so crucial that A. Krasteva defines this stage as a “second democratic revolution.” It did not transform society but it transformed civic agency. In the first post-communist revolution of the elites, citizens were assigned the role of attending the democratization process, but as second-class actors. In the second, it is the citizens who experiment, innovate, and re-found democracy. The key word is experimentation.

In Occupy mobilizations, we see more aspirations than results, more proposals for radical change than proposals for policies. Occupy is a watershed marking the transition from party politics to contestatory democracy: and contestability is more important than consent.

The figures of civic agency

1. Anti-racist activist

She crossed the threshold from the “informed citizen” to the “engaged” citizen on a portentous day. It was a day when extremists assaulted peaceful activists going to a rally in support of refugee rights. Enter Natalia,[3] the activist with a flying start, becoming one of the founders and most active representatives of HoRa[4]:

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been dealing with these issues, watching racism in intimate detail ... My strongest motivation for HoRa was the feeling that we’ve reached the last straw. ... the group was founded after a brutal assault, in broad daylight, against peaceful activists ... We realized it could’ve been any of us. My general motivation is the acute awareness that neo-Nazism threatens me, my friends, everyone: the entire society. But it’s not just a self-defense instinct; it’s also the sense of justice, of solidarity. For me, it’s also a sense of continuity: so many people have died to stop Hitler … So I feel responsible to the next generations.[5]

The interview sounds like a manifesto and conveys some vivid messages: extremism threatens not only vulnerable groups such as refugees, but “everyone, the entire society”; civic mobilization is not defensive, aiming at protecting oneself, but proactive, promoting the values of justice and solidarity; despite emerging ad hoc, in response to a specific occasion, civic activism bears the historical memory of Nazism.

This bouquet of messages outlines the political perameters of solidary citizenship. Perhaps the most vivid message is that of feeling “responsible to the next generations.” The leap from the ephemeral temporality of small ad hoc civic initiatives to the historical longue durée, ethically perceived as a duty to future generations, defines civic activists as actors of the politics of transformation.

Natalia perceives anti-racist activism as an opposition to Nazism in all its embodiments. In Sofia, the symbolic peak of Nazism is the annual Lukov March, when far-right members of various organizations hold a procession with torches in the center of the capital to commemorate their fascist ideas. Natalia was among the originators of an Anti-Lukov March: “in 2013, we held the first counter-protest against the neo-Nazi Lukov March, in the form of a symbolic vigil for the victims of Nazism and fascism, at the memorial of Bulgarian Holocaust victims.”

Bulgarian nationalists hold the annual Lukov March in Sofia, February, 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.Hannah Arendt’s vita activa carries the connotations of ‘un-quiet’. To Natalia, activism means active unquiet, implacability, resolution, opposition. She embodies the activist as a fighter: a powerful actor of contestatory citizenship. Her world draws stark lines between foes and friends (Carl Schmitt). The adversaries are given explicit names and structured into different categories. The first one consists of fascists and neo-Nazis: from those who carry the torches during the Lukov Marches to those who beat up peaceful activists in city trams. The second group are those post-communist politicians, leaders, institutions, who, having rejected communism, have been uncritically praising everything that opposes it – including fascism: “... they have been paying their respect to the victims of communism, but some of those were fascists and anti-Semites. It’s dangerous because it legitimizes fascism. In a history textbook for the sixth grade, the lesson for World War Two defines Bulgarian Legionaries as a patriotic organization. And then, on the side, you have the logo of BNU[6] as their successors – but BNU are a neo-Nazi organization.”

Another group of adversaries is the segment of the political elite that offers a political pardon to extremism. “For three years, there hasn’t been a verdict in the 2010 trial.[7] I was at the trial. So were Angel Dzhambazki[8], Dimitar “the Homeless” Lazarov, and one of the assailants. They’ve been trying to exonerate those thugs by involving them in politics, putting them on the voting lists for district delegates. The law must stipulate that such people cannot enter those lists, and it must be enforced.”[9]

Friends have been defined as well. Unlike adversaries, who are characterized by particularities, such as a specific extremist ideology, affiliation, activities – friends are defined universally, as carriers of lofty humanistic values: “In HoRa, we’re unified by the idea that it is a most human choice to be against racism.”[10] The very name of the group sounds like a slogan: Horata sreshtu rasizma (People against Racism) = HoRa (PeoPle).

Curiously, this universalist conception of friends sees Others as a cause, not as individuals. They will be transformed into individuals and genuine friends by the figure of the pro-diversity activist.

2. The social entrepreneur

She never imagined that one day people would point to her as an example of a successful social entrepreneur. Business is not her world; her fundamental values are sharing and solidarity. Her civic activism started during her university years:

“... I saw an invitation on Facebook, about some civic monitoring. I applied and was interviewed on the following day, and they accepted me. That was my first contact with volunteer work, with the civil sector, with activism. Right during the interview, I realized that these people and I speak a language I’ve never spoken with anyone else. I felt part of them.”[11] She was interested in a plethora of issues and did not have a predefined target for her volunteer work, but it was the latter that introduced her to a core issue in her activism: refugees and migrants: “... that was my first encounter with refugees, with the idea that people who have applied for asylum have been detained instead of going to free-access facilities. It was a grave violation of human rights ... And it somehow motivated me.” She did not intend to turn volunteering into a profession, but – as easily and naturally as everything else that happens to her – it became one: “everywhere I’ve been, I’ve started as a volunteer and then I’ve been offered a paid position. It was the same with X, this volunteering platform: at first I was a volunteer, but as soon as they got their first funding, they invited me, promoted me twice in the first months, and from a coordinator, I suddenly rose to chair of the board.” Nowadays, Svetlana is widely renowned. What distinguishes her case is not her rise from volunteering to a professional career and recognition, but in a sense the opposite: notwithstanding her rise and recognition, she radiates the same enthusiasm, spontaneity, joy, smiles, curiosity, and warmth as she did during her first steps. Hence the choice of her pseudonym (“Svetlana” means “Light One”): it captures the smiling lightness of her activism.

Social entrepreneurship also came easily – in the multicultural initiatives in which she involved migrants: “We do social entrepreneurship, which lets us be sustainable and independent of donors. ... We’re often presented as successful social entrepreneurs, for instance we organize multicultural catering and thus provide work to refugees and migrants who own restaurants. We also run culinary trainings or team building for businesses.”

If Natalia’s cause is the struggle against racism and xenophobia, Svetlana’s is the bridge: “... building bridges among people, on a purely human, basic level. Also, we’ve always made it a top priority to provide foreigners with a platform where they can speak for themselves, introduce themselves, be the center of attention.” Her interview did not focus on the numerous invitations she receives from prestigious international forums in order to present her social entrepreneurship, but rather dwelt on her joy when she managed to make the immigrant owner of a small restaurant “open up.” For a long time, he used to steer clear of Bulgarians, but Svetlana’s skill in building intercultural bridges gradually helped him relax, and nowadays he is actively looking for forums and opportunities to speak out. Svetlana’s pro-diversity narrative constructs the Other in the spirit of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of Otherness: “The Other reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as a primordial phenomenon of gentleness” (1969).

Characteristically, Svetlana’s narrative contains no adversaries, only friends. She personalizes and humanizes even those institutions criticized by all activists: she ‘translates’ them into concrete experts, and then she introduces those experts to the target group of their job (“they used to know only a few refugees, never had the chance to meet them, and now thanks to our efforts, some of them have come to know the migrants”).

Svetlana is something of an exception within social entrepreneurship but she’s the norm for pro-diversity activism. Her citizenship is not contestatory like Natalia’s but solidary and multicultural. Her potential for transformations is similarly high and assumes three aspects. Firstly, the model of social entrepreneurship that makes pro-diversity NGOs financially independent. Secondly, the pro-diversity activism that builds bridges both to the Others (refugees and migrants) and to one’s own (governmental institutions). Thirdly, the power of the utopian narrative that a world without enemies is possible, and Others are friends who have faces and voices (after Hannah Arendt).

3. The human rights lawyer

Maria has been called a “wonderful lawyer”[12] in the field of human rights. She is the director of the law program of a prestigious human rights organization,[13] an internationally recognized expert, participant in European anti-discrimination networks. She was one of the main authors of the Protection against Discrimination Act and a champion for its passing. Maria grows furious as she lists countless examples of discrepancies between Bulgarian and EU law, of the false dilemma between freedom of speech and hate speech: “... our magistrates become solidary with them by defending their right of expression. There is no such thing as the right of hate speech … And the European Court has an unambiguous position. When someone like Volen Siderov makes a complaint in Strasbourg, not only does the court tell him, ‘Your appeal is unfounded,’ it also tells him, ‘It is inadmissible. It abuses the right of appeal, because hate speech is a priori incompatible with the values and spirit of our conventions.’ However, our supreme judges either have no idea about this or have reasons to protect these people.”[14]

Maria’s accomplishments are highly appreciated and recognized both at home and across Europe. She is typical and emblematic of an extremely positive phenomenon: young lawyers’ involvement with the rights of vulnerable groups, including minorities and migrants. Human rights lawyers are among the most public and influential actors of both solidary and contestatory citizenship, greatly boosting its impact. The efficacy of their politics of transformation can be synthesized in the following directions: synchronizing Bulgarian legislation with lofty anti-discrimination and human rights regulations; a positive example is the Protection against Discrimination Act; vigorous counteraction against the systemic deficits of Bulgarian justice through appealing and winning cases in the European Court of Human Rights; the blending of legal practice and activist causes, which generates a powerful public resonance.

5. The minority activist

“The problems of 4,000 Bulgarian Jews are, how shall I put it, insignificant; it’s Bulgarian society that has a problem, and we try to do something about it. Sometimes we succeed too. Take, say, the Bulgarian National Union: by cooperating with people from the responsible governmental agencies, we prevented the union from registering a political party in 2005.”[15] This excerpt from Isaac’s interview illustrates minority activism with its anti-racist struggle (focusing on anti-Semitism) as a key actor for consolidating both contestatory and solidary citizenship. Sartre said in 1946 that if Jews did not exist, anti-Semites would have invented them. Isaac knows that anti-Semites, with their “hater” efficacy in overproducing Others as enemies, pose a problem, not for a particular minority, but for society as a whole.

Fighting anti-Semitism is defined as a civic and political project of resolute opposition to all manifestations of extremism: online and off-line hate speech, extremist organizations and campaigns. This endeavor requires broad coalitions, and when civic activists and governmental institutions manage to form them, results soon follow, such as the BNU case: an institutional barrier was created, preventing the entry of a new extremist party into politics.

6. The human rights blogger

“I decided to start a blog and had to choose a cause for myself.”[16] Valentina entered activism via the Internet. She decided to stay and diversified her virtual agoras: the blog established her as a key online human rights activist; she left her prestigious job to become a journalist in an electronic human rights media; there is barely any human rights group across the social networks where she is not among the most active authors.

Valentina entered activism via the Internet but did not remain confined to it. From street protests against state capture to anti-racist rallies, she has been on the square with her mild smile and her activist resolution, her camera and journalistic spirit, with which she brings protests to social networks and online media. Valentina is one of the first Bulgarian actors of e-citizenship, defined by Anna Krasteva with the Internet-Indignation-Imagination triad (Krasteva 2013). Indignation at racism, extremism, violence becomes balanced by the imagination of the politics of friendships, of the possibility of a world of solidarity with the most vulnerable, discriminated, marginalized people: Roma, immigrants, refugees, LGBT. Valentina sees them as her friends in all senses of the word: from Facebook to the existential one.

7. The immigrant activist

We met at a radio station during a debate about the Syrian crisis when it had just started. Ever since, Emelie has been one of the most widely-known and respected figures of the Syrian community in Bulgaria, tirelessly carrying out a wide palette of activities. Since the first days of the refugee crisis, she was in the fore of humanitarian aid. When the crisis abated in Bulgaria, Emelie transferred her humanitarian activity to the refugee camps in Greece. Of course, she has not forgotten the camps in Bulgaria, and as we finalize this text in the scorching heat of summer, she is with the refugees in the largest camp near the border.

Emelie’s enemies differ from those we have discussed so far: they are led by Bashar al-Assad, dictator and persecutor of his own people. Emelie speaks Bulgarian fluently, and while her humanitarian work was in full swing, she received a Bulgarian passport: an illustration of multicultural citizenship, and the capacity of immigrants in Bulgaria to be among the pioneers and activists of solidary citizenship. Solidary citizenship is the key word here; Emelie’s activity – along with that of the immigrant community – is humanitarian, not contestatory. It does not demand rights but provides aid.

What has been achieved?

Not one of these types of citizenship have achieved their goal, be it de-oligarchization or transformation. The neo-post-transformation did not happen, so far the civic activism does not succeed in reversing the far-right wave. The symbolic efficacy of mobilizations has not yet transformed into institutional efficacy; state capture and the mainstreaming of populism are still the main game in town.

Street demonstrations on the street of Sofia, July 2013. Wikicommons/ Dexter from Berlin,Germany. Some rights reserved.The battle is uneven but it hasn’t been lost: Natalia’s “responsibility to the next generations” connects ad-hoc civic action to the historical perspective and puts citizenship on the pedestal where the political and the ethical resonate and reinforce each other.

“Politics of citizenship or politics for citizenship […] not only takes passion and perspective, but it also takes time. The space between ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet’ may sound like a small space but it is an enduring time”. The fundamental contribution of civic mobilizations has been the political appraisal of the time between “no longer” and “not yet”: it is not merely void or lost by elites for the project of democracy; it has been creatively filled up by alternative visions, multi-voice agoras, diversification and the consolidation of post-communist citizenships.

The full version of this essay with full references, is Chapter 9 of Citizens’ Activism and Solidarity Movements. Contending with Populism, edited by Siim, B. Krasteva, A., Saarinen  A. and published by Palgrave/Macmillan, 2018. 


[1]  Interview with a volunteer working with refugee children.

[2]   Bulgarian Indignados speak the language of all Indignados: “It’s time to change things, time to build a better society together” (Manifesto of Spanish Indignados).

[3]   All names have been changed.

[4]   A civic anti-racist initiative.

[5]   Interview with an anti-racist activist.

[6]   Bulgarian National Union: a far-right organization.

[7]   The lawsuit about the assault against the peaceful activists.

[8]    A leader of VMRO (IMRO), a Bulgarian nationalist party.

[9]    Interview with Natalia

[10]   Interview with Natalia

[11]   Interview with Svetlana.

[12]   Interview with a human rights journalist.

[13]   Because of her public visibility, Maria’s anonymity is relative, but we use a pseudonym as with our other interviewees. During her interview, Maria did not request complete anonymization of her statements, which she makes public on a regular basis.

[14]   Interview with Maria.

[15]   Interview with Isaac.

[16]   Interview with Valentina.

About the authors

Anna Krasteva is a professor of political sciences at New Bulgarian University, and leader of the Global campus on human rights project “Securitization and its impact on human rights and human security.”

Evelina Staykova is an assistant professor at CERMES, the Department of Political Sciences, New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgaria.

Ildiko Otova is a researcher, project assistant and lecturer at CERMES, the Department of Political Sciences, New Bulgarian University, Sofia , Bulgaria.

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