Bulgarian national identity in an era of European integration

Almost six years after its accession to the European Union, Bulgaria is confronted with the ghosts of a nationalist past. Barriers to Europeanism, however, are weaker than ever.

Philip Dandolov
13 December 2012
Is Bulgaria's door open to the EU? Flickr/Opalpeterliu. Some rights reserved.

Is Bulgaria's door open to the EU? Flickr/Opalpeterliu. Some rights reserved.

Bulgarian nationalism has traditionally been associated with moderation and a lack of affinity with extremist ideologies despite the country’s somewhat difficult history and the continued salience of issues pertaining to ethnic harmony in contemporary Bulgaria. Unlike other Balkan countries like Romania, the self-conceptualizations of Bulgarian nationhood have been characterized as largely being premised on the symbiosis between language, history and culture, and a relative lack of emphasis on biological categories, like race.

The term 'Bulgarian ethnic model' was frequently utilized during the 1999 Kosovo War in order to distinguish Bulgaria from its neighbouring states and to emphasize the country’s perceived right to lead the way in terms of helping reclaim the phrase “unruly Balkans” by attaching a positive connotation to it.

From a historical standpoint, Bulgarian understandings of the nation have had an uneasy relationship with Europeanism. As in other countries in southeastern Europe, the years in the aftermath of liberation from Ottoman rule saw attempts at reviving 'the true national consciousness'. At the same time, this period pitted 'traditionalists' and 'modernists' against each other, the former arguing against the 'constant importing of civilizational models from abroad' [the west], the latter emphasizing the need for 'national rejuvenation' that could only be achieved through the borrowing of liberal traditions, which were seen as almost non-existent within the “authentic national space” as Anna Kravsteva referred to it in 2004.

Certain western discourses emphasizing the 'temporality of space' appealed to both sides of the divide, as their implication was that 'economically and culturally underdeveloped nations would gradually catch up with the more modern [western] states, and rejected the contention that certain countries were always doomed to remain confined to the footnotes of history'. After 1878, Europeanism was generally associated with the 'strategic and intelligent use' of foreign cultural exemplars.

One source of anti-Europeanist sentiments was the Bulgarian Orthodox church. The influence of religion on Bulgarian social and political life increased in the aftermath of the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule.

The Bulgarian Orthodox church at the time envisioned itself as having a duty to fulfill a patriotic vocation and tended to display staunchly pro-Russian sentiments. These pro-Russian (and by extension pro-Slavic) attitudes tended to be accompanied by negative reactions towards any attempts on the part of the Bulgarian state to be overly accommodating to western countries and pursue stronger bonds with them. In general, the adoption of 'European social mores' was frowned upon by the church hierarchy.

Unlike Protestantism, Orthodoxy has been depicted as a traditionalist religious denomination, which implies that as a matter of principle it is suspicious towards modernization attempts. In this context, it has sometimes been claimed that the Communist totalitarian regime did not really exact a significant toll on Orthodox worship and observance within Bulgaria, as the assumption is that even without Communism, Orthodoxy would have inevitably fallen victim to the modernization processes and suffered marginalization within society.

Orthodox ethics have also been criticized as imbued with political passivity and a lack of civic consciousness, in marked contrast to the 'modern mentality' deemed a prerequisite to the successful participation in political life. There have been marked temporal shifts in the perceptions of Europeanism within Bulgaria. Between the two world wars, Europeanism developed a much more negative connotation, as it began to be associated with cultural assimilation and started to be seen as a threat to Bulgarian ethno-cultural distinctiveness. During the communist era, Pan-Slavism was put on a pedestal, which further contributed to anti-Europeanism and such sentiments generally worked to the advantage of the Communist regime. 

On the general societal level, the early 1990s were characterized by a lot of sympathy for European models, which was however a reflection of the creeping nihilism and eagerness to throw away all the remnants of communism. As Anna Krasteva comments,“In Bulgaria, there was a tendency to ascribe normality to all other countries with the exception of our own”. Similarly, in the 1990s, parties in Bulgaria (especially those on the left side of the political spectrum) attempted to rebrand themselves as responsible actors, as they were hungry to obtain legitimacy in international circles. Thus, they demonstrated a high degree of expediency in becoming attuned to the ways of the Europarties. 

In terms of the general political and societal attitudes in Bulgaria towards EU membership (the country’s formal application for membership was submitted in 1995, in the same year as that of the other CEE states), they have largely reflected an understanding of EU membership as being a systemic benefit (which implied that there was an inordinate focus on the 'prestige' aspects of membership and a lack of detailed comprehension of the 'institutional elements' typical of the EU). Since the late 1990s, a 'permissive consensus' regarding EU membership has reigned within Bulgaria.

It also has to be taken into account that the early 2000s arguably saw a normalization of the discourses pertaining to the Communist past. The support garnered by Tsar Simeon II (son of the last Bulgarian king who ruled the country through regents before the Communist) who became Prime Minister of the country in 2001, was seen as a reflection of a people at the crossroads – he was regarded as both 'foreign' and 'Bulgarian' due to being conceptualized as a 'western political figure', but also as a person who had embodied some of the historical struggles of the Bulgarians through his personal experiences.

Ultimately, the NDSV (Simeon II’s party) rule turned out to be relatively unsuccessful from a legitimacy standpoint due to the low rankings given to Bulgaria when it came to aspects like the tackling of corruption. Consequently, a new populist drift with a more anti-Europeanist slant emerged in 2005 through the creation of Ataka, a Eurosceptic and anti-establishment party.

Interestingly, this brash anti-Europeanism appeared to be quite short-lived. My interviews with Ataka members reveal a general fondness for Europe as a cultural space and there is a degree of sympathy towards EU core countries like Germany and France. Furthermore, Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union is not viewed as likely to negatively affect the deepening of links between Russia and Bulgaria. Members of patriotic parties in Bulgaria and general society remain quite skeptical regarding the ideology of multiculturalism and do not generally believe that multicultural countries are likely to have a bright future.

'Ottoman nationalism' has been regarded as exhibiting features of an 'administrative and politically shaped patriotism drawing on support for modernization like the adoption of progressive legal codes' and a lack of intention to create a fully-fledged Ottoman ethnicity as Diana Mishkova has argued. In certain respects, the Bulgarians’ tendency to be somewhat negatively disposed towards a 'multicultural society' might reflect a certain wariness due to the historical association between imperial entities such as the Ottoman Empire and multiculturalism.

At the same time, non-Caucasian members of western societies are not always thought of as equals to indigenous westerners and this attitude is to a degree similar to the pessimism associated with the 'catching up' prospects for Eastern European societies when it comes to reaching the level of development of western European ones. In addition, western credentials are not always readily bestowed upon relatively less affluent European states, like Spain and Portugal.

Interestingly, liberal-minded Bulgarians sometimes react with suspicion to overt displays of nationalism and view them as manifestations of latent pro-Communist sentiments. This attitude could in part be seen as attributable to the authoritarianism (in terms of the parties’ internal workings) associated with patriotic parties and the brash rhetoric that is sometimes employed by the proponents of such ideologies. 

The civilizational element tied to [western] European identity is very much in vogue today among contemporary Bulgarians. It is doubtful that the six years that have passed since the country’s entry into the EU have fundamentally changed the relationship between Bulgarian and European identities, but it seems quite likely that in decades to come, debates regarding the nature of the European identity will see many enthusiastic Bulgarian participants.


Further reading

Dimitrov, Vesselin (2009). “Political Transitions in Central and Eastern Europe: Domestic and External Dimensions"

Directorate General for Internal Policies (2009). “The Selection of Candidates for the European Parliament by National Parties and the Impact of European Political Parties”

Encheva, Svetla (2002). “Orthodox Ethics and the Spirit of Post-Totalitarianism"

Gyarfasova, Olga, Grigorij Meceznikov and Daniel Smilov (2000). “Populist Politics and Liberal Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe”

Ivanova, Radost (2005). “Factors that caused the changes in the day-to-day cultural activities of contemporary Bulgarians"

Karasimeonov, Georgi (2009). “Is the concept of populism useful from a scholarly standpoint?”

Krasteva, Anna (2004). “Bulgarian Ethnic Politics"

Mishkova, Diana (2009). “Toward an interpretative framework for the study of the politics of national peculiarity in the nineteenth century"

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