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SLOVO Journal


The blog of the postgraduate journal at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies


INTERVIEW: Mila Maeva on Bulgarian migration to the United Kingdom

By Borimir S Totev, on 15 September 2017


Dr. Mila Maeva.

Dr. Mila Maeva is an ethnologist from Sofia University. She has specialised in Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway. Her main interests focus on migration, culture and self-identification in minority groups – primarily the Muslim minority in Bulgaria. Her first book “The Bulgarian Turks” was published in 2006 and is dedicated to the migration from Bulgaria to Turkey in 1989 due to the so-called ‘Revival Process’.

Why did you decide to write a book about Bulgarian migration to the UK? Talk more about how the idea became a reality.

Like with most of my research, the topic finds me. My brother – Ivo Maev – was the first editor of the Bulgarian emigrant newspaper ‘Budilnik’. During his time as editor I was involved with contributing to the newspaper, having a column on Bulgarian festivities. The connection with immigration from Bulgaria from the beginning of the 21st century was the starting point of my research on the topic. During that period, Bulgarian immigration was still relatively small in number, whereas its organisation – in a process of coming to life. The book presents the first complete and in-depth analysis of Bulgarian emigration to England from the Bulgarian Revival to present day. My research is based on British archives and my own field work collected in the period between 2007 and 2015 in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Rochester, and London, amongst others. I analyse changes the in ways borders are crosses, the motifs, and the socio-economic specificities of Bulgarian immigrants in England in the period after 1989 to 2015. I focus on the Bulgarian institutions from the prism of subgroups created by the emigrants. The book also presents the changes in religious views when in the process of arriving to a new country. It analyses language as a key emigration component in view of starting a new life in a new society, as well as the changes in every day life and festive culture. My key aim is to present the view point of the emigrants in England – why and how they migrate, what their reflections are on the topic of migration, how they learn a new language and create a new home, how they integrate into British society, what they change in their own culture and traditions, how they feel in Britain, and understanding how and why they create their subgroups and zones of comfort.

Can you share an interesting story from the process of writing the book?

Every piece of research has its own interesting story. My story connected to the writing of this book is concerned with the difficulty I experienced when trying to infiltrate Bulgarian immigrant groups in England. Despite knowing a few Bulgarians, I wanted to produce much more expansive research. This approach connected me with different highly qualified immigrants. Interviews with less qualified and less educated Bulgarians created a number of problems. I encountered the fear of the immigrant from his fellow countrymen, as they saw in me not a researcher, but a competitor, who’s after their jobs. Other striking stories include the emotional traumas of migration. Quite often, my interviews showed that many of the stories of migrating to England were connected primarily with emotional difficulties, as opposed to social and cultural obstacles – an unexplored avenue in this field of research.

What is the most important lesson you’ve taken out from writing the book? 

In writing this book I realised how multi-faceted Bulgarian immigration in the United Kingdom is. My initial desire was to write about as many immigrants as possible, from different countries. However, in the end I decided to limit my research exclusively to the Bulgarians living in England. I realised that despite my initially held beliefs that immigration is a product of economic motifs, in the course of the research, it became obvious that people come with different reasons – searching for security, personal growth, or plainly, because their friends and families are leaving.


The book is available online in Bulgarian from the Paradigma Publishers website.


Waving ‘Democracy’ From Ukraine to the Balkans

By Slovo, on 14 February 2014

Anti-government demonstrations in Bulgaria, revolution in Ukraine and now the uprising in Bosnia – Nikolay Nikolov looks at the common trends across the Eastern European unrest and examines the critical juncture of these facade democracies.

Some time ago now (1991), Samuel Huntington published The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. The idea is that democracy spreads around the world from its core countries in Europe and the US, where developed over a long period of time, eventually extending to the peripheries, which experienced quick transitions from various forms of non-democratic regimes to ranging paths of democratization. Post-communist countries were the third-wave final push with their unseen before dual transitions to a market economy and initiation of democratic processes. The Arab Spring and the easing of the Myanmar dictatorship tickled some to consider the rise of a potential Fourth Wave.

But back in 2002, Michael McFaul sealed the term ‘Fourth Wave’ in a World Politics journal article called ‘The Fourth Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship’. And dictatorship. This is really important. In fact, scholars of democratization like Larry Diamond, Guillermo O’Donnell, Ivan Krastev, Andreas Schedler, to name but a few, have been arguing for a very long time that to speak of waves, of linear progress to democracy and consolidation is empirically and theoretically false. What we see in Eastern Europe, for example, are façade democracy, suspended political authority, lack of civic engagement, media manipulation, questionable (post)Cold-War geopolitical relations – in a word – hybrid regimes, to use Diamond’s term.

Bulgaria, Ukraine, and now Bosnia and Kosovo. A clear path from peaceful protests to chaos and bloodshed. In Europe. Twenty-four (or so) years after the end of the various forms of totalitarianism.

At certain moments, all these nations showed signs of ending their democratic standstill. In Bulgaria, it was the ‘region’s most hailed’ reform period from 1997-2001; in Ukraine, it was the Colored Revolution; for Kosovo and Bosnia – the situation is more complex. But one thing is for certain now, according to Anne Applebaum, the ‘colored revolution’ model is dead: i.e. “the belief that peaceful demonstrators, aided by a bit of Western media training, will eventually rise up and nonviolently overthrow the corrupt oligarchies that have run most of the post-Soviet orbit since 1991.”

The sense of shock and disbelief at what happened in Kiev over the past months has spread to Bosnia and Kosovo last week.

Government Building ablaze in Tuzla

Government Building ablaze in Tuzla

Bosnia is ablaze since Tuesday, when violence erupted in the northern town of Tuzla, a former industrial town, after 10,000 workers were laid off. Their factory was privatized – its investors sold its assets and declared bankruptcy. This, as it seems, was the final straw to an arrogant oligarchic model visible in many post-communist countries. Since then, the protests have spread to more than 20 cities and at least 300 people have been injured. Yesterday, when the municipality building was set on fire, police-officers in Tuzla took their helmets off and joined the protests claiming they “could not hurt the kids”.

Today is a day of clearing the rubble. But it seems that a breaking point has been reached as the monument of the burnt architecture of all that which resembles the ‘corrupt and unaccountable State’ remains.

Photo: Lyla Bernstein

Photo: Lyla Bernstein

“We haven’t seen violent scenes like this since the war in the 1990s,” says Srecko Latal, an analyst at the Social Overview Service, for the New York Times. Why now? Why not 6 months ago; why not one year ago? These are question that were directed at the protests in Bulgaria, which reached their largest numbers in the summer. Clearly, the situation is so dire that either nothing or anything could trigger public outrage. In Bulgaria, it was the atrocious appointment of corruption-linked and manipulative- mass-media owner Delyan Peevski, that really did it. It seems that in Bosnia – it is the factory closure in Tuzla that has done it.

Over the past years, the country has suffered one crisis after another – political instability have reduced its chances of joining the EU, ethnic divisions are crippling the functioning of democratic institutions, economic hardship has been sustained by a powerful (un)official oligarchic model. Around 30% are unemployed. Many do not have the time or the energy to sustain a peaceful protest and endure a slow, cultural progres towards a functioning democracy and economy.

Of course violence cannot be the answer. It’s destructive. But desperation clearly takes precedence over dialogue in this case. As one student from Tuzla, Lyla Bernstein, told me today: violence is not the answer but ”just the product of collected rage” gathered over the past twenty years. It’s simple – for the people protesting, the assumption of patience is nonexistent. And it is understandable. There is a level of tolerance that is, as has been shown over and over again in the 20th century, very flexible and malleable among human beings. But it has its limits. And within the Balkan countries this year, the sense of tolerance has been exhausted by the outright public arrogance of the Untouchables – call them mafia men, ex-communist, business elites. It makes no difference. Their capacity to flaunt their economic dominance is one thing, but their increasing ability to enforce their political and legal immunity is apparently too much. It has been, for a long time, a fact that democracy is very dysfunctional. People know that and that has been reflected in enduring low-confidence in the public institutions and voting-rates. Bulgaria is the perfect example. But you can look to Bosnia or Albania as well: all countries where the discourse of corruption and ‘the mafia’ has become ubiquitous.

In Kosovo, it was another matter that reached the breaking point of this sense of tolerance. In Pristina, students occupied the University seven days ago. They have been protesting for weeks after reports showed the Head of the University, among other scholars, to have published articles in fake online journals looking for academic credentials. The Parliament subsequently failed to pass a vote on forcing the resignation of the Head of the University. Clashes became violent on Friday as students threw stones and splashed paint on police-officers in Pristina.

In line with Bosnia, Kosovo is hard-hit with soaring unemployment rates (around 40%) and is often reminded that it is one of the poorest countries in Europe since gaining independence six years ago.

And like in Bulgaria, where the ‘Early Rising’ students occupied the Sofia University (twice) in the past 3 months, the message is the same: ‘Enough. Enough with the circus that the government can claim legitimacy, that the judiciary system is free and fair; this cannot continue any longer.

Unlike Ukraine, a country divided into pro-European western Ukraine, and Russia-dominated eastern Ukraine, where #Euromaidan was a direct reaction to steps taken to further isolate the nations from the EU and where the fight is, literally, one of life and death, with clear sides and clear visions of the future, Bosnia and Kosovo and the current signs of violence are a case in point of something else. They have no normative ideal, like the EU for the protesters in Ukraine, which can be emulated; no vision for the future that looks hopeful. The transition period is widely regarded as a fiction only benefiting ‘the few’; and by extension democracy does not literally mean democracy, as it is construed as a mechanism for personal gain and independence.

In Ukraine, the fight is over destroying the foreign influence of a political system; getting rid of the post-totalitarian continuation of the old totalitarian practices.

In the Balkan nations, the fight is about changing the system from the inside. But how can that be done when the people who attempt to do it are marginalized, excluded, silenced, and finally, met with force. In Bulgaria, the biggest weapon against those wanting to rip of the façade of the pseudo-democracy, those who are forcing reform, is the manipulation of the media and the alteration of the truth. Truth is not objective and access is limited. I can see something similar present in Bosnia as the media today are suffocating the public discourse with reports of ‘drug-abuse’, ‘looting’, ‘theft of important archives’, ‘vandalism’.

Bulgaria is in the EU and change is slowly happening, mostly from above with increasingly pressure by the President and, more importantly, by the European institutions. The seven-months long daily protest movement has not as yet managed to force the government’s resignation but has been firstly ignored, then excluded, then ridiculed, and all through-out lied about in the media. Logically, the numbers since the summer have fallen and there is a growing sense of helplessness. But the protesting citizens are not alone; like the protesting citizens in Ukraine are not alone. That does not amount to much, as can be clearly seen today, but it is something that is not present, it seems, in either Bosnia or Kosovo. There, the feeling of desperation at the state of their societies and the feeling of being isolated and alone, is clearly overwhelming. It has lead to a violent escalation. It has brought the international community’s attention back to them. How successful it will be in forcing change is a difficult question, but there has to be a start somewhere. Progress has a point of initiation and that point usually comes with civic (re)engagement.

One thing is clear – democracy does not flow linearly forward. In fact, in many ways it has been altered by the given post-totalitarian regimes, in order to continue the practices of repression from the past. Under the loose notion of democracy, different elites seem able to continue to dominate – either economically, and/or politically, and/or culturally; the one thing they all do is perpetuate the existential crisis caused by the emptiness of the individual transition periods. From Ukraine to the Balkans, the last twenty-four years (give or take) have been an almost uninterrupted period of preaching that yellow is green. “Here, now you have a democracy;” you are free now!” is the visible stream, while the underwater current has been one of underwriting each and every single democratic institution, atomizing individuals through economic hardships and bad politics, and reducing freedom to pseudo-political independence.

So what is a potential step-forward? Realizing just how deep this underwater current runs in the given society; understanding just how much of a façade there is, how much of a hybrid regime one is facing, and after that really getting back to the basics of democracy, literally: ‘rule (kratos) of the people (dēmos).’ One such initiative that is gaining ground in Bulgaria is an initiative boycotting buying goods from the corporate ‘corner-shop’ Lafka, which is co-owned by Head of the National Security Agency to be Delyan Peevski. Another is the student occupation, which gained incredible public support (almost 80%) after its initiation last year. This seems to be working in Pristina as well but we should wait and see how that develops over the coming weeks.

When the government is unaccountable, when there is an oligarchic economic model, when the media are not independent, when you are a poor European nation, the only way to overcome the incredibly diverse forces of post-totalitarian repression is to actively, collectively, and in a decentralized manner, negate, oppose, ridicule the status quo. Alternative paths to reform need to be tried out and peaceful resolution, obviously, requires precedence. A counter-discourse against the alteration of truth in the public domain must pursue – Facebook seems to be a successful tool for that, for now. That has already happened in Bulgaria and Ukraine. The next step is national engagement – we can see that currently happening in Bosnia. Eventually, the forces will become too strong. The biggest obstacle of isolation from the political process and the reduction of democracy to pseudo-elections can be overcome. One thing that is certain is that when change is forced through, it will not presuppose progress immediately. It will, however, level the playing field, initiate a process of political healing and jumpstart the institutionalization of democracy. One step at a time.

By Nikolay Nikolov

For more from Nikolay visit http://banitza.net/


From a Rollin’ Stone to Moving Mountains or the Process of Democratic Change in Bulgaria

By Slovo, on 15 January 2014

The wall around Parliament branded with caricatures of PM Oresharski          Photo: Vassil Garnizov

The wall around Parliament branded with caricatures of PM Oresharski Photo: Vassil Garnizov

Democracy has solidified into a brittle façade of the actual political system in Bulgaria; the future has become a laughing matter; access to truth is contested and politics has become the dirtiest word of all. Freedom of the press is the second lowest in Eastern Europe according to the 2013 annual report by Reporters Without Borders. The National Assembly is entirely barricaded by a metal wall, while police officers, in their thousands, have spent most of the Christmas holiday guarding the empty building. A few feet down the road, the St. Kliment Ohrdiski University of Sofia remained under occupation for over three months by ‘the Early Rising Students’, who demand their voice and their future back. Daily protests gather in the centre of Sofia and pass through Parliament and the University and block traffic around the evening rush hour.

This is how Bulgarians welcomed the New Year. At midnight on the 31st December in the city square, where thousands of people had gathered to welcome the New Year, the mood was far from festive. Chants of ‘resign’ were outweighing the fireworks as well as the organized concert. This was no time for celebration within a country utterly divided. On 1st January, after more than 200 days of protests, the government approval rate had fallen below 10%, while more than 80% supported the protesters, according to a poll by Alpha Research Agency.

From the RectoratePhoto: Yanne Golev

From the Rectorate Photo: Yanne Golev

On the eve of 2014, I moved from the square, passed the barricaded Parliament (a barricade that was built a day after the twenty-fourth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall) and joined the students, who had decided to stay in the occupied lecture hall. If there is a message that I can pass along after spending almost a month in Bulgaria, it is a message of unity. Despite the predictable ripples and difficulties noticeable in the structure of the students and the protest movement, unofficially represented by the Protest Network group, things are changing. From the ground up, reshaping one discourse at a time: rethinking the past, the 1989 revolution, the advent of democracy, the meaning of freedom.

A short retrospect: twenty-four years ago, Bulgaria did not experience that revolutionary change visible in Central Europe. It did not participate in the ground-breaking and seemingly universal process of a ‘rectifying revolution’, of a ‘return to history’, which Jürgen Habermas foresaw in 1990. It was said that countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia revolted against a foreign regime and civilization that hundreds of thousands of people went out in the streets demanding a return to the path of modernity, to progress, to their destiny as part of Europe. It was a process of unfreezing of history, a liberation par excellence.

In Bulgaria, the end of the totalitarian regime resembled a palace coup, in which the old regimes liquidated a highly dysfunctional Soviet-style repressive regime and laid the groundwork for a gradual transition towards a democracy. It laid the groundwork for a very specific kind of façade democracy, where a silent continuity of the past was achieved. Democracy and freedom were granted to the people, who one day were simply told that they had certain new rights and responsibilities. But the meaning of the universal principles of democracy and freedom were significantly altered by the elites in charge of facilitating the transition period.

The biggest and most lasting success of the protest movement, which began as a spontaneous mass public outrage at government unaccountability and corruption, was unearthing exactly how deeply those notions have been altered and who, in fact, is in control of the dominant discourses about the truth regarding the past, present, and the future. It showed how a significant portion of the Bulgarian population, citizens assuming the existence of basic rights and freedoms, have become completely excluded from the political processes and have had their public voice all but silenced. It turned out that their demands for a functioning democracy were not only met by the government but that they were seen as a threat leading to the mobilization of thousands of police officers and the permanent barricading of Parliament. It turned out that Politics was in fact directly dislocated from the people. An effective façade democracy.

“From all parts of the world, we ask for your resignation”

Bulgaria, a country known for its troubled path towards democratization, its uneasy energy and geopolitical relationship with Russia, and its highly atomized and isolated society, is changing. On December 26th, in the largest protests of recent months, more than 4000 people gathered in Sofia, from all parts of the world, to join in the struggle for democracy and for a return to Europe. The unofficial organization representing Bulgarians abroad #ДАНСwithmeGlobal co-organized the protest with the Early Rising Students and the Protest Network. It was the first time that a united protest front was solidified and the first time that they all walked, side by side, down the streets of Sofia. And their message is clear: reorienting the country towards democratic consolidation and European integration.

The most vivid symbol of this highly anticipated democratic revival in Bulgaria are the students. They are the ‘children of the transition’, the personification of the political, social, existencial crisis that has marked their nation and their individual biographies. They occupied the University because they saw no options of professional and personal realization in their futures. They refused to remain passive, while an increasingly isolated political elite continued to shape their reality. They wanted to have a say about who they are and who they ought to be.

The students have made one very important step forward – fascilitating public debate. They are organizing round tables, where professors, experts, and politicians will be invited to sit down in the University and discuss the functioning of all the democratic institutions in Bulgaria and how to reorient politics in the right path. It is an important step forward in a highly stifled public sphere, where people often feel their voice, vote, or vision is irrelevant to the actual goings on out there in the State. It is the vital process of (re)consolidating the foundations of a polis. And it is affecting the right of passage to the truth because they represent an increasingly powerful alternative to the official discourse funelled through the mass print and broadcast media in support of those in power.

And those in power represent the highly structured and well financed Bulgarian Socialist Party – the brain-child and beneficiary of the pre-1989 Bulgarian Communist Party. A party infiltrated by ex-Secret Service members with large dossiers, powerful businessmen and politicians; all those who benefited directly both before and after the fall of totalitarianism. The Socialist Party is also the most successful political party and has been in power longer than any other contendor. It has also remained the only party since the very first elections that has avoided dissentigration – until today.

Party members, among which the influenced member of the European Parliament and former Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin, have one by one defected from the party amidst the growing pressure caused on it by the protests. They have joined former President Georgi Parvanov (still a member of the Socialists) in his new political party called the New Bulgarian Revival. This is the first time in recent history that we see a challenge to the left forming in Bulgaria. And it’s big news because, among all else, it is showing a changing political topography.

The protests started off calling for the resignation of the Socialist-led Cabinet amidst emense corruption and unaccountability charges. Over the months and due to continual silence by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski in connection to those charges, the protests evolved into a powerful discursive alternative regarding both the past and the future – i.e. deconstructing the facades behind the political regime and its geopolitical orientation. Today, the protests have all but fully delegitimized the official discourse presented by the Socialist Party and present a hugely popular alternative about politics, democracy and even the totalitarian past. So successful I might add that it slowly silencing the powerful voice of the Socialist party and all its media backing.

Several weeks ago, broadcast journalists were asking their guests if they were not tired of protesting and the newspapers wrote of the ‘death of the protests’; today those questions seem to resonate of a very different world. Today, the narrative is about when the government will resign – in February or May, when the election for EU representatives will be held. It is a process that emulates the events of 1997, when once again the Socialist Party succumbed to mass outrage at hyperinflation and Bulgarians elected a government set on promoting economic reform and European integration. This time, because the protests have been solidifying for seven months, extending their network, polishing their message, this time change is looking for permanency: a permanent discontinuity of the past – of both its elites, structures and discourses – a vital step forward in the decentered, gradual and positive move towards post-communism (as a way of life) and democracy.

By Nikolay Nikolov

A General Assembly inside the occupied Lecture Hall

A General Assembly inside the occupied Lecture Hall