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Monday, 4 February 2019

Contested diasporic identities in times of crisis: The Other Bulgaria in the UK

On 30 January 2019, Dr. Elena Genova (University of Nottingham) spoke on “Contested diasporic identities in times of crisis: The Other Bulgaria in the UK”. Her presentation was based on her paper entitled “(New) Bulgarian Enlighteners and Ambassadors? The Reinvention of National Identity in Times of Crisis”. The session was chaired by Mehmet Karli (St Antony’s College). Manolis Pratsinakis (DPIR) acted as discussant.

Genova explored the intersection of the discourses produced by the European crises and migrants’ national identity. She argued that both the context of Brexit Britain and the Bulgarian context of socio-economic instability and political volatility, subject Bulgarian migrants to stigmatizing representations. Relying on her empirical data, she submitted that young Bulgarians drew on the related ideas of the “new” Enlightener and Ambassador to counterbalance negative discourses.

She began by stating that the Bulgarian diaspora was subject to a double-sided “othering”. Not only were they affected by the strong Eurosceptic sentiments in Britain, but also they were seen as ‘guests’ in Bulgaria too. Hence the title “Other Bulgaria”. After laying down the theoretical underpinnings of her research, with references to the discursive approach of Hall - the identity is about becoming not about being - and Elliott - reinvention of the self - Genova laid the ground of her analysis by giving the estimated number of Bulgarians in Britain; these were estimated at48.000, but in some estimates the number could be as high as 100.000.
Following this introduction, she provided a historical overview of Bulgarian migratory flows, taking the Bulgarian Revival as the starting point. During this period, i.e. late 18th and early 19th centuries, Bulgarian merchants under the Ottoman Empire started sending their children to study abroad, mainly to Europe and Russia. While abroad or upon returning, this generation of foreign-educated Bulgarians were closely associated with the Bulgarian National Revival and revolutionary activity.

She then identified World War II, Communism, 1990s and post-EU accession as the next distinct periods of migratory flows. Such flows were controlled, punished, emotive and political during Communism. Following the end of the communist regime, the migratory flows of the 1990s were mainly triggered by the financial crash in the country. Those who migrated were highly skilled and most of them migrated to the USA or Canada. A saying going back to those days explains the mood of that era: “the best solution to the crisis: Terminal 1 and 2 of Sofia Airport”. This era created a fault-line between the winners and losers of transition. Finally, following Bulgaria’s accession to the EU, migration out of the country had become more open-ended and drama-free.

After laying down this historical perspective, Genova presented the findings of her empirical research. Her findings were based on 62 semi-structured interviews carried out in three phases - June-August 2011, August 2013-November 2014, and April-July 2018 - with Bulgarians living in London, Southern England, the East Midlands, Northern England and Scotland. She stated that Bulgarians in Britain were first “otherized” as ‘Eastern Europeans’, a term that was almost certainly used with negative connotations. Following this first period, in the context of Brexit Britain, they were basically subject to the so-called hostile environment policies. On the other hand, this group of Bulgarians were also “otherized” in Bulgaria as the ‘escapists’, the ‘outsiders’ who had given up once on their country.

In the face of these two stigmatizing representations, Genova argued that the Bulgarians in Britain drew on the related ideas of the “new” Enlightener and Ambassador to counterbalance negative discourses. Many of them maintained the hope of going back to Bulgaria to ‘enlighten’ their compatriots. She also referred to some interviews where the participants made specific references to a so-called 2nd Bulgarian Revival. On the other hand, the idea of “Ambassadors” denotes that these Bulgarians are supposed to be the ‘ambassadors’ of their country; that is, they should be the best Bulgarians, they should represent the best about their country. Genova made references to several practices of Bulgarians living in Britain where they practice their cultural, folkloric rituals vigorously as part of this idea of being Ambassadors.

Pratsinakis praised Genova for her insightful and rich presentation and commented on the similarities but also the differences between the Greek and Bulgarian cases, highlighting some ways through which the Greek Diaspora project at Oxford may gain from such a comparison. He also posed two questions; the first related to the strategies of Bulgarian migrants in countering negative representations in the UK and the differences or tensions between collective and individual strategies. The second concerned the Bulgarian frame of reference, where he wondered how widespread the contested images of the Bulgarian Diaspora in the homeland are, by which actors they are endorsed, and through which means they are reproduced.

During the Q & A, the following issues were raised:
  • whether there was actually a need for a third ideal type, “the cosmopolitan” - one who self-identifies as European, who does not want to enlighten anyone, who sees herself only as the ambassador of herself. Genova responded that there were actually some critics of this Ambassadors idea, noting that this type of critical attitude was more common among highly skilled Bulgarians who do not necessarily want to be associated with other Bulgarians. She emphasised the class divisions that characterise such division. On the other hand, she indicated that, in general, the rise of nationalism in the light of the crises in both Britain and Bulgaria, and the stereotypes that they have produced in relation to migration, are not necessarily counterbalanced with cosmopolitan ideas.
  • whether the question regarding self-identification as European should also be examined within the Bulgarian diaspora in Germany and/or France in order to understand if the Euroscepticism of the British context plays any role in Genova’s findings on the issue.
  • what the role of remittances is in the Bulgarian economy. Genova emphasised the importance of social remittances; adding that these remittances play an important role in the justifications of the so-called (new) Enlighteners, who portray migration and the attendant social remittances as important contributions to development in Bulgaria.
  • the policies of the Bulgarian state vis-à-vis the diaspora. Genova responded that the current state of affairs may best be described as institutional disengagement, indicating that the attitude of institutions such as Embassies and Consulates is marked by a superficial approach that signals a significant lack of care and engagement towards the diaspora.
Mehmet Karli (Academic Visitor, St Antony's College, Oxford)

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