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Monday, 10 May 2021

Emigration states, existential sovereignty, and migrant responses

On 6 May the first seminar of the joint SEESOX/COMPAS Trinity Term Seminar Series ‘The Politics of Emigration: Representations and contestations’ took place, addressing the theme ‘Emigration states, existential sovereignty, and migrant responses’. The panel included Dace Dzenovska (University of Oxford) and Elena Genova (University of Nottingham) and was chaired by Manolis Pratsinakis.

The presentation of Dzenovska was based on a chapter in the edited volume The Everyday Lives of Sovereignty by R. Bryant and M. Reeves. Drawing on ethnographic research on Latvian migrants in the UK, she argued that sovereignty should not be seen solely as an attribute of state power but also as a claim and desire exhibited by people. According to Dzenovska, Latvians consider the Latvian cultural nation and the state as embattled. This sense of embattlement is a legacy of the Russian occupation and derives from two threats: proximity to Russia as a potential aggressor, and the presence of a large Russian-speaking minority in the territory of Latvia. However, in the post-socialist period another threat appeared; Latvia lost one third of its population to emigration, which intensified existential fears about the viable existence of Latvia as both a people and a state. Those fears, and the need to secure the state while reconfiguring the territoriality of the cultural nation, surfaced in a graphic manner during the 2012 Latvian referendum on whether to make the Russian language the second state language. Even though the result was positive for ethnic Latvians, the referendum intensified their feelings of embattlement, including among those residing abroad, who voted in large numbers. They found it worrisome that the foundational aspects of the state could be subjected to a popular vote. A Constitutional Rights Commission was formed whose opinion served as justification for the constitutional reform that followed in 2014. This reform offered a preamble to the Latvian constitution stating that the Latvian state is a national state established by Latvians and for the purpose of ensuring the continuity and flourishing of the cultural national of Latvians. According to the Commission’s opinion, the Latvian nature of the state, and the political order of the state, namely democracy, cannot be changed by a demographically defined people. At the same time, the Commission addressed the question of mobility, suggesting that the relationship between every Latvian, regardless of where s/he is located, and the Latvian state, is a real nationally cultural tie.

According to Dzenovska, Latvian emigration and diaspora politics shows that the center of embattled nations is no longer fixed within the territory of a state, but rather re-territorialized across multiple state territories. In this context, diasporas emerge as transnational actors asserting or aspiring for sovereignty, alongside markets, religion and supranational organizations, to ensure the continuity of the national community, while the existence of the state as a territorial unit remains equally important for that very same matter.

Elena Genova’s presentation focused on the politics of emigration in Bulgaria, which like Latvia has also experienced significant demographic decline in the post-socialist period to a large extent due to outward migration. According to data from the Bulgarian government, the working population of Bulgarian people living abroad in 2018 was larger than the working population in the country.

Genova began her talk by providing accounts showcasing how deeply embedded emigration narratives are in the Bulgarian everyday, as well as in political discourse and media representations. These narratives are to a large extent shaped by the legacy of Bulgaria’s socialist past and the impact of its long transition to democracy. The fall of Communism, a transformative societal shift, has deeply polarized Bulgarian society between the winners and the losers. A large number of the latter, disillusioned with how transition to democracy was happening, saw emigration as a solution either for themselves or for their children, whom they prepared for emigration. In addition to this polarization, Genova spoke also of a rift between migrants and non-migrants. This is associated with the ways in which migration is conceptualised and perceived with reference to the Communist past, when emigration was as an act of treason. Such conceptualisations, even if not always dominant, resurge in critical moments of political unrest. Thus, people speak of two separated Bulgarias - one in the territory of Bulgaria, and another one made up of Bulgarians who live abroad - with the departure lounge at Sofia Airport being seen as a liminal space that divides a nation.

As a result of this rift, and despite recent changes in governmental approaches, which recognize the diaspora as an asset to the state, Bulgarian emigrants abroad are subject to a double-sided othering discourse by home and host society that impacts on their identities and sense of belonging. Drawing on two research projects on 1) Bulgarian highly skilled migrants, and 2) Bulgarian migrant workers’ experiences in Brexit Britain, and focusing on the othering discourses especially from their compatriots in Bulgaria, Genova identified two different strategies pursued by the Bulgarian migrants to counterbalance these.

The first is the strategy of dismissal, whereby Bulgarian emigrants categorically dismiss the home society in terms of a narrow-minded thinking and lack of understanding of the difficulties one encounters abroad. In this context, many accuse the Bulgarians at home of being passive and less capable. The second is a strategy aimed at reinventing their national identity with reference to late 18th century Bulgarian merchants under the Ottoman Empire, who sent their children to study abroad and who, on their return, played a critical role in the Bulgarian National Revival and revolutionary activity. In this context they present themselves as the new ‘enlighteners’. At the same time, they built on the idea that they are ‘ambassadors’ of their country abroad, aiming to improve the image of the country and spread awareness through a range of cultural activities and being the best Bulgarians they can be to best represent their country. However, both strategies, Genova concluded, are deeply problematic, failing to address the rift between stayers and leavers and its emotive connotations. Recent protests and parliamentary elections proved yet another missed opportunity to bridge the rift between migrants and non-migrants, something that may become even more difficult in the post COVID-19 period.

Manolis Pratsinakis (SEESOX Onassis Fellow)

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