David Bisset: Bulgaria is a society of tribes, where people don’t quite engage in community action

What do Bulgarians guard themselves against when dealing with Westerners?, asks the Rousse-based researcher

Vladimir Mitev

David Bisset is a researcher and strategist at Equilibrium – the largest NGO in the social services sector in Bulgaria. Native of the city of Rousse, he discusses with Vladimir Mitev about the specifics of Bulgarian society in a four part series. In the first part Vladimir asks him about a number of specifics he sees in Bulgarians today – culture of tribes and in-groups, the careful guarding and capsulation, etc. David shares his own personal observations as well as data from research, to demonstrate that Bulgaria and Romania rank poorly on social capital and social tolerance. And that should be an issue in the public discourse and in politicians’ activity.

Hello to all the listeners and the viewers of the Bridge of Friendship Blog and Cross-border Talks. I’m Vladimir Mitev, and today I’m going to have a talk with David Bisset, who used to be the chief executive of Equilibrium, the largest NGO in the social services sector in Bulgaria, and who is now more dealing with research and strategic issues again around social care and social change in Bulgaria. He is also a native of my hometown Rousse. He’s been living here for more than 20 years.

David, thank you for accepting this invitation and seeing sense in what I largely defined as some attempt to think in a more complex way about the Bulgarian plague or problems. I think it’s good if we start with what we see every day on social networks, especially these days. We are now recording on the 4th of June 2023, Sunday, and just tomorrow we expect that the proposal for a new government will be made before the president. And we see that there is a lot of division in Bulgaria, a lot of hatred, a lot of instigation on social networks with people basically falling into different tribes and playing a game of domination with one another.


That may have a social price. And I was just curious about this game of tribes, the role which it attributes to most Bulgarians is the role of fans, people who are like the gallery of the football match and scream against the opponent. But I was wondering, how can we grow out of this role? What are the means for our citizens to become more empowered and for this game to change so that we are no longer just fans or hooligans?

I like your expression. I like that you use the word game. And I mean something that’s fascinated me for many years and which I recognized quite soon after settling in Bulgaria 20 years ago, is that Bulgaria is a very tribal society. People cling to their one social group and don’t really venture into the realm of community enterprise, community activity. And I’ve always wondered why this is the case, because it’s something I find quite intriguing, but also quite bewildering. Especially as the different groups tend to adopt all sorts of different badges to identify themselves and differentiate themselves from one another. It’s quite multidimensional and certainly it has a political dimension.

I see the politicians weaponizing something that’s already there, that already exists. And I wonder where it’s coming from. One of the sort of theories I had – I’m not convinced that I’m right, but it’s something that I’ve noticed – Bulgaria was urbanized very, very, very quickly.  I don’t think that any of Bulgaria’s politicians have tried to create a sense of community since its urbanization took place.

Something that interests me is, if you speak to a Bulgarian and you ask a Bulgarian where he or she comes from, they’ll mention a town or a city. But then they may quite quickly clarify what was just said, and say: “Well, actually, my family comes from a different place.” A village in a different part of Bulgaria.

If I walk around Rousse and if I was to go out today and walk around through the big high rise apartment blocks, you see a lot of older people sitting outside in the sun in little groups. They’ve created little gardens for themselves in the communal areas and they’ve planted flowers and they sit under a the sun with a cup of tea or whatever together. So you can see that people, especially the older generation, are still sort of longing for their villages. For a view of the hills. For a view of a river. Instead of being in the city and enclosed by all this gray drabness.

So then I get the impression that people don’t really feel terrible in the “little boxes” in which they live in these big apartment buildings. And for me, if you don’t feel at home, a sense of being at home, it’s very difficult to connect with your neighbors. The two things should go together – home and neighbors. I think Bulgarians feel like creatures caught in an urban jungle. I don’t think there’s been much investment in creating a sense of community and unity.

I think that the Bulgarian political class plays a type of fantasy. If I were to go on Facebook just now and start scrolling through my feed, it would take no time at all to find a picture of a local mayor or some other public dignitary hosting a ceremony in which they’re giving out certificates to people for all sorts of things, related to some service to Bulgarian culture or Bulgarian learning. There is this constant reference to a glorious past which never took place, proud traditions which don’t really exist, and achievements which don’t really rank in the great scheme of things. This is very divisive, because it encourages certain people and certain groups who are willing to continue to play this game of “make believe”: insufficient attention is being paid to the reality of everyday life in Bulgaria.

I like your reference to the past and also this understanding that most Bulgarians originate from the peripheral zones of the country. There is this division: Sofia and the country. I’ve been communicating with people who basically left our city, thinking: “I have a good job. I have a family, I have a child or two, but if I stay here I can reach pension age in my current position. I want to do something more in my life, than simply retiring where I stand.”

I say that, because it deals with the concept of “static and dynamic identity”. I have been very much impressed by this contradiction. During Socialist times, the concept was – you develop while staying in your place. I’m curious about this idea of static identity as a key to understanding many of the things in Bulgaria, like socialization, especially the initial socialization when you are in high school or later in university: it assigns you to some position, some conviction, some role which you play in society.

I have the feeling that people who were born and who grew during transition times are very much influenced by this static identity. Only at a later moment, if they have a strong will to change, they manage to rebel and redefine the life position in which they are. Of course, emigration is one way for that.

The extent to which you may experience the static identity in Bulgaria can be seen in many ways. Including if you have written an article for some socialist media or you have written for some sort of Soros-backed media or whatever you call them, somehow people don’t engage or they don’t discuss with you. They just like to put a label on you: ”He has been with them, he has said something with them, with the others.” So how influential is this static identity in your view here?

I know what you mean by this expectation that people ought to grow while staying where they are, as you put it. In order to do that, people need some sort of empowerment. I mean… We’re sitting here on a Sunday. A weekend. We’re both sitting in a room here in Rousse.

Something I experienced at the weekends in Rousse are those people from the periphery coming into a city which is essentially their hometown. They are residents of Rousse, and during the weekend they can sometimes come into the center. They give the appearance of wandering around, looking at the place as if they were visitors from some foreign city. It’s no longer their home.

They are looking at the new coffee shops in the city center where the prices horrify them and say to themselves, well, who are these coffee shops designed for? Looking at the new buildings that are being built speculatively.  Then they look in the window of a real estate agency that is advertising apartments in these new buildings. The prices for a penthouse flat for a view of the Danube costs approximately half a million euro. They’re saying to themselves, who are these places built for? So how can you expect people to develop when they undergo shock by what’s happening around them?

Seeing Rousse as a source of inspiration and tribal thinking again, I have observed how people in some moment in their life, early life, maybe school years or university years, they somehow learn, I presume it may be also involuntary, but it may be also very rational that they need some kind of a tribe or in-group. We use the word “taifa” maybe, which is of eastern origin, Persian or Arabic origin.

Young people are likely to form groups of their own, they make their own “mafia”, and they perceive the world through this mafia. Basically, some kind of narcissistic leader comes and takes over this group and they are getting information about what is going on beyond the tribe. They somehow engage other tribes or other people only when they have interest. When they don’t perceive any form of gain or when they are not threatened by other tribes, they just don’t do anything. They’re just satisfied with standing at the top of this tribe and somehow presumably manipulate the people who are casual members of the tribe, so that the hierarchy is protected.

Of course, that’s just my understanding. But I can’t help asking myself, how can a society based on tribes grow out of this model? What is the role which people who are tribeless could play in this? I presume it’s modernization. Maybe we define it as modernization. So how can this happen?

I mean, what you’re talking about is a very profound lack of what we call social capital. Social capital is a measure of the positivity of the relationships and styles of engagement between different individuals and different groups. The positive relationships are cemented through actions like collaboration, a little bit of give and take, different people playing to their strengths. When this happens, all the contributors benefit and the community gets stronger.

There’s a publication that comes out annually called the Legatum Prosperity Index. This year, 2023, the index is based on data collected last year. It ranks 167 different countries, and gives a ranking in terms of the overall prosperity.  I think there are 12 different sets of indices that measure this prosperity. On that basis, Bulgaria is ranked 48th out of the 167 countries. I think Romania is 45th. However, if you look at the particular index for social capital, Bulgaria is ranked 81st out of 167, and Romania has got quite a low position : it’s ranked 116th.

There are different types of social capital. There’s the relationships between family members and close knit social groups. There’s a question of interpersonal trust within the community. This is social tolerance – people of different racial backgrounds, classes, social status and occupation and how they tolerate one another and the quality of social networking. The level on which people can actually participate in the decision making of society.

It’s interesting that social tolerance is very, very low in both Romania and Bulgaria. I know that Bulgaria ranks something like 104th out of 167 countries. Different groups tolerate one another. But what we both countries are really lacking is the level of social and civic participation.

Public information in both countries is pretty dismal. Pretty terrible. People are not allowed to participate in decision making with regard to developments in their own towns or cities or nationally. Government keeps the population at arm’s length, you might say. So what we need is some sort of mechanism that encourages these things to start to happen. I’m not quite sure how you kick start this type of activity. But it certainly does need to happen, Vladimir.

I can suggest how it can happen, but it is from a psychological point of view and maybe it is not the best idea. From my experience from traveling abroad, I have the feeling that Bulgarians tend to put some guard when they communicate with people who are foreigners. I think this guard is not lowered because people fear that if they lower the guard, they will be harmed.  The strange thing is that, in my view, if some of these hits from the outside are absorbed and we transform this experience into something positive, then suddenly we could discover that our world is much bigger.

I’m not suggesting something like the movie Fight Club. Of course I’m not suggesting this. Very metaphorically, I suggest that we fear less. Or maybe we realize that we are something more than our tribe. I think expanding individual borders is something which can be really empowering because maybe that’s the reason why change happens so slowly.

In Bulgaria, we are somehow taught to guard our borders very carefully and not integrate new territories into them. Usually, the understanding is that you integrate when you conquer. You know, I have seen Bulgarian patriots going to Romania, trying to reach out to some villages in Romania where there used to be some Bulgarian population. I think this is futile. For me, it’s much more interesting to discover the other’s space within your own identity, within your own personality, if you wish. Maybe I’m touching on too many issues.

I think you are thinking more institutionally and more socially, getting the whole society complex. When you speak about social capital, I have the feeling it’s the personal effort of some individuals which could start the change. Here is my question. After so many words, what is this social model which is different to the in-group? I also have suggestions of my own. But if somebody wants to, let’s say, modernize this society, this tribal society, what is the better form of society? What is it based on? Not on tribe, but maybe on something else.

Vladimir, you’ve used words like in-group, like guardedness. We’ve talked about tribalism. These all seem to be highly defensive mechanisms or strategies. So why does Bulgaria feel the need to defend itself? Why do Bulgarians as individuals act defensively?  Are we suggesting that they’ve got some sort of chip on their shoulder, some sort of inferiority complex, some sort of sense of inadequacy when they encounter people, maybe especially people from the West?

I’m not sure. I think a problem in Bulgaria is that in the past you’ve been sort of the plaything or the football of great powers. At the moment it’s primarily the European Union, but we could also talk about the United States, Russia. Who knows when China might want to pitch in and start developing its interests in this region. These great powers all bring with them what we sometimes refer to as an imitation imperative: to succeed, you have to behave like us. To prosper, you have to behave like us.

You can see this played out in the human rights dimension as well. When people are making that sort of proposition to you, it does make you feel uncomfortable and defensive. We’ve talked in the past, Vladimir, about cross-border activity and perhaps some sort of mini-Schengen arrangement, which could, encourage Bulgarians to think a little bit more in terms of their own self development, to think a little bit expansively within the region instead of sitting and waiting for the great powers to come to Bulgaria and make certain offers. I think Bulgaria needs to find its young adventurers.

Perhaps they are among those who have worked overseas and come back with a certain knowledge, with a certain degree of knowhow. Development in their attitudes and a desire to be innovative and creative. A desire to explore. A curiosity. Maybe these are the individuals we’ve got to look towards.

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