David Bisset: Bulgarians&Romanians should avoid imitating and instead rely on themselves for growth

The second part of the talk on social change in Bulgaria deals with political contradictions and polarization

The Bridge of Friendship, 9 June 2023

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 the second part of the talk they discuss political contradictions and issues – West vs. East, center vs. periphery, technocracy and populism. To what extent unlearning hegemony can be a solution in the conditions of an ever stronger polarization? How can people without resources be presented in politics, when modern capitalist societies resemble too much oligarchy? Read or listen to David Bisset’s comments on all those issues.

West’s attitude towards Central and Southeastern Europe

The issue of mini-Schengen is an issue which is of specific attention to my Bulgarian-Romanian blog and I’ll ask you about that. But I wanted to ask first something else: You mentioned that maybe Bulgarians have some tendency to encapsulate, to close themselves with regards to the Westerners. I was wondering whether Westerners also have issues when approaching people from the peripheral zones of the world. My experience is that too often the question is: who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Who do we have to support? I have the feeling that the interest towards the peripheral zone, such as Bulgaria, Romania, is often limited to supporting the lesser evil or whatever you call it. There is not a genuine deep interest which you may have in yourself to understand the complexity, which is also kind of evasive.

My feeling is that Bulgarians are not very interesting or doesn’t appear to be very complex at first sight. That is the art, in a way, of international relations that you may even discover something which people don’t know about themselves, and that makes you play a positive role. This is something I want to understand better. Why is the Western public, Western media or Western politicians not deeply interested in us? They don’t want to understand us, rather they want to play one part of our society against the other part. Maybe I’m wrong about that. I have this feeling there are always good and bad guys, and you see that in our politics they change internally, they the roles undergo change.

I don’t know what the West makes of Eastern Europe. I can assure you that there will be people from my social class, people with my level of education in Britain who are still not terribly sure precisely where Bulgaria is geographically on the map. So there is that aspect of it. Sometimes it’s just down to pure ignorance. I think those who are playing political and corporate games in the Eastern Balkans and Southeast Europe have a self-contradictory position regarding this area.

On one hand, the southern and eastern parts of the Balkans have got to represent some sort of buffer zone against the east, most especially in the context of the migration into Europe from North Africa and from the Middle East. So it has got to be a buffer against this torrent of migrants that we’re told we should expect. At the same time, you’ve got to reconcile yourself to the idea that the East already has a significant influence within the area of the Balkans. Bulgaria has got quite a sizable Turkish population, which has got political representation, which it sometimes uses quite effectively. A lot of Bulgaria’s cultural mores and behaviors are Eastern in character. Also, how is it legitimate to have this sort of anti-Eastern viewpoint regarding the Balkans, but not consider the situation in the Mediterranean? You know, when I’ve stood in Gibraltar and looked across to North Africa, in fact, I’ve done it in the opposite direction as well. I’ve been to Italy, I’ve been to Spain. I’ve seen the Islamic legacies in these countries. So it’s as if the great powers in the West really can’t make up their mind about the Balkans and they seem to contradict themselves sometimes.

Recently, there has been something circulating around on Facebook among my friends. It was Joseph Stiglitz, the stage name, the Nobel Prize-winning economist was making certain comments about how Bulgaria and other countries in this part of the Balkans are actually a lot worse off because of EU accession, which has allowed Western corporations to plunder the country. They use the country as a plaything, they come in, set up corporations or take over Bulgarian companies, take over vast swathes of Bulgarian industry and act abusively taking the profits out of the country and not adding much in terms of value. They’ve impacted heavily on pricing structures in Bulgaria, the cost of utilities, the cost of staple food. They’re expecting Bulgarian corporations to spend vast amounts of money on advertising and marketing, which is not something that Bulgarians have traditionally been terribly good at. So it’s as if the West is using the area exploitatively at the moment. I can’t figure out what the strategy is or how they actually see Bulgaria. Maybe as still suggests they see opportunities. We use an expression in the West. We want what you’ve got to offer, but we don’t want you. You know, it’s usually applied to migrants from Europe into the UK, for instance, post-Brexit or Easterners coming into European countries. They’ve got skills. They can take up jobs, especially in the lower paid employment sector. So we need you, but we don’t particularly want you. And I’ve got a funny feeling that this is quite a good way to express the Western attitude towards the Balkans.

Bridging as Bulgaria’s role

I thank you for introducing the West-East contradiction, which is now really exacerbated with this war in Ukraine. I also am happy that the West is conscious or as you said, there is understanding that it’s not so simple to say which is the good and the bad side. There is some truth maybe in various positions which can be taken or various criticisms which can be made.  I just wondered whether the West and the East are maybe not some notions from the Cold War and rather isn’t the division more between center and periphery? Because I see that the contradiction center-periphery can be found in any society here, but maybe in any society in the world. We see that the center tends to be naturally more aligned to the capitalist center at least in our region, aligned to the Western European or American center of capitalism. And my intuition is that the people who are not attached to this center, they are not so evil or stupid or whatever. Just given that the Bulgarian social game is constructed around mutual domination, if one side moves in one direction, the other side, which is the periphery, somehow seems to be more open to other peripheries they are united by some resistance to the center. Maybe if they have to cooperate with one another, they will not be so attracted to each other, but they are united in resistance to the center. Again, that’s something which I derive from my experience and I may be wrong.

Polarization has been a strong issue in the West too. I was just wondering, we know that polarization now is very strong in Bulgarian society, especially with the war in Ukraine. Additionally, what is the path forward when there is such strong polarization and you are strongly encouraged or pressed to take one side or the other? I have the feeling Bulgarians intuitively somehow want to be a little bit like a bridge, not so much choosing one or the other side. I think our governments, especially in the peaceful times before the war in Ukraine, always had this element that they’re bridging the West and the East, or, if you wish, the center and the periphery. How can we live in peace now when the West and the East or whatever you call them, are at war.

Bridging. I think, you know, we use an expression in the West that when you try to please everybody you end up pleasing nobody. I think it can apply to this stance in Bulgaria to pander to the need to show solidarity with the European Union. And also at the same time with the United States. There are many differences between the European Union and the United States. And a lot of commentators say that the United States doesn’t have a lot of time, a lot of affinity, a lot of admiration for the European Union. Obviously, in the neoliberal context, there is competition between the two power bases. Russia still casts a shadow over this part of the world. This attempt to be neutral… It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in because every time you’re forced through geopolitical events to turn and face one of the great powers, you’ve got to perform in one particular way. And then maybe in a few weeks time, you’ve got to turn towards the other and perform in a completely different way. It’s a very, very stressful and difficult position to try to occupy. This is why as someone with empathy towards the Bulgarians, I wish there was a way that you could convincingly state your own personal identities, your own national identities. You could take steps towards self-determination in relation to these powers that are dragging you one way or the other. I think first what has to happen is that your political parties should not be exploiting these different affinities once pro-Russian, once pro-American, once pro-European Union. I think politically, Bulgaria needs to think about Bulgarians primarily. How best the well-being and economic welfare and the cultural identity of your country can be established and sustained instead of having to perform to all these puppeteers that are holding the strings. It’s a terrible position to be in, but I think my feeling is that that is how Bulgaria feels.

Weaponization of notions leads to their degradation?

I certainly agree that it’s very difficult when the political poles are at war to be some kind of a middle ground or connection point.  I just need to note that sometimes that happens and we see that in the case of Turkey and there have been traditionally some countries which are some kind of a bridge, countries like Austria or Israel.  I can certainly understand that Bulgaria still has work to do if it ever manages to reach the international recognition or importance of such countries, which managed to be not only bridge passively, but also some kind of countries which have subjectivity and like Turkey, engaged different parties and brought some connection between them. 

I also took another point from your words. I think you mentioned that West and Russia are being weaponized in our society and when there is weaponization by somebody, there is this danger that if he is not well established or is not worthy of being supported, then maybe the thing which is weaponized loses its power or strength.  I was curious about that. We see that today, on one hand, we have weaponization of democracy, human rights, these good liberal values from the administration of Joe Biden. On the other hand, we have weaponization during the Trump era of traditional family values. When there is weaponization, people somehow speak to themselves. They think the value which they weaponize is self-sufficient and they just say they need to state it and then say who is the enemy and who is not aligned. I wonder, isn’t there some trap when you weaponize even the most noble values? Isn’t that a way to the loss of their significance or power?

First of all, your point about having the status of a bridge or a country that’s able to state its neutrality, you need some sort of solidity, some sort of structure. To be a bridge, you need the warring countries or the countries that are creating this polarization in global affairs to depend on you. I don’t think Bulgaria has got that strength. Bulgaria is too dependent on the warring countries.

To get to your second point, about the weaponization of things like civil rights and family values. It’s to some extent back to tribalism again. A lot of it comes from naivete. For instance, the fact that the people who tend to talk about these sorts of issues tend to be middle class and have a certain level of privilege and a certain level of confidence in their own status in the different nations in which they live in the West.

Something that was very interesting to me, many, many years ago, and I think it must have been something like 15 years ago in Bulgaria – we were trying to introduce the concept of foster care to Bulgaria, you know, the situation whereby children who for one reason or another cannot safely remain in their own families, could be raised in another family without the child actually being adopted to become the certificated son or daughter of the new family. Now, we were trying to introduce this concept into Bulgaria, but the consultants from the West almost inevitably came with materials and video clips that showed a very Western style of family in Bulgaria. The families almost looked like the ideal family from a Danone advert, you know, a yogurt advert, beautiful blonde hair. They lived in these wonderful houses and they looked nothing like a Bulgarian family. When my organization closed the first baby home in Bulgaria back in 2010, 2011, we had to actually warn our Western partners that some of the models they use for parenting and family dynamics didn’t work in Bulgaria. Again, they were based on Western middle class standards and behaviors. They certainly wouldn’t work in, for instance, the Roma community here in Bulgaria, where the culture is entirely different.

I think a lot of it. You just can’t import values from one place to the other. There has to be a level of acceptance of the depth of the culture among other social groups or in other nations. There has been this unfortunate tendency from the West. Using human rights as the weapon to attempt to colonize other countries and import its own values into these countries. I don’t think it’s done in a malign way. It’s just naivety, it’s blinkered-ness. It’s not realising that the values that you hold dear don’t necessarily apply in those other countries. So if you’re attempting to globalize, if you’re attempting to spread liberal ideas, you’ve also got to be prepared to localize and respect local cultural tradition. I think this blindness has allowed political movements to weaponize these different values and set them against each other.

For instance, the human rights activists in Bulgaria are at war with the populists who make references to traditional orthodox Christian values in Bulgaria. There isn’t necessarily a conflict. It’s just the extreme versions of both that are being weaponized for political purposes.

Politics as game of economic groups

You mentioned that pure imitation or globalization of certain concepts or approaches doesn’t automatically work in the periphery. But still, when I look at the politics in our region, Central and Southeastern Europe, there is over and over this contradiction between technopopulists, you know, that has anti-corruption tendency in society, middle class, pro-corporations, pro-Biden and the conservative populists, let’s say Orbanists who are more related to traditional values or to oligarchy, to some kind of national capital. Now we have seen an interesting situation in Bulgaria where presumably the two parties, which are faces of these two contradicting tendencies, seem to be aligning for a government. But still, we have over and over this contradiction and we don’t seem to have a populism of our own, which maybe sounds stupid. I’m curious to ask you why our societies have these similar contradictions in politics and why they don’t develop a populism of their own or some kind of political tendency of their own? Have you thought about that?

I know what you’re referring to and it’s something I encountered. I’m not a political animal, although I do have to deal with Bulgaria’s politicians. I work in the NGO sector, so I work in the human rights sector. I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but I’ll say it anyway. Sometimes I notice a lot of my Bulgarian colleagues in this sector are more zealous and have less self-doubt about some of the human rights issues and the way they need to be protected in Bulgaria. When, for instance, I read an essay years ago. I can’t remember exactly, I think it was written by Sampson.I think he was a social anthropologist from the University of Lund in Sweden who had worked in this region, primarily in Albania. I think he’d done some work in Romania as well. And he refers to these Romanians, Bulgarians, these local people who worked for the big international agencies like Unicef, like Eurochild, like the World Bank on issues of human rights. He wrote they tended to develop into a style of comprador bourgeoisie. They become more western in the way they present themselves than the Westerners are themselves. And they become very comfortable in the style of living that it provides for them and the prosperity and the status. There’s an expression: there’s nothing worse than a zealot, a convert, someone who’s taken on the values of another group. I often say I meet Bulgarians who are more Western than I am. So I see that they are very supportive of this technocratic, very western, very human rights-oriented political movement. I do have a degree of empathy for the other side.

So, I don’t know where this leads, Vladimir. I know exactly what you’re referring to – this polarization and how it’s based on extreme versions of certain basic human ideas. We really need to find a middle ground and realize the differences between the two polarities are not that extreme. Maybe if we talk to each other in a little more civil fashion and mixed, they would understand something and learn to accept some of the truths that are coming from the other side. So it’s about positive relations. Again, we’re back to social capital. Giving the other side the space and the time and the opportunity to express themselves civilly and you doing the same and learning from each other, rather than this constant opposition and staying apart and just hurling insults at one another. Something has to give in terms of compromise and seeing the realism and the truth in each other’s positions.


Here you touch another notion which I am curious to present before you. Western political theory or sociological thinking has created the notion of “unlearn” or unlearning. So basically, I think it’s also a heideggerian idea that throughout life we accumulate certain power over being. We see, especially now in Bulgaria, how people who have been accumulating certain kind of hegemony within their own bounds for decades, in one or the other direction in which society now is being polarized and they just unleash this might which they have accumulated and it is returned as hatred towards them from the other side. I have the feeling this mutual battle leads to more and more accumulation in a way of power over being. They are more and more alienated from some condition which may have existed in their early life when they have not been so politicized or have been just normal citizens without this might, which they have accumulated over time. This is kind of challenging, at least for me. How can you say to people not to fight when there is a hot war, but to unlearn what they have been thinking that makes them more themselves. How can that really be communicated? Is it a really valid approach? Because I have the feeling that without the unlearning, we always accumulate more and more and it just can’t end. It ends only with death.

There’s something I do in my own personal study when I’m adopting positions or wanting to put across an argument, it’s a very good exercise to actually read what the people are saying. Those people who are are likely to be opponents of your argument. It’s a very good exercise to see what the opposition is saying because, one, it enables you to test your arguments against theirs and just see how convincing or how adept you are at deconstructing their arguments. Alternatively, it’s almost inevitable that I’ll find that there is truth in the opposing argument. They’re not wrong, but neither am I. It is possible for opponents to both be right, and I think this is in essence, the basis of compromise. It’s as if we need to… how shall I put it… Create a safe space where it’s possible for potential opponents or people who are throwing stones at one another to safely tell their stories, their versions of reality to each other, and come to realize that neither one of them is necessarily wrong?

Maybe what we need is some sort of facilitator in the middle. Some sort of neutral body in the middle. A kind of coming to get the sort of bang heads together. Come together, both of you. I’m not going to let you fight with one another. Just talk to one another in civil fashion. I don’t think this has ever happened politically in Bulgaria. There’s a tendency for the minority parties or the newly formed parties for the sake of their own existence, for sustaining their own influence, to side with one of the bigger parties, one of the coalitions or the other coalition. There’s never been a strong enough neutral body in Bulgaria to bring the opponents together or to stand between them and say, look, we’ve got to reach a situation of compromise for the greater good.

How could people without resources be politically represented?

Yes. I wonder whether contradictions may not be more easily understood if we see their economical base. For example, the technocratic element generally has the support of the financial sector or IT industry, and the oligarchical tendency usually has the construction sector or maybe the military. If we look at American politics, at least we see that Joe Biden has been known for his ties to strong financial institutions including during his time as senator from Delaware. And we see that Trump did a lot in the construction sector and later signed a lot of contracts for military deliveries to different countries. So I just wonder if we look at politics as a purely economical game, whether it will not be more honest about where our interests lie. I guess the big number of people are not businessmen or don’t own their own businesses and maybe they will ask themselves: how can we be represented in this politics when we don’t have the economic resources?  Maybe if they ask this question, there will be a new answer.

I’m not comfortable. I don’t know whether this criterion of a politician’s alignment to a particular economic sector always prevails. Does it depend on their own personal background, where they’ve been employed or the business interests they’ve had in the past? It’s almost like saying that idealism has gone out of politics and it’s all an economic game nowadays. I don’t know if that’s true.

Okay, but still, I think it’s common wisdom in a way that big business  gets more represented in governmental institutions than people who are just workers or just don’t have their own business. So I was curious to ask you, how can this problem of representation be changed? My own thinking about that is that either people should have some way to obtain resources without having capital in the first place. Or maybe politics should be somehow changed so that it is not only a competition of those who have resources.

This is okay. Now you’ve reframed what you were saying. This is an issue that academics and political theorists have been struggling with in the West. How do you reduce the influence of big business in politics and give ordinary citizens a greater degree of representation and a greater degree of influence over decision making.

There have been different models put forward about how to allocate points, as it were, or allocate lobbying power to different individuals or different groups. So that groups from civil society or groups created from the general public can actually be awarded equal status with business groups. The ideas sound appealing, but I don’t know how practical they are because in essence, what we’re talking about is a style of corruption. The way that money always seems to talk, the way that money buys influence. So what we’re really talking about is not how to allocate lobbying power to different sectors in society. What we’re really talking about is how to take the corruption out of politics and how to prevent powerful individuals, powerful in the sense of extremely wealthy or powerful industries who are capable of spending mind bogglingly sums on political lobbying. How to prevent this from actually happening.

And I really don’t have the answer, Vladimir. If I’m honest.

Okay. It’s good that the question is asked.

It’s a very legitimate question. And I know there are a lot of minds, a lot better than mine working on this question as to how to create a level playing field so that the masses, the general population, have as much lobbying strength, as much competence to influence politics as big business has. I don’t think anybody’s come up with a satisfactory solution yet, simply because big business is just so powerful and our political class are in its grasp. I really don’t know what the answer is.

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