David Bisset: Bulgarians and Romanians realize they need to be something more than great powers’ toys

The fourth part of the talk on social change in Bulgaria deals with the issue of identity

The Bridge of Friendship, 19 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 fourth, last part of the talk they discuss various aspects of the Bulgarian contemporary identity – the difficulty to determine what are the origins of the Bulgarian trauma, the issue of polarization between “West” and “East” over the war in Ukraine, to what extent Bulgarian identity is “split” or is it rather just an identity, which undergoes pressure from the Bulgarian chauvinism, etc. At the end David Bisset shares his thoughts on what social and identity changes he expects in the near future in Bulgaria, including in the context of the war in Ukraine.

We are approaching the end of our talk. I’m glad for the fact that you’re intrigued by what we are discussing. I want to finish with the issue of identity, which I think is key to anything that is to happen or not happen. We have been discussing that there is polarization in Bulgarian society and there is some difficulty to grow in such a situation in which you are constantly diverted between weaponized notions. I wonder how Bulgarian identity can be affirmed in a situation in which there is war between West and East or center and periphery? How can Bulgaria add value when we are in such an environment in which there is difficulty to form a society, to have social capital, there is difficulty to expand beyond the limits of your in-group, etc. Even if it’s a national in-group, it’s still an in-group. What’s your thought about Bulgarian identity in these conditions and the way forward for this identity?

There are certain phenomena, certain things in Bulgaria that remind me of Scotland. When I was a student or a very young man several decades ago, when Scotland was trying desperately to differentiate itself primarily from England, its dominant neighbor and was thinking in terms of breaking away. I could see how aspects of Scottish culture and its folk music were being distorted and homogenized in an attempt for Scotland to sell itself as something distinct from England. It was all bagpipes and kilts and songs about the mountains and the purple heather and things like this.

I can see this in Bulgaria as well. I see how you’re using these visible aspects of your history and your culture to try and identify yourself. But it can sort of lapse into a style of self-parody sometimes. It becomes a bit tacky. You know, if you go to Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast or other tourist centers, you see how the souvenir shops are selling exactly the same things. The folk restaurants are all very similar to one another. There’s very little to distinguish them. At this point in time, this seems to be an abject lack of imagination or innovation in the interpretation of Bulgarian culture. That happened in Scotland and soon after it emerged as a very strong political powerhouse in relation to England. So, I think there’s hope for Bulgaria.

I think it’s going to depend on innovators, on certain people with a certain level of international status, a certain visibility to use their Bulgarian identity in a more subtle, more nuanced, more realistic way. For instance, Georgi Gospodinov just won the International Booker Prize for literature. There was a great big fuss made about it in Bulgaria, about it representing the way that Bulgarian literature is at the zenith of international literature. It was all about Bulgaria. Bulgaria and Bulgaria again. However, Georgi himself didn’t put it across that way because it didn’t make any sense. You win literature prizes for innovation, for originality, not for representing a literary tradition. So the way it was presented in Bulgaria was nonsense, but in his own way and through his modesty. He said something about Bulgaria that perhaps populism doesn’t say.

There are those people out there who are good representatives of Bulgarian identity. Bulgarian dynamic identity. An identity that is looking to the future instead of clinging to some imagined past. I think it’s going to take time, Vladimir, to tell you the truth. I mean, I’m talking about a situation in Scotland that prevailed 3 or 4 decades ago, and Scotland did change. It found itself. But like Bulgaria now, it took a lot of muddling around. A lot of crass attempts at identifying yourself culturally on the world stage and a lot of braggadocio. You know, Bulgaria’s got to stop trying to be something that it isn’t and accept what it is before you can actually show yourself successfully. You can’t pretend. I think that’s the mistake that Bulgaria is currently making.

I see a lot of issues and I can’t help asking you something more difficult, at least for me. Maybe you know the book by R.D. Laing The Divided Self.

Yes.

Which is a book related to psychiatry, but basically it is, at least in my view, some kind of attempt to reconcile situations in which somebody has a split identity and to make such a person move on and develop so that eventually there is growth within this person in which there is this split identity. I ask that because I have the feeling that in Bulgaria now the polarization is very high and there is this division center-periphery which is transformed and molded into the division West-Russia or Soros-Russia, if you wish.

There are different definitions, and I can’t help thinking that when there is split identity, when there is such a strong polarization, it’s very difficult to do anything. When you engage these people, you get asked things like: are you from our side? Or even if you are not explicitly from one side or from the other side, some people make a choice and choose one side or the other. I think that if simply the good side is chosen, let’s say, the more modern side is chosen, the energy which is moved into the system  goes only to this one side and the other side is alienated from this transformation. So for me at least, there is this provocation or challenge: how to remain somehow connected with the whole society when I’m engaging another country, how to not play one element or one tendency against the other, but to somehow speak to all. This is one of the problems. There is some low energy in Bulgarian society and this division is exacerbated by the low energy.

So I don’t know if you get my point, but I can give even a better example. Maybe you are familiar with the situation in Iran where there were these protests by young people related to women’s rights, etc. There are situations in which polarization is very high and for me that is preventing the growth of the personality behind the identity. So how could that be changed? Isn’t it too long of a game to play or is it really possible to engage or somehow be related to the whole society, not only to the presumably more modern part of it?

Bulgarians are encouraged, as you say, to openly state what they are, as opposed to who they are. It’s almost as if they’re forced to wear a badge or a label because of this “tribalism”, this polarization that you refer to.  I think what needs to happen is maybe more Bulgarians need to rip that label off quite demonstratively and say: “No, I’m not playing this game anymore. I’m not taking sides and I’m simply going to be. What I want to be and I want to make my achievements and my work speak for me.” Like Gospodinov, as opposed to actually having to align myself with some group that I don’t have any affinity with.

But that takes confidence. You know it. It takes courage. It takes a lot of faith in yourself. I don’t currently find a lot of Bulgarians behaving that way. The ability to just be satisfied with who they are. To just get on with life. As opposed to having to flourish, wave their flag or flourish their badge. Maybe it doesn’t help that we’re now living in this age where platforms like Facebook and Instagram encourage you to actually wave a badge in public. That doesn’t help. But I’m sensing change. I do mix with a lot of young Bulgarians who are just tired of this and I think maybe through this resignation, it’ll just result in a sort of mass shrugging of the shoulders and say: look, enough, we’re just going to get on with our lives and make the best of our own personal skills, of the relationships that we want to have. And explore the areas of enterprise we want to explore. Follow the opportunities that we want to follow instead of having it dictated for us by the prominent tribes in Bulgaria. I think it’s going to be an act of resignation, an act of defiance and an act of solidarity with yourself and with others like you, rather than something more demonstrative. Something more theatrical, something more political, something more tribal. It’s the antithesis of that. It’s people just saying – sorry, I’m just getting on with life and I don’t need to prove anything.

Your words are very good for an end to this long talk, but I can’t help adding something because I am thinking about Bulgaria and Romania in terms. When we speak about identity, there is this issue that identity should allow for some, at least in my view, for some energy, some experience, some lessons maybe, to enter from the world beyond, which could be other nations or could be even the group or the world beyond your in-group, etc. This process is stuck by what could be seen as trauma, for lack of a better term. Basically, trauma creates some inability to connect in a rich living way. It closes the person. It closes the horizon of experience. In the case of Bulgaria, if we return to this polarization, It’s not very clear where the trauma is, at least at this moment. Some people are more open to the idea that it might be Russian trauma or some experience from socialism, from the current Russian state, the Putin ideology, whatever they call it, conservatism, etc. Other people tend to associate the trauma with the Western infusion in the country, the destruction which took place in the transition. Maybe that is one of the problems. At least if somebody inexperienced wants to connect to Bulgarians, it would have been very easy If it’s clear what is the trauma, where you stand with regards to this trauma. However in our case, we have some people who maybe have one or the other trauma, but they also have different attitudes towards this trauma. Some people are proud of having it. Some people are proud of denying the West or in fighting for democracy in their social networks. Some people may feel ashamed they have the trauma, but they also want to somehow maybe disconnect and maybe they can’t do it easily. Some people may be at peace with their trauma. Maybe they’re just living the way they are. 

As you said, people should just be. They may just be, but the trauma is part of their identity as a person. Even if they are at peace with it, it limits their experience. So maybe that is too complex of an issue, which I suggest. But I’m looking for some sort of solution. To what extent the solution is this connection with the world beyond, with the region, for lack of a better idea, how could it be made so that it could generate more energy for this change? We also have this problem that we have learned too well our lessons of socialization. When we go out of our country, It is immediately sensed that we have different socialisation “school” in our formation of identity. And other people who are not professional in their international relations just feel we are different. They may start asking, what do you do with Russia or whatever? They may hit us at our sensitive places without being able to connect with us as well. So I don’t know if you understand, but it’s a very complex issue to generate energy and bring change when the trauma is already existing.

I’m thinking. 

I think anybody, who is an individual, has trauma in their past somewhere. Either because something happened during your childhood. Something that happened when they were young children being raised. Maybe they were neglected or abused or didn’t feel an appropriate level of attachment with their parents. Learning to accept that trauma. Give it a name and realize that it’s part of you and it affects your current decisions, memories of it and pain can be triggered in current times. Accepting it can have quite a powerful, transformative effect on you as an individual. Now, if we’re talking about shared trauma, a trauma that’s quite widespread in Bulgaria. You know, you’re not the only person that talks about this. I mean, I mentioned Georgi Gospodinov. He talks about this existential sadness and the need to face it.

Maybe as a people, we are disappointed at the state of things. Maybe promises that were made to us have not materialized. Maybe things look bad at the moment, looking around at the crumbling architecture and the state of the roads and the fact that Bulgaria doesn’t seem to be making much of a contribution on the world stage. We’re not as well off as we would like to have been. When we go overseas we feel inadequate because the other people are more sophisticated and outgoing and worldly wise and cosmopolitan and exploratory and I think it would help if, as Gospodinov suggests, Bulgarians should name it. Yes, we are sad about the state of things. Then start from that low platform and give up the labels. Give up the pretense. Give up the attempts to paint a rose tinted picture of Bulgaria with its glorious past and its proud tradition and everything. Just accept that your country occupies quite a lowly position. Because then you’ve got a level platform on which to build upon. As opposed to pretending you’re something which you aren’t. 

It strikes me that a lot of young Bulgarians who I’ve known, who have gone overseas, come back and they give this performance of being a Westerner. It doesn’t convince me because it is too much of a performance.

No Bulgarian should be more Western than I am. So, I sort of say to them in the kindest possible way to knock it off. Give up. Yes, I accept that you’ve travelled to the United States. You don’t have to keep mentioning it in every second sentence. Yes, I know you’ve done this and you’ve done that and you’ve done the other. I’m not impressed. Just be who you are. You’ve got a lot to offer your country. You’ve got experiences that you’ve brought back with you. You perhaps got a superior education based on the fact that you studied in the United States and put it to use here. Just stop the pretense. Please stop performing. That does suggest you’re compensating for something that does suggest that the trauma of having been born in lowly Bulgaria in Rousse or some other town that doesn’t live up to the standards of London or Edinburgh or Venice or Copenhagen.

You know. You’ve got to knock this chip off your shoulder, which I think is a Bulgarian.

I didn’t know if you agree with the idea that Bulgarian identity has a certain element of splitness or being divided. In any case, I’m curious if somebody has this specific or some society has this specifics of having relatively equal division between center and periphery or whatever you call them, elements of the identity. What are the strong sides of such an identity? Does it have a strong side or maybe it has only weak sides? Maybe you’re unable to fit them into a world which has a dominant element in its identity.

I’m not sure what you mean by the Bulgarian split identity. Which makes it sound like some sort of schizophrenia or something. I think Bulgarians from an early age and as they go through the education system, are subjected to an element of local chauvinism. You’re encouraged to go along with it. Perhaps that provokes them to participate in a level of pretense, but don’t think that necessarily means that they, as individuals, have a split identity.

I think of anything that stunts their own potential. It prevents them from realizing what they’re capable of and what they are. They are individuals. Because from an early age they are encouraged to be, I don’t know, representative Bulgarians. They’ve got to be the best type of Bulgarians that they can possibly be.

No, no. There is no obligation to be like that. I think young Bulgarians, if they were allowed to be who they actually are and play to their strengths and develop their own potential would be far better than to be advertisements for Bulgaria. Having to collude with this pretense. Bulgaria is something which it quite clearly isn’t..

Final question. We are now in a situation in which there is war in Ukraine. As we discussed throughout the interview, the political fight in Bulgaria is also strong. I am curious when you think about the future, let’s say next five years or some kind of relatively near future. What changes do you expect to happen in our country, in Bulgaria, in which we both live?

You mean changes that are perhaps provoked by what has been happening in Ukraine?

Maybe, but not only in social terms. Identity terms, if you wish. 

I think what the war in Ukraine has brought into very sharp focus was the economic fragility of not just Bulgaria, but the entire European Union. The fragility of being dependent on great big long supply chains, bringing goods and commodities from all over the globe. The impact on the price of basic household needs in Bulgaria. I think it’s going to provoke Bulgarians to sit back – and I don’t think this is unique to Bulgaria. I think a lot of the ordinary populations in a number of European countries are going to ask very big questions or make very big demands about the economic formula in the European Union and in Europe. About some of the neoliberal assumptions.

I think this might even provoke more interest in the development of local resources and local capacity and less dependence on the global market as orchestrated by the big powers. I think it’s going to provoke discussion about a greater level of self-determination. Greater productivity at local levels that benefit local communities instead of this dependence on the big players in terms of identity in relation to Ukraine. I think it’s going to provoke Bulgarians and other populations in this part of Europe, more particularly, the Moldovans, to see how vulnerable they are in relation to the big powers. I think it’s going to create maybe a greater doggedness, a greater determination to the local spirit, not to be the playthings of those great powers any longer. I think it may provoke Bulgarians to say, what have we got to offer? Our own population. What can we make for ourselves? What can we make in cooperation with Romania? Should we review our relationship with Turkey? Should we here in the Eastern Balkans be more capable of standing on our own feet and doing things for ourselves and making our own decisions and not having to genuflect and ask for permission from the bigger powers?

There was a book written by Ivan Krastev and an American academic called The Light that Failed or something like that, that focused on this growth. Disillusionment with the West is starting to see that the West itself has big problems. It’s maybe not the model that we want to aspire to. So I think Bulgaria, like a lot of other countries, is going to look to its own resources and ask questions about its identity in relation to these Western powers and to the world as a whole.

Thank you very much, David, for this long talk, for patience, for resilience, and, in my view, for providing food for thought. I think that was our common intention when we embarked on this discussion.

I invite our listeners and readers to follow our channels on social media. The Bridge of Friendship and Cross Border Talks. And I think our interest towards Bulgarian, Romanian and other societies at the margins or more to the center of Europe will remain. Maybe you have more observations to make.

No, absolutely. I agree that this was really an exploration of issues. For which neither one of us has particularly positive answers. Issues that are big and challenging. Frightening, intimidating, perhaps, but issues about which we’ve got to start asking questions and ask ourselves, where are we going? Something’s got to give. We’ve got to face up to these challenges in this country and this part of the world. It’s been a very stimulating conversation. Thank you, Vladimir, for inviting me.

Thank you, David. You’re a friend and an important interlocutor for my media. Always.

Thank you.

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