Life without armour and non-hegemonic foreign policy: a proposal for change in Bulgaria and its region

The world is heading towards more and more distrust, destruction and violence. Bulgarians’ chance for affirmation lies not in exporting just another national egoism and participating in the distribution of violence, but in betting on progressive change not only for themselves, but for all the “subalterns” in the EU periphery

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 14 April 2024

This text was published in the night, when international, Israeli and Iranian media reported of an attack with drones and cruise missiles of the Islamic Republic of Iran against the State of Israel in retaliation for an earlier aerial attack on an Iranian consulate in Syria, which led to high-ranking casualties from the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and was attributed to Israel, even though Tel Aviv didn’t assume responsibility for the attack. 

A few days ago the former Bulgarian foreign minister and former Bulgarian eurocommissioner Mariya Gabriel presented in Sofia a Bulgarian foreign policy strategy. The text you are reading now is also meant to be part of the search for a modern Bulgarian foreign policy that takes into account the ever increasing complexity of the world that we live in. In the author’s view this complexity requires a greater level of subjectness or agency of Bulgarian citizens. 


The Bulgarian political crisis of the spring of 2024 is yet another spasm of the inability of the Bulgarian political elites to resolve how the sails of the state ship should be set in accordance with the multitude of winds blowing in the region, so that Bulgarian society moves forward. At a time when Germany and France are finding it difficult to act together at EU level, the two leading political groups – the anti-corruption formation We Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria and Boyko Borissov’s European People’s Party – GERB – have failed to agree on the rotation of the prime minister and his government. Early elections are expected and there is a lot of trolling on social networks and in the international media, because if Bulgarians have to vote for the 6th time in 3 years, it looks like they “like” elections, even though their elections tend to produce more or less the same result. 

Bulgarian politics remains a great mystery to all those looking for a magic formula to understand it. This text is a modest contribution to the effort to make sense of the Bulgarian riddle within an enigma. But instead of offering a tool to untie the Gordian knot of the Bulgarian elites, I would like to try to change the paradigm. Aware of the utopianism of the endeavour, I would look at the ordinary Bulgarian citizen, how this fellow Bulgarian can become a subject of international relations, and how change does not necessarily lie in choosing the “good”, pro-Western, young, beautiful, technocratic, educated and rich against the “bad”, old, ugly, populist, simple-minded and poor, but in finding a way to empower everyone. This theory of change may sound absurd at times, but faced with the futility and almost non-existence of the internal life of Bulgarian parties, and the reduction of Bulgarian politics to the insults that a few dozen politicians hurl at each other, I see no other way but to look for ways to transform despair and meaninglessness into determination and hope for the Bulgarian himself (the abstract Bulgarian who is the subject of Bulgarian and EU modernity), on whom the entire structure of power in Bulgarian society rests – the common man, the citizen. 

For me, there is no doubt that political power in Bulgaria is based on the accumulation of dominance over the Bulgarian citizen (it could be also said “over the (Bulgarian) being”), and a large part of social relations are dealing with the over-accumulation and possible redistribution of this power. As long as the initial, “sacrificed” Bulgarian (in this situation the base) on which the political superstructure is based, remains immature, easily deceived, apathetic, discouraged, fearful and insecure, we would have flawed politicians and elites parasitising on mediocrity. Therefore, the change in the system will not come from replacing one group of elites with another, who manages the usual Eastern European state of fallenness in the country, but from finding a way to emancipate the citizen and let him affirm his competence, his ethical, intellectual and emotional autonomy, growing in complexity. The existence of a larger number of politically non-aligned people or change agents in Bulgarian society can challenge the current political and social system, which tends to be too hierarchical, rigid, unequal and exhausting for the common man, especially outside Sofia.

Intro – what is the Bulgarian condition?

Bulgaria tends to surprise. On the surface it is often unattractive. But if you know the right people, or have a bit of a knack for it, you can easily extract a lot of positive emotions and takeaways. Sofia’s serendipity, the peculiarity of the Bulgarian capital that you meet people by chance and without prior arrangement, could be one of Bulgaria’s trump cards. If you have the right job or social position, it may be enough to simply enter a flow (Mihaly Cziksentmihaly’s term) and let your life unfold. 

Yes, Bulgaria can offer a wealth of experiences and worldviews in a relatively small area. It could be a great school to learn from. Some people like living in Bulgaria because, they say, everyone is different from everyone else. This sounds like a positive version of being Bulgarian – diversity and pluralism of identities and life as a collective creation.

But for the purposes of this essay, I am not interested in the people who thrive and do everything with light movements (a phrase I borrow from a song by Slavi Trifonov, the leader of the There is Such a People party, who had a career as a singer and showman before becoming a political leader). Their battles have been won and their dilemmas resolved. I am interested in the brokenness of Bulgarians as “an existential territory”, where the potential for change and emancipation lies. 

It can be very disheartening to live in Bulgaria and struggle to survive if there has been some hardship and unhappy turn of events in one’s life. And there’s a danger that individual and legitimate frustration will be lured and exploited by some of the many forces in Bulgarian society that do not seek change and growth for all Bulgarians, but only to redirect discontent against a convenient culprit – Russia or Western Europe, Putin/Orban or Biden/Soros. If we fall for the cheap and intense propaganda of any of the hegemonic powers that form masses against “evil”, we will no longer have life as a collective creation in the sense of abundance of individualities, mutual enrichment, love of life and transformation. We will have the opposite of all this – life as an accumulation of power over being. 

It is on this concept of life that hegemony rests. It is the idea that there is one and only one norm and that we are all lesser or greater representations of it. This is an invitation to violence, because the only way to affirm ourselves under a single norm is to suppress the efforts of others to emancipate and grow, for fear that if these people advance they will replace us in the hierarchy. One and only standard means the domination of narcissism. And on the next level we see the competition of opposing versions of the single norm, which may have great hatred for each other, but which also have a common interest in keeping people in the existential territory where people are proxies.

In this way, people who see themselves as proxies of the West or the East, who think in terms of security structures and see enemies and traitors everywhere, dominate public consciousness and media discourse. In my view, people with such a mindset can never be truly happy, truly loving and truly at peace. They will always feel some deficit of power over the opponent, will struggle to accumulate more power through mutual domination with the enemy, but the more power they accumulate, the greater the deficit they would feel. The contradiction between growth as the accumulation of power over life (or in other words – might – the ability to twist hands and impose things that others don’t want) and growth as the renewal and transformation of life is key to the theory of change in Bulgaria that I am trying to formulate.

Mutual domination and accumulation of power over being vs life as renewal

With this text I initiate a series of thoughtful reflections on the transformation of Bulgaria through the active and engaged attitude of the Bulgarian citizen towards the world beyond the borders of Bulgarian trauma. I suggest that socialisation in Bulgaria is too often associated with damage and learned disability. It is telling how the weak are treated in Bulgaria. 

Bulgarian society has strong attitudes against Middle Eastern migrants, Roma people, LGBT people, and other categories of people, who are socially constructed as weak. To be weak in Bulgarian often is an invitation that you undergo aggression. I started writing this text in a week, in which the nationalist/patriotic party VMRO organized anti-migrant protests before the Harmanli refugee camp. In the same week an Afghan family couple was heavily beaten by hooligans and a gang of young people recorded on video how they beat a 20-years old Syrian migrant without parents. We saw again the inhuman, barbaric and dumb part of life in Bulgaria, a society where brute force – physical or financial, rules and destroys the weaklings. Respectively, talk of human rights or dignity is for losers. 

People socialised in the Bulgarian way have always shown that words alone mean nothing to them and cannot lead to a human reaction or connection. These people don’t respect the other because he/she is a human being like them. They respect him/her only when they fear him/her, when he/she can harm them. They do not respect the words or the facts, but the power behind them. The same words or facts are treated one way if there is power behind them and another way if there isn’t.

In this context, we can understand why Bulgarian society – as a whole and as individuals – is harming its fellow citizens and creating huge obstacles on the way to their healing. As a result, many people my age – 40 – even if they are educated and live in the capital (which promises a good life), complain of low energy. They don’t find meaning in their work, they don’t seem to have the transformative power in their relationships and they are frustrated. What society invites them to do is to dominate each other with similarly frustrated people, but from opposite political orientations. Both have already accumulated some baggage of hatred and they unleash that accumulation on each other. The end result is that what they send out as hatred comes back to them stronger. In the process, they relive the initial trauma, the so-called Bulgarian trauma, which socialised them as Bulgarians. And this trauma is what accumulates power over their lives. So over time, if this practice does not change, people will find it increasingly difficult to change themselves deeply. Instead, they will confirm their inability to connect with people who don’t share their flaws and contradictions. Thus their lessons from life will be much more limited compared to people who can not only learn from their own trauma, but who can see, understand and influence the traumas of others, whatever their nature (and “nationality”).

Bulgarian trauma and static identity

It is not difficult to see that this mutual domination, regardless of the generations in which it takes place, is based on a static identity. We Bulgarians are often stubborn. We can work and endure a lot. But no matter how much we struggle and what difficulties we have overcome, it is as if there is an unchangeable lid on the pot. We are in eternal brackets. It doesn’t matter what happens between them. Outside of them we are always the same, unchanging and static. And this lack of inclination and gradient for transformation makes us, out of desperation and powerlessness, to dominate each other with opposing static identity. It takes a lot of effort, psychic power and intelligence to discover how we can dismantle our static identity by our own efforts. 

If we are able to destroy ourselves (i.e. destroy our static identity, the wall around and within us), we would also be able to build ourselves as autonomous and emancipated individuals. We will be free of the Bulgarian trauma on which Bulgarian political and social life is based. The narcissistic political power will not be able to reproduce itself and be strengthened by us. Instead, paradoxically, it will begin to treat us with respect. This will create opportunities for change, especially if this process of emancipation gets multiplied.

But Bulgarian trauma is often very resilient. People tend to suffer, complain, be drama kings and queens, but often don’t have the spirit to destroy their static identity. In the end, this is one of the keys to Bulgarian existence – there is always a small pebble in the shoe that causes discomfort. There is always a structure of power that prevents your complete happiness, and it could often be a troublemaker for you or your group. 

The wisdom of this experience could be that no one is omnipotent and the art of living is the art of accepting your limitations. But it could also be very frustrating because the other person could be seen as the embodiment of our powerlessness. And that can unleash violence and psychological degradation.

The solution to the problem with the Bulgarian trauma – experiences outside of it (abroad)

I argue that this feeling of being stuck in the dissatisfaction of the Bulgarian experience is not a good teacher for Bulgarians, and that the negative energy must somehow be transformed into something positive. In my view, this could happen if Bulgarians began to look out into the world beyond the Bulgarian trauma for new experiences. This could happen through a process of unlearning the internalised learned inability, which could open up space and create energy for meeting new people and doing new things beyond the boundaries of the Bulgarian trauma. I see this process as deeply transformative at the level of the individual, and also as necessary at the level of society and in international relations.

Being part of the world would mean experiencing and living with a greater part of our personality. It would mean endless transformation. It would increase our potential and show us that there are other ways to progress than using the power of some lobby to protect our static element from change and impose our might (in fact the lobby’s one) on others. It would also make us wiser and more resilient to the Bulgarian drama. We might even find ways to influence life in Bulgaria in a positive way.

Bulgaria and its region

Bulgaria’s region could be a great source of experience and energy, if only we had the internal drive, ambition and a bit of know-how to engage with it in a non-hegemonic way. But in the current situation, Bulgaria lacks ambition towards its neighbours and the region. News about the neighbourhood is relatively rare, and the depth of news coverage or analytical reflection and understanding of the other could be much better. 

The approach to neighbours and the region is standard and typical. There is a tendency that it is characterised by a general negation and suspicion of “the West” (a position that ultimately confirms the peripheral status of Bulgarians) – parts of the Bulgarian elite see our neighbours as proxies of “anti-Bulgarian” parts of the West (e.g. Serbia as pro-French, Macedonia as pro-European, Romania as pro-CIA, etc.), even though the same Western power structures are present and cooperate with Bulgarian partners too. 

Alternatively, another typical interest in neighbours and the region is based on Bulgarian national egoism (variously referred to as national interest), which aims to re-Bulgarianise and counteract the de-Bulgarianisation of former Bulgarian territories from the medieval period. The latter approach can be seen as patriotic and is certainly based on Bulgarianism, on the set of concepts and experiences that affirm Bulgarian identity inside and outside Bulgaria. But it prevents the building of trust with neighbours and, just as in the case of scepticism towards “the West”, it reinforces the idea that Bulgaria is an island surrounded by enemies. 

It is a mindset that is considered Bulgarian and may be sceptical of this or that international force, but it can also be used by great powers interested in using Bulgarians as proxies in their regional games of mutual domination with other great powers and their proxies in Southeastern Europe. We must be aware that there are a plurality of ways of being Bulgarian, and the understanding that there is one and only legitimate Bulgarian position or interpretation of historical and contemporary events is hegemonic and can be contrary to the very Bulgarian national interests that Bulgarianism par excellence defends. Bulgarians, like any other nation, are not eternal and unchanging realities, but people and identities in flux, with internal and external dynamic relations of dialogue and mutual enrichment. 

It can even be argued that we have no way of knowing who is the ultimate and only right way of being Bulgarian – the pro-Serbian, the pro-Greek, the pro-Turkish, the pro-Macedonian, the pro-Romanian and all the other ways. When someone says “I am neither pro-American nor pro-Russian, but pro-Bulgarian”, in most cases they fail to define what exactly Bulgarian interests are. There are various forces that try to weaponise Bulgarian-ness in order to strengthen their particular political or economic group and make it hegemonic. And I believe that Bulgaria is something that can’t and shouldn’t be privatised or weaponised. A true Bulgaria is a plurality of identities and ways of life. And a democratic and modern Bulgaria allows everyone to participate in life as a collective creation. 

What I describe above as an insular mentality may look like a thinking that is aware of what real life is, that is aware of Realpolitik (relations between nations are always relations of power). It may be tempting to see the insular mentality as being faithful to the logic of the world. I wouldn’t deny that this logic exists and is popular in our region and elsewhere, especially on the periphery of the international system. But I would argue that this thinking is from older times and cannot bring great results today, just as it failed to achieve Bulgarian national unification (Bulgaria lost its wars for national unification in the 20th century). It keeps our region in a state of perpetual periphery and turns many of the relationships within the region into relationships that do not aim to build or advance anything new. Instead, a lot of energy is spent on preventing others from doing anything and keeping the bad karma between us alive.

Synchronization vs affirmation of peripherality

In my view, real engagement with the region would come from people who have an internal idea of synchronisation with their neighbours. They would want to build networks and grow together with their neighbours on the road to Europeanisation and modernisation. They would not have a pro or anti attitude towards the major geopolitical players, be they Western or Eastern, and would look in every relationship for ways to bring energy and experience to the region to enable its growth and affirmation. They would not be driven by national or imperial egotism.

It would be a pity if the sole aim of the foreign policy of a country from the EU’s semi-periphery was to affirm yet another national egoism and to mutually dominate with the existing ones. Bulgaria and Romania are at the bottom end of the distribution of violence in the West. The Romanians may slap the Bulgarians for their Russophilia, and the Bulgarians may slap the Macedonians for their historical mythologies, but literally everyone else in the region is capable of slapping, and is slapping, the two EU nations in Southeastern Europe. A real foreign policy strategy for Bulgaria can only move the country out of its unprivileged position if it is non-hegemonic. This means that it should be motivated and driven by a set of positive and life-affirming concepts and understandings that bring about progressive change not only for Bulgaria but also for its region – from Poland to the Black Sea and the Aegean. 

In this case, a non-hegemonic approach to the world would mean unlearning our deeply ingrained proxy identity, building relationships on the basis of life as renewal and not as accumulation of power over being, being sincere, without armour, emotionally engaged, curious, interested in new people and experiences, generous, responsible, etc. 

We are non-hegemonic when we are aware that our own existence and our own choices are sufficient for positive evolution to take place inside and outside of us. In such cases we are aware that we don’t need the accumulation of might. We need to be true to our essence, to be authentic, and to do what is necessary for others to do the same. Therefore, to be non-hegemonic and at the same time an engaged part of the world is to let the spirit of the times flow through us and our relationships, transforming everything it touches. It is not the spirit of the West or the East, of the centre or the periphery, of the technocrats or the populists. It is the spirit that remains when we take off all kinds of clothes. It is the spirit of humanity as a subject in the world. By renouncing all possible group egoisms, we become the only real actors in the world – those who have expanded their consciousness to take into account the interests and realities of all humanity. And even if such a goal may sound absurd or utopian, the only truly solid basis for building is the whole. By reaching for universalism, we develop true knowledge and consciousness to act on a local level. 

Therefore, Bulgaria or any other nation/empire tends to harm its citizens by moulding them to reproduce its national/imperial egoism. A truly modern and caring country would not strive to constrain and handicap its citizens in order to build its hegemony through them. It would create the conditions for people’s potential to grow and become complete. In this sense, change in Bulgaria does not mean replacing pro-German elites with pro-French elites or vice versa, nor pro-Russian lobbies with pro-American lobbies or vice versa, but allowing and encouraging the ordinary Bulgarian citizen to overcome his/her static element and enter into the movement of the spirit of the times and the world.

Bulgarians, the people, as subjects of international relations

How can this static identity be overcome?

Instead of seeing opponents, walls and threats around them, Bulgarians should go out into the world with a high degree of confidence in its good intentions. Bulgarians should strive to build more social capital in their relations with the world, instead of trying to conquer markets in areas such as fast credits or betting companies. They should withstand and be aware of the bad image that other Bulgarians have created for them in the region, but also seek to correct it, including through personal effort and example. Bad karma in relationships should be transformed into good karma. Negative peace (the absence of war, but also the absence of engagement with a country/neighbour) should become positive peace (i.e. active cooperation). 

Bulgarians should overcome their socialisation trauma and become leaders in the process of regional synchronisation on the way to the EU, instead of relying on promoting divergence with “similar” sovereignist forces in Northern Macedonia and elsewhere (similar in the sense that the result of the activity of sovereginists in the region is similar – to prevent its move towards the center of the international system), thus mutually strengthening the semi-peripheral position of the region. 

This is not because the author is against Bulgarian, Macedonian or any other patriotism, which have and will have their place and role to play in the region and the world, but because the context in which our national and regional contradictions take place should be allowed to evolve. If we don’t unlearn some or all of our hegemony, we and our region will not be able to assert its interests in international relations. It would forever remain on the periphery. If it succeeds in advancing internationally in terms of synchronisation and importance, we will once again have our eternal battles of particular national or other righteousness, but already in a context where they will be much more fruitful, because their representatives will also have less of a static identity. Therefore, everyone will be better able to make his point, to influence “the other” and to see his truth recognised and affirmed. 

In my opinion, the above-mentioned noble ambitions can be achieved if the subject of foreign policy is not only and not so much the diplomat or the politician, but the citizen. Diplomats and politicians tend to have a relatively narrow understanding of what they perceive as the national interest and are constrained by procedures and regulations. Even if they have political power, there are obvious limits to what they can achieve with their neighbours, especially when the level of synchronisation in the region is low compared to the Visegrad Group or Western Europe. Moreover, the Bulgarian business does not always have a good image outside Bulgaria, and in some countries of the region it is considered to be dubious.

While there has been some regionalisation and regional cooperation of business/capital or of pro-Western NGOs (which are great, but lack a connection to the masses), there needs to be a regionalisation of the people, because they are the ones who have the greatest potential to change and be the change. People are not bound by visible hierarchies and have greater freedom and flexibility of action. They can disagree with many of the rigid concepts of their states, allowing for future policy changes and increasing the potential in bilateral and regional relations. They have the capacity to inject dynamism into bilateral and regional relations and to give depth to any efforts by elites to improve them. People can give a human dimension to what is otherwise too technocratic or money-driven. And I think that Bulgaria’s “foreign policy”, a society-driven foreign policy, will really change when Bulgarians become its subjects and implementers.

Goals and setup of a non-hegemonic foreign policy

Foreign policy is often an expression of domestic realities. But the reverse could also be true. Experience abroad could be crucial in bringing change to Bulgarian society with energy from outside. 

A non-hegemonic foreign policy, driven by people and characterised by sincere curiosity and interest in understanding and acting together with the neighbour/other, would also promote non-hegemonic relations in Bulgarian society. It is high time that the experiences of pro- and anti-attitudes were somehow allowed to grow out of their static identity disposition and become dynamic, self-reflexive, self-critical, influenced by changing reality and change-oriented. 

Russia, Western Europe, the USA or any other geopolitical tendency that has a hegemonic aspect in our region is not always right and “is not right even when it is wrong” (a phrase from the poem “Lead me, oh, Party, lead me” – a poem about the Bulgarian Communist Party, a poem known for such an intense love of the party-state that the lover is blind in his submission to the beloved party – the unique and ultimate source of truth). In reality, all political and geopolitical tendencies tend to have internal contradictions, have elements that are more progressive and elements that are more retrograde, just like Bulgarian society. The East is not a monolithic thing and the West is not a monolithic thing. 

A dynamic identity would be aware of the complexity of each power in the world and of the even greater complexity of relations between the international powers and between their different elements. Instead of arguing about who is the traitor among us – the Eastern or the Western proxies – we should all set ourselves the goal of overcoming the state of proxies in our society and the international status of the proxy of our country. 

Proxies “think” only until they find a force to surrender to and then build fortresses around it, unwilling to take into account developments in the world. True thinking, critical thinking as it is called, would not look for a mother or father to be subordinated to, but would embrace complexity, indeterminacy, and have its own orientation and added value in our increasingly complex world, making sense of what may appear to others as chaos. It is this thinking, incapable of being strong and categorical, perhaps appearing contradictory or ambiguous, that paradoxically can offer determinate action in our contemporary world. At the same time, the fortress of thought would always be looking for a hegemon, a big brother whose little brother it can be. It may have worked for a Cold War era, and it may be trying to bring that era back, but it has obvious limitations. It may be strong in its convictions and plans, when addressing a Bulgarian/peripheral public, but it may also be very unconvincing in a non-Bulgarian context, in a context of greater complexity, where you have to have your own strength, not “a strength” that comes from being someone’s echo. 

Bulgaria should not be looking for one or another big brother through which it can achieve its strategic interests in Macedonia or internally. We, as citizens, must not play big brother or little brother with anyone, but establish horizontal relations of friendship (bridges of friendship) with our region and begin to move forward in ensemble with it. We can only grow on the basis of solidarity, friendship, trust, optimism and belief in the other. Growth based on hegemony and the accumulation of power is unsustainable, insecure and has obvious limits, because where one hegemony ends, another begins. But if we based our growth on a dynamic identity with the other, we would transcend the limits of hegemony and power games. We would be people stripped of the superstructure of power. We would have a direct connection with the other human being, because the lack of superstructure means the lack of armour or weapon – in other words, the lack of power as mediator. And we must learn to walk unarmed in foreign lands, because that is the best way to feel safe.

What could a non-hegemonic foreign policy concretely mean in the cases with some of the neighbours?

For North Macedonia or anyone else, non-hegemony means first and foremost having a sincere interest in knowing and understanding the other, not so much on your terms, but on theirs. In the case of Macedonia, it could mean having cross-border media from which we can learn what life is like in Macedonia today, what are the important Macedonian theatre plays, rock bands, traditional dishes and urban jargon. It could mean not going there with a hidden weapon of Bulgarisation, or not trying to use Macedonians as proxies against anyone. It could also mean creating any kind of infrastructure that would allow Macedonians to do the same with Bulgaria – to understand it on its own terms and be enriched by that knowledge. This is the way to a dynamic identity, an identity that has different constitutive elements that interact and transform each other in a non-hegemonic way. 

Non-hegemonic foreign policy means living without the double layer of power that uses us as a front. We live and let others live. And we connect on the basis of freedom and respect for others and life. This approach may seem weak and unconvincing to people educated in the school of hegemony and realpolitik. I argue that non-hegemonic foreign policy will allow anyone who is able to practise it to literally replicate themselves in any other country and in any other context. And we will not enter these territories secretly, hiding our real intentions. We will enter through the main entrance and be treated with respect because of the necessity of our non-hegemonic position for that society. The true non-hegemonic position is to empower and bring positive change to everyone.

The more Northern Macedonia gets closer to the EU, the more the hegemonic approach against it will not work. Because becoming part of the EU means that Skopje would have passed its biggest test – it would prove that its statehood is viable. And as this test is eventually passed, the ability of any EU country, including Bulgaria, to impose its will by force will become increasingly limited. Until then, however, the Bulgaria non-hegemonic foreign policy in a non-EU country will differ from that in an EU country, because Bulgaria and North Macedonia are not equal in international status. A non-hegemonic Bulgarian approach to North Macedonia would look to identify who has agency there and would seek contact, no matter the generation, preferences and attitude towards Bulgaria and Bulgarians. Because non-hegemony is related to a specific type of subjectivity, which should be encouraged to grow.  North Macedonian elites may find non-hegemony challenging because it is difficult to find non-politicised, independent people who can relate to the respective Bulgarian elites. But the only way for North Macedonia to ever truly affirm its identity internationally is to have people and even groups that are not polarised, politicised and proxy. 

The same goes for Bulgaria, even though it is part of the EU. Bulgaria’s further rapprochement with the West would depend on the emergence of social positions and spaces where relations are not hegemonic. And Bulgarian-Romanian relations could be a school for this, perhaps paradoxically because Romania is the EU country whose status is closest to that of Bulgaria, even though it is perhaps the least known neighbour of Bulgaria.. In spite of that the ability to build bridges of friendship, relations based on reciprocity and real, deep understanding of the other, should be high, especially if the national-centric baggage from the transition period, with which Bulgarians and Romanians enter into relations with the outside world, begins to be unlearned. A non-hegemonic foreign policy in Bulgarian-Romanian relations will make it possible to acquire new experiences and knowledge at a price that is not high (due to geographical proximity and similar social phenomena that are easier to understand between the two cultures). It would naturally increase the potential of both sides and could allow them to act together in other areas, if the difficult part of building bridges of friendship between people and organizations is resolved. 

It is curious that a non-hegemonic foreign policy based on a dynamic identity with neighbours would allow Bulgarians to expand their consciousness in such a way that they have roots in lands that Bulgarian nationalists claim as historically Bulgarian. A dynamic identity with Bulgaria’s neighbours would mean internalising the contradictions in the neighbourhood. It is the opposite of what nationalists usually do – ready to ‘conquer’ these lands, impose the Bulgarian trauma and suppress foreign influences/traumas. A non-hegemonic approach would mean having commonalities, a shared history and synchronisation on the road to modernisation. It would mean learning and accepting others as they are, and correspondingly their acceptance and recognition of us. The non-hegemonic approach may prove easier to protect Bulgarian national interests than the emphasis on the extreme right that Bulgaria has in North Macedonia and elsewhere. But a non-hegemonic foreign policy would also allow other nations to feel that their truth is being recognised and respected – the whole truth, not just the convenient truth. This is what non-hegemony means practically – formation of a dynamic identity between various elements, where they grow and develop together and not at the expense of one another. 

Non-hegemony and change

I have already argued that non-hegemonic relations outside Bulgaria would also encourage non-hegemonic relations in Bulgaria. Bulgarian society should benefit from this because it would mean greater social capital. Therefore, a greater complexity of Bulgarian society could be achieved. The issue of change is also important in this context.

The failure of the We Continue the Change party to bring about significant change in Bulgarian society in terms of anti-corruption, the secret services, vested economic interests, the oligarchy, etc. is a sign that Bulgaria needs a more complex, more modest, more thoughtful and long-term theory of change. Experiences from neighbouring countries could allow us to look at our own society with new eyes. Romania, for example, is a country where great capitalist forces are being unleashed. And having the Romanian experience, we will easily see how Bulgarian society is also financialised. Every person, every group, every legal entity has various forms of capital – financial, social, knowledge, etc. – and interests associated with them.

The party of “change” (We Continue the Change) also failed because it never articulated what change meant in economic terms. But it is easy to see that all the important confrontations during the Petkov and Denkov governments had to do with financial interests. Petkov tried to stop the flow of state money to transport and construction companies linked to Boyko Borissov’s GERB party, which at the time was seen as clientelist and corrupt. And protests erupted. Denkov challenged the vested interests in agriculture and pushed through the green transition in the coal mining regions. In both cases, the affected economic interests protested and demanded compensation, which they received in one form or another. During the Denkov government, various state employees, such as cultural workers and others, also protested, demanding recognition of their right to more financial resources.

What comes out of all this is that the idea of having good, clean, IT or financial business and bad, oligarchic business in other areas, the idea of change as choosing clean, ‘progressive’, technological money over dirty, ‘retrograde’, clientelistic/populist money is still a limited way of thinking about change. This is a story that the administration of US President Joe Biden may like to hear, but a native Bulgarian understanding of change may have to sound much more complex. 

We will learn more and more that our society is a capitalist society, where the economic base reproduces itself in power. In such conditions, it is very difficult to literally destroy a company, an economic sector, or a political or economic interest. For example, there will always be gambling. There will probably be oligarchs in Bulgarian society for the foreseeable future. An outright attempt to destroy an economic reality that is rooted in society doesn’t seem realistic, because we are a free market economy, not a command economy, and because any attempt to build hegemony against anyone would create a counter-hegemonic response.   

The struggle for change could only be aimed at transformation, not at imprisoning, expelling or expropriating “the enemy”. That is, change means de-hegemonization. The gambling sector will remain, but it will be subject to greater regulation, as has already happened with the tobacco industry. The oligarchs will continue to exist. But if the common people are economically empowered, the oligarchic interests will be less hegemonic. 

I am sure that all of us who have been socialised during the transition or who have been economically successful in it are great men and women, very capable of achieving our ambitions, very strong in our righteousness and convinced of our intellectual ability as well as our financial and physical power to seduce. But let me guess – the tendency in our society is to tame all the vested interests and hegemons. We will continue to live, and we will certainly enjoy our great experiences from the times of transition, when we could really do anything and be anyone, as old norms fell apart and new ones were written by ourselves. But the future is one in which we will gradually be de-hegemonized in every possible way. 

Revolutions are probably not possible in the EU. Hilterists, fascists, stalinists may have had strong minds, strong ideologies and a higher degree of totality. For decades, however, strong thinking has been getting weaker as the complexity of the world we live in has been increasing. The social organism of our countries is becoming more complex, more diverse, despite all efforts to reproduce the Bulgarian trauma/norm. In this context, instead of clinging to the remnants of our strong ideas (such as anti-communism, anti-fascism, anti-Americanism, Russophobia, Russophilia, etc.), which might not be so convincing for the younger generations, perhaps a more honest and realistic position would be to embrace our “weak thought” (a term propagated by Giani Vattimo) and “weak” actions, which, however, could lead to a more democratic distribution of power in society. If such weakening of strong narratives happens, it is already a change and it is again linked to hegemony. 

The less hegemony there is in society, the more opportunities there are for citizens to have agency, as agency seems to be a territory, where hegemonies mutually neutralize each other. Agents have no agency. Agency is a property of citizens, who have somehow become empowered and are able to have their own agenda, while hegemonic forces in society keep doing their job. But how would a position with agency be achieved or be defined ideologically?

A non-hegemonic foreign policy could free us from the vestiges of the strong thinking of the Cold War (which slows down social evolution because of its hegemonic aspect and mutual denial with an enemy) and encourage us to be caring, responsible and thoughtful citizens in our own country, acting under the guidance of our authentic, inner drive, instead of being driven by some political or militarised hierarchical imperative. We may suddenly discover that anti-fascism and anti-communism can be non-hegemonic, unweaponized by political or geopolitical forces. And we may find that these presently weakened but authentic ideologies (or any other set of ideas/ideologies that have authenticity for us) can also be springing from within us and not have an ingrained anti-somebody aspect. 

In the end, we may find that we, the Bulgarians, are not necessarily different versions of a single Bulgarian norm, forever challenging each other’s Bulgarianness and right to speak or act on behalf of Bulgaria. We may discover that we are not competing with each other to be the temporary Bulgarian hegemon, suppressing the other “fake” Bulgarians until another roll of the political and geopolitical dice changes our roles over and over again. A synthesis of our particular identities should take place, so that the Bulgarian spirit and the world spirit merge, become embodied and real transformation begins. And after this synthesis it may turn out that we are all allies in our earthly existence and becoming. Everyone who is different from us would be here for us to connect with and affirm each other. We would be enriched by the experience of our differences and similarities. And, I suspect, a number of cold wars would end in active peace.

The End

I believe that it is not in Bulgaria’s interest to remain an island in a world where the flows of capital, ideas, people and goods are increasing. If we were isolated, we would be more vulnerable, divided and fragile. We need to develop an identity and capacity that would allow us to catch the global current and put it to our sails. But a non-hegemonic approach, a dynamic identity and a bridge of friendship with the elements in the world that we are able to connect with, also means that the world will learn about and from us, will find experience and energy in relationships with us, and will be transformed by our own experience and by interaction with us. 

There is a challenge for Bulgarians to unlearn hegemony, but there is also a challenge for their potential partners or stakeholders internationally. Are they also able to unlearn their hegemony? Because if they come to Bulgaria with a hegemony, they will provoke resistance from the representatives of a counter-hegemony. And just as Bulgaria will be less and less able to impose its will on Northern Macedonia as Skopje moves closer to the EU, the outside world may also find it more difficult to impose its power on future Bulgarians if we imagine that they will be less and less able to act as proxies. So we have a classic situation in Bulgaria where there will be forces for change – and change will be a development towards emancipation and non-hegemony, as well as the affirmation of Bulgaria and the region. And there will be forces that will resist this process because they fear that they will lose their privileged position in a world with a more equal distribution of power. 

A more equal distribution of power would mean the empowerment of the common man, the overcoming of the single norm and static identity, and a greater affirmation of the understanding of life as a collective creation. More than ever, Bulgaria needs to modernise and become a fairer and happier place to live. Not just in Sofia, but everywhere. 

I argue that a non-hegemonic approach to our external relations could be a way for us to make these big changes. I see this approach as one that should come from the people, because I believe they have greater potential to unlearn hegemony, which is probably institutionalised in various cases. It is noble to have policies that empower people and allow for greater complexity in the system, rather than basing your society on static identity and domination. I also believe that each of us holds the key to his or her own emancipation. We must act as if there were no power on which we depend, and in this way power can be modernised and transformed, in short dehegemonized/humanized. To begin this (a really long-term process), we have to move in the world without armour. A life without armour is a life that allows for intense experience. And we will see how we become something new. Because life is not an accumulation of power, it is renewal. 

Photo by Nacho Juárez:

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