Migration, walls and populism in Bulgaria

In this article Ildiko Otova and Evelina Staykova present their new book ‘Migration and Populism in Bulgaria’, published by Routledge. They descrbe how Bulgaria was unprepared for the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers in 2015, and how this phenomenon produced a sense of emergency that was exploited by populist actors. The populist rhetoric about the ‘migrants crisis’ of 2015 became so widespread that also non-populist actors started framing the topic in the same way. This produced a normalisation of right-wing, authoritarian, and populist discourses. Fear and scapegoating were used to generate a ‘crisis’ that has exacerbated popular dissatisfaction with the country’s institutions. In this context, real solutions and effective policies remained a mirage. Apart from walls, obviously, which are an all-time favourite and an instinctive response of authoritarian populists. In July 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bulgaria’s pushback practice violates human rights, and in August, amid growing concern in Europe over an influx of migrants from Afghanistan, Bulgaria decided once again to bolster its border with Greece and Turkey with hundreds of soldiers.

Ildiko Otova and Evelina Staykova tell us how we got here…


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Click on the cover to see the book’s details

The book traces the history of migration and populist discourses in Bulgaria from 1989 until now. We analyse how a lack of clear and coherent migration policies left Bulgaria unprepared for the 2015 European migrant crisis, thus leaving the door open for populism, which in turn managed to shape the public debate by framing migration as a menace and a burden to society. Crucially, populism has increasingly been co-opted by mainstream parties: this has led to what we describe as a normalisation of the populist rhetoric, giving legitimacy to attitudes towards migration as a threat to society. In this climate, constructive policymaking became far more difficult and simplistic solutions became popular. 

After the democratic transition and during the EU accession period, asylum was the first and most institutionalised area of policymaking in Bulgaria concerning migration flows. Nevertheless, due to a lack of planning and several other institutional setbacks—including the lack of an essential upgrading of management capacity and establishment of a stable reception system—the ‘refugee crisis’ found Bulgaria completely unprepared. Asylum applications peaked and new arrivals in the country produced mounting social tensions amid political and media hostility. Despite the ostensible normalisation of the situation in subsequent years, the reception system has failed to learn from the ‘crisis’. In fact, the few changes that were introduced were in response to the dominant securitarian reading and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The ‘refugee crisis’ quickly became a major internal political issue. Although the number of people applying for or having received refugee or humanitarian status in Bulgaria was relatively small, their presence excited the spirits and gave rise to a populist surge in the media and among the political forces. Bulgaria stopped developing and implementing new migration-related policies, leaving its old and inappropriate integration policies in place. The only real action concerned the construction of new walls: physical ones, along the territorial border of the state, but also symbolic ones, creating social barriers within society. After a rapid growth, the number of asylum seekers decreased rapidly, but the narrative about this issue remained solidly that of a ‘crisis‘. As Giovanna Campani argues, this is not a crisis of numbers: “it is a question of ‘narratives’ that has to be understood in the framework of a global and European process of political, economic, social and cultural transformation” (p. 29).

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In Bulgaria, as well as in other countries, political actors gain popularity using anti-migrant and anti-refugee discourses to mobilise the electorate. Often, one crisis is used to disguise another or to generate tensions along certain lines of conflict.

The ‘refugee crisis’ is not only about the dynamics of the migration flows, but reflects a much deeper crisis: the Bulgarian society is highly polarised and people do not trust the institutions. In this environment, symbolic policies and the politics of fear have found an extremely favourable ground. Moreover, these conditions have created a vicious circle, wherein less and less accurate policies and solutions are being offered, generating more and more distrust. Unsurprisingly, populism is rising in Bulgaria.

Several key moments led to the normalisation of populism in the country. The first one is related to the formation of the party system after the transition to democracy, the exhaustion of the transition cleavages, and the transformation of party politics into symbolic politics. The second one is connected to the way in which market economy was built in the country, with the merging of economy and state, the disintegration of the welfare system and the growing distance between citizens and institutions. The third one is related to the role of the media.

What is described in the book concerning Bulgaria is part of a broader, global trend. The beginning of the 21st century has marked the upsurge and the increasing influence of populism and extremism throughout the world. Populism is mainly associated with the extremist parties and movements today, but one can observe with increasing frequency the symptoms of the ‘normalisation’ of populism and detect it within mainstream parties or in state policies. This ‘flexibility’ of populism is associated primarily with its propagation among political parties and movements from the whole spectrum and its transformation into a dominant political process. This fits into the general trend of populism as illustrated by Ivan Krastev: modern populism does not aim to abolish democracy but rather thrives on democratic support, promising to lead the revolt against privileged minorities. This challenges in particular the stability and cohesion of countries like Bulgaria that witness a ‘crisis’ within crisis, because an external enemy can be used instrumentally to fuel a social and political crisis of representation.


Evelina Staykova

Evelina Staykova is doctor in Political sciences and associate professor at the New Bulgarian University. She is head of the department of Political sciences and coordinator of CERMES (Centre for Refugees, Migration and Ethnic Studies). Her teaching and research interests include migration and urban studies, citizenship and e-democracy, populism and far-right extremism.

Ildiko Otova

Ildiko Otova currently serves as a visiting assistant professor in her Alma Mater New Bulgarian University and in Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. She works also as research assistant in CERMES (Centre for Refugees, Migration and Ethnic Studies). Her teaching and research interests include migration and refugee issues, integration, urban policies and (e)citizenship, populism, far-right and extremism, and current forms of antisemitism.

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