Citizenship and nationhood in Bulgaria

Dimitar Bechev
Bulgarian presidency

To understand the roots, evolution and workings of citizenship, along with the norms and practices of inclusion and exclusion in present-day Bulgaria one must look back to history. As elsewhere in South East Europe, Bulgaria’s approach to national identity and citizenship reflects the country’s path from Ottoman rule to independent statehood. It was in the formative decades of the mid-19th century when questions of defining what it meant to be Bulgarian were being posed and answered, albeit tentatively.  One often comes across arguments that in the Balkans the imperial-era confessional subdivisions, the famed millet system, almost seamlessly transitioned into national self-identifications in modern times. Thus, in the Bosnian case which some have taken as paradigmatic, the communities professing Orthodox and Catholic Christianity as well as (Sunni) Islam evolved during the 19th and 20th centuries into three distinct national groups: Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. While language, shared territory or even everyday culture brought all Bosnians together, religious affiliation structured boundaries which proved resilient and later became the raw material for national particularisms.  In a somewhat similar vein, Greece and Turkey saw common religious bonds trumping internal ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity and set the basis for the modern(ising) state’s assimilationist mission. Hellenism largely subsumed Orthodoxy to homogenise and suppress a number of languages other than Greek as well as cultural identities while Islam became a basis for a common national identity in the ostensibly secular Turkish republic. 

The Bulgarian case is a reminder of the limitations inherent in such an approach. To the founders of the nation, religion was as much a building block as a challenge. The imagined Bulgarian ethnic body politic was part of the universalist and traditionalist Orthodox Church seated in Constantinople. Common faith rendered “ethnic” boundaries between Bulgarians and Greeks, AromaniansDanubian VlachsGagauz (Turkish speakers) or Orthodox Albanians in mixed areas fuzzy, porous and fluid. On top of that, prior to the emergence of state borders in 1878, it is impossible to speak of an unambiguous linguistic or cultural divide splitting Bulgarians from Macedonian Slavs (a question to this very day), and even with neighbouring Serbs, all part of a continuum of dialects. For instance, dense economic and kinship ties linked Sofia and the nearby Pirot in today’s southeast Serbia, as testified by Pirotska Street right in the heart of Bulgaria’s capital, once populated by settlers from that town.

For Bulgarians emancipation from the multi-ethnic Orthodox millet was the first, possibly most important, step towards nationhood. It was a traumatic process, to be sure. The prolonged struggle against the “Greek” clergy becoming particularly bitter in the 1860s led to the formation of the autonomous Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870, inaugurated by an edict of Sultan Abdul Aziz. There was no doctrinal difference with the Constantinople Patriarchate; the schism, denounced by the Patriarch as an instance of “phyletism” (literally “tribalism”, an artificial splitting of the community of faithful), was fundamentally a political affair. The Exarchate was nothing less than a national unit, the first institution supposed to pave the way to full self-determination. No wonder 1870 triggered a prolonged contest between the Exarchate and the Patriarchate (slowly transforming itself from a guardian of tradition to a champion of Greekness) for the souls of the largely rural masses in Thrace and Macedonia. What started as a struggle between tradition and modern nationalism evolved into a full clash between Bulgarian and Greek churches and states that turned particularly violent in the decade preceding the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. In northern and central Macedonia a parallel contest took place with Serbian nationalism. And contrary to contemporary Macedonian accounts, locals were not passive victims caught in between but key protagonists, whatever side they opted for.

Starting from its establishment in 1878, the Bulgarian state (which would gain full independence in 1908) instituted through its laws and administrative practices a complex mechanism of inclusion and exclusion. The constitution of 1879 declared its subjects all persons born on Bulgarian soil, provided they had not accepted to be subjects of another state. The ius sanguinis principle applied too: those born to Bulgarian subjects inherited their parents’ status. On the surface this was a liberal approach, in contrast for instance with the decision of the Romanian parliament in the 1860s to deprive local Jews of nationality. Bulgaria granted citizenship rights to individuals from all ethnic and religious communities, notably Turks and other Muslims (Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks, Roma, TatarsCircassians etc.) who made up at least one quarter of the population in the 1880s, as well as Greeks, Jews, Vlachs and AromaniansGagauz, Bulgarian Catholics and Protestants.  But minority policies pointed at a different conclusion. The authorities encouraged, whether directly and indirectly, Muslim emigration to the Ottoman Empire, which automatically implied the loss of Bulgarian nationality. As the exodus decimated the community’s elites, the largely rural masses were marginalised in the new state, preserving autonomy in education and some areas of civil life, such as marriage and inheritance, where the norms of sharia continued to apply as in Ottoman days (religious norms governed family relations of other communities, including the majority, too). By contrast, Bulgarians living under the Sultan had very easy access to the state. Countless newcomers from Macedonia and Thrace filled the ranks of the civil service and the military, reaping the opportunities in the young state. The same was true for the foreign professionals, especially Germans and Czechs, who settled in Sofia and other big cities, the Armenians who arrived in scores in 1896 and after 1915, and the White Russians seeking refuge after the Bolshevik Revolution.  

But migration was for the most part a homogenising force. There was an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from lands lost to Greece, Turkey, and Romania, as well as Serbia in 1913 and then to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, all of which reinforced homogenising tendencies. Minorities shrank: by 1946 Turks accounted for 9.6% of the population, a share that has remained more or less unchanged until the present. In the 1920s, 40,000 Greeks left as part of the exchange of populations with Turkey, with the remainder largely assimilated into the Bulgarian majority in the following decades. Another exchange of populations was implemented with Romania in 1940 after Bulgaria reacquired Southern Dobrudja, lost in 1913. Most of Bulgaria’s 60,000-strong Jewish community, which survived the Second World War, left for Israel in 1947 (many would recover their Bulgarian citizenship after 1989). Apart from the Turks, Bulgaria had lost much of its diversity by the mid-20th century.

Communist rule after 1944 transformed citizenship and minority policies in important ways. On the one hand, it established universal civil jurisdiction, abolishing religious authorities’ secular prerogatives. On the other, it embarked in the 1940s and 1950s on various “affirmative action” measures: pushing with education in modern Turkish with the use of Latin (as opposed to Arabic) script, establishment of cultural institutions for Turks but also Roma, efforts to contain the influence of Islam (including pressure on women to give up wearing headscarves) and, most importantly, a campaign in the Pirin region and amongst the former refugees from Greek and Yugoslav Macedonia to build a sense of belonging to the newly recognised Macedonian nation. The campaign survived the Stalin-Tito split and lasted until 1963.  The early decades of communism therefore promoted the vision of a more inclusive Bulgarian nation united by a common vision of building a socialist society, where cultural rights would be fully safeguarded.

It was in the mid-1960s that the communist regime – led by the party’s Secretary General Todor Zhivkov – turned in a decisively nationalist direction, a development not uncommon in other parts of Eastern Europe, notably Romania and Albania. There was a reversal on Macedonia and return to the pre-1944 line that Macedonian Slavs were, historically, an integral part of the Bulgarian nation. The authorities recognised realities in Yugoslavia had changed but rejected vehemently arguments that Pirin Macedonia in Bulgaria was inhabited by non-Bulgarians. Secondly, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) carried out a campaign for “Bulgarianising” the names of the 100,000-strong Pomak community in the 1960s and, decisively, in the early 1970s. Such efforts followed in the footsteps of the Pomaks’ forced Christianisation in 1912-1914 (partly implemented by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation) and another bottom-up campaign for “returning” to Bulgarian roots in the early 1940s.  By the 1970s citizenship was arguably re-ethnicised, in line with the solidarist/homogenising vision put forward by the 1971 constitution in contrast to its 1947 predecessor. The emphasis on common language, on one side, and on communist uniformity, on the other, led to recognition of Pomaks as part of the Bulgarian kin and pressure on them to join the mainstream.

The final, and internationally most infamous, chapter in the regime’s espousal of nationalism concerned the Turks. In the winter of 1984/5, they were deprived of their basic rights and forced to give up Muslim names as Pomaks had done a decade earlier. The denial of ethnic identity escalated in the summer of 1989 with the eviction of nearly 300,000 Turks, who found refuge across the border in the neighbouring Turkey. Half the number returned to the country, particularly after the fall of Zhivkov in November and the decision a month later to roll back the assimilationist policies (including the Pomaks). Yet the painful legacy of the so-called “Rebirth Process” (Възродителен процес/Vazroditelen protses) lingers on, bearing heavily on inter-ethnic relations. But unlike other waves of migrants from Bulgaria, the one from 1989 (as well as the economic migrants left for Turkey in the 1990s) have mostly kept Bulgarian citizenship. In Turkey, there are now roughly 300,000 persons holding Bulgarian passports, mainly in big urban centres in the west such as Bursa, Istanbul and Izmir. Тhey usually become prominent in the national media at times of general elections when multiple polling stations operate across Turkey.

Democratic changes opened space for minority politics and liberalised the citizenship regime. Most importantly, the Turkish minority became a key factor in politics through the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which was part of two governments from 2001-9. MRF’s rise has been one of the reasons for the emergence of the far-right, xenophobic Ataka party after 2005. By contrast, the sizable Roma population, fragmented and marginalised as it is, has failed to mobilise politically and claim its share of the vote. Furthermore, the 1998 Citizenship Act cemented the principle of acceptance of dual citizenship and facilitated the acquisition of citizen status by long-term residents (typically after five years of residency). This increased flexibility had to do with both the growing openness to the outside world and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians chose to leave the country. This flexibility had limits. The 1991 Constitution denies dual citizens the right of holding political office. On the other hand, the accession to the EU in 2007 brought about more inclusive policies as holders of other member-states’ citizenship acquired the right, in line with EU law, to vote and run in municipal elections.

Legislation favours heavily the ius sanguinis principle: those born on Bulgarian territory gain citizenship only in case they have no access by birth to another nationality. There is furthermore a provision facilitating naturalisation for “persons of Bulgarian origin” (Article 15 (1) of the Citizenship Act), without any residency requirement. According to the administrative practice, “origin” has ethnic rather than territorial connotations. It is the State Agency of Bulgarians Abroad, dealing exclusively with ethnic Bulgarian communities, which issues “origin certificates”.  Applicants file a declaration that they have “Bulgarian consciousness” and provide supporting documents (e.g. a grandparent’s diploma from a Bulgarian educational institution).

The naturalisation route based on ethnic origin has benefitted for the most part citizens of Macedonia, Moldova and Serbia. By 2012, the number of Macedonians holding a Bulgarian passport had reportedly reached over 42,000, with Moldovans following closely. Macedonian media have long reported on the trend, particularly when it transpired in 2006 that former Prime Minister Ljubčo Georgievski (in power 1998-2002) had acquired Bulgarian citizenship. But the high demand for Sofia-issued passports has more to do with the opportunities for labour migration in Western Europe. The lifting of Schengen visas for Macedonians in 2009 did not sap existing interest as Bulgaria is an EU member state, unlike its neighbour whose accession process has stalled. The prospect of unrestricted access to labour markets in 2014 (for those members who have imposed so-called “transition measures) for Bulgarians is another bonus, as are other advantages as the lower costs for car registration and insurance in Bulgaria (attractive to many inhabitants of Eastern Macedonia). However, with few exceptions Macedonian authorities have tolerated the upsurge in interest in Bulgarian citizenship. At the same time, the media have repeatedly publicised stories exposing corruption on the part of state officials as well as intermediaries in both Bulgaria and Macedonia. The same is true of the Moldovans, though the acquisition of Bulgarian passports was, understandably, never such a politically charged issue there (up to 800,000 are believed to be holding Romanian citizenship).

Citizenship legislation and the associated administrative practices highlight several key points. First, membership in a supranational entity such as the EU has far-reaching effects, erasing to some degree the distinction between citizens and non-citizens but also making Bulgaria a more attractive proposition for various “third-country nationals”. Second, the provision of citizenship via naturalisation has broadened rent-seeking opportunities and exposed institutional weakness, a painfully familiar story in post-communist Bulgaria. Third, and most important, citizenship continues to oscillate between civic and more ethnicised notions. The empowerment of minorities, primarily the Turks, after 1989 has contributed to a shift in the direction of more inclusive understanding – despite the fact that Bulgarian politics is based around strictly majoritarian, rather than power-sharing/consociational principles. Yet, on the other hand, the norms concerning the acquisition of Bulgarian citizenship are a vivid reminder of the continued importance of institutional and historical legacies harking back to the 19th century. 

Dimitar Bechev is a Senior Policy Fellow and Head of ECFR's office in Sofia. He is also affiliated with South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX), St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is the author of The Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Macedonia (2009), Mediterranean Frontiers: Borders, Conflict and Memory in a Transnational World (2010, co-edited with ECFR Council Member Kalypso Nicolaidis) and Constructing South East Europe: the Politics of Balkan Regional Cooperation (2011).