The formation of Bulgaria’s policy concerning Bulgarians abroadicelds
The state policy of supporting compatriots abroad is directed at strengthening national unity and involving the diaspora’s potential for the solution of geopolitical and developmental problems. The character and intensity of support to compatriots’ communities abroad contribute not only to the achievements of ethnic homeland in social and political spheres but also to the ability of the foreign diasporas to act as a capable social structure able of exercising lobbying activities.
The governmental bodies in charge of policy targeting Bulgarian communities abroad have been formed as a result of two processes. First, the worldwide Bulgarian diasporas gained a significant social and institutional potential by the end of the XX century and began to evolve into a complex transnational network demonstrating its growing influence at national and regional levels. Second, the Republic of Bulgaria in course of the European integration (which triggers migration outflows and intents to create lobbying groups abroad) needs support that might be provided by kin groups from abroad. Therefore, the adjustment of the state legislative and institutional systems in accordance with the resources and challenges linked to foreign compatriots should be considered as a project of progressive political and social development.
The formation of Bulgaria’s policy concerning Bulgarians abroad began in the 1990s and included a number of changes in the national state doctrine, legal regulations and governmental institutional design. Persons of “Bulgarian origin” and “foreign Bulgarians” have become addressees of strategic developmental programs of Bulgaria’s government. In 2014, the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria adopted “National Strategy for Bulgarian Citizens and Historical Communities Around the World” that confirmed the course towards the integration of ethnic Bulgarians abroad into the united Bulgarian nation.
A number of legal documents underpin this strategy, and among them are the Law on Higher Education (1995) ; the Law on Bulgarian Citizenship (1999) ; the Law on Foreigners in the Republic of Bulgaria (1999) ; the Law on Bulgarians, Living Outside the Republic of Bulgaria (2000) ; the Bill on Amendments and Addenda to the Law on Bulgarians, Living Outside the Republic of Bulgaria (2015) ; and the Law on Labour Migration and Labour Mobility (2016) .
The process of setting preferential conditions for the acquisition of citizenship by persons able to confirm their ethnic “Bulgarian origin” began in the 1990s and has provided the following: a simplified procedure of citizenship acquisition, a possibility not to renounce the other citizenship; citizenship acquisition without the requirements to live on the territory of Bulgaria (as a general rule it shall be at least 5 years), to prove a minimum income and to demonstrate fluency in the state language, a simplified procedure of getting permission to permanent residence in the state.
The target group, governed by the legislative acts, have been gradually extended. The term “Bulgarian”, according to the context, designates either a citizen of Bulgaria regardless of ethnic origin, or an individual belonging to a family that includes a person with a documentary evidence of ethnic origin. The term “person of Bulgarian origin” according to the Law “On Bulgarian Citizenship” relates to a person who has at least one relative of Bulgarian nationality in the ascending line. “Family member of Bulgarian citizen” is defined by the Law “On Foreigners” as a person who lives together with a citizen of Bulgaria in one household (the spouse; relatives in the descending or ascending lines in need of guardianship (p. 6 art. 2)). There is a tendency of extending the target group which enjoys privileged conditions for citizenship acquisition on the ground “of origin”; this is evidenced in the draft amendments to the Law “On Bulgarians, Living Outside the Republic of Bulgaria” submitted in 2015. The first bill under consideration (No. 554-01-20 dd. 04.02.2015) has been submitted by A. K. Angelov; it introduces the term “close relative of Bulgarian origin” that designates a relative in the descending, ascending as well as collateral lines up to the sixth degree of kinship, which significantly extended the scope of persons governed by the Law. The second bill (No. 554-01-19 dd. 04.02.2015) of V. N. Siderov suggests enabling the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and civic organizations of Bulgarians abroad, listed in the Register of State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, to issue certificates of Bulgarian origin .
Currently Bulgaria limits preferences in granting its citizenship to the ethnic Bulgarians and their relatives, living abroad. Such a measure does not allow to solve the demographic problem of the country since after becoming the European Union citizens foreign Bulgarian have no incentives for permanently living and working in Bulgaria. In 2019, a representative of Bulgarian National Movement J. Angelov suggested to introduce a “Bulgarian card” like “Polish card” or “Hungarian card” certifying the status of a foreign compatriot. Such ethnic cards in fact equate their holders with citizens of Poland and Hungary respectively, but do not provide them with rights and privileges of EU nationals.
The legislation provides for flexibility of group statuses. For example, the list of “organizations of Bulgarians abroad” that are eligible for public aid from Bulgaria may include entities defines as “Bulgarian ethnic minority”, “Bulgarian diaspora”, “Bulgarian groups of compact settlement” as well as “civic association”, “non-governmental organization”, “non-profit organization”, “cultural center” and so forth. However, the choice of formal status defines the specific scope of rights and obligations granted to the entity.
Along with adopting legal regulations, aimed at granting special entitlements to foreign Bulgarians, the government has formed special administrative mechanisms in charge of diaspora policy.
The bodies of general competence within the executive include special departments at the Government and individual ministries.
- The Commission on Bulgarian Citizenship and Bulgarians Abroadhas acted as a permanent subsidiary body at the Administration of the President of Bulgaria since 2012.
- The Directorate “Migration”as a unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs has been functioning since 2004. It runs “The National Strategy of Bulgaria on Migration, Asylum and Integration (2011 – 2020)” targeting “Persons of Bulgarian origin” abroad .
- The Interdepartmental Commission on the Issues of Bulgarians Abroad, a subsidiary to the Ministry of Education and Science of Bulgaria along with the respective department of the ministry arrange for the operation of Bulgarian schools abroad.
- The Directorate “Bulgarian Citizenship”and the Council on Citizenship Issues function within the Ministry of Justice. The Directorate coordinates the process of citizenship application, and the Council gives conclusions upon the results of investigation on the matter of possibility of granting citizenship.
Generally, the execution of state policy on Bulgarians abroad is entrusted to the Council of Ministers. Acts of the Council of Ministers No. 103 (1993)  and No. 228 (1997)  determine the quota granted to compatriots abroad for studying in the universities of Bulgaria for free.
Special bodies responsible for the state policy concerning Bulgarian communities abroad began to form at the end of the XX century. The first governmental body which name included the term “Bulgarians abroad” was the Committee for the Work with Bulgarians Abroad which functioned from 1982 to 1991. The Committee combined the features of a governmental body and a civil society organization. In 1991, the International Association of Bulgarians was founded. It was a nationwide civic organization that worked on the implementation of state policy in regard to persons of Bulgarian origin living abroad . Its management board included representatives of Bulgarian communities from nine countries.
In 1992, the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad was founded as a coordinating body of the government on the implementation of the compatriots policy . Its priorities were defined as: the creation of Bulgarian lobby abroad; the preservation of Bulgarian ethnocultural space; and the protection of rights of Bulgarians abroad. The State agency has created a network structure that now comprises more than 500 civic organizations of Bulgarians around the world.
The growth of the transborder network of the diaspora and an extended interpretation of the concept of nation have predetermined a public discussion on the creation of a supranational body with representative competences. The options for such a structure have been considered also by governing state bodies. In 2000, the Law “On Bulgarians, Living Outside the Republic of Bulgaria” stipulated that National Council shall be created as a representative body authorized to coordinate state programmes for the support of Bulgarians abroad . In 2014, “The National Strategy for Bulgarian Citizens and Historical Communities Around the World” included the provision that the National Council must function as an advisory body affiliated with the President or with the National Assembly. It was planned to establish Civic Councils affiliated with diplomatic missions of Bulgaria abroad, and the councils’ members are to be Bulgarian citizens and persons of Bulgarian origin and non-residents of Bulgaria . In 2015, Minister of Foreign Affairs Boris Vangelov suggested considering the creation of the National Council of Bulgarians as a step to the establishment of the National Government Abroad financed from the state budget of Bulgaria and composed of foreigners of Bulgarian origin .
Within all options of creation of a supranational body with representative functions and powers, the Bulgarians abroad are considered as an integral part of the nation, and the formation of state bodies, authorized to ensure their interests is a logical process.
To sum up, the state supports the idea of creating a supranational body with representative authority. Bulgaria is interested in resources of its ethnic diaspora (that includes demographical and intellectual potential, institutional and social capacities) in the countries of their residence. Along with this, the Republic of Bulgaria demonstrates readiness to create mechanisms of involving its compatriots abroad into the national development of Bulgaria.
Author: Dr. Habil. Svetlana Koch is Associate Professor (Political Sciences) at the Department of History and World Politics at the Faculty of International Relations, Political Science and Sociology of the Odessa National I.I. Mechnikov University
Note: this brief is based on the following article: Koch, S. (2018) Республика Болгария и «болгары зарубежья»: формирование политики взаимодействия [The Republic of Bulgaria and “foreign Bulgarians”: the formation of the interaction policy], in: Вісник Oдеського національного університету. Соціологія та політичні науки. Політологія. Vol.23, Iss. 2 (31), 135-157. Available at: http://heraldiss.onu.edu.ua/article/view/144308/0.
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