Bulgaria – Macro-drivers of radicalisation and violent extremism

07 September 2021

Bulgaria’s approach to countering and preventing radicalisation has been influenced by the European Union (EU)’s evolving understanding of radicalisation as a home-grown problem that also requires soft measures. This understanding was adopted as the basis for the Bulgarian Strategy for Countering Radicalisation and Terrorism (2015-2020). However, the country was unprepared to ensure the Strategy’s implementation. Prevention measures were insufficiently applied and the approach continues to be dominated by law enforcement. The focus on Islamist radicalisation was also adopted even though Bulgaria’s Muslim community has shown resilience towards strict interpretations of Islam. This focus has been most pronounced with regard to marginalised Roma Muslim communities, which have shown some indications of religious radicalisation. This has contributed to further encapsulation and stigmatisation of these minorities. On the other hand, the far right has received less attention from institutions despite civil society being very vocal about this more established threat. The understanding of macro factors among institutional and civil society actors revolves around how they view the influence of certain drivers, such as economic deprivation, as contributing to vulnerability to radicalisation and territorial inequalities, translated in the absence of state institutions, and social and educational exclusion. Additionally, there is disagreement between institutional stakeholders and civil society on the influence of religion and political grievances on radicalisation processes.

Perceptions of institutions and non-governmental stakeholders about drivers of radicalisation and violent extremism (VE) in Bulgaria can be analysed along several lines. First, contextually, radicalisation and VE as potential threats to society entered the Bulgarian political agenda in 2015, mainly in the light of global and European Union (EU)-wide responses to so-called home-grown Islamist radicalisation, the activities of terrorist organisations such as Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda and the issue of foreign fighters for whom Bulgaria has become a transit zone. Thus, Bulgarian law enforcement and intelligence institutions started to develop more systematic counter-radicalisation mechanisms. Second, the institutional response has focused on reactive and repressive measures. It has been dominated by the law enforcement and security agencies, despite the development of a 2015 counter-radicalisation strategy based on a whole-of-society approach also envisaging a clear role for “soft” institutions and actors in the sphere of prevention. Third, there seems to be a clear distinction between governmental and non-governmental perceptions, as the former place excessive focus on the perceived threat from Islamist radicalisation, and the latter underline the oversight of far-right and nationalist threats of VE. The institutional focus on Islamist radicalisation has had an important side effect: prejudice against the Roma community as a group to be considered at risk by default. On the other hand, far-right discourse has silently become the new normal in societal life, a process also facilitated by the participation of nationalist and populist parties in the ruling coalition since 2017, and in Parliament since 2005.

This paper first takes a look at the main institutional stakeholders (both state and non-state) in Bulgaria linked to preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE), then offers a country-specific analysis of processes and issues deemed pertinent to the country, before analysing the institutional perceptions of the seven drivers set as the basis of the macro analysis. Out of these drivers, those perceived as the
most relevant by actors seem to be religion, political grievances (far-right ideology), poverty, inequality and an additional factor appearing horizontally in most stakeholders’ accounts: education. These macro perceptions can serve as a starting point for the subsequent analysis of the meso- (community-level) and micro- (individual-level) drivers of radicalisation and VE in the country.

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