Friday, June 21, 2013

Balkan Migration and Identity

by Michelle Asbill

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova’s recent lecture, hosted by the European Union Center (EUC), offered new insights regarding the movement of citizens in the Balkans during the twentieth century.  More specifically, her lecture entitled, “Between Home and Homeland: Migration and National Dilemmas across the Bulgarian-Greek Border in the Early Twentieth Century”, described the movement of Bulgarian Greeks between Greece and Bulgaria and the subsequent challenges they faced in being torn between these two countries.1 While her research has resulted in a variety of insights (a more detailed version can be found in her book, Between Two Motherlands: Nationality and Emigration among the Greeks of Bulgaria, 1900-1949), perhaps one of the more interesting conclusions is that some Greek Bulgarians chose their country of residence by determining which location would benefit their family the most.  In other words, they did not simply make a decision rooted in nationalistic thought and sentiment.

This very pragmatic method of decision making is somewhat surprising, but even more so when the broader historical context is taken into account.  It is important to remember that the twentieth century (specifically the first half) was a particularly chaotic time, as the Balkans hosted both Balkan Wars and then participated in World War I and II.  For obvious reasons, the Balkan Wars represent a very awkward time diplomatically for Greece and Bulgaria. Yet, despite the fact that from a political perspective the two countries had a very precarious relationship, Dr. Dragostinova’s research indicates that Bulgarian Greeks still chose to either return (to) or remain in Bulgaria.

From this case study, it is clear that the need to survive and do what was best for the family unit (or perhaps even the broader group) took precedence over nationalistic feelings. It shows the determination of people to survive and not simply be led by the dominating opinions and policies of the government. This is incredibly interesting, since much of Balkan history seems to focus in on the strong trends of nationalism and the resulting conflicts. Of course, it would be inaccurate to gloss over or minimize the ethnic violence and hegemony which has taken place. Yet, this case study is unique, in that it shows a group of people choosing to not identify primarily with a specific ethnicity or nation, but to pursue what is best for their own survival and well-being.

Obviously, it is very common to hear of families separating and leaving their country of origin in order to search for work. However, it would be interesting to build on Dr. Dragostinova’s findings with the Bulgarian Greeks and for example, to see if there are groups of migrants who are not as interested in strongly identifying with a specific ethnic group or nation, but instead are thinking “family first” or “survival first”. Some would argue that it would be extremely difficult to find such a group, especially when the Balkan landscape encompasses several political and social conflicts (such as between Kosovo and Serbia), yet Dr. Dragostinova’s research has demonstrated among other things, that you never know what you will find when you start digging in the Balkans.

Michelle Asbill is a first year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) degree program at the University of Illinois.  Her previous graduate work has been in the area of social work (MSW—U. of Wisconsin-Madison) and community development (Wheaton College).  Michelle lived in Sofia, Bulgaria for three years (2008-2011), as both an employee of a small Bulgarian non-profit organization and also as a graduate student at New Bulgarian University (degree pending defense of thesis).  Michelle has been awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship for Bulgarian language study for the 2012-2013 academic year.  Her research interests include EU policies and programs related to combating trafficking and how they impact the effectiveness of non-profits working in this area, as well as Bulgarian agriculture.   

1For more information on the lecture, please see: for more information on Dr. Dragostinova, please see:


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