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Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Transition To What?

I am still girding myself up to do something about the Bulgarian crisis. I say crisis advisedly, and with qualifications. It is not yet a full blown economic crisis. But it is a human tragedy of tremendous proportions. And even more tremendous for being unspoken. I discovered the full implications of this situation from visiting my wife's village. From this post Margarita got in touch, and now I know a lot more. This weekend I will put up a Bulgaria page on my website, meanwhile Margarita explains it all so much better than I could:

In a recent press conference a government official released the ‘little’ news that for the first time in our history the amount of money sent by emigrants is bigger than the amount of foreign investments. And he muttered some data. Then he smiled to the journalists and continued his interview on other subjects. Do you think this became a talking point in Bulgarian society? After all, isn't this only to be expected from a civil society in a country in transition which produces a huge emigrant flow (about 1 million emigrants since 1990. Total population 7 mill. – census 2000).

I am sorry, this was not a ‘breaking’ or at least – an important – piece news. A gang war, corruption at all levels of the administration, the postponed privatization of the Bulgarian Telecommunication Company and of Tobacco Holding, gossip related with any new political personality now that new elections are on the horizon (in the autumn) – these all seem to be much more important at the moment.

Why do I mentioned this “usless” information? In the first place, probably because nobody from my family, nor any of my close relatives has emigrated. This means, I belong to that small number of households in Bugaria who do not count for their annual income on any financial support from abroad. Secondly – I am researching emigrant flows from an ethnological perspective and thirdly - I am really concerned about the future of Bulgaria.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not someone who is against globalization or against the free movement of persons, knowledge, tehnology and of money. I do like to travel and Thank the lord I am travelling a lot.

My point today is whether the outcomes of emigration (both - permanent and temporary labor emmigration) are something which will be important for the future development of the local economy? What will our emigrants bring from abroad?

To answer this I’ll pose two more questions: The first question is what will that money be spent on? As everywhere in the so called “Third world” the money sent home by migrants is used to deal with the immediate needs of relatives. If a migrant is sending money to his retired parents he is aware that he helps them to survive. An average pension is about 50 Euro per month. Just to have an idea – central heating in Sofiya for a two bedroom flat is about 100 Euro per month, and there are 6 months in our country cold enough to use it. My recent research has shown that most of short and long-term labor migrants use their savings to improve a little (or just to maintain) their standard of life here. No wonder. The amount of savings is not impressive or not big enough to start their own business: in addition the legislation for last 13 years (since the collapse of the centrally regulated economy) is working against small and middle businesis. Keep in the mind the lack of entrepreneurship which results froma long-lasting (50 years) centralized economy too. So, the migrant’s money will be spent on modernising a home, new furniture, new clothes, medical attention (we suffer from the transition in the health care too) or probably on such a social events as the wedding of a son or daughter, or the sending of a mature son off to the Army (those are such money consuming rituals!) and so on. After spending savings on this, men or women will take a bus and start labor migration again.

When the first labor emigrants from Europe and from the USA came back home in early 20-s of XX century they brought back some new technologies. One example was the so called “American vineyard”. New knowledge, new ways of organizing work, new ideas for how to improve the Bulgarian economy, all these arrived as a result of their new experiences. Here comes the second question: What kind of professional experience do our labor migrants have today? Only a small part of them are highly skilled professionals working with contracts abroad as white collar employees. Most labor migrants are undocumented people, working in the submerged economy at levels way below their professional level here, without language skills… No need to continue – this picture is well known all over the world. So, what will they bring home in terms of new skills, new technologies? The answer is obvious. Now returning to the previous question: “Why introduce the new expensive machinery which I’ve seen in Greece? Here I own only small pieces of unfertile land, you know, you can grow only tobacco on it. There is no stable tobacco market in Bulgaria as there is in Greece. The EU supports their agriculture. I think for now it is better to work there”, said Ibrahim (35 years old, Bulgarian Muslim, electrician by training).

The picture I have drawn here is dark. And there is no official data to prove my answers on both questions. Most immigrants prefer to have their money in cash. Nobody can say for sure how much there is. I can testify that this money won’t be invested in the improvement of the Bulgarian economy. In Satovcha Municipality, where my research was done, for last 10 years there has not been a single new business established with emigrant money. There are regular bus lines to every EU country. After three months temporary work, labor emigrants are coming home and thinking where to go next time. And I repeat – all of this is neither newsworthy, nor an important issue for Bulgarian politicians.

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