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ECPR Futures Lab 2020

Voice After Exit? Bulgarian Student Activists Between Protest and Emigration

Democracy
 
European Union
 
Migration
 
Social Movements
 
Social Media
 
Protests
 
Activism
 
Presenter
Julia Rone
University of Cambridge
Authors
Julia Rone
University of Cambridge

Abstract
*Co-author: Tom Junes
Historically, student activists who left their home countries in the wake of protests would either risk disappearing in anonymity or become engaged in political 'exile networks'. However, since the outbreak of the so-called 'global wave' of protest, which in the European sphere played out against a backdrop of austerity politics, the ability for young activists to take advantage of freedom of movement and technological advances in social media has changed the framework and conditions of such 'exile'. This article addresses the question of what happens when student protest organizers decide to go abroad to study, work and build a life. On the basis of ethnographic research of the Bulgarian student occupation in 2013, complemented with follow-up interviews in 2017, we trace how migration abroad affects the overall level of participation of student protest organizers in the political life of Bulgaria, the ways in which they participate, and finally, their diagnoses of grievances and prognoses for the future. We analyse, in particular, how the ideas of young activists about the European project evolved since the 2013 protests, which were in part framed by the rather vague claim of defending 'European values', as symbolised by the prevalence of EU flags during the protests. All in all, we explore whether, in the Bulgarian case, one could speak of “exit after voice” that in the long run leads to quiescence of protest. We argue instead that we are witnessing a transformation of the dichotomy “exit-voice” into a more complex scale of forms of protest organization and participation, facilitated by the freedom of movement within the EU and the availability of social media. These forms of participation result in the gradual transformation of formal and informal protest networks, combined with the emergence of alternative discourses both from the left and from the right. In light of these findings, the real risk might be not that migration leads to political passivity, but that the new “voice” found through the experience abroad remains rather marginal.
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