Of memory, monuments, movies, manuscripts, moral high ground and Macedonia

Sofia currently is sending a message to Skopje: Let’s make the hysteria history.

In recent days, a number of statements have emanated from Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry and the country’s President on the topic of neighbourly relations.

Both came in response to what in the Balkans are popularly called “provocations” – but also picked up on Skopje’s own stated desire, expressed periodically over several years, to open a more cordial chapter in bilateral relations.

At state level, those relations theoretically are cordial. But this is not the full picture, by any means. Some sections of the media in both capital cities are only too eager to seize on and enflame controversies. Narrow nationalisms, a notable theme in politics in Skopje, provide ample fuel for the flames.

Official Sofia’s messages for years have been restrained. Bulgaria never fails to remind Macedonia that it was the first to recognise that state. Bulgaria repeats the theme of the value of good-neighbourly relations, as over a garden fence one neighbour might mildly remind another that it is not nice to rub chewing gum into one’s neighbour’s cat.

So it came about that on September 5, Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the country would be working on a new strategy for relations with its neighbours.

“Five years after we became a member of the European Union and eight years after joining Nato, there is a need to set out on a long-term basis Bulgaria’s interests and views on how our neighbours will progress towards those two organisations.”

The statement quoted Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov as saying that to get Bulgaria’s support, “these countries need to show that they want to fully, constructively, responsibly and truly follow the path that we did”.

The Cabinet had agreed to a conceptual document being drafted, which would be tabled for discussion in Parliament, the statement said. The matter would be discussed at a meeting in the week starting September 10 of Bulgaria’s ambassadors to Balkan countries.

Mladenov said that he wanted a debate that was open and calm while the policy would set out the “key red lines from which we will not retreat in our policy towards our neighbours”.

Nowhere in the 425 words or so of the statement was the name Macedonia mentioned, but it hardly seemed a position put simply because Mladenov had an idle moment and had thought of a noble idea. There was a context.

Bulgaria has five neighbours: Romania, Turkey,Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. Apart from some minor media hype about a “territorial dispute” about part of the Black Sea, relations with Bucharest are generally cordial; Bulgaria’s President Rossen Plevneliev was recently inGreece, vowing Bulgarian solidarity and receiving assurances in kind; and in any case, these two neighbours are fellow EU members. As to Turkey, Bulgaria has been working with Ankara on issues in the Middle East and North Africa; yes, there are some outstanding issues in bilateral relations (some dating to the Ottoman/Balkan wars era) but nothing significant enough to send sparks flying. Belgrade, like Ankara, has been the recipient of the offer by Bulgaria to share its lessons learnt on the road to the EU; between Belgrade and Sofia, the most profound policy difference is on Kosovo, but apart from a suspension of diplomatic ties in 2008 after independence was declared in Pristina and recognised in Sofia, Serbia has had no particularly predilection for rubbing chewing gum into the Bulgarian cat.

Customarily,Greece has complained most vociferously about history being “stolen” by the former Yugoslav republic. This is the root of the Macedonia name dispute. However, recent episodes are the reason for Bulgarian leaders to be saying such pointed things about history.

There was the film entitled The Third Half, a story about a football encounter in World War 2 between Bulgarian and Macedonian teams. Bulgaria, allied to Berlin in the war, is portrayed as a nation of Nazis (Bulgarians took exception to, among other things, the flag being portrayed as the familiar tricolour, but with a swastika imposed on it, which at very least deserves an entry in IMDB’s goofs section). The film – excerpts of which have been showed on Bulgarian television – makes much of the historical fact that Jews in the territory that is now Macedonia were deported to Nazi Holocaust death camps. A sensitive matter for Bulgarians, a state where there is official pride about the fact that on the territory of Bulgaria proper, resistance among some politicians, civil society and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church prevented such deportations. Matters were not helped by some commentators in the Macedonian media labelling those Bulgarians who objected to the film “Holocaust deniers”.

The film was the subject of a joint letter of protest at European level by Bulgarian MEPs from the centre-right, socialist and liberal groups.

In May, Bulgaria’s ambassador in Skopje was prevented by Macedonian nationalists from laying wreaths at the monument to Gotse Delchev, a shared hero from the times of liberation from the Ottoman empire. The incident led to Macedonia’s ambassador in Sofia being summoned to hear Bulgaria’s protest.

Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Poposki, left, and his Bulgarian counterpart Nikolai Mladenov in Sofia, September 2011

More recently, some of the more nationalist sections of the Bulgarian media could not write enough on the topic of an exhibition planned for the Royal Museum of Mariemont in Belgium entitled “Ancient Macedonian Manuscripts” which deeply annoyed a cluster of Bulgarian historians and commentators who said that the manuscripts were in Old Church Slavonic, hardly a script that could be legitimately claimed by Skopje. Figures such as the head of Bulgaria’s National History Museum, Bozhidar Dimitrov, something of an enthusiastic critic of themes in Macedonia and Balkan history, were only to willing to comment.

Thus came the more restrained voices. Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov called for history to be left to historians (as noted, history records that much the same thing has been said before, in Skopje and in Sofia, to no real effect). Ivanov’s statement was noted in a letter to him from his Bulgarian counterpart.

Writing ahead of Macedonia’s national day, Plevneliev said that Bulgaria and Macedonia were sovereign states whose present and whose  future were inextricably linked.

“Our common duty is to strengthen good neighbourly relations, to seek consensus, to oppose division and especially to work for the welfare of our communities,” Plevneliev said.

“Bulgaria is reaching out to Macedonia and expecting tangible evidence that we are in a new phase of development in the relationship,” Bulgaria’s President said.

Making divisions on the basis of the past impossible and not distorting the common future was at the heart of the European idea, Plevneliev said.

At the same time, Plevneliev reminded Ivanov of what he had told him at a meeting earlier, that Bulgaria would not compromise on its history and would not allow amendments to historical facts.

Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev, left, with his Macedonian counterpart Gjorge Ivanov at a meeting in Belgrade, June 15 2012. Photo: V Nikolov/president.bg

Speaking on September 9 to Bulgarian National Radio, Mladenov said that he, in his days as an MEP, had tabled in the European Parliament a resolution – which had been adopted – that Bulgaria and Macedonia should jointly celebrate their common history and shared days of commemoration. At the time, this had gained him rough treatment in the media in Skopje.

Mladenov said that he held to his position that Bulgaria did not want to turn history into an instrument of struggle with its neighbours.

“We know very well what is Bulgarian and what is not; we do not consider it a problem to say that the monument to Philip of Macedon in the city of Plovdiv is Greek. We are not ashamed that Thracian, Greek and other finds were unearthed on our territory. We are happy with this and present it acrossEuropeas part of our contribution to world civilization.”

Monument to Philip Makedonski, municipal hall, Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer

He said that Bulgaria was a state, not a rabble that reacts to provocations from elsewhere and there were not part of its agenda. “We either behave like an EU member state and a responsible state in the Balkans, or react without sufficient care and appropriateness to what others put on their agenda,” he said.

How long all of this will endure is an open question, and perhaps not fully in the hands of the respective governments in the two neighbouring countries. Arguably, periodic tensions between Bulgaria and Macedonia could be resolved with greater ease than the dreary and seemingly intractable name dispute with Greece about the use of the name Macedonia, the latter an issue that also holds back Macedonia’s Nato and EU hopes.

Perhaps change will come when the Macedonian public make it clear that they want something other than a diet unhealthily clogged with nationalisms – and even one of the most jingoistic websites in Skopje has reported a poll saying that Macedonians are tiring of gigantic new statues in their capital city and want no more. It may take the local media understanding and reflecting that, as well as the politicians. And perhaps if Macedonians can find their way out of a thicket of statues that blind the eye with their glister, and instead see a European perspective, perhaps those hawking cheap nationalism in a handful of Bulgarian media can do the same. For the moment, going by the messages from Sofia, it is clear that Bulgaria awaits the noise of nationalism in Skopje to give way to the quiet calm of long-term thinking.

(Main photo, of monument in Skopje: aljabak/sxc.hu)




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.