Oops, They Did It Again! Or the Symbiosis of Serbian Chauvinism and Bulgarian Nihilism
Dear Serbia, Vasil Ivanov Kunchev, known to the Ottoman Turkish authorities and world history as Vasil Levski (i.e. "Lion-like), is your hero, too...
Serbia's distinguished record of repressing the embattled Bulgarians unfortunately locked inside your borders by the whims of the former great powers after World War I is known – but this time it went just a bit too far – and for no apparent reason - by obstructing the remembrance of Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski by the ethnic Bulgarian minority in the country.
For all of those not very well familiar with Balkan history, here is the latest exploit of the traditional Serbian chauvinism and the way Bulgaria countered it with its traditional sticky and sweet nihilism.
A long time ago, Bulgaria lost World War I, and the nice great powers of France and Britain decided to chop off some Bulgarian-populated territories as punishment. Fair enough – these were the ways of that time... three or four historical epochs ago.
The Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Bulgarian version of the infamous Treaty of Versailles was the document ending World War I between Bulgaria and the Entente, dealing with Bulgaria for its role as one of the Central Powers in World War I. It was signed on November 27, 1919 at Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris.
One of its numerous harsh clauses stipulated that Bulgaria ceded 2563 square km of territory on its western border to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which later became the so called "King's Yugoslavia" in 1929, and "Communist" or "Tito's Yugoslavia" in 1944, and specifically to its Serbian part. These lands are known in Bulgaria as "the Western Outlands."
These territories included two Bulgarian towns – Bosilegrad and Tsaribrod (Dimitrovgrad) – and the overwhelmingly Bulgarian population there has been subject to all kinds of assimilation efforts on part of the Serbian authorities ever since. The ultimate effect has been that many of the Bulgarians there have fled to Sofia or have technically become Serbs over the course of a couple of generations, and the towns and villages in question are totally lacking any economic and development perspective.
Of course, if one looks at the ethnic clashes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s – in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and all the inspiration that certain war criminals drew from ethnic cleansing, the Bulgarians in Serbia should probably be considered lucky as they were spared such a scenario.
In the past few years one of the major displays of the "Bulgarianness" of the people still living in Bosilegrad, a destitute border town, has been the remembrance of the hanging of Bulgaria's most important national hero – 19th century revolutionary Vasil Levski (1837-1873).
Why is Levski (i.e. "Lion-like") so important for Bulgarians? In a nutshell, he was a revolutionary genius who managed to create a network of several hundred secret committees all across Bulgaria in preparation of an uprising against the Ottoman Turkish Empire. But that is too poor a description of him since what was probably most striking about this man was the power of his morals, and his democratic spirit in which he envisioned a "pure and holy republic" where all ethnic and religious groups would be totally equal and living in peace.
The best description for him was what the Bulgarians called him at the time – "the Apostle of Freedom" – which is also the name of probably the most moving account about his life, a book authored by English historian Mercia MacDermott.
Interestingly, the life of Levski, a native of Karlovo in central Bulgaria, was closely related to Romania and Serbia, autonomous from the Ottoman Turkish Empire at the time, which he used as a base for his activities together with the other Bulgarian freedom-fighters. Not only that, but Levski fought for Serbia and its independence. He took part in both "Bulgarian Legions" established in Belgrade – in 1862 and 1867 – which fought on Serbia's side against the Ottoman Empire. It was actually in Serbia during a training of the legionaries that he received his nickname "Lion-like" when he jumped over a big moat.
Levski was hanged in Sofia on February 19, 1873, by the Ottoman Turkish authorities for his revolutionary activity. His verdict was also technically a punishment for a murder that he committed while on a mission but that was far from the actual reason for his hanging – make no mistake, the justice system and authorities in the Ottoman Empire were not so advanced as to value the life of the subjects.
So one would wish to think that "the times they are-a-changing in the Balkans – compared with the time of the Ottoman Empire, the First World War, and even the 1990s – and changing for the better, and that the Balkans are no longer the powder keg of Europe, and that all people and nations in Southeast Europe will be in the EU, and that we will respect one another, and that we will live happily ever after.
But not quite. This year the Serbian authorities decided to ban the remembrance of Vasil Levski in Bosilegrad – why? – because the traditional procession would "block the town for four hours"! An ingenious justification! The Serbian authorities have really taken to heart the freedom of movement in a town of several thousand people with no economy worthy of the name, where the entire population is Bulgarian and one of the few things it cares about is actually holding the above-mentioned procession. The further measures of the Serbian authorities included banning people from Bulgaria from entering Serbia specially for the event.
The entire episode is so lame that it is hard to find any sort of decent rational explanation for it. Not only did it offend the memory of a hero who fought for the freedom of both Bulgaria and Serbia but it also cracked down on the identity of these people in a poor border town for no apparent reason.
What? Did the Serbian authorities think that the remembrance of Levski will lead the local Bulgarians to take up arms and rebel? Or the government in Sofia would wage a war in order to re-conquer those territories? Ha-ha!
It is just that Bulgaria is so beyond that – and not because the Bulgarians are so virtuous but because they and their governments are so nihilistic that they have inadvertently become very fit for a post-modern Europe. This Bulgarian nihilism – rooted in the "national catastrophes" of the Balkan wars and World War I and then in the belonging first to the Nazi sphere and then to the Soviet communist bloc – has incidentally worked out for the best at least as long as today's Bulgaria's international standing is concerned.
The Serbian authorities still remain highly chauvinistic – as do probably a higher proportion of the Serbian people than in other countries not just in Europe but even in the Balkans. Only constructivism with its emphasis on the historical and social contingency of international relations can explain why certain factors in Serbia would still cling to being atavistically nationalist in a post-modern Europe.
This atavistic chauvinism still existing in Serbia only recently shocked the West when in the fall of 2010 thousands of people took part in an anti-gay rally in Belgrade. In contrast, similar "initiatives" in Bulgaria have attracted only a few dozens of misguided youth and some middle-aged dudes with dubious mental capacities.
So against the backdrop of Bulgarian nihilism disguised as a post-modern state attitude, it remains beyond understanding whom it would be hurting if the Bulgarians in Bosilegrad held their procession to remember Vasil Levski.
The irony is that the Serbian obstructionism actually did heighten the nationalist sentiments in Bulgaria – to the extent that is possible: namely, the ranks of the several dozen above-mentioned Bulgarian "nationalists" swelled to several hundred.
The sad thing here, though, is that those who rallied in Sofia earlier this week protesting the measures of the Serbian authorities during the visit of Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic in the Bulgarian capital, included not just the few brain-dead Bulgarian enthusiasts who dream that Mussolini is alive but also embattled people from Bosilegrad and the wider Bulgarian minority in Serbia.
The slogans with respect to Serbia's attitudes raised by these poor souls with a first-hand experience of ethnically motivated repressions are making an awfully painful sense: "This Serbia – Never in the EU!", "No to the Serbian Terror", "Your brotherly Serbia unconditionally banned us from honoring Vasil Levski at his monument in Bosilegrad", "Are you MPs or are you trash?", "The Western Outlands (i.e. the Bulgarian-populated regions of Serbia – editor's note) have nothing to do with Serbia", "We are sick and tired of Serbia's chauvinism and Bulgaria's nihilism". Clearly, the greatest question that these slogans are posing is if today's Serbia belongs in the EU.
What is even worse, however, the Serbian authorities' treatment of the Bulgarians in Bosilegrad led some nationalist formations to declare that the Treaty of Neuilly has expired and that the Western Outlands must be incorporated back into Bulgaria. Not that any decent-minded Bulgarian would consider such a possibility but this is what you get as a reaction when you act with 19th century measures.
Cvetkovic offered a seemingly half-hearted declaration coming short of an actual apology for the incident in which Serbian authorities obstructed the remembrance of Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski by the ethnic Bulgarians in the country. He did mention that he "understood" the feelings of the Bulgarians, that Levski was a hero of the entire Balkans, and that Serbia is just as proud of him as Bulgaria is. Then why did it obstruct his commemoration? Cvetkovic did not apologize, of course. The world knows that the Serbian national pride would have suffered a stroke had he done so.
The reaction and attitude of the Bulgarian government was about as clumsy and inadequate but it also achieved new levels of sophistication in terms of gutlessness and spinelessness.
While initially the Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov seemed to have reacted somewhat strongly, his reaction was later watered down to telling on Serbia to the EU – but not in a very impressive, productive, and dignified manner.
Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, however, went further in terms of going nowhere. He just said that Bulgaria and Serbia should not be wasting their energy on things that bring us back in the past.
Such a reaction would have sounded fine if it had actually been the Bulgarian side who initiated "the thing that brings us back in the past." But it was the Bulgarians in Serbia who were victimized, and have been for decades, they are not the victimizers. Yet, Borisov, who otherwise has the image of a tough guy schooling even the Turkish President, demonstrated that he is "above" these things – including above protecting the human and minority rights of the Bulgarians in Bosilegrad.
Surely, his government is now eager to subscribe Serbia's government as an investor in the Belene Nuclear Power Plant, and to a bunch of major infrastructure projects. But that is no justification for acting gutlessly, not to mention that these projects are of mutual interest and not important only for Bulgaria, and the Serbs also stand to benefit from them. But clearly the Bulgarian leadership doesn't know how to use its leverage even when it accidentally happens to have any.
So the symbiotic relationship between Serbian chauvinism and Bulgarian nihilism established in the 1940s by Josip Broz Tito and Georgi Dimitrov is still well and alive. Too bad it has never brought anything good for the good people of the Balkans and Europe. And it never will.
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