David Cameron’s recent attack on multi-culturalism, Belgium’s failure to agree on a government, and the squabbles that have broken out between Bulgaria and her non-EU Slav neighbours are just the random jigsaw pieces of evidence that point to the growing challenge to the EU rationalist project. The EU was founded in the hopes that the nationalist conflicts that climaxed in two World Wars could be forgotten in a characterless superstructure where materialist well being and sugary values of universal human rights would lead to ethic amnesia. This project flies in the face of the sharply contrasting versions of history that nationalists have carefully fostered over two centuries. And these histories grow in strength when hard economic conditions destroy materialistic aspirations.
So how are Bulgarians to take the news from Serbia, that around the enclave of Bosilegrad, where the majority population is Bulgarian, a celebration of the national hero Vasil Levski has been banned? Despite protests from the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, Bulgarian patriots have been prevented from crossing the border to join their fellows in laying flowers at the monument to the Apostle of Freedom. And how should Bulgarians respond to the news from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia that folk who insist on their Bulgarian heritage now face violent repression?
In EU candidate countries, Bulgarian human rights are being curtailed. In FYR Macedonia folk lose their jobs, and, worse, mothers are put in prison, for simply claiming an ethnicity that the powers-that-be do not wish to acknowledge. The worst example is Mr Zdraveiski, a former policeman, who was imprisoned and tortured before being driven out of FYR Macedonia.
Ironically IMRO – the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – has re-emerged as a force in Bulgarian domestic and foreign politics. They have taken over the mantle of the compromised ATAKA leader, Volen Siderov, as the sole protectors of the Bulgarian heritage in the face of perceived threats from Roma, Pomak and Turkish minorities and perceived insults from Bulgaria’s former enemies in Serbia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey and Greece. Once again it is IMRO who from their position on the far right can decide who is a patriot and who is an enemy of the Bulgarian people.
IMRO has a colourful history. As a quasi terrorist organisation it struck fear not just in Bulgaria but across Europe in the 1920s and 30s. Split itself into pro Serb and pro Bulgarian factions, it embarked on a series of assassinations, culminating in the shooting of the King of Yugoslavia and the French foreign minister in Marseilles. This heroic deed occurred at a crucial point of French diplomacy, aimed at frustrating a looming fascist alliance. The assassin, Mr Chernozemski from Velingrad is celebrated in IMRO folklore as a patriotic hero. The fact that IMRO was being supported by Croatian and Italian fascists is neither here nor there.
For an example of the extremes to which partial readings of history can lead, we need look no further than the death of Alexander Stamboliiski. A radical prime minister, leader of the Peasant Party and opponent of Bulgaria’s calamitous involvement in the First World War, he was assassinated following a political coup supported by IMRO, the Military and the ethnically German Tsar. IMRO’s beef with the Prime Minister was not so much that he was striving for measures of social justice in his impoverished country, but that he had signed the Treaty of Neuilly. As leader of a defeated nation, he didn’t have much choice. However this treaty did shatter the patriotic dream of Greater Bulgaria from the Black Sea to the Aegean and Adriatic. In the treaty he gave up title to all lands occupied during the war,specifically Macedonia, Thrace and Dobrudja, territories still with large Bulgarian populations, but entirely ceded to Romania, Greece Turkey and Yugoslavia.
Stamboliiski was hauled from his hiding place. The Rationalist who insisted on calling himself a South Slav rather than Bulgarian first had his ears cut off, then his hands – let’s not forget that he signed the Treaty of Neuilly – before finally his head was cut off and sent to Sofia in a biscuit tin.
There are streets named after this Prime Minister in every Bulgarian town.
It is a commonplace in Bulgaria that people do not learn from history. The problem is that there are many histories and especially in the Balkans. These histories are entirely self contradictory. Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Turks cling to their own history as an absolute truth and will admit no competing alternative. The power of these competing mythologies has led to the orgy of bloodletting in three Balkan Wars, the Great War, the Second World War and the civil wars in former Yugoslavia. All these conflicts involved atrocities committed by people fired by history. The victims were always defenceless civilians.
The roots of these inter-ethnic conflicts lie in the procedures of rationaist empires. From Ireland, India, Hapsburg Czechoslovakia, Tsarist Russia all the way to Bulgaria, peoples were moved about, forced to live alongside other ethnicities and religions till come the Romantic Revolution and a weakening of a corrupt central power, all Hell broke loose.
The EU better learn from all its histories.