Is there no other solution or is this not a solution? Towards the dominant political narratives in the Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute
Author: Kire Vasilev, political scientist
Everyone agrees that solving open issues with neighbors will improve regional political-economic development and contribute to stability and peace. At least basically everyone believes this. And yet, in the last few years, it seems that the main political issue that imposes itself and creates social division is Macedonian-Bulgarian relations and the painstaking process of overcoming disagreements between the neighbors. The growing impression of hopelessness and futility of the initiatives for better cooperation among the public increasingly raises the question of whether, when and in what way the Republic of North Macedonia should conduct negotiations with the Republic of Bulgaria, but also in general with other neighboring countries. At the same time, it seems that the dominant political parties cannot reach an agreement on the points of the negotiation framework, especially on the so-called French proposal. Some of them consider that it is another external blow to history and statehood, while others consider that the compromise is acceptable because the path to European integration and development is the only alternative for the Republic of North Macedonia.
Such positions are part of conflicting narratives that are not unique to this regional conflict or to the internal policies of the Balkan countries. On the contrary, the opposition of “protection of the created” and the “inevitable path to development” can be recognized in the internal politics of many countries, as well as in many international conflicts, including Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Precisely in order to elaborate the Russian internal and foreign policy as well as its relationship with the USA, Europe and especially with Ukraine in the past decades, the American historian Timothy Snyder in his book The Road to Unfreedom groups such positions into two dominant political narratives that can be recognized also in the local context. The politics of inevitability and the politics of infinity, or the two narratives with which he operates in his research, can help us to understand the individual positions towards the Macedonian-Bulgarian issue, as well as the way in which one and the other side perceive the “other” within the framework of the particular narrative. But above all, the application of this seemingly simple binary division by Snyder on Bulgarian-Macedonian relations leads us to significant conclusions about the general attitude towards recent European history, which seems like a bitter trauma that broke out on the surface and shakes the ground not only in the Balkans, but also on most of the continent.
Politics of inevitability and politics of infinity
In establishing the two central narratives with which he will operate in his research, it does not surprise us that Snyder generally associates the politics of inevitability with the so-called “Western world” and, in turn, the so-called “Eastern” with the politics of infinity. Fukuyama’s idea of the “end of history” can be accepted as a determinant of the Western world in the last few decades. After the victory of liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War, this political belief confirms its superiority and asserts itself as the only political future. According to Snyder, it materializes in the narrative of the policy of inevitability that provides a certain plan for the implementation of clearly defined development programs as well as for a good institutional setting of the present. In the American-capitalist version, nature brought the market, the market brought democracy, and democracy brought happiness. In the European version, history created the nation, which learned through war that peace is good, and this led us to the path of integration and prosperity. Certainly, according to Snyder, this kind of politics can also be recognized in the narratives of some of the progressive socialist and communist currents and regimes. The ultimate goal lies far on the horizon of the future, and the goal is to walk the arduous but inevitable path to it.
Instead of linear progress, however, the policy of infinity perceives its ultimate goal as realized and is therefore concerned with the preservation of the existing. In this case, time is not a linear form leading to a better future, but a circle of endless return to the dangers of the past. In the politics of inevitability, no one is to blame because the future irons out the details and does good for all. In the politics of infinity, on the other hand, no one is to blame because the enemy comes again from outside. Unlike politicians of inevitability, politicians of infinity spread the belief that government ultimately cannot improve society, on the contrary, progress can even be destructive, but what these politicians can do is defend society from external threats.
Attitude towards historical facts
Although these characteristics of both policies are enough to be recognized in the local policies involved in the Macedonian-Bulgarian conflict, what seems crucial is their styles of translating historical facts into concrete ideological narratives that are used alluding to problems of the present. Those who advocate inevitability see the facts as part of the mosaic of overall progress, and those who advocate infinity classify each new event as another example of the constant external threat. Politicians of inevitability teach the public that the specifics of the past are not that important: everything that happened is just part of the progress. On the other hand, the politicians of infinity jump from centuries to decades, from one historical moment to another, to build the myth of the happiness of their nation and to outline the danger that wants to threaten its innocence.
It is clear that if they are driven by different understandings of history, the two narratives will have their own distinctive styles of propaganda in the present and the future. Politicians of inevitability spin facts to show prosperity, and politicians of infinity hide facts in order to deny the reality that people in other countries are freer and richer and that with reforms based on empirical knowledge they can make a step towards progress. In crises, the politics of inevitability reacts by convincing citizens that everything will be fine, unlike the politics of infinity which in times of crisis propagates that everything is bad and nothing can be done.
The speeches, campaigns and style of negotiations of the members of the Macedonian political parties regarding the relations with the Republic of Bulgaria give clear indicators of the presence of precisely such narratives on the Macedonian political scene. These can be well analyzed based on the reactions surrounding the French agreement, which clearly divided not only the public, but also the political scene into supporters of the infinite or the inevitable narrative. The politicians of VMRO-DPMNE as well as of “Levica” are clearly realizing the politics of infinity. They insist that the deal was made without public consultation and that, in general, outside interference is hostile to the integrity of the state. Interaction with external entities is perceived as a threat, and anyone who does not experience this in the same way is a traitor. On the other hand, the politics of inevitability led by SDSM and DUI support the agreement and believe that it will bring economic and political benefit to the state. They claim that the agreement does not threaten sovereignty and national integrity and that resolving the disputed points will resolve the open issues that hinder progress. With such actions, they convince the public that they are taking a step forward towards European integration and prosperity.
At the same time, it seems that in the Macedonian context the political narrative of inevitability is less developed and does not exhaust all the propaganda mechanisms and elements available to it, which arouses distrust among citizens not only in politicians but also in the very policy they represent. On the other hand, the far more prevalent policy of infinity operates in all fields, but especially in the field of history. So it showed itself well during the debate about the Bulgarian clubs in Ohrid and Bitola named after controversial figures from history. The jump from centuries to decades was shown by imposing the polarization of fascists against anti-fascists, which was also supported by propaganda mechanisms typical for this policy. One of these mechanisms was the invocation of historical events from the Second World War by oral or pictorial presentation in order to illustrate the Bulgarian fascist aggression on the territory of Macedonia and to connect it with contemporary political actors and then with the whole nation. The antagonism between heroes and traitors, which is constantly being forced on countless fields, is reinforced by concrete figures who appear as modern actors in old roles: while arsonists and thugs are today’s heroes, the current government and its supporters figure, of course, as those who ” sold the state”.
The fascist, that is the other
The antagonism composed of heroes and traitors is of course easily and often translated into the well-known and already mentioned antagonism of anti-fascist and fascist. The insistence of such labels, however, plays a greater role for the politics of infinity than just a momentary dramatic gesture of fatalism, precisely in the direction of establishing one’s own position as a position of absolute victim. This rejects political pluralism and the fact that each nation is made up of different political-ideological groups, and anyone who opposes this way of thinking is placed in the position of an internal enemy. For this we will once again use Snyder’s terminology, this time with the term schizofascism. Starting from past events and identifying exaggeratedly with his own ancestors, the schizofascist is infinitely in the position of a victim who needs to defend himself against the oppressor. But the most important thing in this constellation is not his overemphasized identification with anti-fascism, but the exclusion of any possibility of finding fascist elements in himself. In this way, the way is opened for political actors who, on one hand, parade pictures of the devastated Macedonian villages in the Second World War, and on the other hand, talk about a “clean language” and a “clean nation”.
This analysis is part of the project: „Demystifying the (un) neighborly relations on the path to the EU: The case of North Macedonia and Bulgaria“, through the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of EUROTINK-Centre for European Strategies and can in no way be considered to reflect the views of the Canadian Embassy in Belgrade and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.