Author: Bojan Kordalov, Senior communication expert
“The economic relations do not go hand in hand with the political ones between our countries” – this was one of the most used or if you like “cliché” sentences in the statements and announcements after the state visits between the countries of the Balkans during the 90s of the last century.
Such a brief introduction was the main message with which it was obviously intended (mostly seemingly) to show that our region is following the footsteps of the western principles of integration embodied in the international alliances such as the European Union and the NATO Alliance – strategic goals of the Balkan countries, where today most of us are already members.
This leads me to one of the main theses that I present often in public or during my lectures on communications and public relations. I reiterate that the foundation of everything lies in communication. Starting from the earliest childhood, school, college, workplace… The person that has clear and reasoned communication or better communication skills in general, always seems to achieve their goal and intention much easier.
However, communication is the basis of every dispute, misunderstanding and conflict. Moreover, there is no war occurring or which has occurred, that was not based on noise in communication or, if applicable, on consciously induced misunderstanding and labored communication that will consequently lead to estrangement of relations, verbal attacks and accusations, and in the worst case scenario even to conflict and war.
And if we look behind, we will see that for the past thirty years, our region has literally been a “victim” of bad communication. At least most of the time, political relations do not follow economic relations, nor vice versa. The Balkan countries went through decades of divisions, disputes, discords, wars and conflicts and in the end they always ended with fewer people, destroyed homes, disappointed and traumatized people, enormous poverty and missed chances to build states and societies that will be an example and create living conditions that each of our fellow citizens deserve.
If we talk specifically about Macedonian-Bulgarian relations and communication between states, it is really a variable axis with highs and lows of relations and communication during the past decades. From topics of frozen relations in the socialist world, through the first recognition of Macedonian independence by the Bulgarian side, but also help for Bulgarian citizens in grain crops during the monetary collapse of neighboring Bulgaria, through agreements to resolve open issues, all the way to the focus on historical differences and identity disputes, but also support for NATO entry and blocking Macedonian EU membership. Stormy decades are behind us and unfortunately it is still uncertain how we will shape the decades ahead of us regarding relations between people and states.
Nevertheless, let’s leave politics to the politicians, and let’s get back to communication. Today’s digital communication, which has no frontiers and allows each one of us to create a kind of “medium” and be an influencer. That is, in the time of the Internet and the global era of digitization, when politics becomes public, accessible and visible to everyone. It is difficult to hide or limit something, without it being immediately noticed, but also without receiving millions of different views, comments and opinions, even on the most correctly set scientific hypotheses. Despite their desires, today’s politicians cannot communicate and make decisions in narrow party or political circles, and decisions and the right to vote do not belong only to the “most expert and prepared”, but the creation of public awareness and public opinion equally depends on active participation, contribution and vote of each person.
This is a time that for communication means many opportunities, advances, but at the same time entails many risks, incorrect use of digital tools, propaganda, fake news, conspiracy theories…
And of course, a lot of hate speech, often based on personal, but also on governmental, ethnic, religious and other grounds. After all, hate speech is a stumbling block in Macedonian-Bulgarian relations and communication between the political representatives of the two countries.
Yet, whose fault is this and, moreover, where is the solution? It is of great importance to constantly emphasize that hate speech is not done by states, nations, religions. Hate speech is always and everywhere created by persons with their own identity, i.e. first and last name. Precisely because of this, the blame must only be sought where the hate speech springs from, and that is in those individuals who choose to make it their attribute.
Hate speech is an equally serious problem for all countries of the Balkan region, without exception. Unfortunately, internet forums, social media and other digital platforms are full of insults, disdain and other hateful comments that spare no one. Simply, the basis is only hatred, glorification of one’s national, ethnic and religious affiliation, i.e. belittling all people from other nations, religions, ethnicities or any other diversity.
But there is no benefit from this kind of bad communication for any person, nor for any country. It’s unfortunate, but this kind of speech is not only not sanctioned, but very often it is encouraged by various political elites in all countries of the Balkans. We have witnessed in many situations that no means were chosen to stay or come to power, and even less thought was given to the long-term consequences that will be caused by such igniting of interpersonal arguments and mutual accusations. Furthermore, this is precisely what politics and some politicians skillfully use and try to capitalize in election campaigns. And so we go round and round in circles for decades before almost every election in any of the countries of our region.
That is why it is necessary for the Balkan politicians to gather strength and instead of “hunters” for cheap political points, replace the principle of “divide et impera” with visionary thinking, honest communication with their citizens and neighbors, as well as devoted regional cooperation. Because the problems are similar, very often common, and the solutions will be much stronger if they are adopted and implemented at regional level. Problems starting from corruption at all levels, through mistrust in public institutions, up to the mass emigration of young people from the Balkan region – many problems that are equally present everywhere, and which require a regional approach in finding a solution, as well as the support of western allies in the overall process.
In this regard, I propose to look at just one practical example. The American Embassy recently announced that a special anti-corruption team was on a mission to our country in order to establish a list of politicians and other prominent people who are connected to corruption. Almost at the same time, Bulgaria’s application for membership in the Schengen area was rejected by the European Union on grounds that contained the same well-known keyword: corruption.
I believe that this is just one example that should be a motivation for the authorities of both countries to join forces and work together to solve this problem. And of course, to invite the other countries from the Western Balkans to join in order to support the overall process and quick results on this plan. Who would be the winner if this happened? All the citizens. Which country would come out as a loser? None.
This is just one indication of how communication can be used to encourage action, cooperation and rapprochement between the Balkan countries. Or, contrary to this, for politicians to continue to abuse and use communication as the main weapon to incite discord and intolerance between people on different sides of the Balkan borders.
We spent and survived decades, proving which country is better, more successful, older, with more history, with more important people than others, etc. But at the same time, there are no indicators that such a politically applied recipe has brought anything good to the people other than enabling certain political elites to stay or come to power at a certain historical moment.
Do citizens feel happier or more satisfied with this approach? The answer is no, according to all parameters, relevant statistics and research. On the contrary, the standard everywhere in the region is at a low level, poverty is growing, quality of life and public services are declining, risks are increasing, and the desire of young people to literally “escape” from the region is rising.
So in the end, the initial dilemma arises, where are the interpersonal relationships? Has the time finally come when political and economic liaisons will begin to follow interpersonal relations between people. Because it is obvious that people from all Balkan countries successfully connect, agree and cooperate with each other when they move to one of the European countries or the American continent.
Will the politicians finally roll up the sleeves and start solving the problems that are existential and bother people? Or will they continue to create communication based solely on history and geography and pre-election fueled issues?
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.