The work of reconciliation is hampered by the way some historians in both countries don’t want to deconstruct the political myths embedded in the teaching of history.
Since Bulgaria and North Macedonia signed a landmark friendship agreement in 2017, a joint commission focused on history has been working to bridge their serious historic disagreements.
While some progress has been made, matters got largely stuck since 2019, with Bulgaria at the end of that year citing, among other things, lack of progress in this commission as one reason why it decided to block the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks.
Talks within the Joint Multidisciplinary Commission for Historical and Educational Issues are resuming nonetheless, even while both countries have differing views on sensitive historical subjects – as a result of which its work often causes public storms in both societies.
Bulgaria demands it and North Macedonia also wants to hear that this commission has made progress, as it still hopes for a breakthrough with Bulgaria over its EU membership before the July EU summit.
Recalling the last meeting, last week in Sofia, the commission told media that they had discussed the history of the Ohrid Archbishopric and certain 11th-century uprisings, which both countries look as their own national risings and as part of their own historical heritage.
Differences remain on the Ohrid archbishopic, commission member from Skopje, historian Petar Todorov, told BIRN. The Ohrid archbishopic has continued into the contemporary Macedonian Orthodox Church – which has struggled for decades to gain acceptance in the Orthodox world.
But, in general, the problem over history is much wider, and not limited only to the debates inside the commission. Todorov said that progress on this and other contested topics remains hampered by communities of historians in both countries who still believe that past and history should not be separated from the modern state and state ideology.
Myths remain embedded in the teaching of history
After the commission meeting last week, Todorov said the early-Ottoman period was discussed in a constructive atmosphere.
“At the meeting, we continued with discussions on the topics and issues that have been discussed for a long time, namely history textbooks for 6th grade in Bulgaria and 7th grade in Macedonia, and finding solutions which the Commission will recommend to educational institutions on how history textbooks in both countries can be improved in order to help overcome the symbolic disputes that both elites and societies have as a consequence of political myths that persist in historical education,” Todorov said.
Concerning the Ohrid Archbishopric and certain 11th-century uprisings against Byzantium and their presentation in history textbooks, “We have different views on the Ohrid Archbishopric”, Todorov said.
The issue of the Orthodox Church that covers the territory of today’s North Macedonia, and parts of some neighbouring countries, is complicated and disputed.
While today’s Macedonian Orthodox Church says it is the rightful heir of the Ohrid Church, historians and clerics in both Serbia and Bulgaria dispute this, and say the Church in Ohrid is part of their own historical heritage.
The Bulgarian narrative more generally claims that today’s ethnic Macedonians have a Bulgarian origin and that a Macedonian identity, separate from a Bulgarian one, was only artificially formed after World War II, under supposed pressure from then Yugoslavia, to hamper Bulgaria’s (rightful) claims to what is today’s North Macedonia. Thus, all the history before World War II remains potentially problematic.
“We stressed that the [commission’s] recommendations should be based on scientific principles and approaches that will deconstruct political myths in historical education, and for the issues of the medieval period to be seen in their broader socio-political context, not exclusively from the contemporary ethno-national and exclusive perspective,” he said.
“This, in fact, led us to this dispute and to the creation and consolidation of political myths in historical education.
“We believe that deconstructing political myths in education is very important because they are used as weapons of division, and in the worst case, as an excuse to commit aggression.
“We can witness this with Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, which Moscow has defined as a fictional nation without its own history,” Todorov said.
Todorov advocates a multi-perspective approach in dealing with such complicated issues, as opposed to sticking to only one narrative.
“In overcoming these problems, the use of multi-perspectivity as an approach in historical education is a useful tool, especially when ethno-national exclusive perspectives on the past are extremely strong and views on the past are dominated by political myths, and not by the need to better understand the history and its heritage that we all share today in the Balkans.”
To reach the common goal of good neighbourliness, declarative statements that mention “good neighbourliness” are not enough, he added.
What is needed is to apply concrete approaches and positive European experiences in overcoming problems between the two countries.
“They cannot be overcome if one political myth in historical education is just replaced by another,” the historian observed.
Work goes on despite gaps between meetings
Despite continuity in the meetings of the commission, the time lag between them is long.
After the last meeting, the members scheduled the next session for four months later, despite previous statements by the commission co-chairs, one from each country, that they would aim more frequent talks.
But Todorov insists work takes place between the meetings.
“The length of time between the last and the next meeting of the Commission does not mean a break in its work. At the beginning of the year, the co-chairs, in consultation with the members of the Commission, agreed to hold six meetings in 2022,” he recalled.
At the last meeting, by mutual agreement, the two co-presidents proposed that the next meeting be held in mid-September, which the other members accepted.
In the meantime, the Commission will harmonize the contents of the minutes and shorthand records from the previous meetings.
Defenders of ‘national history’ serve political interests
During the past period, two informal bodies were formed in Bulgaria, including historians who are either trying to form a parallel history commission, in order to broaden the debate, or those who hold hard line positions on the topic of negotiating with North Macedonia on contested topics at all.
One body that strives to broaden the debate calls itself the “shadow” commission, and the other is made up of historians calling on Bulgaria not to back down in the debate.
The voices of historians who oppose any agreement with Sofia are strong in North Macedonia as well.
“As a member of the Commission, at the meetings with our colleagues from Sofia, but also in public, we pointed out that overcoming the dispute leads through a wider forum of discussion, which will be based on an honest approach, free from political, ideological and party influences – not by imposing on top of each other narratives, which are presented to the public as ‘historical truths’,” Todorov said.
“As far as I know, the commission that has called itself a ‘shadow commission’ has not been formed yet, but is planned, with staffing with historians from both countries. We have heard several statements about the reasons for its formation, which one could say are well-intentioned,” he said.
“My first impression is that this is an attempt to involve other historians from both countries, who would show a different approach to overcoming historical problems.
“However, it is too early to give judgments and assessments about the role that this commission would play in relations between the two countries and its contribution to the debates on past and historical education, because the composition of the commission, its methodology and the purpose of its work, are not clearly defined,” Todorov said.
On the other hand, there is a community of historians with a completely different approach and understanding of the role of history, Todorov said, “who present themselves to the public as ‘defenders of identity and national history’.
“This latter-mentioned group from Bulgaria, hiding behind the academic titles, has come up with a political position that uses their views on the past – presented to the public as ‘historical facts’ and as ‘historical truth’,” Todorov argued.
“Among this not-so-small group of historians there is an understanding that the past and history should not be separated from the state and its ideology, which in turn is often adjusted to the ideology of the political parties in power.”
“This group says the state should define ‘historical truths’ and build its policies for the future on the basis of these ‘facts’ and ‘truths’, which are, in fact, political myths.”
Todorov said that this approach has proven to be conflicted and even catastrophic in the history of mankind.
“The problem with this approach, which rejects various interpretations of the past based on scientific principles and condemns them as harmful to the state and the nation, is very problematic for societies and states that have declared themselves democratic – because they impose an authoritarian and unambiguous view of history. They are opposite to democracy and the development of a democratic society,” Todorov said.
This approach is also harmful to historical science and history itself, as it makes it a tool of politics and of party interests, rather than of scientific principles and interests.
“In this way, we are talking about a history that serves certain political and party interests, not the scientific interest.”
Todorov said that, unfortunately, this approach remains dominant in the Balkans and beyond, including in some EU member states.
Thus, historical dogmas from both sides of the borders feed each other, he argues.
“Historians on both sides of the border who share this kind of view on the past need each other. With their approach and disputes, they feed each other arguments, as to why they are ‘necessary’ for the society in which they operate,” Todorov concluded.