Date: Tue, 13 Apr 1999 23:07:36 -0500 (CDT)
From: Panayote Elias Dimitras <>
Subject: Bulgaria-FRY: Bulgaria, Serbia and the War
Article: 60788
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

Bulgaria avoided the bombs of hate

By Elizabeth Pond, Greek Helsinki Monitor, 4 October 1999

Serbia and Bulgaria are twins

Both have grand imperial histories that hark back to medieval times. Aseveryone knows, the cradle of Serbian identity, religion, and statehood was Kosovo. As hardly anyone knows, the cradle of Bulgarian identity, religion, and statehood was Macedonia.

Both of these great nations were subjugated by the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, Serbia at the Ravens Field in Kosovo. And if Bulgaria had not been conquered in Macedonia but on the Danube, it was only because Macedonia had already fallen to the Serbian empire. Both broke free from the Turks only half a millennium later.

Yet today the twins react utterly differently. Serbs are rallying to defend their honor and pride in Kosovo by exterminating Kosovar Albanian men and driving out women and children.

Bulgarians are defending their honor and pride by renouncing old-fashioned ethnic hatred and achieving reconciliation with hallowed but independent Macedonia for the first time after 86 successive years of hostility.

Why the difference?

For the Serbs the answer is simple: Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Beginning in the late 1980s he worked assiduously over two years to destroy Belgrade's liberal tolerance and sophistication and replace it with the atavistic thirst for revenge of the 19th-century Balkan village.

For the Bulgarians the answer is more complex and more hopeful. Despite all the solemn pronouncements about age-old Balkan feuds, the Bulgarian example suggests that the Serbs' war reflex was not preordained—no fatal gene condemns the Balkans to perpetuate barbarity forever. As Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Dimitrov puts it, it is possible to demythologize the past and show that “southeastern Europe is not accursed.”

The Bulgarian demythologizing of history did not follow a straight line. Indeed, at the same time that Serbian Communist leader Milosevic was fanning Serbian xenophobia, the old Communist leadership in Sofia was doing the same thing in Bulgaria. It began persecuting ethnic Turks whose families had lived in Bulgaria for generations. It forced them to slavicize their names. In an early example of ethnic cleansing, it eventually expelled some 350,000 of them, about half of the whole community. For good measure, it closed mosques and stopped Turkish-language instruction in schools.

Many Bulgarians initially responded to this populism with as much fervor as Serbs did to Milosevic. When the Communists fell and the successor government welcomed back Turks who had been exiled, there were daily anti-Turkish demonstrations outside the Education Ministry. Violence was threatened against returnees, especially by those Bulgarians who had taken over neighbors' houses or shops during the earlier campaign and feared retaliation.

Yet the bombs of hate never exploded in Bulgaria the way they did in Serbia, for two reasons. First, astonishingly, an infant civil society mounted a courageous crusade against xenophobia and won.

Second, there was a democratic backlash against the ex-Communists, who ruled without real reform from the early 1990s until 1997 and ruined the Bulgarian economy with hyperinflation. Mass protests forced early elections, and the vote gave the center right a stable majority two years ago. That government, besides instituting tough economic reform, deliberately mended fences with Turkey after six centuries and, as of a month ago, with the old foe of Macedonia.

Antonina Zhelyazkova, chairman of the International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations in Sofia, explains how the activists helped pull the public mood back from the verge of bloodshed.

She and her colleagues, despite receiving death threats and being branded traitors, traveled throughout the country to calm people down. They e managed to get onto Bulgarian television prime time and to set up telephone hot lines. Appealing to the more positive tradition of Bulgarian generosity, the peacemakers preached that Bulgaria had saved its Jews in the Nazi era and sheltered Armenians half a century before that. Bulgarians should be proud of this reputation and not squander it, they urged.

The appeal worked, Zhelyazkova relates. Today's opinion polls “show how negative stereotypes are disappearing.” In the 1990s “for the first time, Bulgarians are concluding that the Turks are part of the Bulgarian nation and are entitled to equality and participation in political and economic life.”

The present government then translated the growing domestic tolerance into a new foreign tolerance. Two years ago the Bulgarian president apologized in Turkey for Sofia's earlier persecution of ethnic Turks.

Last year the prime minister struck up a warm friendship with his Turkish counterpart and solicited Turkish investment in Bulgaria. Sofia also took the initiative to establish periodic pan-Balkan consultations and even a joint peacekeeping brigade that as of September will include both Turks and Greeks, as well as Bulgarians, Romanians, and others.

Psychologically, the reconciliation with Macedonia was even harder than the Bulgarian-Turkish reconciliation, of course. But last February, Sofia finally recognized Macedonian de facto as a language of its own, and not just a dialect of Bulgarian, while Skopje finally waived all claim to speak for a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. As a good-will gesture, Sofia presented several hundred decommissioned tanks and artillery pieces to Skopje's ill-equipped army.

Significantly, this moderation is popular in Bulgaria. A standing-room-only crowd of 2,000 in Sofia applauded the Bulgarian and Macedonian prime ministers after they signed their agreements. Voters regard the reconciliation not as a betrayal of Bulgaria's honor—as many Serbs seem to view any compromise with the Kosovar Albanians—but rather as a sign that they too have entered the modern world.

The Bulgarians proudly call this new mentality civilized, European, or even trans-Atlantic. The Serbs do not.