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Sociological analysis of the relations between the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Bulgaria

Author: Prof. Dr. Tatjana Stojanoska Ivanova, Institute of Sociology, Faculty of Philosophy, University “Ss. Cyril and Methodius” Skopje

The sociological discourse on the relations between the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Bulgaria refers to many aspects, including education, culture, economy, tourism, sports, politics and other social spheres, and it comprises the connections and interaction between individuals, groups and institutions. The Republic of North Macedonia paves the way to the European Union and the majority of the citizens share the opinion of faster joining the big European family. In that context there are series of agreements and international conventions that were accepted by our country, all with the aim of an accelerated step towards the European paths. One of those agreements was the Friendship and Good Neighbor’s Agreement with the Republic of Bulgaria from August 2017, ratified by both countries in 2018, an agreement that aimed to support Bulgaria for Macedonia’s candidacy for membership in NATO and the EU, including improvement in the domain of the economy, trade, transport, customs and other segments. This agreement, although met with some criticism from part of the public, was nevertheless welcomed by the majority, all with the aim that Bulgaria, as one of our neighbors and a member state of the EU, helps Macedonia to approach European perspectives. However, even though the agreement was ratified, a series of inconsistencies and disrespect for some of the views emerged, especially related to education and history, and in that context, Macedonia was vetoed in 2020 by Bulgaria for membership in the European Union.

The key goals, principles and values of Macedonia are oriented towards the European Union and that is precisely why it is trying to spread and accept European values, their consolidation and establishment in the overall social habitus. There are no moral dilemmas for continuity in the tracing of European values, and acceptance and understanding of the other in every context (ethnic, religious, political, etc.) is crucial, respect, responsibility, altruism, cosmopolitanism, building and developing the principle of tolerance as one of the key principles, building bridges for dialogue and cooperation, in one word, a positive approach in every segment of the social milieu. However, what should be noted is that if we want a European perspective and respect for all European values, they cannot be only part of one side, on the contrary, every country should nurture them and not only declaratively, but also practically advocating their implementation in real life.

Education is the backbone of every society, and without a healthy educational system, healthy generations cannot be built that will cope with life and social challenges, and therefore educational curricula should be created very carefully. This segment precisely of the educational reforms was also a stumbling block to the agreement with Bulgaria, insisting on changes in history textbooks, civic education, etc. Educational institutions are intended for upbringing and education, quality, based on facts and knowledge and should not be subject to political calculations. The facts about the historical past cannot and must not be mystified, on the contrary, the facts in Dirkem’s sense should be treated as norm, and therefore they should be accepted and not contested. History is based on facts and scientific evidence and as such is indisputable, the controversy should be directed towards the future ways of improving education and the whole commitment should focus on that question: How to get a better and higher quality education, an education that will develop European values and which will go hand in hand with the highly developed state. In that context, within the framework of higher education, it can rightly be said that there is progress and cooperation between Macedonia and Bulgaria, and the proof of this is the exchange of students within the framework of European mobility programs and the cooperation between universities and faculties in the field of common projects, conferences and visiting professors. Namely, the Universities have signed bilateral university agreements, which enable international mobility (ERASMUS + CEEPUS), programs that include a study stay at a foreign university, participation in international scientific events (conferences, summer schools, congresses, etc.), as well as stays related to scientific research work. University “Ss. Cyril and Methodius”- Skopje has a large number of such agreements with Universities in Bulgaria, and among them it is worth mentioning the “Neofit Rilski” University from Blagoevgrad, the University of Sofia, the University of Veliko Trnovo. These agreements in the field of higher education are aimed at exchanging experiences and acquiring new knowledge for students and professors, debating important social phenomena, introducing new trends and approaches in teaching and study programs, understanding modern scientific methods and techniques, etc. Students from both countries should be focused on acquiring new knowledge, exchanging ideas and experiences, opening new horizons and perspectives that will help them in their professional and life path, gaining friendships, accepting values that will imply a positive approach and acceptance of differences and of course openness of mind to novelties and perspectives. With their study visits, professors should exchange experiences with their colleagues, debate important scientific issues, transfer acquired knowledge, but also understand and reason logically about some social phenomena, build a bridge for cooperation of future generations. Acceptance of the Bologna Declaration implies the establishment of educational programs that will contribute to knowledge based on facts, research and progressive scientific achievements, the possibility of great mobility within education at all levels and of course individual and social benefits. Only through mutual communication in the field of education, exchange of knowledge, theses, ideas, as well as acceptance of different opinions, but also joint research, not burdened by politics, will it be possible to overcome the misunderstandings that are pushed in a subtle way by the political elite. Education should not and must not be burdened by politics, it is based on scientific knowledge, facts and empirical data, which are scientific truths.

In the domain of culture, it is crucial to respect the cultural heritage and cultural wealth of each country and not to dispute the same. Namely, culture leaves its mark and it is part of the overall social discourse of a country. The tradition within the culture is a proof and a sign of everyone’s being, and that is why the cultural wealth and the cultural heritage that each country has should be preserved with special love and passion. In the domain of culture, cooperation between Macedonia and Bulgaria should also be developed, because it is through cultural institutions, cultural manifestations, cultural centers that European values can and should be spread. What should be especially emphasized is that no segment of the culture of any country must be challenged, especially not its tradition, heritage and wealth, because in this way it interferes with the essence of the nation. Culture should unite, inspire, upgrade, integrate, ennoble, spread positive energy and inspire beautiful emotions. Culture must not divide, split, spread hatred, subjugate, discriminate, on the contrary, it should develop the spirit of understanding, respect, kindness and of course tolerance. Cultural consolidation is key for one nation, and cultural exchange should be nurtured in the spirit of good neighborliness and enhancement of culture. In both countries, young people should be stimulated to joint creativity, exchange of cultural ideas and values, cooperation in the field of art, poetry, acting. Cultural actors should be the bearers of cultural exchange, because only in this way will cultural progress be achieved. In that line, the National Opera and Ballet from Macedonia, an institution that has signed memoranda for cooperation and agreements with the national opera and ballet institutions from Stara Zagora, Plovdiv, Burgas, Varna, works as a good example of cooperation. The cooperation between these cultural institutions has been going on for decades and includes visits to the operas and ballets in the cities mentioned earlier, and it should be emphasized that this cooperation is ongoing. Namely, ballet and opera performances are held in Macedonia and in Bulgaria with the guesting of the national operas and ballets, and it must be emphasized that they are massively attended and supported by the audience. The national theaters of the two countries maintain cooperation as well and performances within the  cultural manifestations are held with a lot of interest on both sides. Of course, exhibitions and poetry readings are part of the cultural exchange too. This is a good example and practice for other cultural institutions to cooperate, in fact, culture has that primordial power to spread warmth, tolerance, beauty and unite.

Sports, as one of the most significant side jobs in the world, should be a field of cooperation between the two countries, a field of play, competition, spreading of sports etiquette and intellectual dialogue in sports. Although not often, the sports grounds have also become the target of bribery, of political calculation, especially through the fans of teams from both countries or the national selections, who through vulgar slogans and cheering through the use of derogatory words implying insult to the other, spread speech of hatred and intolerance. Sports should unite and develop sportsmanship and sports competition in the spirit of welcoming the opponent, accepting defeat, congratulating the better and acting in the spirit of positive messages that are sent through sports. More frequent matches, whether friendly, whether within sports cups or competitions, of national teams and sports clubs from both countries, should spread the positive discourse, by cheering for one’s own club, but without insulting the other on any basis, by spreading on sports etiquette, on intercultural dialogue in sports and learning how to accept both victory and defeat. Only through positive sports vibes and initiation of togetherness in the sports spirit, but also punishment and condemnation of insults and discrimination, will contribute to overcoming differences and acceptance of diversity.

Politics is an inevitable part of an analysis and the attitude not only of the scientific and intellectual elite, but of the entire public is that impatience and problems are caused and fueled at certain moments precisely because of political needs. On the other hand, provocations from the aspect of supporting persons who are part of history and deny a nation or culture, insults from politicians, opening of clubs that have ulterior motives, should not remain unnoticed and unchallenged. Provocations should not be ignited, but anyone who provokes should bear the appropriate sanction. The political elite must not remain a silent witness to someone’s bad behavior, to someone’s denial of cultural actors, and celebrate at the same time persons who have not become famous for good, it should stand firmly in the way of such actions. The political elite, from both countries, should work in the spirit of understanding, reconciliation, tolerance, respect, but also responsibility and care for their own, both at home and abroad. The political elite should not incite and support violence, because violence begets violence, on the contrary, it should be an example of cooperation, communication and spreading positive values, which will mean progress and improvement for both countries. We all have a common goal, prosperity and progress, a better life and happier people, only with such a mission will the political elite succeed in maintaining the spirit of the people and the true spread and development of European values. I will end with the thought of Martin Luther King that “Next generations will not judge the evil and violence of bad people, on the contrary, they will judge the silence of the good ones.”

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.