The Bilateral Commission is an expert body, not a political tool




Mesovitata komisija e ekspertsko telo a ne politicka alatka naslovna

ResPublika is publishing this interview with the members of the Joint Macedonian-Bulgarian Multidisciplinary Expert Commission on Historical and Educational Issues. The same questions are answered by the associate professor Petar Todorov from the Macedonian side, and Assoc. Naum Kajchev from the Bulgarian side. The two have different views on the course of the work so far, that is, whether or not there is a delay in the work and whether they face pressures. In the interview, they both explain the term "common history", comment the need for historical revisionism after World War II, and their perception of the chance this Commission has to answer the open questions from the past of the two countries. ResPublika conducted this interview in collaboration with the Bulgarian newspaper “Sega”.

1. The bilateral committee last time met at the end of the last year, following the decision for national elections in RN Macedonia. What is happening now with the work of this bilateral committee? How far have the negotiations progressed? Can we expect new developments after the elections in N Macedonia that will take place in less than a month?

Todorov: First of all, I would like to mention that the historians do not negotiate, but they rather discuss and debate about the past.

Regarding the work of the Committee and the most recent developments, it is necessary to mention a couple of few things – short and clear. The allegations that the Macedonian historians have unilaterally suspended the work are false. I am convinced that this false information does not intend to “speed up” the work of the Committee, but it rather has political background. At the last conference, we proposed to meet after the elections (back then they were scheduled for 12 April 2020), and in the meantime to exchange ideas and remarks regarding the possible joint celebrations and history textbooks. Unfortunately, a few days after the last conference, we were accused in the media, for no reason, that we are politicizing the work and that we have unilaterally stopped the work of the Committee. Meanwhile, the Committee held a virtual meeting in order to coordinate the text of the Minutes from the last conference and exchanged views on when the next conference could take place. If the overall health situation allows it, I hope the tenth conference will take place in September.

Due to these statements, but especially due to a series of official state documents and views of some Bulgarian historians who deny the Macedonian language and the ethnic identity of the Macedonians, the work of the Committee is facing disturbed trust among its members.

Regarding politicians and their role in the process, I would like to emphasize that in both societies, their position should be towards creating an atmosphere in which historians will be able to work professionally and without any pressure. Unfortunately, in Macedonia and Bulgaria there are politicians whose profession is nationalism and they are a serious obstacle in the efforts to overcome the disputes.

Kajchev: The last meeting of the Joint Committee was in November 2019. At its end the colleagues from Skopje unexpectedly announced that they will not participate in any further sessions until the elections which were scheduled for the spring of 2020. We noted that for us it is inexplicable that our committee should be influenced by the internal political factors from the Republic of North Macedonia. Our committee in an expert one, it is created as part of the Treaty for Friendship, Good-neighbourliness and Cooperation as a committee of historians, of scholars, who should be independent from daily politics; therefore from a European perspective, our colleagues’ decision to suspend meetings of the Joint Committee could hardly be justified. 

We as professionals do not negotiate; we discuss different issues on the basis of the historical sources in their analytical context. On five meetings from April to November 2019 we discussed the figure of Gotse Delchev as hero of our common history to whom both countries should pay tribute. Unfortunately, we did not reach an agreement on the arguments for his joint commemoration. The colleagues from North Macedonia so far refuse to honour the personal evidence of Gothe Delchev on his Bulgarian national feelings documented in his letters to Nikola Maleshevski and to his other comrades in the revolutionary activities. Recently that was even publicly declared – the myth on Gotse Delchev is above any document. I think that if we are going to affirm the false myths we will achieve nothing.

We have declared many times that we are ready for meetings and for restart of our sessions, but so far we expect answer from the representatives of the Republic of North Macedonia. The blocking of the work of the Joint Committee is the most evident act of non-implementation of the Treaty for Friendship and Good-neighbourliness between our two countries.

2. How would you summarize the specific results of the work of the committee so far?

Todorov: In less than two years, the Committee, in its ninth conference, has harmonized several recommendations on joint celebrations of persons from the medieval and recent history, relevant to the history and culture of the two nations, as well as recommendations for the history textbooks in the primary education pertaining to the ancient, medieval and early Ottoman period. If you look at how other Committees in Europe have worked, that is a significant number of recommendations.

However, I am concerned that these recommendations do not give the desired result, that is, do not lead towards overcoming of the dispute regarding the history. It is obvious that just several harmonized texts for joint celebrations will not help, if we continue with the old stories from the past in which it is claimed that the Macedonians are a creation of the Comintern and Tito.

Kajchev: In the initial period from July 2018 to February 2019 we established the Joint Committee as a body, adopted Rules for its proceedings, established a working relationship and reached important agreements for joint celebration of key figures of our common history from the medieval period – saints Cyril and Methodius, St. Clement of Ohrid, St. Naum of Ohrid and Tsar Samuel. After that the dynamic was changed and we managed only to finalize our recommendations for the amendments of the textbooks in Ancient History for intermediary schools (5th grade in Bulgaria and 6th grade in North Macedonia). Unfortunately, for about a year, from the summer of 2019 on, we have nothing to acclaim; we were not able to bring good news to our two societies. I understand that the changes are difficult, but we should move forward, even in small steps.

3. Is there a necessary state, political and support from the society? Do you have this full support from the institutions and societies in both countries?

Todorov: The historical science and the historical education will not be obstacle to the development of the societies and they can help the building of good relations between nations only if they are free from ideological, political, religious and other pressures. In our societies, the history is understood as a dogma, which at times is a great tool for meeting political needs. Every society needs to be open to critical rethinking and dealing with its own past. I think that is exactly what our societies lack: greater openness, free from all sorts of complexities, discuss the past. What is maybe lacking is a greater presence of professional historians in the public. The historians need to be vocal and opposed to these views and attempts for abuse of history for political purposes.

Kajchev: In Bulgaria there is some subjective criticism, but as a whole we feel the understanding - both of the society and of the key state and political factors. This should not be surprising because we are one of the institutions for implementation of the Treaty that was supported by all major political parties.

I have the feeling that the colleagues from North Macedonia are subjected to a serious non-academic pressure from the forces that covertly or overtly work against the implementation of the Treaty with Bulgaria and ultimately against the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of the country. The decision to make ‘a pause’ in the work of the Joint Committee for obvious political election ends is an indirect confirmation of this.

Mesovitata komisija e ekspertsko telo a ne politicka alatka 1Petar Todorov, historian from the Institute of National History and member of the Joint Macedonian-Bulgarian Commission for Historical and Educational Issues from the Republic of N Macedonia

4. How free do you feel in your activity in terms of external influences? If there such influences? Can you indicate where they are coming from? Are those internal or external pressures?

Todorov: When it comes to me and our work in the Committee, I responsibly claim that, since the very beginning and today, there has never been any attempt from any state institutions to put pressure on us. That is how it should remain, regardless whether the government of RN Macedonia is led by the rightists or the leftists. The work of the Committee should be free from any pressure and I believe it will remain so. However, those influences could not come only from the institutions of my country. They can also come from other government, political or intellectual groups or factors. However, the job of the historian is not to succumb to these pressures, but to face them and reject them as detrimental to the development of his/her own society and the community in which he/she lives and works.

Kajchev: The external influence on me, and I think also on the other members of the committee from Bulgaria, comes from the authentic sources and from the relevant professional historical studies analyzing them.

5. Does the Committee maintain active relations with the academic circles in both countries? How receptive are scientists to new perceptions and understandings of common history?

Todorov: Of course, we have contacts with colleagues from the academic circles. The Committee members have been selected due to certain expertise they have, but that does not mean that those seven people are actually the entire knowledge about the past. Therefore, from the very beginning, the Macedonian team maintains contacts with historians who can help the work of the Committee.

The term “common history”, first in Bulgaria and then in our country, has been interpreted in the sense that it is a single national history. History of a nation. Of course, this arbitrary interpretation has no basis in modern science. When it comes to new concepts and approaches in the social and humanistic disciplines, the Balkans have proven to be very resilient. If only it were that resilient to nationalism…

Kajchev: We maintain relations and consult with competent Bulgarian colleagues who are authors of valuable scholar publications in the relevant fields. However, I have the feeling that the colleagues from the Republic of North Macedonia are reluctant to enter into bilateral cooperation that would be beneficial for the work of our committee. As far as I know after 2017 none of us, Bulgarian members of the committee, were invited and none had participated in a scholar event in North Macedonia. On the other hand, we made some steps and we invited our colleagues to certain forums in Sofia.

At the beginning of our work, in the autumn of 2018 the Joint Committee recommended to the institutes of history of the two countries to arrange a seminar on questions related to the Ilinden Uprising of 1903. Unfortunately, it has still not been organized. The joint scholar events between the leading historical institutions of the two countries are not a substitute for the work of the committee but could create more benevolent academic environment for its activity.

6. The controversy over the language is clearly the old-new stumbling block between the academic communities in both countries, which seems to be intensifying in recent months. To what extent does this question, which also takes place in parallel at the level of the scientific linguistic public, also reflect on the dynamics of the work of the committee?

Todorov: The Committee does not intend to discuss the Macedonian language, nor has any of us thought about it. Discussing whether the Macedonian language exists or not is like discussing whether this interview exists or not.

However, the policy of the Bulgarian government and, unfortunately, the views of some colleagues from the Republic of Bulgaria who are members of the Committee, inevitably impact the work of the Committee. Honestly, I don't know how to reach to the Bulgarian political and intellectual elite and point out, in the friendliest way possible, that, on one hand, you cannot say that you want to make friends with the Macedonians, and on the other hand not to have understanding about their feelings, and even insult them. Those two things do not go well together.

Kajchev: The committee deals with historical and educational issues, not with linguistic problems. We do not encounter any language barrier while communicating in the committee. The language issue was resolved by both countries back in 1999 and we apply the agreed formula which is well known.

Mesovitata komisija e ekspertsko telo a ne politicka alatka 2Naum Kajchev, professor of history at the "St. Kliment Ohridski" University in Sofia and Deputy Co-Chair of the Joint Bulgarian-Macedonian Commission for Historical and Educational Issues from the Republic Bulgaria.

7. What do you think the ultimate goal of the committee should be - to lay the foundations on which to develop a comprehensive and common history between Bulgaria and N Macedonia, or simply to reach a compromise on several key events and individuals from the past?

Todorov: The work of the Committee is just one of the ways in which the strong symbolic disputes that arise from the various views of the past can be resolved. At the same time, it does not have a purpose to (and it cannot) develop a common history of the two countries, which would be a kind of a “correct” interpretation of the past. And we do not want nor intend to do that. That can be done by countries and intellectuals with authoritarian and totalitarian views. We, members of the Macedonian team, certainly do not have such concept in mind. What we want and what the Committee can do is help both societies build feelings and understanding of the culture, views of the past and historical traditions of the Other. The dispute cannot be resolved if one side tries to impose its national and historical narrative on the other.

Kajchev: In my view we could not move forward without a common understanding of key moments and periods of our common past. The previous ‘War for History’, the distorted interpretation of the historical past, had negative reflections on both societies, but mostly on that of the young Republic of North Macedonia that still affirms itself as a full-fledged state meriting European membership. We started to acknowledge our common cultural roots from the Middle Ages; this should continue further on with modern periods, up to the eve of and the time of the Second World War.

8. What does the term “common history” mean to you?

Todorov: The modern historical science has developed several concepts that reflect the historical processes of mutual interaction between nations, peoples, different ideologies, interest groups and the like. They are known today as “shared,” “entangled,” and even “common history.” The term “common history” should be understood and interpreted in the context of these debates. In that context, for me, “common history” means that the citizens of both countries, the Macedonian and the Bulgarian people, but also other people living in the Balkans and beyond share common moments from the past, have common heroes and antiheroes, or rather they share them. Common does not mean one, but it means that two sides have something in common, something that connects them.

Kajchev: I commend you for this relevant question – this is a key term from the Treaty of Friendship and Good-neighbourliness and therefore we should specify it. The committee already outlined the important role of the medieval Bulgarian state – without it it would have been impossible to preserve or to create the momentous cultural accomplishments of our mediaeval saints. Without Prince Boris the Christianizer and without Tsar Simeon the elevated spiritual work of St. Clement of Ohrid and St. Naum of Ohrid is unthinkable. Precisely the Bulgarian rulers are those that sent the two men of letters in the lands around Ohrid, that were part of the Bulgarian state of that time, those rulers financed and materially supported their work. The term is related to the unity of the historical processes that ran during certain lengthy periods on the territory of our two present-day neighbouring countries. In most of the cases this was connected with a unifying role of the Bulgarian state or of our common ethnicity.

9. What is the position of your colleagues in the committee regarding the historical revisionism, especially with regards to the history of Second World War and the period that followed after it? 

Todorov: So far we have not been able to open a discussion on topics related to World War II history. In addition to the medieval period, the Revival and the history of the Ilinden period, the history of World War II are some of the issues on which the historians and politicians in both countries are arguing, so it is necessary to discuss this issue. As a historian, I am concerned about the trend of historical revisionism that is present in Europe and with which the history adapts to the political needs. The past is selectively interpreted, entire historical periods are denied and there is even belief in events that did not happen at all. The denial and negation of the responsibility opens the door for rehabilitation of the criminals and denial of the crimes committed during World War II. The line between anti-fascism and fascism is being erased, and this could lead to repetition of the crimes. Reconciliation is possible only if we face the painful moments of our own past, and not adapting them to the political needs.

Kajchev: In historiography, ‘revisionist’ is the term often used to name certain trends that – with or without justification – aim to revisit well-established academic explanations on variety of very different issues, such as the essence of Feudalism or the causes for the First World War. These are normal phenomena in the development of the historiography. Your question is rather connected with the political and public pressure to misuse and to change the local historical narration on the Second World War, exerted in many republics of the former Yugoslavia. The two largest ex-Yugoslav societies, Croatian and Serbian ones, today are internally deeply divided on certain assessment of their own history during the dramatic war years (for example on the Independent State of Croatia of Ante Pavelić, on gen. Milan Nedić’s Serbia, on the resistance movement led by gen. Draža Mihajlović) as well as on the following Yugoslav communist period, with all the political contemporary implications. The Joint Committee still has not discussed the Second World War period.

10. Do you think that this bilateral committee has a rare opportunity to finally prove that it is an example of understanding and interpretation of history in the modern societies?

Todorov: This Committee is not the first trying to do something in order to overcome the dispute. I hope it doesn't end like the previous ones. I therefore think that the Committee has a rare chance to show that the historians have outdone themselves and risen above the political and nationalist narratives. In order to achieve this, the historians need to be critical of their own historical national narratives and respect the feelings of the Other. I also believe that this Committee cannot solve all the problems, but it can and should take a step forward that will introduce practice of resolution of disputes arising from the different views of the past in a modern way and through mutual respect.

Kajchev: Our committee is unique mostly because, on one hand, it is an expert scholar entity originating out of the academia, and on other hand, it is a clearly defined body in the formal bilateral relations and therefore in the contemporary system of the international relations. Our success or failure would depend also on the wisdom of our two societies and of their respective state leaderships. I think that it is a responsibility before our co-citizens to stick to the rational nature of the historical science, to reject the false myths of yesterday, and to rely on the authentic historical evidence that outlines our common past during the lengthy periods of time. This is the European positive approach that could be understood by our European partners.


Journalist: Alexandra Temenugova, ICS and Lyudmil Iliev, “Sega”
Photo: Tomislav Georgiev, ICS and archive of “Sega”
Macedonian language proofreading: Tatjana B. Eftimoska
Translation into Macedonian and Bulgarian: Nachko Tonchev
Translation into English: Gordan Tanaskov