Igor Radev: Bulgaria tends to suffocate us in a “hug” – the tighter it is, the harder we pull away




Igor Radev Bugarija teznee da ne zadusi vo pregratka no kolku povee taa stega tolku nie pozestoko se ottrgnuvame

As a professor in Chinese philology, Mr.Igor Radev reflects in this interview on the current language issues with Bulgaria, saying that the right to free decision making on these issues is a definition of national sovereignty and nobody can interfere in that.

Where is the problem of Bulgaria regarding the Macedonian language?

- I think that one of the main reasons of the problem is the overemphasized sense of commonality, which is acutely nurtured in Bulgaria in relation to Macedonia. So, everything that is related to Macedonia from a historical, cultural and linguistic point of view must be qualified exclusively as "Bulgarian". Consequently, in such an atmosphere, it becomes inconceivable that in Macedonia one can officially use a language that is not marked as "Bulgarian", but as "Macedonian".

The social awareness in Bulgaria, and I can say that it is quite sincere with regards to that, sees everything Macedonian almost as an amputated part of its own body. It is very difficult to accept that Macedonia now exists as a separate nation, true, a very close one, but has its own attributes, including language. And this is exactly what leads to a tragic plot in the story. At times there is an impression that Bulgaria tends to suffocate us in a "hug", to "infuse" us into itself, but by doing that it achieves the exact opposite effect – the more one is “hugged”, the more one tries to pull away – an action that the "embracer” considers an act of betrayal, for which he wants revenge. I know, this sounds pretty tangled.

Why do you say that you do not have patience for statements like "Macedonian and Bulgarian language (and people) have nothing in common"?

- The shortest answer would be – because I refuse to stand that stupidity.

First, there is no language or people in the world that is completely different from one another. Objectively, the Macedonian literary language and the Bulgarian literary language are the closest in general, in the same way that Germanic and Dutch are the closest, or Swedish and Danish, Bengali and Assamese, etc.… Even on a second thought, the use of the adjective "close" or "closer" as a description of the relations between languages is probably inappropriate, because it alludes to a mutual spatial distance, as if each language is surrounded by a vacuum, which extends a greater distance in the direction of one language, and a smaller distance in relation to another one.

In fact, it is best to use the word "overlapping". In that regard, the Macedonian language overlaps the most with the Bulgarian, and then with the Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian… and not to list them all until we get to one of the Bushmen languages ​​(or, let me put it more correctly - the Khoisan languages), and with which we will still have some overlap, no matter how small. From this point of view, would we not consider the claim that any people and language on Earth "have nothing in common" to be obvious nonsense? Is this how we should experience the world we live in? And as an antidote to stupidity of this kind, I can quote the verses of Kocho Racin: "The whole world is my brotherly house, brotherly heart that opens…" Probably they’ll help someone.

You are talking about some dialect continuum…

- Of course. A dialect continuum is a network of local speeches, where in terms of individual language features reflected in the phonetics, the morphological and syntactic structure, as well as the lexicon, it is impossible to find a noticeable difference between immediate speaking neighbors, especially one that would impede the mutual understanding. That is, within a dialect continuum, the differences cross the threshold of the noticeable only with a greater geographical distance, but without being able to identify a cut-off boundary anywhere.

Igor Radev Bugarija teznee da ne zadusi vo pregratka no kolku povee taa stega tolku nie pozestoko se ottrgnuvame

The linguistic area of ​​almost all of Europe consists of several larger dialect continuums. For example, we can define a North-Germanic dialect continuum, which covers all Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden), a continental-Germanic dialect continuum (covering Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, most of the Flanders region in Belgium), we have a large West-Romance dialect continuum (covering the Apennine and Iberian Peninsulas, as well as the whole of France), which in turn is composed of several smaller dialect continuums – Gallo-Romance (France, Wallonia region of Belgium, northeastern Spain, northern Italy ), Ibero-Romance (most of Spain and Portugal), Italo-Romance (central and southern Italy).

Finally, we can define a large North Slavonic dialect continuum (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia), as well as a South Slavonic dialect continuum, which in turn can be divided into two smaller continuums – western South Slavonic (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia) and the eastern South Slavonic continuum (Macedonia, Bulgaria). Now, a literary language is created when a dialect is chosen within a given dialect continuum, which will be named after the national name with which its speakers identify, and an appropriate authoritative institution, primarily the state, imposes it as an exclusive means of official written and oral communication, as well as literary production, on a territory that is much larger than the original geographical scope of the dialect taken as the basis of the literary language, which in practice usually means the territory over which the state has jurisdiction.

Does this mean that a dialect is the same as a language and depends on some geographical location and not on something else?

- In reality, languages with distinct names are always dialects. Here, if we say that the Strumica dialect belongs to the Macedonian language, what does that mean? The Macedonian literary language is codified on the basis of the speeches from the approximate mid-Vardar area, then to the west towards Pelagonia and the accompanying areas. Strumica is outside this geographical circle, however, that local dialect shares, to a greater extent, features with the dialect taken as the basis of the standard Macedonian language, than with the one taken as the basis for the Bulgarian standard language.

Subjectively, we express this with the statement: "The Strumica dialect belongs to the Macedonian language". It all comes down to relative proportions of similarity and dissimilarity without sharp boundaries. In the case of the Eastern South Slavonic dialect continuum, on the east-west axis, as we go from West to East, the proportion of linguistic features of the dialects that are common to the dialect taken as base for the Bulgarian language is increasing, and decreasing with the dialect taken as a base for the Macedonian language. The opposite happens when we move on the same axis from East to West.

And here we come to the crucial thing - who was the first, who is dialect to who?

- The very phrase "one language is a dialect of another" is devoid of objective value.

When we have two literary languages formed on the basis of two geographically distant dialects of the same dialect continuum, they function in parallel and on equal footing, so it is illogical to say that one "originates" from the other, or one "belongs" to the other. We can use the metaphor for the Macedonian and Bulgarian languages as brother languages.

Would it be reasonable to claim that one brother is descended from another? Certainly not. They share common parents, just as Macedonian and Bulgarian share the same dialect continuum. And as for the question of who was the first, what do we mean by this? That one language was codified earlier than the other? Yes, the Bulgarian was codified in the second half of the 19th century, and the Macedonian already in the 20th century.

Igor Radev Bugarija teznee da ne zadusi vo pregratka no kolku povee taa stega tolku nie pozestoko se ottrgnuvame

But why would that ‘who was first’ attitude have any special significance? Even before it was formally taken as the basis of a standard language, the speech on which the Macedonian literary language was later built existed, there were people who spoke it, it had that special developmental course. Simply put, it was here. Its use for codification of a national language is due to the sovereign will of a people, whose ability to express it, however, is conditioned by historical circumstances, especially those related to the possibility of creating a state, and the state has the authority to codify a literary language.

This is no different from most cases of language codification, both in Europe and in the world. As a trivia, the "youngest" codified literary language on the European continent is Luxembourgish, whose final standardization was made in 1984, so it now serves as the official language of the State of Luxembourg.

In the case of Macedonian and Bulgarian languages, can we draw a parallel with Scandinavia?

- Not only can Scandinavia serve as a mirror of the Macedonian-Bulgarian language relations, but it almost identically reflects the overall language situation common for the South Slavonic-speaking area.

For example, the whole of Scandinavia is a single dialect continuum – Nordic, that is, North Germanic, where the vernaculars gradually intertwine into each other without any sharp linguistic boundaries. Based on the individual dialects of that continuum, four literary languages ​​with specific national names have been codified: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic. This means that these are four separate languages ​​from a sociological point of view. But from a linguistic point of view, we have only three different languages. Why? The Swedish, Icelandic and Danish literary languages ​​are codified on the basis of geographically distant local dialects from the same dialect continuum. So, their mutual relationship "to a comma" repeats the relationship between the Macedonian and Bulgarian literary language. The Norwegian literary language, on the other hand, is basically Danish, which became spoken in Norway during the long period of Danish rule over Norway, only to become official under the name "Norwegian" after the independence.

If the Scandinavians were to follow our mindset, there will be so many occasions or reasons in their history for a (sorry to use this word from the domestic political folklore) linguistic- identitarian "butchery", compared to which our Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute will look like boringly decorous Viennese waltz.

To what extent have historical events contributed to such a development and codification of the languages?

- No matter how much the nations think that they create history, in fact, they are largely shaped by it. Hence, the codification of a national, literary language always takes place in the context of a particular set of historical circumstances.

Igor Radev Bugarija teznee da ne zadusi vo pregratka no kolku povee taa stega tolku nie pozestoko se ottrgnuvame

Speaking of the Bulgarian-Macedonian language issue, it could easily have happened now to have a common literary language, as advocated, for example, by Partenij Zografski and Kuzman Shapkarev, and in that case our mutual linguistic relationship would have been the same as the Serbo-Croatian one, but Marin Drinov did not agree with that, so as a basis for the special Bulgarian literary language he took the extreme northeastern dialects of the eastern South Slavonic dialect continuum, that is, maximally geographically distant from Macedonia. This opened the possibility to codify another literary language based on the southwestern dialects of the same continuum - Macedonian, in which I now write these words. We know how history played out for us, but we cannot say whether everything had to happen the way it did, and not otherwise. Someone maybe would have refused, in general, to seek an answer to this question, and would be satisfied simply with this statement: Fortuna imperatrix mundi.

Nevertheless, Europe, as in the cases of the Macedonian minority in both Bulgaria and Greece, also treats this issue as a bilateral issue, and not an issue that goes deep into the principles of the foundation of the EU?

- And what are the principles that are the basis of the European Union?

I think that, in our long-term aspiration to enter the EU at any cost, we've crossed all the boundaries in our idealization of it. We imagine principles where there are simply interests and naked pragmatism.

For example, we in Macedonia are convinced that the respect for minority rights in terms of culture and education is a fundamental principle of the EU. However, there are long-term EU members that do not officially recognize the existence of any national minority on their own territory, let alone some of their cultural or educational rights, even of a most limited nature. Is there a need to name those countries? Hence, I do not see why, even on the above-mentioned issue, the EU would suddenly insist on following some "principles", which seem to exist only in our hopes.

There are EU members who have introduced a frozen military conflict and a divided country into the Union (Republic of Cyprus), or those who had territorial claims enshrined in their Constitution (Republic of Ireland in relation to Northern Ireland), without any requirements for resolution prior to membership. And today we are in a situation to be conditioned and blackmailed with things that fall into the realm of literary metaphors, such as the formal recognition of "roots", or the official formulation of this or that interpretation of historical events...

If this is not an example of those famous double or triple standards, then I do not know what it is. Someone here may notice –it is not the EU that is blackmailing and conditioning us, but Bulgaria. No. The moment we were cynically told to "resolve our bilateral differences first", it is already clear who is blackmailing us. In order to better understand me, I will use the following comparison: imagine your son beating and bullying a smaller and weaker child in front of your eyes, at the same time invoking your authority ("you do not know who my father is"), and you look at it calmly and you say to them: "Children, resolve your disagreement by yourselves, and then we will see".

In such a case, who is becoming responsible for the bullying? Or someone will now probably convince us that we need to come to terms with the fact that the EU is one big family, so it always takes the side of the family members, regardless whether they are right or wrong, and that some rules apply when you are inside and others when you are out. In any case, an interesting comparison.

Igor Radev Bugarija teznee da ne zadusi vo pregratka no kolku povee taa stega tolku nie pozestoko se ottrgnuvame

The problem with us is that we have lost all sense of reality and measure in our relationship with the EU, turning the Union into a kind of deity, which more and more resembles the Phoenician Moloch, to whom, as you know, the most precious sacrifice was offered – human children! We have already sacrificed something precious at the altar of the EU – the name, but the deity is not satisfied with that, and it is still demanding sacrifices, so after we offer those sacrifices to him, he will probably ask for new ones… and until when? And some Old Testament prophet of the likes of Elijah is still nowhere in sight …

Is someone still trying today to challenge the Macedonian statehood through the language? If so, why is Bulgaria making such an exception in relation to a sovereign right and to the international law?

- You are right. And I think that the real issue is the statehood and the internal sovereignty of the country. Why do I think like this? When two or more states have some relations, even conflicts, they never go beyond the sphere of their external sovereignty. What would fall into this sphere? For example, borders and territorial disputes on land and sea, foreign policy and diplomatic move, trade and economic policies, etc.… But even in the biggest dispute one country does not violate the intimate self-understanding of another, because it pertains to the sphere of internal sovereignty, which is inviolable.

For example, you get into a dispute with a man, whatever, you insulted him or he insulted you, or you have an unsettled debt or similar, but can you imagine that he has the right to come to your apartment and order you what color should you paint the walls, at what angle to put the TV, what books should be on your shelves, etc.… If someone dares to do this, what is he actually telling you? That he actually owns your apartment, that is, that he considers it his property. So, when a neighboring country tries to order another country on how to call its official language and things like that, it cynically makes clear to it that it considers it merely a geographical territory, over which it exercises authority. Here, it is irrelevant whether, objectively, those arguments "hold water" or not.

Let us assume that the Macedonian language was not codified on the basis of a distinct speech which is different and geographically distant from the one taken as the basis of standard Bulgarian, but that we have used that very same one, which we have just decided to name – Macedonian. Or what does it matter if the Macedonian language was codified in 1944? Let’s say it was not in 1944 but it was codified two days ago – none of it changes anything? So, the right to freely decide on such issues is part of the definition of state sovereignty, and no one from aside can interfere.

This, of course, does not mean that in our self-understanding and understanding of history and culture we do not have taboos, mystifications and complexes. They are typical, to a greater or lesser extent, for every nation. Here I will give you an example of such a mystification from Bulgaria.

As you know, the official name for the Old Slavonic language there is "Old Bulgarian". From a purely objective, scientific perspective, this stands on the border between the bizarre and the surreal. It would be the same as renaming the Latin language into "Old Vlach" and Sanskrit into "Old Bengali". Needless to say, this renaming does not respect the will of the creators of Old Slavonic literacy and literature – Cyril and Methodius, Clement of Ohrid, Constantine of Preslav, Chernorizec Hrabar, John the Exarch, etc. who did not use any other naming for the language in which they created and translated, other than – "Slavonic".

Igor Radev Bugarija teznee da ne zadusi vo pregratka no kolku povee taa stega tolku nie pozestoko se ottrgnuvame

Imagine a situation when Bulgaria applied for EU membership, and some Slavic member state, like the Czech Republic or Poland, vetoed them anyway until they reintroduce the name "Old Slavonic" in their textbooks. How absurd would such a veto be? No more absurd than what is happening to us now. That’s it. If they have decided to rename the Old Slavonic language in their country, we have no right to interfere with them. Sovereignty also means the right to be both bizarre and surreal, just as we can be in regard to many other things.

And now, if you ask me why Bulgaria makes such an exception in relation to a sovereign right, the most elegant answer would be – because it can. And why does she feel that she can do it? Well, I have an explanation for this. Namely, contrary to the prevailing myth, the Eastern European countries entering the EU do not become "more cosmopolitan" or more disburdened from nationalist sentiments with the membership. On the contrary – nationalism grows right after joining the EU, and in some countries we see a “backdoor rehabilitation” even of some neo-Nazi manifestations (and as long as they are directed against the "right" adversary, Brussels has no problem with them).

But what is the reason for that? I interpret this phenomenon as the "frustrated teenager" complex. This means that, with the formal EU membership, many of these countries think they now "have a powerful patron", so based on this, they believe that the time has finally come for them to realize their lush nationalist fantasies, especially if they are at the expense of countries outside the EU. And I am not saying this from a position of moral height, because I am aware that if Macedonia had joined the EU earlier, it would most likely have acted similarly.

Let us not have illusions about the role of the EU in this whole story. We forget that the EU works, to a large extent, on a bureaucratic level, and the two main tacit principles of every bureaucracy apply to it as well: "do not make waves" and "always thread the path that offers less resistance". So, in the event of a dispute between two parties, the bureaucracy is almost always more lenient toward the party that has the potential to "make more waves", and conversely, it regularly puts more pressure on the party that is perceived to be less resistant in a conflict.

Maybe we thought in our provincial fantasy that these Brussels "Eurocrats" are a kind of ethical robots and the only software they run on is the Kantian categorical imperative? Give me a break! In our situation, guess which side has a greater opportunity to "make waves" in the eyes of the EU bureaucracy, and which side does this very same bureaucracy sees as possessing a lower threshold of resistance.


Journalist: Aleksandar Damovski
Photo: Robert Atanasovski


This interview was prepared by the news portal www.mkd.mk, in cooperation with the online platform www.respublica.edu.mk of the Institute of Communication Studies, as part of the “Connecting the Dots: improved policies through citizen engagement” project funded by the British Embassy in Skopje.