Stephan E. Nikolov
Senior Fellow Researcher at the Bulgarian Academy of Science, Institute of Sociology and Assistant Professor the Neofit Rilski Southwestern University Blagoevgrad(Dept. of Law and History)

The Bulgarian obsession: Macedonia in the 20th century

Despite all of the changes in regimes, Macedonian-related policies, as they relate to Bulgaria, have been one of the few permanent features in modern Bulgarian politics. With a few minor exceptions, in the years immediately following the end of the World War II, Bulgarian governments have always made their belief about the Bulgarian background of Macedonians, as well as the fact that the territory of Macedonia has been historically unjustly detached from "Mother Bulgaria,” well known. Even during the communist regime, when Bulgaria was considered "Moscow's closest ally", and similar ideas about border changes were generally deferred, the “Macedonian Issue” caused discrepancies between Sofia and Moscow. Soviet leaders used the problem as a tool in forming their Balkan policy, especially when negotiating with the controversial Yugoslav leader, Marshall Tito.

This relatively brief description does not intend to concern itself with solving the questions that surround the origin of Macedonians. That matter must be left to unbiased historical researchers due to the difficulties in determining the exact origin of population in question. For example, in the second half of the XIX century, Macedonians were considered to be of Bulgarian decent because those they resided in the area between Mesta river, Aegean Sea, Albanian mountains, and the line Dupnitsa-Kjustendil-Kumanovo to the North. Obviously, this is a task far surpasses the tasks of our current study. The problems deciphering national identification of the population is divided between Bulgaria, Greece and the geographical region of Yugoslavian-Macedonia and was strongly influenced by the developments of the Communist insurgence on the Balkans. Ironically, the leading members of the Communist parties in the 30’s, who were considered to be sections of the Communist International (which worked as a special branch of the Soviet intelligence and foreign policy), were not informed about a secret decision made by the Comintern's Executive, made in the Autumn of 1933 in Moscow, about the creation of the "Macedonian nation" [1]. It seems peculiar that not one of the then Bulgarian representatives in the Comintern, which included Anton Ivanov and Stanke Dimitrov, and the future General Secretary of the Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov, who  

came from Pirin, Macedonia, obediently accepted the Comintern decisions without ever stopping to consider their own Bulgarian background. The Yalta agreement between the Allies, which redistributed their "spheres of influence", put Yugoslavia and especially Bulgaria under the Soviet "sphere". Thus, Tito partisans, with their prominent record of guerilla resistance, and seized indisputable power, promoted the 1943 Jajce Conference. At that conference, the decision was made to create the six-republics of Federal Yugoslavia. This included Macedonia, or one should say it included the previously so-called Southern Serbia/Vardar Macedonia. At that time no one, (especially the otherwise so sensitive Greece), argued over the establishment of such an entity within the Federal Yugoslav state or about the ability of the regime in Skopje and Belgrade to completely reunite the territories outside of Vardar Macedonia.

During the first years of Communist rule in Bulgaria: significant contortion                                                          [Back to top]


Bulgaria left WWII restricted in its sovereignty: as a former ally of Germany, it was expected that Bulgaria would cede some its territory to their neighbors. Moreover, "communist internationalism" mandated that the new rulers in Bulgaria were to prepare themselves to make concessions to their Yugoslav "comrades,” who seemed a little too eager to seize not only who seem too eager to seize not only Pirin, Macedonia but, all of the land that belonged to Bulgaria in the Yugoslav Federation. The Yugoslavs made it known that they could not be stopped until Moscow met all of their demands. Beginning at the end of 1944, teachers from Skopje were sent to "accelerate" education of the local population in the newly invented Macedonian language. In addition, during the census of 1946, local people were forced to identify themselves as "Macedonians.” Keep in mind, that all of this can only be understand in the framework of the communist system of power and pressure, where too much in one's life – schooling, job, promotion –depends on the confidential characteristics of everyone, not only the CP members: politically trustworthy – or unreliable[2]. It was the BCP 10th Plenary session (9-10 August 1946) which made the unique decision to begin the process of “Macedonianization” the population in Pirin Macedonia, meaning a complete transfer of that territory of Bulgaria to Yugoslavia. A delegate at that particular session, Evtim Georgiev, insolently said in his speech, "(We) adopted the task to introduce Macedonian consciousness among the population"

(C'rnusanov,1992:359). A year and half later, on April 21st 1948, a special session at the Central Committee, observations were made about the difficulties that hindered the implementation process of the decision made at 10th Plenum. In the words of the Secretary of the Party committee in Petrich, "After the 10th Plenum Declaration me and the rest of comrades we all became Macedonians (sic!)... During the census we implied pressure. (CP) Regional committee established that we have in our district 66-70% Macedonians. We reinforced our work and received 90% Macedonians.” Reinforced our work: does this need further explanation? A proper person – the regional police chief, Nikola Rachev - elucidated at the very same session what this meant: "Procreation of Macedonian consciousness is proceeded through coercion... During the population census in the Pirin region, our personnel imposed, through violence, people to write themselves as Macedonians" (Ibidem). It took the quarrel between Stalin and Tito to reverse the policy of forced “Macedonianization.” Ironically, without any sort of inventory, consultation or open discussion, as if people were cattle: today a party boss decides they all are sheep, the next day another one says - no, you are cows...

The problem with Macedonians as a whole, particularly those living in the Bulgarian part of Macedonia, can not merely be confined to the whims of yet another authoritarian leader[3]. We accept, however, as a basis for our reflection, that numerous competing pressures led to preposterous situation. Often times, members of the same family; brothers, fathers, and offspring considered themselves to be of different ethnic backgrounds[4]. It should be noted, that Bulgarians, when talking about a “Macedonian” in their everyday speech, they simply mean a Bulgarian, which originated from the geographical area of Macedonia. They are generally accepted in the same way that one from Plovdiv, Varna, etc. region is. One must keep in mind that throughout the years, refugees from all three parts of Macedonia, which now belong to three different states, incl. Bulgaria, and Macedonia itself, have resettled all over the country. Ironically enough, nobody seems to look at them as "foreigners", as it should be in the case of the other neighboring or more distant ethnicities: Turks, Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, Russians, Poles, etc.

This was the basis of understanding for almost all-Bulgarian governments after the emancipation of Bulgarian from the Ottoman Empire.The aforementioned 1946-49 diversion is, however, an exception, as well as, in a far lesser degree, the agro-populist A. Stamboliyski's regime after World War I, and the 1934 military regime (see for more details, for example, Mahon, 1998). Bulgaria fought four devastating wars dedicated to regaining its authority over all area, known as Macedonia. These wars not only led to a series of disastrous outcomes but they also made the task of recapturing what was once rightfully theirs seem that much more impossible.During the 1950’s and especially in1960’s, the Communist Party of Bulgaria gradually retrieved the traditional political line that it once held, as a result of important internal changes. First and foremost, there was a replacement, under Todor Zhivkov's longtime rule (1954-1989), of most of the political emigrants from the USSR that occupied foremost positions in the party, government, military commandment and police immediately after 1944, with local cadre. As a whole, however, this move, contrary to similar developments in the neighboring country of Romania, under G. G. Dezh and N. Ceausescu never led to a complete abandonment of adhering to suggestions concerning international affairs pasted down by Moscow. With very little commotion, all ID's that indicated Macedonian ethnicity were taken away. Any open dalliance about the “Macedonian Question,” were concerned to be a result of Moscow's consent and could only be explained in terms of the deteriorating relationship between the Soviet leadership and Marshall Tito. Thus, the 1968 Warsaw Pact intervention, in the then Czechoslovakia, not only put an end to the minor improvements made between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, it agitated critics from each interference in one country's internal affairs and saw an escalation in Bulgarian propagandist efforts toward Skopje. That same year, T. Zhivkov made his first official visit and prominent speech, in the main city of the Bulgarian part of Macedonia, Blagoevgrad (former Gorna Dzhumaya). He proposed organization of a referenda in the two countries and other steps. Many previously banned as "nationalistic" Macedonia-related books, incl. a special compilation of papers from the archives, created by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences – in both two volumes and abridged mini-version (later to be easily smuggled through the border) – were reprinted or published in large circulation. The climax of this policy was the pompous celebration of the 1,300 years of the Bulgarian Statehood. The celebration prompted the Old Glory of the historical territorial conquests of the Bulgarian Tsars before the Ottoman/Turkish occupation.

Keeping the line notwithstanding the political changes                                                                                         [Back to top]

After 1989, Bulgaria started its slow and painful return to the once renounced democratic and civic values during the years of the communist regime. National and ethnic policies underwent serious transformation, as well as, the renouncement of the assimilationism course toward Turkish and other minorities. For the first time ever in its contemporary history, Bulgaria was able to undertake a relatively independent foreign policy, released from any ideological constraints. An especially important move was the recognition of the Republic of Macedonia. Bulgaria was the first foreign country to extend such recognition and accepting the official name of that former Yugoslav republic. This controversial decision, which was taken with clear internal political purposes in the absence of, and without any consultation with the then Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, ignited some forgotten debates and confrontations. This caused a special explanation to be created, unique in diplomatic practice: that Bulgaria recognizes the Macedonian state, but not the separate character of the Macedonian people and its language (Lefebre, 1995). It took several more years for both countries to find a way to solve the apparently artificial language issue, which prevented the implementation of numerous important and mutually beneficial bilateral agreements. It took a new generation of politicians in both Sofia and Skopje, whom had no connection to the communist past, to overcome this issue and to accept their historical reality, as well as the right of any people to decide autonomously, without dictation from outside, its own identification.


However, no similar developments could be observed in the internal, both formal and informal – attitudes of the few Macedonia-leaning Bulgarian citizens. Neither the historical claims nor the strategic/patriotic statements could justify the stubborn denial, by Bulgarian authorities, to formally register Macedonian cultural organizations in Bulgaria. District courts in Blagoevgrad and Sofia, as well as the Supreme Court of Bulgaria, repeatedly rejected the demands made by such organizations to be registered according the still applicable1949 Persons and Families Law. This Law, adopted many years ago, was created to serve a completely social structure. It did not have the capacity to deal with the complex diversity of the emerging civil society in Bulgaria. Thus, in the absence of a clear legal definition for non-profit/for profit activity and partisan/non-partisan, an “objective” team of judges was selected to determine whether or not to permit registration[5]. In many cases, the very same application was rejected by one team and accepted by another. In general most troubles of the various applicants were restricted to habitual red-tape hassle. This was, however, not the case with several Macedonian organizations. In 1990, the most controversial year during the entangled Bulgarian way to democracy, it wasn’t so difficult to re-register organizations that existed during the communist regime. For example, The Union of Macedonian Cultural Societies and even later, the long-time labeled "fascist" Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO)[6]. VMRO, though not registered as a political party, became such, after skipping the useless appendages of the "Union of Macedonian.” VMRO is now part of the rightist ruling coalition of the Reunited Democratic Forces. While attempts, including those from the former secret services, to provoke nationalistic parties, especially on the basis of strong and wide spread anti-Turkish feelings, were in vain, here came VMRO to virtually satisfy the whole demand for such type of party. Young VMRO-members, carrying traditional red and black banners and inflamed torches, were the most typical part of every patriotic rally and were the most militant participation in the anti-Communist unrest of the winter of 1996-97. Representatives of VMRO, elected as municipal authorities and Mayors, became known for implementing restrictive measures for young people going as far as limiting youngsters to walk out of home. VMRO leaders took an extremely militant position against the so-called "sects" (which means everything which is not part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity), and undertook violent measures (beating, torture) against preachers of the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. VMRO's leader, Krassimir Karakachanov, as a MP tried to prevent abolition of the death penalty. Tactics such as these, confronts VMRO with the clearly European choice of the ruling coalition and might soon led to a dismissing of them as a coalition partner[7].

According to a national survey by the National Center for Public Opinion Research (NCPOR), even after relatively strong and visible presence of the VMRO-people in the Winter 1996-97 events, which led to a political transformation, VMRO is still an unintelligible, perplexing organization (almost two thirds - 64.9% - have "No opinion" about it, 13.8% has never heard about). Thus, only 21.3% of the population have some idea about VMRO, and their opinion is very much controversial, as can be seen from the table:

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT VMRO?                                                                                                                          [Back to top]

(only these who express opinion) - NCIOM, 1997, esp. pp. 108–109.

1. An organization, which contributes to the democracy 33
2. It has to be closed, I do not approve it 22
3. A patriotic organization 9
4. Coercive, extremist, fascist organization 9
5. Feckless, without any influence 6
6. Suspicious 4
7. Macedonian organization 3
8. Nationalists, who care about Bulgaria 3
9. Other 11

Thus, if we put aside the explanation that VMRO is "an organization, which contributes to the democracy", positive attitudes toward VMRO are bounded with the perception that it is a patriotic and nationalistic organization. While in a more negative context, the image of the VMRO is that of a more coercive, extremist, fascist, or simply "suspicious" organization (an image, imposed by the communist propaganda), and demanded it to be banned without any motivation. Most of VMRO-opponents are 60 years or older, i.e., those, who have direct memory about the terrorist activity of VMRO in 1920s and the beginning of 1930s. In addition, we see a small share of respondents who consider it to be a "Macedonian" organization, while it is not clear what this means - and organization of the Bulgarians from Macedonia or an organization of the Macedonians. Interestingly enough, attitudes toward VMRO are distributed accordingly to the various regions of Bulgaria. In the city of Sofia, Southwestern Bulgaria (i.e., Pirin Macedonia), most of the Central Bulgaria, as well as in Varna, Vidin, and Silistra, VMRO has prevailing positive attitudes (12 regions). In the other eleven regions (Southern Bulgaria – Rhodopes), Burgas, Northeastern Bulgaria (without Varna, Dobrich, and Silistra), and Montana negative attitudes prevail. The remaining groups of 5 regions seem to be "neutral". It can be deduced that regions with positive attitudes are more urbanized and have a higher number of educated inhabitants, while negative attitudes predominate where compact masses of Turk and, in general, Moslem, population resides. An exception is Montana, where none of these features are present, but this region leans towards the left, communist type of parties as a voting pattern. Results from this survey indicate, that VMRO is far from what they claimed to be – an "all-Bulgarian and nation-wide", and would have a hard time receiving significant support at elections outside any large coalition. Of interest for us is, however, the fact that VMRO’s main basis is in Pirin Macedonia. If nationally the image of the VMRO is lax and contentious, it is namely there where people can not forget the legacy this organization, its attempts to revive, and their rigid stance about the Bulgarian character of the local population [8]. In Pirin Macedonia, we observed the highest voting scores for VMRO. Even if we take for granted gossips about corruption, nepotism, briberies (for example, giving student’s stipends in exchange for affiliation and support), such a level of support can not be underestimated.

The last local elections (October 1999) were marked, too, with the attempt of the VMRO to play outside the ruling coalition with the Union and Democratic Forces bringing a relative amount of success – election of 130 members of the municipality councils. The Party claims a membership of 30,000 and 500 local organizations all over the country. Unsatisfied by their parliamentary representation, (two MPs within the Reunited Democratic Forces faction), VMRO plans to participate alone in the next (2001) parliamentary elections, but this will be a very risky undertaking: latest polls give it only 0.5% public support.

According to the few “Macedonianist” activists in Pirin Macedonia, the main reason for the extremely low percentage of those in the region that identifies themselves as Macedonians is fear. Looked at from the point of view of relentless struggles and bloodshed, during this century that created thousands of innocent victims – first, from the Turkish oppressors, who held these lands until 1912, from the beginning of the century until mid 1930s – to the cruel rivalries of VMRO (under the dictum God forgives, VMRO – not), in 1941-44 – to the anticommunist gendarmerie, after 1944 – to the highly sophisticated and effective communist secret police. Unfolding, with generations, of a sort of double and even triple loyalties among population in border areas – especially when borders relatively often change places – is a rare occurrence (similar examples could be found especially on the wrecks of larger, "empire-type" states, among peoples, which has been divided in more states).

Nothing, however, could justify authorities' impetuous and jealous contention against each attempt the small number of “Macedonianists” made to manifest their identity – formally and informally. The several "editions" of often mutually repelling organizations of OMO "Ilinden" were all harassed with unmatched zeal: courts denied their registration, police raided their offices, confiscating publications and copy ma-chines. Every year ,in April, the road to the historic Rozhen monastery witnessed something rarely observed in other picture-perfect places: massive presence of police forces to prevent a couple dozens “Macedonianist” from laying flowers on the tomb of their beloved hero, Yane Sandanski. Formally, indeed, courts had the reason to ban these organizations, which stated in their statutes such goals as withdrawal of the "occupationist" Bulgarian troops from Pirin Macedonia, transfer of the churches in the region under the control of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (which was still held an unrecognized status according to the Orthodox rite), and so on. Far more complicated was the case with the OMO "Ilinden" PIRIN (Party for Economic Development and Population's Integration). As a political party, according to the law, it applied for registration at the only court authorized to deal with political parties – Sofia City District Court, and was approved (Case No 12802/1998). In the party's statute any mention of Macedonian minority, nothing to say for secessionist or anti–Bulgarian aspirations were carefully avoided. Nevertheless, more than 60 members of the parliament, representatives of all political factions there – a rare occasion for such unanimity filled a claim to the Constitutional Court to ban OMO "Ilinden" PIRIN. It took more than a year for the Court to prepare the case, which permitted the party to take part in the October 1999 local elections. It received some 3,500 votes in Blagoevgrad region (slightly more than 1%), its chairman, Ivan Singartiyski, was elected Mayor of his own village, Moussomishte (near Gotse Delchev town), and a couple of other party candidates entered several municipality councils (most significant – in the small town of Kresna). Wasn't this vote the most apparent proof about the feasibility and scope of the “Macedonianist” cause? Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court decided some months later to ban the party, proving, on the vague basis of analogy with the other OMOs, to repeat decade old revelations about the former Yugoslav Federations' Embassy’s in Sofia involvement in funding the “Macedonianist” activities[9].

As already it was noted, in the case of Macedonians in Bulgaria one thing seems especially startling: the great difference between the official data by Bulgarian, Macedonian and, in many cases, international statistics: from the negligible about 0.08%, according to the official Bulgarian data, to the relatively meaningful 2.5%-3.5% (200,000 – 350,000) according to many other sources [10]. The Bulgarian posture may justify total absence of research efforts in the field – why spend scarce money on such a petty issue! However, on the other hand, such a disputable problem might be expected to be of interest for the independent, released from an ideological control scholars and intellectuals from the both neighbor countries, something which certainly would contribute for increasing of the mutual confidence and better relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia. Nothing of this sort could be seen, as if a sacrosanct taboo was imposed over the issue.

Shannon Marinez, Peace Corps Volunteers, Macedonia



REFERENCES                                                                                                                                                                     [Back to top]

Boneva, S. E. Nikolov and Victor Roudometof. In the Search of the “Bigfoot”:
Competing Identities of the Pirin Macedonia (Bulgaria) Population, Chapter IX in The Macedonian Question: Culture, Historiography, Politics. Ed. by Victor Roudometof, 2000, Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, NewYork: Columbia University Press, pp. 237-258.

C'rnusanov, Kosta (1992). Makedonizm't i s'protivata na Makedonija srestu nego (Macedonianism and Macedonia's Resistance against it). Sofia: St. Kl. Okridski University Piblishing House.

Lefebre, Stephane (1995), Bulgaria's Foreign Relations in the Post-Communist Era: A General Overview and Assessment. In: East European Quarterly 28 (4).

Londres, A. (1996) Komitadzii. Terorizmot na Balkanot (Comitajies. The Terrorism on the Balkans). Skopje, Kultura.

Mahon, Milena (1998). The Macedonian Question in Bulgaria. In: Nations and Natio- Nalism 4 (3): 398-408.

NCIOM. (1997) Public Opinion and VMRO. In: NCIOM. Obstestvenoto mnenie (Public Opinion), vol. 8, pp. 108-112.

Vlahov, D. (1970) Memoari na Dimitar Vlahov (Dimitar Vlahov's Memoirs). Skopje, Nova Makedonija Publ. House.


ENDNOTES                                                                                                                                                                         [Back to top]


[1] One of the most prominent Macedonian members of the Yugoslav Communist party, Dimitar Vlahov, describes how this decision was elaborated: a Polish communist, Walecki, at that time head of the

[2] Most recently the TV anchor Milena Milutinova revealed secret files from the CP archives, which shed more light to the events from that period. Police and party activists has been instructed that all local people with the exception of the Moslems have to be identified as Macedonians, which led to curiosities as recording Russian emmigres as Macedonians. Reports to Party headquarters in Sofia admit also that while CP members massively filled forms as instructed – as Macedonians – non-communists persist in identifying themselves as Bulgarians. Same policy has been administered toward refugees from Greece (Aegean Macedonia), who escaped from the civil war there and came to Bulgaria – border guards and police has been instructed to load them on trucks and to transport to the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia no matter which their own wish has been.

[3] A good evidence of this offers the fact, that introduction by the Comintern of other, purely groundless, divisions of the Bulgarian ethnicity such as Dobrujans, Mizians, and Thracians, was left only among the political curiosities, while the Macedonian one proved to be persisting.

[4] As a French author from the beginning of the century, Albert Londres, wrote: "We knew many families, where one of the brothers did identify himself to be a Serb, another - a Bulgarian, and if there was a third one, then the third one leaned to the Greeks" (Londres, 1996: 43).

[5] When various minority cultural organizations are involved, there is also another important obstacle – the explicit ban imposed by the Bulgarian Fundamental Law of "political organizations based on ethnic or religious divisions", which led to very complicated and prolonged procedure of registration of each next non-Bulgarian organization – of Bulgarian Turks, Roma, Karakachans, Valahians, etc. In comparison, similar organizations of residing in Bulgaria Jews, Armenians, and some other, faced much less troubles.

[6] It was a real shock for many in Bulgaria when in 1990 the popular TV anchor K. Kevorkyan contacted the notorious, considered to be far ago died, leader of the VMRO Ivan ("Vanche") Mihailov, and made a long interview with him; this interview paved the way for representing to the seemingly unprepared Bulgarian public of such personalities as Tsar Simeon II and members of the Royal family as well as other emigres, which official propaganda years after years was blaming as "enemies of the people".

[7] VMRO leaders revealed also an astonishing lack of understanding of the realities of present (FY) Republic of Macedonia, and since this appeared to be a domain, where they heavily influenced the Bulgarian politics, it is their guilt for continuing stagnation in this sphere. When Bulgarian national soccer team played a friendly match with Macedonia, VMRO organized a massive intrusion of "fans", incl. MPs and students, who rallied through Skopje with Bulgarian flags and singing patriotic songs, but neither the local population revealed any intention to meet them as liberators, nor the local police attempted to prevent such a demonstration. In a more serious tune, VMRO imposed a sort of "embargo" on the contacts with the Br. Cervenkovski government, openly expressing its expectations that after the elections its name-sake in Skopje, VMRO-DPMNE, will in overnight reject every kind of hesitations and prejudices toward Bulgaria, including possible move toward reunification (sic!). Nothing similar, indeed, did not happen, but such immature moves created many problems to VMRO-DPMNE.

[8] Moreover - VMRO fiercely opposes any attempt for a more flexible position on the matter of the Republic of Macedonia's majority population and its language, stating resolutely, that both Bulgaria and Macedonia are "mononational states", and in Macedonia the "Bulgaromacedonians" prevail.

[9] This decision did not abolish the election outcomes: banned OMO "Ilinden" PIRIN elected represen-tatives retained their positions as "independent personalities".

[10] These other sources do not reveal how this number has been derived. It seems worth to be said that in its most recent publication of the yearly Almanac, the CIA dropped out without any explanation mentioning of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, adding the previously quoted number to that of the prevailing Bulgarian Population. See for more details Boneva, Nikolov, Roudometof, 2000.