Mr. Kalonski, the period in which we live is marked by the war in Ukraine and the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Propaganda found common things: Ukrainians are not a nation, they are Russians, and Macedonians are Bulgarians…
Alexey Kalyonsky: There can be no dispute whether there is a Ukrainian and a Macedonian nation, in the modern sense of the word. Since the late 1980s, two of the great names in the debate on the nation, Ernst Gellner and Anthony Smith, have argued not so much about what the nation is – with its symbolism, with international recognition, institutions, with how the national framework formats and supports the society, but they pose the most problematic, the most traumatic question “When is the nation?”.(…)
There are earlier formed nations in a certain context, there are younger nations from the point of view of the formation of the nation-state. Very often different alternative national ideas fight for the same non-national community. This is exactly what we see in both cases – in both the Ukrainian and Macedonian cases. There are competing narratives of history. Each one is a matter of reduction and selectivity. In both cases, the Bulgarian and Russian official narratives omit or downplay things that are central in the Ukrainian and Macedonian cases, respectively. But this is the essence of any formal reading.
And in the interests of many other countries?
Alexey Kalyonsky: Yes. We have competing national projects, an ethnically and religiously diverse population, in imperial political dependence, in varying degrees of modernization. In one case, the Ottoman Empire, in the other case, the Russian Empire. There are also neighboring nation-states, what Roger Bluebakers calls the “national exterior”. At first, Serbia, Greece, and then the Principality of Bulgaria. A German historian of the 19th century said of much of Macedonia that the typical phenomenon there was a Greek city with a Slavic countryside. To a very large extent, it depends on which part of Ukraine we are talking about, there is a Polish or Polonized city with Ukrainian rural surroundings in the pre-national sense, or a Russian city, in the cultural sense of the word, which does not deny overlap and divergence between Russian nationalism and Russian imperial nationalism. But in this way similarities can be found between the Macedonian and the Flemish question, the Austrian or any national question. It is possible to form two different nations on the basis of the same dialect area or pre-modern society. There may be a point where they get close. This moment can be a matter of violence or a moment where they differentiate themselves.
In Bulgaria, we do not realize the moment when the Bulgarians in Macedonia become a Macedonian nation. When does this happen?
Alexey Kalyonsky: There is no unequivocal answer to this most debated question. It has political and legal significance and it is no coincidence that many thousands of rallies take place around it in North Macedonia.
Unlike the Ukrainian one, the Macedonian narrative of history is more problematic, as the linguistic, regional and social differences that are naturally dramatized against the background of a shared past are not, or were not, defining until 100 years ago. Accordingly, the Macedonian nation seeks its identity supports both in the deep past and in the Yugoslav heritage. In both cases, a narrative is constructed that must be distinct from the once more overarching Bulgarian national or Russian imperial parameters that, in order to be authoritative, it must suppress in order to become central. (…)
As a seemingly comprehensive process, the Macedonian nation has existed since the moment when it began to be formulated in a Marxist key under the influence of the vision of the “national question” – first in the Soviet Union, and then in Yugoslavia. There is no doubt about that. (…)
And since when are there formulations of difference from the Bulgarians?
Alexey Kalyonski: From a long time ago. (…) Unlike the Ukrainian national movement, the alternatives to the Bulgarian or pro-Bulgarian formulation in Macedonia have long been marginal, of small groups or individuals. For example, the St. Petersburg student group, which proclaims that Macedonians are dramatically different from Bulgarians. How independently they come to this conclusion is a separate question.
Assoc. Alexey Kalonski teaches at the Faculty of History of the University of St. Kliment Ohridski
Until the Balkan Wars, it is very difficult to distill the idea of a separate Macedonian nation in the political sense of the word, which would encompass something larger than the Slavic-speaking or Bulgarian population in Macedonia, against the background of the seemingly real perspective of joining Bulgaria. So the current post-Yugoslav Macedonianism is something very different from the Macedonianisms of the time, which were not necessarily on an anti-Bulgarian basis. (…)
In the Macedonian VMRO, they believe that the agreement on the French proposal will lead to “Bulgarianization”. They are even organizing a referendum to stop the process. Are their fears justified?
Aleksey Kalyonski: If we go back to the sometimes arbitrary analogies between the Ukrainian and Macedonian cases, there is an exploited, both externally and internally, presumption of reversibility of the already built nation. This is part of the Russian hypothesis of the current war in Ukraine, and also an argument of the manipulative nationalist populism in Bulgaria. There are also mirror fears and manipulations in Macedonia, using the accumulated traumas and the fixation on the exceptional past. There is no way to predict the outcome of communication between two cultures, two literatures, two languages, two economies within the EU. They are very close, very intelligible, but language has not only a communicative meaning, it also has a symbolic meaning. In the short term, however, we can say which is better. Is it better, for example, for Macedonia to integrate into the European Union and open the borders between us? That doesn’t mean we won’t have debate and we won’t argue about the past.
In both cases, we have the participation of Russia. It is obvious in Ukraine, but also in the Balkans, in the relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria. (…) Russia is an extremely controversial historical factor. When we talk about “Russian imperial policy”, it is a cliché, especially among some Bulgarian voices – both pro-Russian and anti-Russian.
There is no doubt that Russia is not comfortable with the gradual reduction of its influence in the Balkans, and the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute is still a residual situation in which it is possible to project influence – especially in a situation of war. And this is not just any war, and not between any countries. From the point of view of Russian and Ukrainian identity, this is a war that will change many things. She has already changed Ukraine. The Ukrainian nation is a fact.
*Alexei Kalonski is an associate professor of history at Sofia University. He teaches history of the Russian and Ottoman Empires. He is the author of books and articles with an emphasis on non-national communities, nomadic groups and minorities. Georgi A. Angelov spoke with him. We are reposting the interview with significant cuts.