The tug-of-war over Tsar Samuil – Bulgarian or Macedonian?

Tsar Samuil figures prominently in both Bulgarian and Macedonian history, a fact that is a source of great animosity between the two countries.

"King Samuil of Bulgaria - sculpture from Fortress of Samuil, Petrich, Bulgaria" Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Nikola Gruev

King Samuil of Bulgaria – sculpture from Fortress of Samuil, Petrich, Bulgaria
Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Nikola Gruev

Tsar Samuil is not simply a historical figure – he is an important part of nationalistic claims in both countries. On the one hand, the official doctrine of Macedonia is inspired by the propaganda of Tito’s communist Yugoslavia, which claims that the Tsar Samuil was the head of a Macedonian empire. This allegation is based on the geographic scope of the empire, which included lands from the Black Sea to the Adriatic, where southwestern cities such as Ohrid were of crucial importance. In addition, Macedonian scholars tend to emphasize the cultural, social and linguistic distinctiveness of Tsar Samuil’s empire, in order to support the claim that Macedonians have long been a separate nationality with their own distinct language and history. However, Bulgarian scholars emphasize the fact that allegedly the Tsar Samuil used the word Bulgarian to describe himself and his kingdom. This latter interpretation supports the popular belief in Bulgaria that Macedonians are in fact Bulgarians by origin. While Bulgaria recognized the existence of a Macedonian state in 1991, it has still not confirmed the existence of a Macedonian identity or a Macedonian language, which is believed to be a dialect of Bulgarian. The tension between the two countries on this subject has been so significant that in 2012 the European Parliament urged the Republic of Macedonia to create a joint expert committee with Bulgaria in order to tackle the sensitive issue of history education in the two countries.

The Byzantines under emperor Basil II defeat the Bulgarians (top). Tsar Samuel dying in front of his blinded soldiers (bottom) From Manasses Chronicle - Vatican manuscript (XIV century)

The Byzantines under emperor Basil II defeat the Bulgarians (top). Tsar Samuel dying in front of his blinded soldiers (bottom)
From Manasses Chronicle – Vatican manuscript (XIV century)

An incarnation of nationalistic claims

Samuil was the Tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire from 997 till 1014, succeeding Emperor Roman I, who died childless. Before becoming tsar, he co-ruled the empire with Roman I, as leading commander of the imperial army. He was known as a great strategist, having won many victories and thus expanding the Bulgarian empire. Notably, his armies conquered European possessions of the Byzantine Empire, such as large parts of current-day Greece. By these victories, the Bulgarian Empire gained a considerable influence over most of the southwestern Balkans. However, from 1001 onwards, the war turned in favour of the Byzantines. Eventually, in 1014, the Bulgarians were completely defeated by the Byzantines at the Battle of Kleidion. According to legend, following the capture of the Bulgarian army, the Byzantine commander Basil II had 99 out of every 100 men blinded, with the remaining hundredth man left with one eye so as to lead his compatriots home. It is claimed that when Tsar Samuil saw the broken remains of his army, he suffered a heart attack and died. By 1018, the last Bulgarian strongholds had surrendered and the First Bulgarian Empire was abolished. Thus, the reign of Tsar Samuil coincides with the end of the First Bulgarian Empire. However, he is still seen as a great hero – two nations even argue as to who can rightfully claim his heritage. The two nations mentioned are Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Continued episodes of friction between the two countries

Samuel's monument in Skopje, Macedonia Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Rašo

Samuel’s monument in Skopje, Macedonia
Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Rašo

There have been multiple examples of animosity between the two countries due to disputes over the Tsar Samuil. In June 2011, as part of the Skopje 2014 project, a 5-meter marble statue of the Tsar Samuil was erected in Skopje. While the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry remained silent on the matter, the Bulgarian historian Bozhidar Dimitrov mocked the immense monument, declaring that “it is great to see neighboring states erect monuments of Bulgarian tsars”. As of January this year, it became clear that Sofia is in fact intending to erect its own monument of the famed Tsar, this in connection with the marking of the 1000th anniversary of his death. The monument will comport remnants of the Tsar, accorded to Bulgaria by the Greek government. This has caused strong reactions among Macedonian historians, who see it as “a joint attack on the part of Bulgaria and Greece and another blow to Macedonia’s history, future and EU integration process”.

It is thus clear that the ethnic affiliation of the Tsar Samuil is still a current and highly sensitive issue in the region, this despite the fact that the Tsar has been dead for a millennium.

Maria Hviding

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The Questionable Conditions of Studying in Macedonia

While many of the European students often argue about their studying conditions in Western Europe, a look into the college-level studying conditions in Macedonia will leave them humble.

After a Reddit user called « nyyrmi » posted a series of images cynically titled “Yes, this is a student dormitory, and yes, there are 1200+ students living in it as we speak, the immediate responses were shattering. The album presents the deteriorating state of the student dormitory Goce Dolčev in Skopje, and its inhuman conditions that students have to face every day. This is not very surprising knowing the relation between the state and college-level education.

The Largest Student Dormitory in the Country

Picture of a dorm in Macedonia

Picture of a dorm in Macedonia posted on Reddit by « nyrrmi »

While there are a dozen of student dormitories in the country and each one of them is known for their sub-human conditions, student dorm Goce Dolčev is undoubtedly the largest and most notorious. As a result, it is deteriorating and with no active maintenance, the infrastructure will stop functioning in a matter of fifteen years. According to some student, in order to repair and renovate the room, one has to “either chase the lazy drunk caretaker (1 caretaker for all 4 blocks, they cannot afford more) for up to 3 months, or repair the room yourself with the money from your own pocket”.

The reactions to the condition of the campus were largely unanimous. The dorm was described as shocking, while one user commented, “It looks like someone built a huge pile of bacteria then added a building to it”. Even though most of the reactions were written in a humorous manner, it is clear that the general impression of the dorm is largely negative, as most of the viewers gave either serious negative or sarcastically humorous comments.

The fault of the institutions

The condition of the dormitory mirrors the condition of college-level education in the country. According to Macedonian students, an independent student life is hardly possible. This is because Macedonian students, as in other ex-Yugoslav countries, mostly rely on their parents’ funding and accommodation. Macedonian government gives barely any incentive to study, and with a monthly accommodation cost of 50-65 euros, students have a very limited budget that requires them to find a job (which is yet difficult to find in economy with 29% of unemployment). This means that the poorer students, which include the students from rural areas, are not persuaded going to college or are less likely to remain in their studies due to the hardship of living conditions.

As the governmental and educational institutions barely offer support on the educational level, private universities are seen as a way out for the “rich” students. They cost, as opposed to national universities, but it is a public secret that “you can basically buy diploma”. The reason for this is, according to user vaelik,“because its all a business now”. In the example of Biochemistry, the government singles out 21,000$ for each freshman, but at the same time the passing rate is under 1% for around 650 students, which is also because “some courses are made just to make people fail”.

High corruption

Overall, whether the reason for such state of education in Macedonia is high corruption within governmental and other state institutions is left for you to judge. Even though the government and other institutions extricate a good amount of budget on education, it is evident that this money rarely goes on improvements and does not serve as an incentive for students, but likely ends up in somewhere it is not supposed to. While the quality of studies might be on a fairly good level, the government would rather spend money and focus on controversial projects like Skopje 2014, and therefore leave young students wishing to prosper without any incentive or even will to study.

Andro Nogolica

Presidential elections in Macedonia: a struggle with identity

Josip Broz Titto had his presidential Residence “Biljana” built in Ohrid, Macedonia to enjoy the landscapes of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In the past four years, the villa with a wonderful view on Lake Ohrid was inhabited by Gjorge Ivanov, the President of the Former Yougoslavian Republic of Macedonia (or more easily “Macedonia”). On the 13th of April and the 27th of April the citizens of Macedonia, of which about 20 % is Albanian, will decide in two ballots who will move in the Presidential Residence. Three women express their opinion on the three male candidates.

Macedonian flag Credits: Wikimedia Commons/CC/Flammard

Macedonian flag
Credits: Wikimedia Commons/CC/Flammard

An election for your job

“If you want to have a job, you have to be a member of the party”, says Marja, a student in Finance and Economics in Skopje. The public sector expanded massively under the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE and so did the influence of politics on media, justice and economy. The heavy pressure of the government on ordinary citizens, the harsh economic situation and the mistrust between Albanians and Macedonians explain why the Presidential election is an existential question for many citizens. If you choose the wrong candidate, you might risk your job in the administration. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why many Macedonians will go to vote.

An election for change

Marja explains: “The President of Macedonia is a statue!” It is true that the Presidency has mainly symbolic tasks. His election is important because he serves as reference point for the political identity of the people: Macedonians will vote for a Macedonian candidate, Albanians will vote for the Albanian one. Also, the legislative elections were put on the same date because, to validate the second ballot of the elections, a participation of more than 40% is needed and some parties will use it to boycott the elections.

Stevo Pendarovski Credits: Wikimedia Commons/CC/MacedonianBoy

Stevo Pendarovski, candidate from the opposition party SODUS-SDSM
Credits: Wikimedia Commons/CC/MacedonianBoy

At the moment the main clash is between the nationalist party on power VMRO-DPMNE and the more liberal and EU friendly party in opposition SODUS-SDSM. “The actual President is Gjorge Ivanov from VMRO-DPMNE. This is the old party and I don’t see, what he wants to change. And, they set Macedonia above everything.” says Marja, “Stevo Pendarovski is from SODUS-SDSM who wants to improve the situation of young people. I think he can make a change.” Elena, a student in political sciences is less optimistic:”I don’t believe that another President will change a lot. But even a small change is better than nothing.” The debate among young students is not about if there is a need of change, but if this change is actually possible in Macedonia. Elena is frustrated: “ I blame the people! I blame the people who sell their vote for bread.”

An election for identity

Gjorge Ivanov, Macedonian president and candidate Credits: Wikimedia Commons/CC/Harald Dettenborn

Gjorge Ivanov, Macedonian president and candidate
Credits: Wikimedia Commons/CC/Harald Dettenborn

Jelana, who works in a bar in Ohrid, is one of the few Macedonians who is actually aware that there is an Albanian candidate. Iljaz Halimi from the DAP represents the Albanian minority that is tolerated but lives in constant tensions with the Macedonian majority. No one believes that he will have a chance to win the elections, but the question is who they will support in a second circle, as their coalition with VMRO-DPMNE split up facing the presidential elections. While Jelana cleans a glass she says: “The Albanians want to take over ever since. It is important to go vote because one of the candidates (Pendarovski) will let more Albanians in the Parliament and the other (Ivanov) will not.” The Albanians minority has many political rights but many prejudges from both sides implement a strong separation between Albanians and Macedonians. “We are the nation and they are an ethnical group. Gjorge will make this separation but maintain peace. The other candidate looks like a joke!”

An election in critique

Many people criticizes that there are a big inequalities between the party in power and the opposition in terms of available budget and TV-time. There was just one debate between the candidates and many hateful speeches. According to Marja, there is a strong pressure on citizens: “They are calling you to ask what you, what you think about politics. And I’m scared to say what I really think because I know that they have my number.” Then, at the end of our conversation, Elena adds: “They are trying to brainwash us every time.”

Marc Weilenmann