Tuesday, August 08, 2006

FROM THE EDITOR: Making a meal of Macedonia

With somewhat of a summer lull in news, the media in Bulgaria and Macedonia have made much of a policy statement by Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin about this country’s small neighbour to the west.

Kalfin said that Bulgaria supported Macedonia’s aspirations to membership of the European Union, but wanted revision of the portrayal of Bulgaria in the country. This statement, especially on the question of history taught in schools, has been made before, but the fact that Kalfin has said it elevates it to the level of policy.

The media and politicians sat up and took notice, and in some cases took to shouting, and this is no surprise, because they were meant to. Kalfin’s statement was the spawn of domestic political needs shaping foreign policy.

There is a game afoot in Bulgaria in the run-up to the presidential elections, and it has to do with the use of nationalist sentiment. Given the views held by many ordinary Bulgarians about Macedonia, it is an easy shot to try to make political gains by leaning on Macedonia. It is no coincidence that Kalfin’s statement was followed up by remarks in an interview by President Georgi Purvanov, who is seeking the second and final term of office to which the constitution entitles him to be eligible.

It is regrettable that the question of the portrayal of Bulgaria in Macedonia is being made a political football being kicked for the sake of public spectacle. No doubt there is some validity in mutual misgivings about how the two countries depict each other and their histories. It would seem that these should be matters for discreet negotiation, rather than public breast-beating.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because much rides on the future of this region, including Macedonia, which has need of a stable European future, and all the assistance that it can get along the way towards this future. The country has unresolved domestic issues, and thus far Bulgaria has been one of the countries playing a constructive public role in regard to Macedonia and, by implication, in some small way towards the Western Balkans as a whole.

While Bulgaria is a model of stability and predictability in South Eastern Europe, and thus is able to have the potential to attract and reassure foreign investors, no savvy business person will neglect to look at the wider neighbourhood. Few who inform themselves to any extent about the history of this region will be unaware that it is a place where matters of emotion and sentiment about perspectives on the past and present quickly turn into extremely unhelpful disputes.

Bulgaria’s leaders need to focus on continuing to build on the stability already achieved within this country and to assist in the process of making the entire region stable. If this may be achieved, including through the long and difficult process of bringing the region into the community and ethos of the EU, all concerned will gain. If delays are introduced through petty domestic politics, progress will be slowed, or even reversed. These are not difficult principles to understand, and there is no excuse for sacrificing them to petty domestic political needs.

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