Thursday, February 04, 2010

Bulgarian Passports for Macedonians: Debunking Myths

Oliver Vodasov has managed to do something many Macedonians dream of – he has built up a successful career in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a European Union member state.

Even though Macedonia is not a member of the union, Vodasov can freely work as a lawyer in Bulgaria after having been granted citizenship. For this to happen he had to prove Bulgarian ethnicity.

“I was born in the Macedonian town of Negotino and came to Bulgaria to study law in 1997. It is definitely considered more prestigious to study in Sofia as we have more opportunities to develop here, “ says Mr Vodasov.

He confirms that the bigger part of his colleagues at the university remained in Bulgaria just like him after landing a Bulgarian citizenship.

Oliver Vodasov and his colleagues are one of those, who annoy the Macedonian authorities and have given rise to accusations against the Bulgarian state of a covertly expansionist agenda. He however denies he has been encouraged to apply for Bulgarian citizenship or has done so under pressure.

“Bulgaria is the only place in the world where we, the Macedonians, are not second-hand people,” says he. “Do you think I would have worked as a lawyer if I had migrated to Germany?”

Bulgaria grants citizenship to Macedonians who prove Bulgarian ethnicity. The procedure requires providing their family name and birth certificate and filling in complex paperwork. Under Bulgaria's rules, perhaps two-thirds of of Macedonia's population of two million could be eligible for citizenship.

Tens of thousands have applied and nearly 20,000 have been approved since 2001. Acquiring a Bulgarian passport allows the holder to work in many European countries. Since Bulgarian laws allow dual citizenship, there is no need to renounce one's Macedonian documents.

“Not all Macedonian citizens apply with the aim to come and live in Bulgaria or use it as a gate towards other European Union member states,” saya Rayna Mandzhukova, head of the Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, a key unit in the process of getting a citizenship as it issues the certificate for Bulgarian ethnicity.

“It is very easy to obtain a passport. Fees are as low as 300 leva, around 150 euros, and the applicant does not have to be in Bulgaria but can go to a Bulgarian embassy,” Mandzhukova says.

The declaration of Bulgarian origin is the most important document at the agency. Mandzhukova denies claims that there is a let-out based on the presumption that “ethnic Macedonian” means “ethnic Bulgarian”.

“If no documentation is available, the agency can not issue a certificate of nationality,” she says.

First step towards Bulgarian consciousness

To prove Bulgarian origin, it is enough for Macedonian citizens just to declare it.

“To be honest with you, I have no doubts that someone who signs a document, saying that he is of Bulgarian nationality, won't take it as an insult if one day someone calls him Bulgarian,” Mandzhukova admits.

Even though the signature is sufficient documentation for the agency to consider the applicant of Bulgarian ethnicity, Mandzhukova goes further than that.

“I believe that this signature is the first step towards the formation of a Bulgarian consciousness,” she says.

And this is what nationalists see as a surge in Bulgarian consciousness, something that the Macedonian authorities strongly object to. Mandzhukova however denies that the state policy is confrontational.

“It is the right of every person to determine his status, we live in the twenty-first century after all!”

Planned amendments to the law for Bulgarian citizenship, which are expected to be approved soon, aim to uproot a new business that has grown up in rural Macedonia, with middlemen collecting hundreds of euros per person for preparing and submitting applications.

Under the legislative changes, the Bulgarian state is obliged to approve or reject an application for citizenship within one year. Currently applicants have to wait on average four or five years to be granted a Bulgarian citizenship.

“I believe that this deadline will restore the faith in the Bulgarian state,” Mandzhukova says. “Romania is much more liberal to those Moldovans who want to be granted Romanian citizenship. They need this passports to travel in European member states, including Bulgaria. Many members of the Bulgarian community in Moldova are forced to get a Romanian citizenship so that they can come and visit their children in Bulgaria. This is absurd, isn't it?”

Queuing for Bulgarian Passports

Virtually every Macedonian of Slavic origin is eligible to claim a Bulgarian passport.

Petar Kolev, 24, from the town of Stip, is one of the many young Macedonians who come to study in Bulgaria each year, taking advantage of the scholarships that the Bulgarian state offers. While in the 90s the number of candidates for Bulgarian universities stood at 100, this figure snowballed over the next decade to about 800 each year.

Petar has been lining up for Bulgarian citizenship since four years ago and unlike Bulgarian authorities and foreign news agencies says that the procedure is far from easy.

“Those who say the procedure is “ridiculously easy” are people who just observe the process and are not a part of it. I applied for Bulgarian citizenship in 2006 and my application is still somewhere among the different institutions that deal with the issue,” Petar explains.

He will graduate in a year and the failure to get Bulgarian citizenship makes him really nervous as the prospect of going back to Macedonia looms.

“I am not the only one who has to wait for five or six years before being granted a Bulgarian citizen. Sometime the applicants get the thumbs down.”

But in Macedonia suspicions remain. The tortuous history of the Balkans, old territorial claims and accusations of a covertly expansionist agenda have tensed relations between the two countries.

Bulgaria occupied much of Macedonia three times between 1878 and 1913, regarding it as part of an extended nation. In 1999 each nation renounced any claims to the territory of the other, but Bulgaria has still not formally recognized the existence of Macedonian language and culture. Politicians and media have suggested more than once that the Bulgarian state has a hidden goal of an ultimate “reunification”.

“It is only natural that the Bulgarian state takes care of the Bulgarian communities abroad, just as Romania and Hungary do. Nobody has the right to reprimand Bulgaria for the policy it leads regarding the ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonia,” says Mr Vodasov.

The peak in applications for Bulgarian citizenship from Macedonians – about 40,000 - came in 2004, three years before the country joined the European Union. It is too early to say whether the visa-free travels for Macedonians across the European Union will weaken the interest in Bulgarian citizenship.

“It is only a small part of Macedonians who get a Bulgarian passport to go to Europe. Most of them stay here in Bulgaria, others return to Macedonia. There is no reason in saying that Macedonians consider Bulgarian passports as entries to the European Union,” says Mr Vodasov.

“The Macedonian media reports, which say whole regions in Macedonia are threatened with depopulation, are absurd.” he says.

More Security

Macedonians strive to obtain Bulgarian citizenship for a number of reasons – to migrate to Bulgaria, to travel and work freely across the European Union and also due to the faith in the protection that the Bulgarian state can give them.

“I would risk saying that this emotional factor is the most important and most often cited reason,” says Mandzhukova.

She vehemently denies that the real motives are more pragmatic.

“To say that Macedonians obtain Bulgarian citizenship as a passport to Europe is a stereotype that gives a very distorted reflection of the truth,” she says.

According to her the influx of Macedonians to Bulgaria did not increase significantly after the country's accession to the European Union on January 1, 2007.

“The first signs f the hype came much earlier when Bulgarian institutions agreed that the document our agency issues is enough to claim Bulgarian origin. This is when the real increase in applications came due to the streamlining of the process.”

While in Macedonia many Macedonians try to cover the fact that they have signed such a declaration.

“Well, certainly nobody will shout it at the top of his lungs. But first of all if someone considers what the Macedonian authorities think important, he would not sign the declaration in the first place, “ Mandzhukova says.

Does everyone who declares Bulgarian ethnicity really believes in it?

“True, some of them do not believe in it, but they believe that the Bulgarian state can and will protect them when the need occurs.”

She however is not willing to talk on the subject.

“When the need occurs, the first to know about it are the Bulgarian diplomats in Skopje and Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry,” is her concise answer.

The list of those people features Dragi Karov, Spaska Mitrova (pictured below) and a number of others whose involvement in minor accidents has been criminalized “thanks” to their Bulgarian passports.

“It seems that the Macedonians who have a Bulgarian passport feel more secure.”

Emotional Bond

“I chose Sofia because it is more prestigious and because I feel emotionally attached to Bulgaria, “ says Petar and adds, quite self-confidently, that he speaks for most of the Macedonian students here.

For the sake of this emotional bond, which he half-heatedly attributes to the good grasp and belief in the version of history presented in Bulgarian books, many Macedonian students decide to swallow the bitter pill of leading the life of poor students away from their parents and at a place where living standards are three times higher than their birthplace.

Even though study in Bulgaria remains a sensitive subject, Petar Kolev is not afraid to give his name to journalists, saying this has never caused him problems when he goes back to Macedonia.

“Nobody can blame us for wanting to drink water from the source. I don't want anyone to teach me or interpret for me events that happened a hundred years ago,” Petar adds.

Even though Bulgaria was the first state to recognize the independence of the Macedonian state, many Bulgarians think that, deep down, their neighbors, are Bulgarians.

Petar himself confirms that view.

“This is where we feel at home,” he says.

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