Boyko Vassilev: The Spirit of Denial Hinders the Bulgarian State

There is no worse crisis than the political one, and there is no other crisis in our country. The spirit of denial hinders Bulgarian society and politics.

Mickoski has his eyes set on Belgrade, and Bulgaria isn’t paying attention. We must realize that Bulgaria is not in a position to wait and think slowly. Sofia must show leadership in the Balkans.

This is what Bulgarian journalist Boyko Vassilev, TV presenter and executive producer of the Panorama program, said in an interview with BGNES.

We spoke about politics in Bulgaria, the need for leadership and the difficult circumstances Bulgaria is facing in the Balkans.


BGNES: How do you feel about the current political atmosphere in Bulgaria? I would personally call it “limbo”, how do you perceive it?


Boyko Vassilev: There is no worse crisis than the political one, and there is no other crisis in Bulgaria. The question here is not whether a government will be formed or whether there will be new snap elections. That is not the real solution to the political crisis at hand. Its end is not yet in sight, and it will come when, with the power of leadership, Bulgaria will be governed in such a way that it achieves actual results.


BGNES: Leadership still has to come from society. What is the causal link for its absence in recent months, and even years?


Boyko Vassilev: The Bulgarian society, in my opinion, is quite susceptible to this kind of crises. As early as 1934, several articles appeared in the Bulgarian press about the spirit of denial - in Bulgarian history, in Bulgarian mentality.

One of the authors of these articles, Professor Petar Mutafchiev, wrote a wonderful essay. It refers to the national saint St. Ivan Rilski and Pop Bogomil. In short, the thesis of Peter Mutafchiev (one of our greatest historians, an outstanding Byzantinist) is the following: "Here you have a national saint, who, however, does not lead his people, but is somewhere in the outer lands, in the mountains, and he lives out his virtue there. Whereas Pope Bogomil is the eternal oppositionist - he says "no" to everything. There you have this dilemma that always creates a problem of political stability and political crisis.

Because politics is what? It is a mirror of the life of society. And Bulgarian society, in my opinion at least, has a huge problem with three things that are interconnected - public morality, pessimism and faith. Faith not only in God, but in ourselves, faith in the state, faith in our own ability to go forward, to organize ourselves.

That is why the Bulgarian political crisis often appears in the most difficult moments. Just when we do not need it, just when we aren’t look for it, just when the world is so messed up  that the Bulgarian political crisis is the biggest problem at hand. That is when it appears and stiffens public life. This is an internal, deep drama of Bulgarian society. It is also connected with our inability to formulate a comprehensive idea of Bulgarian patriotism.

What is Bulgarian patriotism? Is it in opposition to the European ideal? This is the big question. Because sometimes in Bulgarian society, it turns out that Europeans are not patriots and patriots are not Europeans. If we go back 100 years to the builders of modern Bulgaria, if we see personalities like Professor Ivan Shishmanov, like Simeon Radev, we will understand that this is absolutely unthinkable.

The Bulgarian patriot is a European. He merges the two into a single concept and his idea of society, of a nation, of a state, is at the same time his idea of Europe.


BGNES: You outlined what happened after 1934. This is precisely the period after the failure of national unification, the national catastrophes, in general the collapse of the national ideal of the Bulgarians and Bulgaria. Almost 100 years later, isn't the lack of a national ideal our main problem? Yes, there is talk of the euro area and Schengen as our national goals, but they somehow remain in the background.


Boyko Vassilev: I agree with you. To formulate a national ideal is not a simple thing. And it is no coincidence that these attempts are very commendable - to formulate a national ideal and goal. But look what the problem is. Geopolitically, we cannot agree on a basic issue: on Russia and the West.

This is the oldest Bulgarian division. This is where the divide hurts the most. Where a conflict zone of various tensions always lies. And otherwise, internally, we cannot agree on what public morality really means. Whether we can work in a way that serves the nation wholeheartedly, without looking at some fleeting or temporary gain.

That creates a problem. It is not an easy task. If you ask me, the national ideal was formulated by Stoyan Mikhailovsky in the hymn of St. Cyril and St. Methodius. The idea "Go to the mighty enlightenment" is a primary Bulgarian national ideal. It sounds wonderful because enlightenment is not just education. Enlightenment is a society that knows itself and the world around it. To be enlightened is not just to be educated, to know foreign languages, to have some computer skills. No, being enlightened means knowing where you are, knowing yourself, not being ashamed of yourself. And also, to know your place in the world, in Europe, on the continent and in general.


BGNES. You used a wonderful word - 'enlightenment'. But is Bulgarian foreign policy enlightened about what is happening in the Balkans? We often talk about the war in Ukraine, the danger from the East, but somehow, we forget that there are dangers in the West. In Kosovo, there have been several incidents caused by the tension between Belgrade and Pristina. In Northern Macedonia - openly pro-Putin and pro-Serb ministers, such as Ivan Stoilkovic, will be responsible for inter-community relations, i.e. direct contact with the Bulgarians in Macedonia. Do our politicians understand, when they remain in a petty limbo with each other, regardless of the political conjuncture, the dangers that Bulgaria may have to deal with alone at some point?


Boyko Vassilev: Let's separate things. Bulgarian foreign policy and Bulgarian diplomacy have faced a lot of criticism, but I have witnessed some of our best professionals are working in these very places, the Western Balkans. And these people should be listened to a lot more. There’s no need to mention names, but I am talking about ambassadors and diplomats.

When it comes to society and when it comes to politics, I think we aren’t really paying attention to what is going on around us. The biggest thing is, of course, the war in Ukraine. The “big” thing will determine the “small” thing, which is what happens in the Balkans.

And here we see different strategies of action. For example, we see the “Vucic” strategy. It means carefully balancing the border, testing the left,  then the right, tracking things on different fronts and drawing dividends from both the West and the East, from Russia and China. This is the “Vucic” strategy.

On the other hand, we can see the Mickoski strategy. In my opinion, Mr. Mickoski is so fixated on Mr. Vucic and his actions that this guides his entire political behavior. Including the words he is uttering today against Bulgaria. They are the fruit of the fact that Mickoski, together with the main ruling party in North Macedonia (VMRO-DPMNE), is watching very carefully what Vucic is doing.

I mean, this wait is dramatic, and it could be dangerous. Imagine if things go badly on the front in Ukraine. Imagine that the global chaos caused by the various elections in Western countries shakes the whole scene. There is a real possibility that conflict will again break out in the Balkans in this situation. And it is not just Bulgarian national interests that could suffer in this conflict, but real people in real countries.

That is why we need to monitor very carefully what is happening to the west of us and realize that Bulgaria isn’t in a position to wait. Bulgaria is not in a position to think slowly. We are a member of the European Union and NATO, unlike the countries of the Western Balkans. What we have to show is a consistent policy, which, however, is not just the idea of a few brave diplomats scattered in different countries. No, it has to be a consistent foreign policy that is agreed upon by society and with the entirety of the political class, which has to pay attention to exactly what is happening to the west of us.

Behind the curtain of waiting, provocations to Bulgaria follow one after another. You remember the arrest of a man for spying in Serbia, you hear the statements of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Incidentally, he constantly mentions Bulgaria on and off the cuff. For example, Serbia’s population has grown, and it now has 10 people more than Bulgaria: 'Do you know that we have surpassed Bulgaria?' There is a huge focus on Bulgaria. A daily focus.

And here, the issue is very, very important and very big. But it’s testing the limits, most of all, of Western society. I agree with the analyses that show that the West has a bigger problem at the moment - Ukraine. There is another problem in Palestine, but Ukraine is in Europe. And it (the West) tends to turn a blind eye to some provocations, to some actions, to other intemperate statements. This allows a number of nationalist politicians to test the limits. Well, that is why the Bulgarian political crisis is a very bad background for what is happening in the Western Balkans.


BGNES. To sum up your position in a few words, what should Bulgarian policy look like? Not for two, three or one year ahead, but in the long term. What are the things that Bulgarian society should look out for in order to avoid this (mudslinging) rhetoric from some countries in the Western Balkans and to defend the Bulgarian national interest and the European interest?


Boyko Vassilev: Bulgarian foreign policy has had one line since the 90s, which it has followed consistently. The question is to formulate it categorically - to support peace in the Balkans and to give a strong resistance to any revanchism. Towards North Macedonia and towards Serbia, our aim is neither nationalistic nor revanchist. Our goal is not to make these people Bulgarians, but to make them Europeans. So, our weak point is how we explain our actions. In general, we are very bad explainers.

On the issue of North Macedonia, we have a society there that has no internal dialogue and does not want to hear other points of view on history. We have a frozen society there. What Bulgaria can help with is to bring in European, real European criteria - what we have gone through ourselves. To see the different points of view, to raise the issues, including history, with real pluralism - that is what we need to see there in North Macedonia.

We are a member of the European Union and NATO. And we need to have a little more self-confidence, because, as I said, no other crisis is relevant for us at the moment, only the political one. We do not believe in our own economic achievements and authority because, in principle, we do not believe in ourselves.

That is why our foreign policy must firmly defend the Bulgarian national interest, namely the European idea in the Balkans. Most importantly, we must learn to present it well. | BGNES