How do you FEEL about your national history?
Albena Tavena at the My!Europe conference in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
To Bulgarians – and specially young Bulgarians – the last 25 years have been a period of political turmoil which has also meant emotional turmoil, explained professor Albena Taneva, Sofia university, at the My!Europe conference in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in early September.
There were huge fireworks in Sofia, when their country joined the EU in 2007. This was the final good-bye to 45 years under a Soviet system, and a re-emergence of a Bulgarian national identity.
Under Ottoman rule, Bulgaria had been wiped off the map for 500 years, from (1396-1878). During that period a number of civic organisations, notably the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, have survived, preserving Bulgarian language and culture. But under Communist rule there was "not a single institution that could preserve a social or political alternative. Civil society destroyed entirely".
In the early 1990's, after the fall of the Soviet Union, you had a period of "huge political emotions, enthusiasm, new actors on political and social stage. We went through a deep economic and financial crisis. - So, the expectations of becoming a member of the EU were a kind of a dream", said Albena Taneva.
Inspired by American scholars on national identity (not least Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba) she set out a study, asking students to list 10 events from history that made them feel pride, shame or anger.
The students, like most Bulgarians were proud of their ancient history – the time of the First and Second Bulgarian empire, before the Ottoman rule. "We won a lot of battles", she said.
The anger was mostly with the Ottoman Turks and with the many neighbouring nations that the Bulgarians have met in war during the turbulent history of the Balkans.
The shame was with modern Bulgaria. In Albena Taneva's words "Many felt it is a kind of bad luck that we were born now and here. We never compare ourselves with Albania or other Balkan countries. We compare ourselves with USA, Germany, UK - so bad luck. They are richer and have a better life. So, let's start complaining. And our politicians are corrupt, all of them. Politics is a dirty thing".
"All indicators made to measure feelings of national identity did not reach even 5 per cent positive identification with anything Bulgarian", she said.
According to Alberta Taneva, a positive national identity is essential for people – specially young people – to take initiatives. "You cannot solve any problem, if you don't have pride in your national identity".
But Bulgarians came from a period of 45 years of Communist rule, where "private property was destroyed and individualism considered a dirty word. You were not supposed to take any initiative yourself. The state would take care of you. The young were socialised in a political system that taught them you to do nothing. There was one single line to follow, that of the Communist Party".
The conclusions for many, seeking identity in ancient history, was that "We were born to be rulers. But we have bad luck today, having been born to a small and poor country".
But what's the real story? Actually, Bulgaria is not small and not really poor. In size and population it's in the middle in Europa, - though the population has dropped from 8 million to now almost a million less, because of a huge emigration, explained Alberta Taneva. "And the quality of life is really great. You have great climate. Many things cost less than elsewhere. And you can have a great experience in the theatre, hear wonderful orchestras, or go to great operas for almost nothing. You have great opportunities, so what is missing is this more enthusiastic entrepreneurship -- or readiness to be an individual that takes responsibility of herself or himself".
On a positive note, she felt that "the time factor is working for us. Step by step, one way or another, we will learn it. So, Bulgaria has a chance".
EU as a modernizer
She felt that the EU's role in the Bulgarian context was primarily to make Bulgarians institutions become part of a competitive system.
"Being part of a competitive system – travelling and studying abroad, working in a market, competing to have the support of European funds, - all this is not just a frame, but also the fuel that keeps you always active".
In addition, the EU represents important values to a country like Bulgaria, she said. "EU is the biggest supporter in the world of countries in need. And giving to others, despite all the problems, we have ourselves, gives us self-esteem as a moral individuals. Values matter".
Later she said: "It's like our immune system -- a strong value system will keep you stable in a moment of crisis".
History, scepticism and the truth
One of the important points she made was that the feelings involved in national identity needs to relate to the facts of history. "The young generation don't remember... so if you don't tell them anything in textbooks they misunderstand. They will have heard that there was no unemployment in the old days under socialism, no crime, no insecurity. These things are dangerously being repeated today by politicians".
Still, Bulgarians are some of the strongest supporters of the EU, and that goes even for those who lean towards the nationalistic parties, she said. "EU institutions are respected more than national institutions. So people believe the EU will help this country to re-start itself".
Asked about young people's feelings about history she explained that "Europe is a small continent. All countries have difficult moments in the past. But the challenge is, not to have these moments from the past used to create prejudice. History education where you make your own country the centre of the universe, creates a false picture".
There has been a whole series of Bulgarian-Byzantine wars. "When Bulgaria won over Byzanz it was great, when Byzantine troops came to Bulgaria it was wrong. But was the behaviour of Bulgarian troops different from the others? No! We tend to substitute the knowledge of history with a black-white picture".
Conclusion: "The way history is taught makes it difficult for children to see themselves in a broader context".