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Neighbors in the Mirror

A role reversal in recent years hasn’t done much to dampen the age-old competition between Bulgaria and Serbia.

by Boyko Vassilev 3 August 2018

“Serbia has surpassed Bulgaria and has a better standard of living,” announced Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on 23 July, citing the average salary of each country as proof.


Seen from the Bulgarian side, these calculations are – at best – far too optimistic. Two separate methods of calculating the Bulgarian average monthly salary – by the Office of National Statistics and by the National Social Security Institute – put Bulgaria’s average salary at 551 euros ($645) and 450 euros, respectively. Both are more than Vucic’s boasted 424 euros.


There is a larger snake under this stone. If you haven’t heard about the never-ending competition between Bulgarians and Serbs, you clearly don’t live in the Balkans.


The rivalry has been both tragic and comic. These Balkan neighbors have competed in almost every field: land, people, prosperity, culture, and sports. Early in the 19th century, the Serbs were quicker to earn their independence from the Ottoman Empire, but the Bulgarians soon caught up.


“Initially, they were best of friends,” Serb historian Milos Kovic told me. Yet they soon succumbed to conflict: Bulgarians and Serbs went to war four times in the course of little over half a century.


“[In the 1880s-1900s,] this conflict was a mirror image of the conflict between the two Great Powers, Austria-Hungary and Russia,” said Kovic. “Each had one of the [Balkan] neighbors as a pet nation and directed it against the other. When Austria-Hungary stood behind Serbia, Russia stood behind Bulgaria – and vice versa.” Meanwhile, both Bulgaria and Serbia used the West as an argument against the other. “You must prove that you are more pro-Western than your neighbor,” Kovic explained, “that you bring civilization to the half-wild Balkans.”


Older generations need not delve deep into history for that lesson, because there is a recent example at hand: Yugoslavia, which was cherished – and yet it perished three decades ago. More politically and economically open than communist Bulgaria, Yugoslavia was a place to envy and an example to follow. Here, Bulgarians found jeans, chewing gum, sneakers, LPs with pop and rock – everything missing from the rigid socialist “market.”


“We were the West for you then,” exclaims almost every Serbian I have spoken to, from the politician and writer Vuk Draskovic to Joska Broz, who is the chairman of Serbia’s Communist Party and the grandson of Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia. 


By contrast, Bulgaria was a destination for cheap goods and affordable entertainment. A Yugoslav Serb could sell a pair of sneakers on Sofia’s black market and then enjoy the restaurants, hotels, and resorts of socialist Bulgaria for days.


This picture has now radically changed. Serbs travel to Bulgaria to visit the abundant shopping malls, while Bulgarians flock in their thousands for a tasty (and cheap) grill on the Serbian side of the border.


The explanation is obvious: the EU. As an EU member, Bulgaria has benefited from funds for infrastructure and development, while Serbia has had to deal with wars, conflict, and dissolution. Nevertheless, Sofia has lobbied for Belgrade’s integration, especially when it held the European Council’s rotating presidency in January-June 2018. Some Serbs have also been quick to grasp opportunities next door. They looked for employment, and even for Bulgarian citizenship, creating another reversal: in days gone by, Yugoslavs were proud of their passports, which opened the whole world to them. Now, Bulgarians’ EU passports offer the upper hand.


Of course, the old Bulgarian-Serbian competition makes this change hard to swallow. “What did the EU give Bulgaria?” asks Broz, and hurries to answer: “Nothing!” Many Serbs think otherwise, though. “Now, you are the West. And we are the East, of the former days,” says Draskovic, “Geography has been turned upside down.”


It is probably these feelings that prompted Vucic to declare victory over the Bulgarian average salary. Bulgarians ahead of us? Who would have believed that? It cannot be true! Therefore it is not true!


There is another interesting twist in the story. Almost every influential Serb I have met dismisses the EU and calls for Bulgarian-Serbian unity outside of the bloc, through some sort of Balkan, Orthodox, or Slavonic regional framework. Perhaps this is a resurrection of Yugoslavia, in which power used to rest with the Serbs? By contrast, in the EU, neither the Serbs nor the Bulgarians hold the wheel, and Bulgaria would have only a small advantage, perhaps comparable to the Serbs’ advantage, when they were the independent ones in the early 19th century.


Someday Serbia may really close the gap, or maybe it will not. However, this is not a game of supremacy. Both countries are so similar that they sometimes even make similar mistakes. In their tragicomic competitiveness, they focus on the competitor, and miss the partner. And they will live to regret it if they waste another century in the same way.

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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