The Strategic Usage of Nationalism

Zora Popova
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002, by Zora Popova, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bath, UK

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Anthropological data gathered within the frameworks of the research
Brief history of and some facts about VMRO

Vmro and Nationalism
Self-defining - list of key words
Vmro in the Public Opinion
Vmro and Europe
Interpretations and Conclusions

After half a century of international stagnation, tensed peace and lack of dialogue and communication the system that from the inside seemed eternal and inevitable, suddenly collapsed. The fall of the Berlin Wall released an avalanche of events that destroyed the old world-order, norms, and values. 1989 was not only the last year of a decade, but also the end of a period, of a political reality. The physical destruction of the dividing wall marked symbolically the end of the two-confronting-poles world of the Cold War.

The initial excitement about the utopic brighter future that was about to come soon was replaced by an anxiety before the power-struggles, the raise of nationalism, ethnic violence and extremism. Instead of security and global peace the radical and rapid change of the political systems and the world-order in general created a kind of vacuum between the dark past and the uncertain future. Values and beliefs suddenly were recognised as lies. There was nothing to replace the destructed structures with. In this new environment the agents-in-transition could hardly find any grounds to justify decisions or actions with. When in many countries the frameworks of the state-communities were eliminated the local automatically became the unit that could provide with sense of stability and protection.

On the Balkans the new period of transition towards democracy and free market appeared with ethnic conflicts, social disturbance and economic crisis. The disintegration of Yugoslavia and the years of war that followed as confirmed once again the Western perception of the region as the powder keg of Europe. In the light of the extreme events however many processes and events escaped from the attention of the international community. One relevant example is the case of Bulgaria where because of the sustained tensions all the problems and the issues of the transition period remained of internal significance. Conversely, I would argue that if examined thoroughly there certain models that could give interesting suggestions upon the issue of 'people versus power' relationship.

In the light of the political and historical heritage the patterns of power distribution that appeared in Bulgaria after the Communism and that are still in development could be a topic for a discussion. Social confusion, lack of political traditions and culture, perplexity of nostalgic memory of the past, unclear vision for the future and misjudgement of the reality are only example-aspects.

The present paper would offer a perspective towards the topic of power and powerlessness after Communism introducing the findings of a research project of political anthropology revealed in the year 2000 in Bulgaria. The analysis he of the information gathered would be reinterpreted in the light of the question of the major shifts and continuities in the patterns of distribution of power in the Post-Cold War realities in Eastern Europe. The case of the Bulgarian party VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation) is a good example for the linkages between political developments and the relevant cultural and historical heritage.

Two issues are central for the present paper - nationalism and power strive and legitimisation. The studied case reflects an interesting version of the close connection between the two elements. In the beginning of the 1990s the society-power relationship changed radically corresponding to the world processes and the change of the political system in the country. The study of VMRO reflects the transformations of the institutions and the interpersonal relations throughout the decade when the legitimisation of the new order was based essentially on the official sanctioning and discrediting of the communist past official sanctioning and discrediting of the communist past. It also reveals a political strategy applied rather successfully.

Before discussing the above outlined problems a brief description of the completed project and of the organisation (recently become political party) studied will display the background of the following interpretations.

The information was gathered within the frameworks of an anthropological research project entitled Bulgaria and the New European Realities, undertaken by the University of Sofia in 1999/2000. The general aim of the project was to reveal to what extent Bulgaria is successful in its transition towards democracy and towards the establishment of new values and norms. The selection of VMRO as object of examination and analysis was based on the adoption of general structure of the research as comparative study of different political actors. The organisation, recognised as supportive of the Bulgarian nationalistic ideas, was regarded, as belonging to the pole that is most likely to oppose the chosen political direction of the country towards achieving European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

This initial hypothesis leaned on the following assumptions, defining the background of the research:

One of the main goals of this research was to clarify what exactly the position of VMRO in the public sphere in Bulgaria of the 1990s is and what attitude the organisation had towards Europe, European values, and towards the state policy focused on achieving Euro- and Euro-Atlantic integration. Another question of a great concern was whether a nationalistic organisation, as the members of VMRO perceive and define their structures, could play an important role in the Bulgarian political life. The fact that the efforts towards achieving global integration should be in essential conflict with the values and the ideology that a nationalist organisation would support was assumed a contradiction. Provocative appeared also the question how could a formation of the type to find political legitimisation in the context of the negative attitude towards the ideology of nationalism in the West and of the continuous armed conflict in the neighbouring Yugoslavia. Thus, defining and explaining the type of nationalism and of the national identity that VMRO supported was considered essential for the research.

Striving towards separating facts from interpretations in order achieving greater objectiveness the text that follows is organised as follows. At first there are presented, in the structure of bullet points, the findings of the research divided in several sections. These sections correspond to the main questions of the study of the organisation - the attempts to define from their (VMRO's) point of view the notion of nationalism, the self-perception (of the members and of the organisation in general), and the attitude towards Europe, NATO and the Western values in the context of the leading direction of the Bulgarian foreign policy and the ideology of VMRO. The interpretations of the information gathered are placed in the second part of the text. This approach strives towards presenting possibility for other researchers to consider the facts more or less objectively and eventually to offer other points of view and conclusions.

Anthropological data gathered within the frameworks of the research

Brief history of and some facts about VMRO

It is important to point out that the Bulgarian formation (nowadays a political party) and the leading and governing political party in Macedonia bear the same name and track their origins back to the same organisation established in the end of the 19th century. One should be aware of the fact that the interpretations of the facts usually meet the demands of the relevant ideologies. This text examines the Bulgarian organisation of the 1990s and the historical referencing aims only at introducing basic knowledge of VMRO on a level where the different interpretations are not of a such significance(1).

The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO, VMRO in Bulgarian) was founded in 1893 in Saloniki by six intellectuals, striving to obtain civil rights for the oppressed population in Macedonia and Thrace - regions cut off from Bulgaria and left under the domination of the Ottoman sultan. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to make the international community solve the problem and in response to the persecutions by the Turkish Ottoman administration, VMRO took the course of armed resistance in order to obtain human rights and liberties for the oppressed nationalities within the empire. In 1903 VMRO raised a revolt in Macedonia and Thrace which was crushed. After 1908, following the changes within the Ottoman Empire VMRO strategy shifted from exclusively armed fights towards more appropriate peaceful methods. The Organisation established two legal parties seated in Saloniki - the Union of Bulgarian Constitutional Clubs and the People's Federate Party (Bulgarian section). Nevertheless, the Young Turks forsook their promises and resumed the previous policy of discrimination. The two Bulgarian parties in Macedonia and Thrace were banned. Throughout the 20th century many immigrant's fractions were founded in Western Europe, USA and Canada. Although in 1934 an antidemocratic authoritarian coup in Bulgaria banned all the political parties as well as VMRO, the last fractions of the Organisation were abolished in the late 1940-s by the newly established communist dictatorships in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.(2) After 1989 VMRO was restored and undertake active participation in the Bulgarian political life. In January 1997, VMRO was one of the active agents that initiated the protest actions against the socialist government of Zhan Videnov. As a partner of the United Democratic Forces that won the parliamentarian elections in April 1997 VMRO entered officially the political power with two deputies in the Bulgarian National Assembly.

The organisation has its own economic base(3), promotes business activities and receives financial support from many of its immigrant-fractions all over the world.

It is interesting to take a look at the objectives of VMRO as defined in the program documents of the organisation(4):

Currently VMRO has a large structure covering Bulgaria: over 300 local committees, with over 20 000 members. It enjoys the traditional support of the successors of 1.5 million refugees from Macedonia and South Thrace as well as of the 0.5 million Bulgarian emigrants abroad (mainly in USA, Canada, Latin America, and Western Europe). Recent sociological surveys indicate the increase of the Organisation's popularity, especially among young Bulgarians (in some regions - up to 30 % of the population).

VMRO leaning on the following central organs: Congress, National Council, Executive Committee, has a large structure within the country and plays certain role in Bulgarian social and political life. It is represented also on the local level of power. In order to achieve its program goals the organisation is seeking political partnership. As VMRO reflects on itself its position in the national political spectrum is regarded as parallel to the German Christian-Social Union and Spanish Partido Popular.

VMRO has its own publishing house, issuing academic, popular and political literature as well as the weekly newspaper Makedonia and the monthly magazine Nie (We) - the major theoretical review of the Bulgarian conservative right

Vmro and Nationalism

In the case of Bulgaria, the national identity was constructed (within the frameworks of the Ottoman Empire) in the 19th century on the basis of the key elements: language, religion, culture and memory for the glorious past and the days of independent Bulgarian state. Thus, the greatest ideal of the Bulgarian Renaissance was the re-establishment of independent Bulgaria that would be home for all the Bulgarians. In the late 19th century the country achieved its independence but not national unification. During the first half of the 20th century all the efforts were directed towards the dreamed national unification. This justified the involvement of the state in different conflicts and wars and caused three national catastrophes.

The organisation declares its goals as strive towards national democracy - nationalism is considered an instrument to prevent from the threat of loosing the national and cultural identity. Preserving the Bulgarian national identity is regarded important for achieving stability of the state and its institutions, because in that context the national values have been defined as:

The type of nationalism that the organisation declares to support is defined as "normal" and "pro-Western", similar to the one supported by Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Jacques Chiraques in their own countries /comment of Dinko Draganov, editor-in-chief of the "NIE" magazine, interview/

Self-defining /list of key words/

Vmro in the Public Opinion

/nation-wide official survey, February 1999/

The majority of the people interrogated could not define VMRO precisely or unilaterally. The organisation therefor has multileveled image:

Level One: What do people associate the organisation with?

Level Two: What do people think about the political affiliations and aspirations of VMRO?

Level Three: What do people think about the public image and the role of VMRO?

Vmro and Europe

Interpretations and Conclusions

The research revealed that the public opinion connects VMRO with the historical image of the organisation. The opinions are not affected by the general key-dichotomy city-village, neither is the relevant percentage of the members and supporters of the organisation. Of great importance however, but as a shadow-factor, is the educational background of the people. As a whole, the image of VMRO in the public opinion is positive but there is still a great percentage of people with no clarified perceptions about the organisation (48.4% of the interrogated). The one-word defining of the organisation has the following countdown list:

In the opinion of the members of VMRO, the negative attitude towards nationalism as a concept due to the fifty-year-period of communist government subjected to the USSR as well as to the misunderstanding of the notion, which should be redefined as 'contributions to the society'. Commonly accepted by the members of the organisation is that the type of nationalism they support is Western oriented. Realising the present situation of Bulgaria a goal of a major importance is recognised the efforts of the country to regain its positions before the Western world, which it has lost because of the 'opened just in the opposite direction' politics of the communist governments of the past.

It is interesting that every discussion on VMRO usually is based on a general misunderstanding. Quite often, and not by chance, the traditional perceptions of the organisation affect the definitions of the present one. Based on the idea of "reestablishment" of VMRO, in the early 90s began the establishment of new /seen as political in future/ organisation, which in this period of political chaos relied on:

Many of the internal problems of the organisation are due to the different ideas about the essence of the formation. The "fights" between the young and the old members of the organisation are based on the fact that the old members perceive VMRO as the "OLD" power when VMRO of the 90s has taken mainly the legitimate name /which allows it to claim the properties of VMRO - it is the only one self-funding organisation nowadays!/, the existing structures, members and supporters.

Lead by young and educated people, aware of all the processes and trends in Europe and in the politics in general, VMRO launched reorganisation towards a much more moderate position. The nationalism as a strategy was of certain importance for enabling this power to find its own place in the new social and political structures. Once this goal was achieved, the means appear not to be useful anymore when the legitimacy is said to be approved by the foreign factors. The international contacts could be rather limited on such an ideological basis, which is well known by the top hierarchy of VMRO. Since the organisation strives towards gaining positions in the political and in the public sphere, there is the problem of convincing the ordinary members, still living with the idea of old-versioned VMRO, that change in the leading ideology is necessary. That is why, before planning international acceptance, the organisation has to achieve inner homogenisation.

VMRO appears to be a relevant unit of observation when examining the role of the memory as essential to the legitimisation of a political order. Simultaneously the research reveals an interesting example of the competing-for-power-models of the post-communist world in transition. In other words, the study of VMRO presents not only specific case of the relationship society-power in the context of the "struggles" for political legitimisation within the new realities, but also could provide with ideas that could contribute to the studies of nationalism and its modifications.

In the post-communist society the most relevant way for new actors to approach the power was the denial of the previous regime and the clear anticommunist position. The problem in Bulgaria (and in most of the other ex-communist states) however appeared that the past of all the new political actors was inevitably connected with the previous regime. Therefore even the strongest political formation in opposition that was founded immediately after the general collapse of the system in Bulgaria (the Union of the Democratic Forces) could not convince the society in their 'purity' and could not win the first elections. In the early 1990s there were still many people supporting the former power, but many of voters were convinced that the so-called opposition is nothing more but creation of the communists. In the public opinion the idea that in these days communists and ex-communists are competing for power was very vivid.

In that context the idea of nationalism as Bulgarian-ism, i.e. something unaffected from the past, pure and valuable was converted into the ideological basis on which VMRO was restored. Thus, claiming that it is a successor of the organisation that was founded in the end of the 19th century and taking the same name bunch of people with clear interests in the power established the new formation VMRO. The choice of the ideology of nationalism and the affiliation with the former organisation was strategically clever move. First, the past of the organisation appeared as absolutely 'pure' - VMRO was abandoned and repressed by the old regime. Second, they achieved political legitimisation almost at once. Third, as a successor of the old organisation VMRO claimed back all the properties taken away during the 50 years of communist rule - suddenly the organisation became the richest political formation in Bulgaria, relying exclusively on the own economic basis. Forth, VMRO hadn't great organisational problems, since the old structures of the formation were still extant even not exactly vivid - however not many efforts were needed to activate the system. Fifth, because of the historical affiliations and the character of the former VMRO (supportive of the greatest Bulgarian dream of the Modern age of national unification), the members and the supporters of the organisation remained 'faithful'. In the unstable post-communist situation of the initial years VMRO attracted many young people offering an alternative in the two-pole model of communists and anticommunists. This could explain the interesting membership configuration of the gab between the two member's age groups - very old and very young people (the percentage of middle age members is rather low).

In this context I would argue that the present VMRO in fact is consistent of two completely different (even ideologically) levels. The fist level of the ordinary members still lives with the ideas of the past. They believe that VMRO of the beginning of the century and this of today are the same organisation. Most of these people share the old ideals (even slightly transformed because of the new global political context), values and believes. The second level is the one of the leadership. I would argue that the people who restored the organisation used strategically the situation, applying the ideology of nationalism and the memory for the past in order to enter the politics as h actors. Finding a niche the leadership offered to the public what it needed being aware however of the fact that this is a temporary direction. A proof of these interpretations is the recent transformation of the organisation into political party and the its program documents, displaying ideas that one could find rather contradictory to any pure nationalist ideology. Therefore this type of nationalism is defined as being of a 'practical usage'.

Nationalism was used as a strategy for establishing a new political /-in-perspective/ power in the period of general transformation of the society. A brand new organisation was formed over the remnants of still existing structures. Evens bearing the same name, both organisations are different not only in terms of the time frameworks but also in general. Since the present VMRO is striving towards real political power within the new context, it will try to find a way to approach the European and the world standards.


1. Information for VMRO-DPMNE, the leading party of the FYR Macedonia could be obtained from:; and about the VMRO in Bulgaria:


3. One of the primary tasks of the democratic change in the 1990s in Bulgaria was the private properties that were taken away by the communist regime to be returned to their former owners. Thus the VMRO-successor suddenly appeared as essentially affluent and capable of self-funding organisation.

4. Program documents are cited from:

5. The Bulgarian abbreviation for the Union of Democratic Forces: the party that was established to oppose the Communist party in 1990. Leading political actor in the 1990s in Bulgaria.