Opening address at the first National Conference on Byzantine and Medieval studies on the subject of “Samuil’s State – 1000 years later (1018-2018)”
Thursday, 25 October 2018 10:59   

Ohrid_25.10.2018Distinguished attendees,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honor to welcome you to the first National Conference on Byzantine and Medieval studies. While I was staying in villa "Biljana" this summer in Ohrid, professors Filipovski and Cvetanovski approached me and invited me to become a patron of this conference. All along our conversation on Samuil we had Ohrid and Samuil's Fortress in sight. Although we are 1000 years apart from the fall of Samuil's State, nevertheless, the current events in the Republic of Macedonia indicate that the lessons we still have not learnt are repeating themselves.

Since I have the opportunity to open this scientific conference, allow me to deliver my opinion on the subject matter. As a university professor who is teaching Political Theory and Political Philosophy for almost two decades, the political theories and institutions of the Eastern Roman Empire are also within the scope of my interest. Part of my address is focused there.

When Basil the Armenian became Byzantine Emperor with an overthrow in 867, he needed all available arguments to legitimize his reign. One of those arguments was the fact that he was born in the Byzantine theme Macedonia which encompassed just a small portion of the broader historical and geographical region of Macedonia. That was the reason to call his dynasty Macedonian. Following this narrative, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus built a perception of an alleged genealogical link between his grandfather Basil I and the ancient Macedonian dynasty in order to strengthen his legitimacy. Some people today call that antiquization.

Of course the Byzantine Macedonian dynasty benefited from the fact that, at that time, there weren't any other state entities invoking the glorious Macedonian tradition. However, things changed quickly.

The Slavic saints and scholars Cyril and Methodius and their disciples St. Clement and Naum of Ohrid set the conditions for cultural, educational and spiritual, and as a result socioeconomic improvement of the Slavic peoples, and particularly – the people from Macedonia. The seed they sow germinated and it developed a root which sprouted a young shoot. In 969, using the Byzantine preoccupation with the East, the comitopuli David, Moses, Aaron and Samuil staged an uprising against the fragile Bulgarian governance. In 976, five years since Byzantium abolished the First Bulgarian Empire, Samuil's State was established as a new geopolitical reality on the Balkans.

Ostrogorsky says that considering both the composition and its character, Samuil created a new empire. The political, spiritual and cultural essence of that state was in the south-western part of Macedonia. Both the first and the second capitals were there – Prespa and Ohrid.

As a "constantly restless and warlike man", Samuil used the civil war in Byzantium and in a relatively short period of time he created the biggest Slavic state in the Balkans which extended into three seas and was bounded by the Danube and Sava on the north. Being a great military strategist, Samuil invested in the defense of the state's core with several fortifications. Moreover, the Bulgarian territories that were obtained were primarily used to protect the territory of Macedonia.

This new state entity had its own specific state interest – controlling the strategic corridor Via Egnatia that went from Solun to Durrës.

Samuil established new ecclesiastical center in Prespa. In order to strengthen the legitimacy of the church of the people in Macedonia, Samuil translated the relics of one of the attendees of the First Council of Nicaea – St. Achillius of Larissa to Prespa. Later, he moved the spiritual center to Ohrid where the Glagolitic tradition was preserved, one that did not take root in Bulgaria.

Samuil's State was also essentially different from the Byzantine and Bulgarian Empire because of the tolerant approach towards the Bogomil heresy. In that respect we can observe the outlines, to a certain extent, of what we call today the Macedonian model of cohabitation and respect for diversity.

These are the indisputable facts. There are many open issues that are still debated. Was Samuil crowned a tsar or a king? What was his ethnicity – Armenian, Macedonian-Brsjak or Bulgarian? Despite these dilemmas, one thing is for sure – the loyalty of the populace for the ruler does not rely excessively on his ethnic identity, but rather on his competence to meet the socioeconomic and cultural needs and interests of the population. The people of Macedonia accepted Samuil as their ruler. Not only is there no evidence of dissatisfaction among the people from Samuil's reign, but also a large army could be mobilized by him and his descendants up to the very last battles.

All of these facts point to the conclusion that Samuil's State was essentially different than the Bulgarian Empire. And yet, today, 1000 years later, science still debates over the Bulgarian character of Samuil's State. How did that happen?

First, the Byzantine writers use the term Macedonia only for the parts of Macedonia that are under Byzantine authority. They carefully distinguish between the terms Samuil's State and the Byzantine theme Macedonia in order to monopolize the name Macedonia for their needs only. We have an example for such monopolization even today. The modern Greek state insists on using the name Macedonia only for the administrative region within its borders. The bureaucrats in some international organizations erase the name Republic of Macedonia and the adjective Macedonian as zealously as the Byzantine chroniclers 1000 years ago.

Second, the official Byzantine historiography refuses to acknowledge and legitimize Samuil's State. In contrast to the First Bulgarian Empire that was recognized by Tsarigrad and the Bulgarian tsar was considered a spiritual son of the Byzantine Emperor, Samuil and his state were not. John Skylitzes calls the comitopuli's uprising a rebellion, and Samuil a tyrant. In such conditions of non-recognition and isolation, Samuil turned to Rome. Whether he received a crown from the Pope or not is beyond this debate, but the fact is that the great Byzantine offence in 1001 happened after the crowning of Samuil. We were faced with a similar challenge. The first attempts of independent Republic of Macedonia at international recognition resulted in an aggressive diplomatic offence by Greece that culminated with an illegal economic embargo and long-term blockade of our integration.

Third, Jonathan Shepard notices the difference between the asserted and the true goals of Basil. Although conquering Samuil's State was his publicly asserted goal, nevertheless his true goal was securing an internal cohesion of the Empire and control over the army and the ambitious generals. As long as Basil fought Samuil successfully, his rule was not brought into question. Annexing Samuil's State in 1018 deprived Basil of further excuses to control the army. Are we observing something similar nowadays, where the Greek politicians use the name issue of the Republic of Macedonia as a tool to mobilize the voters before every election?

Fourth and final, the writers convey the perceptions of the epochs they are writing in, the epochs they study and the epochs they write of. According to Stephenson, Basil II got the nickname "the Bulgar Slayer" 150 years after his death in order to justify the Byzantine conquests against the Second Bulgarian Empire. The nickname of Basil II became one of the key arguments about the Bulgarian character of Samuil's State and its people.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not trying to equate Samuil's State with the Republic of Macedonia, nor the Byzantine Empire with the modern Greek state. I am only mentioning these parallels because they reaffirm Hegel's conclusion - we learn from history that we do not learn from history. We could have made much wiser decisions if we carefully read history, especially the one of Samuil.

What does it all mean to us presently?

Since we are in Ohrid, I will use a practice associated with the patron saint of the city as a metaphor. St. Clement was well-known, among other things, for teaching the people how to graft fruit trees. As a result, even today, the Ohrid cherries are called klimentici. However, besides grafting fruit trees there is grafting of theories, histories and worldviews.

Someone else's branch is grafted onto the tree trunk of Samuil's State. That foreign branch represents the official Byzantine perceptions of the character of Samuil's State. Since then, instead of its own, the tree trunk produces foreign fruits. That is why many chroniclers and historians consumed the fruits of the scion for decades and centuries thinking they are the fruits from the original rootstock.

Things started to become even more complicated after the French Revolution when the ideas of a nation state penetrated the Balkans.

While the West developed the Westphalia model of a sovereign state separated from the church, the East kept the pre-Westphalia symphonic model. After the collapse of Byzantium and the Ottoman conquest, the patriarch's miter became substitute for the royal crown. The patriarch became the leader of the millet i.e. millet-başı, accountable to the Sultan for the peace and order among the believers.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the non-territorial millets became territorial devlets (TN: states), the dioceses of the local Balkan churches became the borders of the new Balkan states. The religious identities became national identities. The modern nation states started to emerge inside the shell of the pre-modern millet system.

Seduced by the virus of imperialism, the Balkan elites conceived projects of greater states in the Balkans. But, in order to colonize space, they had to colonize time. They started simplifying the pre-modern complex processes and interpret them through contemporary categories. They started perceiving events from distant past through the prism of contemporary nationalism. Or, as Czesław Miłosz says, "The later nationalism appears somewhere, the more fervent are its aspirations to tie itself to the age of tales." Therefore, Stojan Pribićević rightfully concludes that "the nationalist and cultural prejudices lead to presence of false facts, dubious theories and wrong assumptions in many Slavic and non-Slavic texts on Macedonia."

It is accurate that history is written by the victors. However, it is also accurate that the defeated create the legends which, even though they do not always stick to the facts, they still convey the gist of the events. In contrast to the modern person, raised in the spirit of rationalism and Cartesian skepticism, the prime focus of the pre-modern person is not the facts, but the essence. That is why it is said that knowledge comes, but wisdom ligers. That wisdom is acquired through the experience of numerous generations.

Samuil was defeated, his State was annexed, and the subsequent uprisings were quelled. But, the collective memory of the people retained the remembrance of that brief sparkle in the long Macedonian night. When the archbishop Theophylact arrived in Ohrid in the last decade of XI century, the Ohrid citizens welcomed him with victory songs celebrating the dissolved Samuil State to spite him.

Maybe that is the reason why Panko Brashnarov, fighter in the Ilinden Uprising, while opening the first session of ASNOM in 1944 will say with elation: "This act washes away the ten centuries long slavish shame from the Macedonian people, caused by the failure of Samuil's State and sees the birth of a new, bright and free Macedonian state."

That ASNOM Macedonia is a shoot that sprung from the same root as Samuil's State. This shoot provided the true fruit, one that has been long forgotten and repressed by the grafted foreign branches of propagandas and ideologies. The result of that labor, among others, is also an independent and sovereign Republic of Macedonia, where you, the historians, have full academic freedom to do research and write. That freedom enables you to question the engraved dogmas, which were treated as general knowledge by some of your colleagues from the neighborhood for decades, free of fear and with a critical eye.

However, these days, unfortunately, attempts to graft a foreign branch onto that shoot have been made. That foreign branch is the Prespa Agreement. Article 8, item 5 prescribes the formation of a "Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts on historic, archaeological and educational matter." Even though the committee should look into the objective scientific interpretation of historic events, nevertheless the supervision of its work by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs from both countries is symptomatic.

The writers of the Prespa Agreement, whoever they are, show fundamental ignorance of Balkan history or a troubling indifference toward the complex processes that create the Balkan identities. Sincerely, I do not know which of these two alternatives is worse. But, they take a step further by denying many universal values. Foremost, they deny the right to self-determination which states that only the nation has the right to decide its own fate, and that no one is authorized to forcibly intervene in its life, to destroy its schools and other institutions, to commit violence towards its customs and habits, to eradicate its language or to deny its rights. They deny the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and also the right to an opinion and expression guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Under the Prespa Agreement, your academic and educational work will be supervised by politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats who will zealously censor the textbooks that you write or use for teaching.

One of the reasons for the failure of Samuil's State was the duplicitous nature of its elites who shifted sides in favor of titles, insignias, stipends and prestige. We are observing something similar today.

Such conditions, unfortunately, always give rise to someone that will accept to write politically correct history in which portrayals are imposed tailored to the will of our southern neighbor. The fruits of that new graft will be dispensed to our children in the schools and our students at the universities.

The great diagnostician of the modern Greek society, Nikos Dimou, says that the Greeks have a need to mythologize themselves and demythologize the others. The Prespa Agreement aims to turn us into a footnote in someone else's version of history and by doing so to close the chapter on the self-determination of the Macedonian people and its sovereign and independent Republic of Macedonia.

Experience has shown that all of the problems in the Balkans arise when politicians start dealing with history, and historians with politics. One might say "Mr. President, your speech is also dedicated to history." However, I am not speaking of history. I am speaking of the principles and the values that are called into question due to the politicization of history, and I contribute with indisputable historical facts. My duty as President of Republic of Macedonia is to protect the benefits our ancestors fought for and achieved. Those benefits inevitably involve the truth about our past, as a basis for our present and future.

I am speaking not only as a President, but as a university colleague of yours. Let us not allow someone to politicize the science of history. Let us not allow someone to create a politically correct history. Let us not allow someone to limit the academic freedom and censor us.

Censorship is a child of fear and mother of ignorance because the fear from the truth gives birth to ignorance. Censorship is but a fear from deconstructing the national myths created at our own expense.

Millennium ago, Samuil's State was facing similar challenges as the modern Macedonian state – Republic of Macedonia. Those challenges are denial, non-recognition, attempts at blockade, isolation and being given an inaccurate name. Whether we preserve academic freedom or we leave a censored and falsified history to the future generations depends on us.

Thank you.