KNOW THINE HISTORY

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Bulgaria's extreme nationalism, whose main perpetrators are now in government, sometimes assumes wacky proportions. In the past several months the political establishment of GERB, supported by the loose alliance of ultranationalists identifying themselves as "united patriots," has been ruthless in condemning and eradicating anything that might smack of "anti-Bulgarianness." Of course, no one but GERB's leaders and their nationalist pals can define what Bulgarianness means. It may range from wearing baggy 19th century peasant trousers and fur hats to more "refined" 21st century Bulgarian "virtues" such as being anti-cosmopolitan, anti-liberal and of course anti-gay.

History the way the nationalists understand and interpret it is a major part of this typically Balkan concoction, and the latest manifestation came when Prime Minister Boyko Borisov abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting with the former world chess champion, Anatoly Karpov, now a pro-Putin MP in Moscow. Karpov's misdemeanour? He said the alphabet used in Russia went to that country from… Byzantium.

Modern Bulgarians were unable to swallow what they considered to be a major historical slur against Bulgarianness because the Cyrillic alphabet was created within the borders of 10th century Bulgaria.

The Karpov incident has a background. Earlier, no one lesser than Putin himself made a public statement to the effect that the Cyrillic alphabet had reached the Russian lands from… Macedonia. In this way he instantly alienated himself even from his staunchest supporters in Bulgaria because no one here seriously thinks there is any such thing as a Macedonian nation or language, not to mention an alphabet.

So, next time you are planning to come to Bulgaria and especially if you have a scheduled appointment with the prime minister, think twice before answering any reporters' questions such as whose alphabet is this or do you think there ever was a "Turkish yoke."

To be prepared, just in case, know exactly what Byzantium means, what its relationship with the Roman Empire, on the one hand, and the Bulgars on the other was. Learn about Kliment of Ohrid and his disciples Naum and Angelariy. And of course be very sure that what in 2017 is known as the Republic of Macedonia is called the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia (or just Skopje) in Greece, and that it has nothing to do with Alexander the Great and his father Philip of Macedon, who lived in the 4th century BC, even though the Skopje airport proudly bears the name of Alexander. Confused? You may well be. But unless you know all that, you may be given a very rough ride.

Of course, the Karpov-Borisov incident may have a simpler explanation. Borisov, who considers himself to be a great sportsman and dabbles in anything from tennis to football, dislikes being beaten. In all likelihood he may have got cold feet that he might be defeated at the chess table by the former world champion, and to save face he just cancelled. But it is always good to have a "patriotic" motive for a cancellation.

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