In the eyes of the current Bulgarian political elites, North Macedonia does not deserve to be a European Union member state until it agrees that the language its people speak is not Macedonian – a south Slavic language in its own right – but is in fact derived from Bulgarian.
Bulgaria, an EU member state since 2007, is holding North Macedonia’s future in the union hostage regardless of how an entire neighbouring nation feels about it.
This standoff between the two has revealed a fatal flaw in the EU membership process.
Each step along the accession path requires full consensus by all 27 member states, and Bulgaria is using the most significant power given to member states – that of vetoing a candidate’s accession – by sticking to its 2020 veto on North Macedonia’s launch of membership talks with the union.
This, despite all other countries agreeing that the two-million-strong Balkan nation is more than ready.
Bulgaria questioning the country’s right to shape its own identity and history has only created bitterness in one of the most pro-European countries on the continent, says Nikola Dimitrov, deputy Prime Minister of North Macedonia and the main EU negotiator for the country.
“Is questioning the Macedonian language in line with what Europe stands for? Isn’t Europe supposed to be a continent where linguistic and cultural diversity is cherished and where all nations are treated with dignity and respect?” he told Euronews.
“Isn’t the question of who you are and what language you speak a question for the people concerned and only for the people concerned?”
North Macedonia has already jumped significant hurdles to show its commitment to join the union. Having achieved full statehood in 1991 only after the breakup of Yugoslavia, it arrived late to the nation-building party and first had to deal with its southern neighbour Greece also vetoing its use of the name “Macedonia” for the country – claiming they had a region by the same name.
Resolving the name dispute took 11 years. North Macedonia was deemed a regional frontrunner after its 2004 application for EU membership, but it had to find a solution to the Greek veto it was subject to since 2008.
In 2018, what was then called the Republic of Macedonia agreed to go as far as to change its name to North Macedonia to overcome a veto from Athens that hampered the country’s EU and NATO accession and signed the Prespa Agreement with Greece to much praise.
“We lost generations in the waiting room of the EU,” Dimitrov explained.
“We started our European journey after Slovenia and before Croatia. Both have become member states years ago, and we still struggle to open the accession talks.
"And just when we finally resolve the issue with the Prespa Agreement, embraced with major international praise and promises of EU accession talks, another mountain appears,” he said.
Even after the latest disappointment, his government does not plan on giving up on EU aspirations and will continue to actively seek out a solution, Dimitrov told Euronews. But the veto is seen as damaging, both to neighbourly relations as well as the union’s credibility.
“If there is political will and leadership on the side of Bulgaria, I think we can find a European solution that would be good for Macedonian-Bulgarian friendship, for the European promise to the region, and for North Macedonia. But there is an “if”, because we already did our best,” he continues.
“And frankly, if my mother tongue, the Macedonian language, is the reason we can’t move closer to the EU, so be it. Then the EU is not really what we thought it was – a community of values,” Dimitrov said.
The EU dangled the prospect of accession in front of Albania and North Macedonia – whose accession process has been coupled – for years before deciding to launch talks in March 2020, with all 27 member states in agreement and without any preconditions.
Then, Bulgaria had a change of heart.
Bulgaria sent a memo to the other members, demanding the EU acknowledge Macedonian as “a written regional norm of the Bulgarian language.” It also issued a veto on the opening of the talks so that everyone knew it was taking this seriously.
The most recent veto came earlier this summer, during the EU summit in Brussels in June.
While Deputy Foreign Minister Rumen Alexandrov tried to be diplomatic in a statement at the EU General Affairs Council meeting on June 22, highlighting that Bulgaria is “open for a constructive dialogue… to find mutually acceptable solutions,” others were blunter.
“We cannot say 'Yes' before being convinced that our neighbour won't be building its identity by stealing from Bulgaria's history," Bulgarian president Rumen Radev said at the EU Council summit only a couple of days later, vowing to keep the door to North Macedonia’s EU accession firmly shut.
Timing, too, is not on the Macedonian side. Bulgarian politicians are currently embroiled in a political deadlock following the July elections, a shakeup that has left the country without a clear frontrunner. This is also cited as one of the reasons for not lifting the veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks in June.
However, the yet-to-be-formed government in Bulgaria is unlikely to lift the veto or change the country’s stance on the Macedonian language regardless of its internal political upheaval.
Bulgaria held two elections in the span of three months, its second being in July 2021. The results echo those from April, with the same six parties and coalitions crossing the mandatory electoral threshold.
With any of the six being possible contenders for a government coalition – but almost none seeing eye to eye – Bulgaria will most likely end up being left with a hung parliament.
In the July snap election, the populist conservative coalition led by former PM Boyko Borissov’s GERB party came in second. The proclaimed anti-elite “Ima takăv narod” (There Is Such a People) party headed by TV host and musician Slavi Trifonov just came out on top with 24.08 per cent of the vote.
Despite the victory, Trifonov’s party is expected to struggle with forming a government. Other parties that crossed the threshold, such as Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Get Out! have already proclaimed they would not join any government coalitions lead by There Is Such a People.
The 2020 veto against North Macedonia was seen by many as a calculated move by former PM Borissov to appease his nationalist coalition partners – an increasingly successful election ploy in Central and Eastern Europe – ahead of the 2021 elections.
The move did not pay off. Neither Borissov nor the far-right nationalists platforming on it, such as Krasimir Karakachanov, whose party IMRO did not cross the parliamentary threshold, achieved the electoral success they expected in both of this year’s elections.
Karakachanov, a vocal Bulgarian nationalist, went as far as to threaten with sending a military regiment to North Macedonia to remove all the plaques bearing reference to the Bulgarian fascist occupation during the Second World War.
However, his inflammatory nationalistic messages fell flat.
A Bulgarian problem becomes an EU problem
Dimitar Bechev believes this is because the Macedonian language issue is not as polarising in Bulgaria as its political leaders believe.
Bechev, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, thinks that for the populists to attract attention enough to win, there would have to be an opposing voice on the political scene to fight against.
But nobody opposes the prevailing belief that Macedonians, in fact, speak Bulgarian.
“It’s a niche subject,” Bechev said. “As a result, you have a consensus, and also because it’s such a boutique issue, you have the most radical voices dominating the debate simply because there is no critical voice.”
This also means that Bulgaria is in no rush to find a solution. “If everybody agrees on it, it’s kind of on the backburner. And it’s bad for the Macedonians because it means that there is no sense of urgency to resolve it now,” he said.
What Bechev is saying is that an issue that holds one country hostage doesn’t really ignite people in the other country. Except that an entire country’s, in this case, North Macedonia’s, future depends on the reception of this topic in Bulgaria.
According to Bechev, with Borissov most likely out of power, little is known about who will now own the issue in Sofia. In addition to creating the issue, Borissov positioned himself as the key to its solution and most likely planned a way out for North Macedonia, explains Bechev.
Borissov is a political actor many in the EU fail to understand. The burly politician became a mainstay of politics in the country by both causing and solving most of its crises.
Bechev posits that Borissov likely envisioned a scenario to resolve the North Macedonia issue that he bolstered – especially considering his relatively good relationship with the government in Skopje in the past – but any promises made to the Macedonian government before are now on life support.
“Borissov has a track record of Borissov making promises to people and then throwing them under the bus. Which is what he did to [Macedonian PM Zoran] Zaev,” he stated.
With his party failing to form a government after the April elections and now falling to second place, Borissov’s return to power is almost impossible. He is seen as too toxic even by his own party members, who would rather have someone else take over the reins.
“Even if he’s back he won’t care that much [about the North Macedonia issue], because his survival is at stake. Simply, there’s nobody on the Bulgarian side who is willing to take any risks. So we are kind of captive to this issue,” Bechev said.
Zaev caused a stir in North Macedonia when, in an interview for the Bulgarian news agency BGNES last November, he suggested that Bulgaria was not an occupying force during the Second World War.
Zaev, known as a political appeaser, made a costly domestic gamble -- seemingly for nothing, according to Bechev. Zaev is still viewed in a negative light in Bulgaria.
“He went on a limb to accommodate Sofia. And frankly, you don’t get anything better than Zaev. And now he’s maligned as some sort of an anti-Bulgarian politician. It’s frustrating, that he of all people gets the heat,” Bechev said.
A chequered history
In its essence, this dispute stems from the consequences of World War II, when North Macedonia and Bulgaria were placed on opposing sides.
During the interwar period, the area of today’s North Macedonia was a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was named the Vardar Banovina, an administrative unit equivalent to a province. In the vein of modern developments, the very name Macedonia was prohibited.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia surrendered to Axis powers in 1941, and Bulgaria was given most of North Macedonia by the Nazis, as well as parts of Southern Serbia and Northern Greece, to administer.
Axis powers delivered on the unfulfilled ethno-nationalist desires of its allies on the continent, and thus entertained long-standing Bulgarian nationalist aspirations to control today’s North Macedonia.
After its liberation in 1944, the Socialist Republic of Macedonia became one of the six republics of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia led by Josip Broz Tito.
Unlike Yugoslavia, after the Second World War, Bulgaria became a part of the Stalin led communist bloc and remained a loyal ally to the Soviet Union until the fall of top functionary Todor Zhivkov in 1989 and the first multiparty elections in the following year.
Bulgaria and North Macedonia within Yugoslavia were at loggerheads starting in 1948 when one side embraced a liberal form of socialism under Tito and the other championed hardline communism under the Warsaw Pact.
Democratization saw them become friendly again. Bulgaria was the first country to recognize what was then known as the Republic of Macedonia when it declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
The Yugoslav-era dispute is now being used as an argument by the Bulgarian side, claiming that the Macedonian identity and the codification of the language in 1944 was a way for Yugoslavia and Tito to minimize Bulgarian cultural importance.
“The Yugoslavia argument is a way to rationalise what happened. Because it’s difficult from a nationalist position to understand that people who had this connection a few generations ago suddenly developed a separate national identity,” Bechev adds.
“It’s a human reflex, to blame it on external forces like conspiracies and not to look at the complexities of the process. ‘Somebody else’s fault’ is a political machination,” he said.
North Macedonia signed the Good-Neighbourly Relations treaty with Bulgaria in 2017 which included setting up a joint historical commission. The goal of the commission - the likes of which exist elsewhere in Europe and the world - is to resolve issues pertaining to important historical figures or textbook references that could potentially cause negative perceptions or stereotypes about others.
Macedonian historian Petar Todorov, a member of the commission, says that the work of the commission has since been stalled due to a difference in approach.
“Our principle from the start was to come up with suggestions for the two governments that reflect what is important for both societies,” Todorov said.
“Unfortunately, the other side has an approach that emphasizes only what is important to the Bulgarian perspective and the Bulgarian society alone. We can’t accept that solution because it wouldn’t represent a joint space, rather creating another problem in the two countries’ relations.”
“Bulgaria is sensitive to being represented as a fascist occupier in the Second World War,” he said. “I believe it’s an internal problem of the Bulgarian society, and they should openly and self-critically discuss Bulgaria’s collaboration with fascists in the Second World War.”
“But the essence of reconciliation, whether between countries or within the same society can only come from a critical re-examination of the past. And if you try to hide it, to forget it, then the process is doomed to fail,” Todorov points out.
But this is also a broader issue on the continent, according to him. “After the end of communism in Europe, an anti-communist movement appeared that is very critical of socialism,” Todorov said.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, former communist countries seeking acceptance from Western nations were quick to place fascism and communism on identical footing – touting them as parallel totalitarianisms – which planted the seeds for historical revisionism ranging from a rehabilitation of Nazism to communist crimes being minimized.
The European Parliament issued a resolution in 2009 condemning “all totalitarian regimes of the past century.” This bundled communism together with Nazism and fascism as having “a shared legacy.”
“I think this encouraged the far-right movements to settle scores with socialism, while relativizing all of the crimes committed in the Second World War,” Todorov explains.
Charged narratives involving a country’s fascist or communist past – or both – have transformed processes such as EU integration which were usually purely bureaucratic in the past.
This goes against the very role of politicians. “It’s their responsibility to create conditions for our work, in the sense that the politicians are not the ones interpreting history, and determining what is true and what is false,” Todorov concludes.
Journalist and analyst Sasho Ordanoski believes that, although the Bulgarian veto echoes political stances from the Zhivkov period, it also unearths the geopolitical tit-for-tat that North Macedonia’s EU integration has turned into.
“The competition between Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia about who will rule over North Macedonia is a competition for the ‘Heart of the Balkans,’” he said.
“And it’s not the first time this kind of energy has been generated, because whoever rules North Macedonia can freely claim they dominate the Balkans.”
Greece did not question the Macedonian identity past the country’s name, as the Prespa Agreement itself proves. In the agreement, the language is called Macedonian: “It’s an international document sponsored by the United Nations which leaves no doubts as to a nation’s identity and its language. The agreement, which was also lauded internationally, cemented both,” explains Ordanoski.
Ironically, as a southern Slavic nation, Macedonians felt less ostracised by Bulgaria. Greece was the hurdle they were expecting.
“Although our relations with Bulgaria were never developed, there was no negative energy. After the last months of a very fierce Bulgarian offensive, where all sorts of things were said, the public in North Macedonia has been scandalised and confused,” he said.
“Many are saying that we should give up and so what if we do. If we enter the EU, we enter it, if we don’t, well, then this should not be the price of our entry. And it’s a shame that the Bulgarians got themselves into a situation where a generation of Macedonians are reacting negatively,” said Ordanoski.
It’s not just the Bulgarian image that is suffering. The very idea of the European Union is in question, Ordanoski believes.
“It’s clear that this dispute is the result of many unanswered questions that have been bothering Europe for hundreds of years now. The EU was supposed to be the recipe and the solution for resolving disputes once and for all, with everyone becoming part of a large family without borders where we will exchange our experiences and cultures,” he said.
“It’s a shame that this recipe – the only one that could work because everything else is worse – has been proven impossible to implement by the Europeans themselves.”
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