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My Europe: Bulgaria vs North Macedonia — is there a way forward?

Raising the EU flag on Europe Day in North Macedonia

Raising the EU flag on Europe Day in North Macedonia

There is no rational explanation for the Bulgarian veto on the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia. The nationalists in the former government were simply out to boost their dwindling popularity. But why the enthusiastic consensus? Bulgarians seem to have expected the Macedonians, once "freed" from Serbian hegemony, to return to them — and were thus disappointed to discover their neighbors had developed a solid national identity of their own.

The Greeks' refusal to accept the newcomer's initial name may well have informed the Bulgarian national ego. But whereas Athens presented Skopje with clear conditions, Bulgaria's anger today seems vague and illogical. It sets a dangerous precedent that could well be used to stoke tensions between Serbs and Kosovars, Poles and Ukrainians and all other countries with divergent views on their shared history.

The hopes of North Macedonia that the EU might force Bulgaria to lift the veto are exaggerated: France favors a deepening of the Union over its enlargement, while extreme right parties are skeptical about admitting countries with substantial Muslim populations — like North Macedonia.

Whose version of history?

Finding of a solution to the deadlock implies a compromise that would allow both sides to claim victory. So what are the Bulgarians' demands? First, they want their Macedonian neighbors to admit their Bulgarian origins. In the process, the official formulation of a "common history" has suddenly been abandoned, with the Macedonians accused of stealing Bulgarian history.

The unfortunate conflation of historical fact and national identity means both sides assume that recognizing specific events from the past automatically makes you either Bulgarian or Macedonian. The new liberal leadership in Sofia has promised to enlarge the scope of negotiations. To date talks have revolved around the bilateral commission on history, which has the impossible task of establishing one truth about the past.

Prime Minister Petkov's plan now is to launch talks on transportation, business, culture, security — fields arguably more relevant to the enlargement process. Expert teams are expected to furnish their results by the end of the French presidency in July 2022. The commission of historians has no deadline and is supposed to continue working throughout the accession process.

Hate speech

One rather vague Bulgarian demand is the prevention of hate speech. Examples vary from offensive graffiti on the walls in Skopje to the desecration of Bulgarian WW2 soldiers' graves. The veto has unsurprisingly heightened feelings of negativity: a recent poll showed that over 50% of Macedonians see their eastern neighbor as a hostile country. The tendency of Bulgarians to refer to the neighboring nation and its language as "invented" only contributes to the mutual animosity.

If there is a problem with history, it is arguably linked to the pro-fascist regime in Bulgaria — complicit in Nazi crimes — and the early period of Yugoslav communism, when many Bulgarians in Yugoslav Macedonia were forcefully assimilated. For the moment, however, neither country is ready to assume their historical guilt and therefore prefers to point the finger.

In the minority

Sofia's third grievance is human rights. Discrimination of people who identify as Bulgarians in Macedonia may be a serious concern, nevertheless, substantial proof is lacking.

No cases have yet made it to the European Court of Human Rights; the examples cited are usually those of people with dual nationality, such as the mayor of Skopje or the singer at the Eurovision contest, despite the fact that neither was actually prevented from realizing their ambitions.

At the same time, PM Petkov has come under similar pressure for having dual — this time, Canadian — citizenship.

Nevertheless, the demands of Sofia are not unfounded. 120,000 citizens of North Macedonia have been granted Bulgarian citizenship: 12 times more than the Vlachs who enjoy minority status under the North Macedonian constitution.

And where are the 120,000? Everyone knows the answer: in western Europe. Bulgarian passports are often acquired by bribing Bulgarian officials and faking family documents.

Ethnicity highly political

So, what happens if, as predicted, only 3000 persons end up identifying as Bulgarians in North Macedonia's 2021 census, which is still being processed? Sofia has the answer: they will have been discriminated against and intimidated.

Inscribing the Bulgarian minority into the North Macedonia constitution before the "and others" may seem easy, but it would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Moreover, the Macedonian opposition is guaranteed to fight back. Things are uncertain on the Bulgarian side as well. Recognizing a Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia would imply that the remaining majority is not Bulgarian, thus putting paid to one nationalist dream. With nation and ethnicity tightly interwoven in the Balkans, the ethnic question remains highly political.

Ultimately the fragile political balance in Sofia could easily be upset by the prospect of new elections, the fourth in quick succession. The populist Slavi Triffonov, leader of one of the four ruling parties with responsibility for the Bulgarian foreign ministry, recently came up with the following absurd proposal: Bulgaria would lift its veto on condition of admission to the EU Schengen Area and the abolition by the USA of its visa requirement for Bulgarian nationals.

Since when has it been possible to blackmail someone by threatening to shoot yourself in the foot?

Ivaylo Ditchev is professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria. He has been a guest lecturer in countries such as Germany, France and the United States.

Edited by Rüdiger Rossig and Lucy James