European Western Balkans

How Bulgarian bullying against North Macedonia threatens EU enlargement, again

Flag of North Macedonia; Photo: Unsplash

For months, Bulgaria has been putting pressure on North Macedonia behind the scenes to agree to far-reaching concessions so that Bulgaria wouldn’t veto accession talks with the EU. The Council of Ministers gave talks the green light in March of this year, but the formal beginning could be further delayed by Bulgarian objections. In recent weeks, the demands have become public. These are not just threatening to de-rail the EU accession process for North Macedonia, but they also throw EU values under the bus.

In varying public and diplomatic statements and memoranda, the Bulgarian government has demanded that Macedonian is not called as such in EU accession talks. The implication is that Bulgaria might object to Macedonian becoming an official language of the EU.

During past EU accession talks, it was always the choice of the future member to decide on the language to use and it is not up to other Member to either deny the existence of the language or to object to its name. Yes, Bulgarian and Macedonian are closely related, but there are distinct differences. It would be similar if Croatia would veto accession talks with Serbia and Montenegro, because both use languages similar to Croatian and trying to force them to accept Croatian as their official language.

Next to language, history is a major stumbling block evoked by the Bulgarian government. It claims that there is no Macedonian nation, but that it is “artificial”, created by Communist Yugoslavia. All nations are artificial, as nations are not the natural way in which humans have lived since time immemorial, but nations are modern and often recent. Some emerged more recent than others, but that does not make them more artificial. At the end, all nations are based on historical myths, including the Bulgarian nation.

The claim that the state should recognize the Bulgarian origin of the Macedonian nation and admit its Bulgarian roots, as Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva demanded a few days ago is grotesque. First, there is no clear evidence for such a claim. Bulgarian nationalist historians have argued this, but plenty of historians of the Balkans show that the Macedonian nation emerged in a Slavic population in the Ottoman province of Macedonia, many of whom had no clear national identity prior to seeing themselves as Macedonians. While there are close links between the two nations, seeking to impose such a view, simplifies historical complexity.

Second, these origins are immaterial, as they are reflections of an often complex historical genesis of a nation, but should not be subject to political horse-trading, but left to historians. In fact, the 2017 Friendship treaty between Bulgaria and North Macedonia set up a historians commission to investigate controversial historical events and figures. However, the Bulgarian side mostly sent nationalist historians into the commission and the Bulgarian government has pushed for quick results, rather than letting historians engage in careful and apolitical deliberation.

Bulgaria appears to have seen it mostly as an exercise for North Macedonia to reexamine its historical narrative, but not its own, including the controversial Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia and Southern Serbia during World War Two and the deportation of the Jewish population from the occupied lands to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka.

Finally, Bulgaria has asked North Macedonia to renounce the claim that there is a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, while at the same time demanding that Macedonian citizens who identify as Bulgarian should not be discriminated against. This is a classic example of having the cake and eating it too. Minorities cannot be negotiated away between states and should be a matter of self-identification. The Advisory Committee of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities has noted repeatedly that Bulgaria should recognize Macedonians as a national minority, last in its May 2020 opinion. Certainly, Bulgaria cannot deny its existence while also demanding the recognition of a Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia.

The threat of the Bulgarian government to veto the beginning of accession talks for North Macedonia is an ugly reminder of Greek objections over the country’s name that held back NATO membership and EU accession for 25 years and was resolved in the Prespa Agreement in 2018. What makes the objections of Bulgaria particularly problematic is that there is already a friendship agreement between the two that should have put an end to any open questions. In fact, Bulgarian objections have a lot to do with domestic posturing, such as playing the nationalist card in response to widespread protests against the government in recent months and the influence of the far-right nationalist United Patriots, the junior partner in the current government.

Whatever the domestic motivations for the Bulgarian claims, they risk creating irreparable damage. North Macedonia is the obvious victim. First, it was held back by Greek objections, once these were resolved, France vetoed the beginning of EU accession talks, mostly due to reservations about Albania until March this year. Once these were cleared by the Commission passing a new methodology for enlargement, now Bulgaria threatens to hold up the process.

After the painful and contested name change agreed with Greece, the tolerance for any further concessions due to the bullying by a neighbor is understandably low in North Macedonia. The risk is that a country that has undertaken more efforts than any other in recent years to shake off authoritarian rule, resolve open bilateral issues and pursue reforms, is penalized. It will put a damper on reformers’ efforts and the nationalist opposition will gleefully claim “We told you so.”

The damage is greater, as it will encourage further vetoes by member states and leave EU enlargement in even greater shambles than it already is. If Bulgaria gets away with it, other Western Balkan countries will be discouraged to try and other EU members might be encouraged to find some open bills to square with accession candidates.

Finally, the largest damage is for the EU itself. The union is based on the recognition of diversity and difference. Giving space for different identities is a crucial premise of the Union and it allows members to work together without imposing their view of the past, or their national identity, on each other. The EU is consensus based, which also means that no one state or nation can impose its historical narrative on others. This is very important especially in the Balkans, where countries and nations, in particular small ones, often felt they were subjects of the ambitions of bigger neighbors. European integration is about giving states and their citizens greater equality and a sense of security, rather than undermining them.

There is plenty of historical controversies among member states and it is good if there is space for historians to work together to find common ground. However, their job is not to find or “acknowledge” the truth as, the Bulgarian government demands. Instead, historians should be left to agree, and disagree, to acknowledge that the historical record is complicated.

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