Zaev and Borisov; Photo: Government of Macedonia

Sofia and Skopje are still struggling to find a common ground, while the pressure from the experts from both countries, as well as the EU, is rising.

On Monday, official Berlin summoned the ministers of foreign affairs of Bulgaria and North Macedonia to discuss the dispute and to try to reach an agreement. After five hours-long meeting, both sides are still far away from overcoming the challenge. Germany, which is currently holding the presidency of the Council of the EU, is hoping that the first intergovernmental conference will be held in December.

As the MFA of Bulgaria Ekaterina Zaharieva announced – Sofia is still standing its ground. The upcoming summit of the leaders of the EU and the Western Balkans in Sofia, which is scheduled for 10 November, could be the opportunity to resolve the issue.

However, several issues create one highly complex situation from which it seems there is no way out.

The first issue would be the current position of Bulgaria and their upper hand with the presidency of the Berlin Process, as well as the willingness to veto the opening of the accession negotiations with Skopje.

The other issue would be the relatively recent name change of North Macedonia that came as a result of the dispute with Greece and the lack of tolerance of Macedonians towards any notion that would further endanger their sense of nation.

This, combined with the pressure that is coming from the experts and the EU to resolve the issue ahead of the intergovernmental conference in order not to discourage other Western Balkan countries and further complicate and incite other regional disputes, creates a headache, not only for the leaders of both Sofia and Skopje but also for the EU and the Western Balkans, as well.

How it all started – The snowballing effect of Goce Delcev

In 2017, Bulgaria and North Macedonia signed the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness, and Cooperation that was praised by the EU as a “strong example for others in the region to strengthen good neighbourly relations”.

The treaty envisioned the establishment of the Joint Historical Commission that would clear up their disputes over history, language and identity. The problem arose when the commission started contesting Goce Delcev’s ethnicity – with each side laying a claim over the origin of the revolutionary leader.

From the state where Bulgaria was the first country to recognise the independence of North Macedonia, to the state where it is threatening to veto the start of the accession negotiations of North Macedonia with the EU, the good neighbourly relations seem to have deteriorated quickly.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje says that currently, it is difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

She explains that North Macedonia already made difficult concessions for the sake of opening up its EU integration path, and that additional burdening of the accession process with historical issues would have “a detrimental effect on the transformative role of the European accession process”.

“The risk is that the Macedonian accession process would be completely diverted off its rails and would become permanently burdened with historical issues,” emphasises Kacarska.

She notes that one way to move the issue forward would be to “modernise” the ongoing work of the joint historical commission. The one way to do that, as she explains, would be by opening the commission up to international expertise and transforming it into a forum for the exchange of ideas supporting a broader historical debate.

“In addition, both countries would need to strengthen efforts to implement the forward-looking dimensions of the agreement that should facilitate economic cooperation and people to people contacts as originally foreseen with the 2017 Agreement,” she states.

However, she raises a concern regarding the potential veto to the accession negotiations.

“Bulgaria would narrow down the space for discussing ideas to move things forward, and the likely effect would be the opposite,” states Kacarska.

Professor of Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz and the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), Florian Bieber, explains that history is a major stumbling block evoked by the Bulgarian government.

He points out that the claim that the state should recognize the Bulgarian origin of the Macedonian nation and admit its Bulgarian roots is “grotesque”, as there is no clear evidence for such a claim. He further explains that these origins are immaterial, “as they are reflections of an often complex historical genesis of a nation”.

In addition to this, Bieber notes that 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,” he emphasises.

Bieber says that this could create “irreparable damage” and that North Macedonia is the obvious victim.

“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,” Bieber explains, adding that the EU could suffer the largest damage, as it is the union is based on the recognition of diversity and difference.

Experts call for cooperation and free academic and social discussions

The potential delay of the opening of the negotiations with North Macedonia and further deterioration of the relations between two countries compelled the scholars from Bulgaria and North Macedonia to write an open letter to the representatives their governments.

The signatories of the letter expressed their fear that focusing on the past contains huge risks when it comes to the negotiation process.

“The problem lies in the fact that the entire current dispute around historical questions ensues from anachronistic and very narrow-minded understandings of the notion of national identity, as being something eternal and unchangeable, and that treats national history as something sacred,” the signatories explained.

They went further in pointing out the issues of the composition of the Joint Historical Commission and noted that the representatives of the two national historiographies will defend and try to impose the interpretations of their own respective countries. In addition to this, the signatories pointed out that the contemporary humanities and social sciences consider all nations to be “be constructed and ‘artificial’”.

They also believe that one of the problems lies in seeking unanimity about a single historical truth through negotiations between two states.

“We live in pluralist societies and work in academic environments that accept the pluralism of interpretations (including the interpretation of the past) as something normal,” they pointed out, adding that a spirit of cooperation would suffice for creating an atmosphere more open to dialogue.

“The work of the Commission, thus far, has demonstrated that it is possible to reach agreement even about the most difficult questions concerning our two countries, but this is a long process and it is not advisable to impose unrealistically short deadlines,” reads the letter.

North Macedonia and Greece – Story with a happy ending

Sofia and Athens signed the Prespa Agreement in 2018, which paved the way for North Macedonia’s NATO accession. However, the price of resolving the almost three-decade-long dispute was the name change. Although dispute seemed unsolvable at a times, strong political will on both sides was able to find a common ground.

Nikolaos Tzifakis, Professor of the University of the Peloponnese and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), believes that the Bulgarian position towards North Macedonia is incomprehensive and that Sofia has chosen “the most unfortunate moment to escalate its struggle against Skopje for no obvious reason”.

The professor explains that alike Greece, Bulgaria has long ago registered its reservation about the existence of Macedonian national identity and a corresponding language, but, contrary to Greece, Bulgaria has carefully avoided securitizing the dispute.

“We should recall here that when the Prespa Agreement was signed, Boyko Borissov, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, congratulated the leaderships of Greece and North Macedonia for having taken an ‘important and brave step’ and remarked that the agreement opened the way to North Macedonia’s accession into the Euro-Atlantic institutions,” says the professor.

Tzifakis explains that Sofia’s position damages the credibility of the EU enlargement policy that should be marked by its predictability and transparency of criteria and requirements.

“I do hope that Bulgaria will revert to its previous policy of defending its position on that matter without, however, elevating the issue to the realm of high politics,” Tzifakis points out.

When speaking about the Athens-Skopje relations, he notes that the leaderships of both countries are fully committed to the implementation of the Prespa Agreement, adding that they demonstrated the eagerness to build a strategic partnership.

“The two sides should take advantage of this positive environment to register progress on all pending issues that include the question of commercial names, trademarks and brand names, as well as the Expert Committee work on historical, archaeological and educational matters,” explains Tzifakis.

Bieber points out that after the painful and contested name change agreed with Greece, the tolerance for any further concessions due to the bullying by a neighbour 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’,” concludes Bieber in his opinion piece.

All eyes are now on the forthcoming summit in Sofia, as the EU hopes that Sofia and Skopje will be able to find a solution and move from a standstill.