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Bulgaria–North Macedonia: The process of rapprochement has a long way to go

Bilateral relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia are at a critical juncture. Since October 2019 and the adoption of the so-called Framework Position on North Macedonia’s and Albania’s EU accession process by the Bulgarian parliament, relations between the two countries have entered a new phase of worsening relations (despite Zoran Zaev’s brave face and strenuous efforts). As it is well known, Bulgaria has raised a number of preconditions in order to agree on the start of North Macedonia’s accession process that, among others, touch upon fundamental aspects of Macedonian identity (such as history and language), that have put Zaev’s government in an extremely difficult position, as ethnic Macedonians overwhelmingly perceive them as an unacceptable challenge to their identity and thus see discussions with Sofia on those issues as in effect “legitimizing” Bulgaria’s challenge.

It is hard to see how the impasse in bilateral relations, and by extension in North Macedonia’s EU accession process, could be overcome. In Sofia, following the elections on 11 July, the political parties are involved in intense negotiations concerning the formation of the new government. Bilateral relations with North Macedonia do not figure in the agenda of the political parties; they were also absent during the pre-election period, as well as before the 4 April elections earlier this year. It appears that no Bulgarian political party is challenging the position adopted in full unanimity in October 2019, as there is a solid consensus among the political class and the public at large on the position vis-à-vis North Macedonia. A rare in fact consensus for post-Communist Bulgaria. Even the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the political party representing the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria has gone along with a policy, that many abroad describe as “old fashioned nationalism”. The large majority of Bulgarians feel that the EU accession process provides a “golden opportunity” to establish the “historical truth” by addressing issues that relate to what they see as the process of “enforced de-Bulgarization” of present North Macedonia, that took place after 1912, and in particular “under the aegis” of the first (1918-1941) and second Yugoslavia (1944-1991).

The issues involved are highly charged and hard to comprehend for any “uninitiated” in regional historiographies, particularly for any third party. A situation that underlines, among others, the considerable gap dividing the two sides, despite their geographic and linguistic proximity. The truth is that following the disintegration of the SFR of Yugoslavia and the declaration of independence of North Macedonia in September 1991, relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia have advanced slowly in almost all areas, and despite the fact that Bulgaria was the first country that recognized North Macedonia’s independence. The so-called “language difference”, that was not allowing the ratification of agreements signed during the 1990s, was addressed just in 1999, while it has resurfaced since 2019… The next important step in bilateral relations took place almost 18 years later with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Cooperation in August 2017. Economic and trade relations have advanced slowly during the last thirty years. While even more slow is any improvement concerning the poor infrastructural ties connecting the two countries. Anyone driving the main road connecting Sofia to Skopje can attest to that; even the Bulgarian part of the road needs major renovation (something that Sofia conveniently forgets, reproaching the other side for not doing enough). While relations between the political, economic and cultural elites of the two countries that could have been the driving force of any substantial post-1991 rapprochement remain, with exceptions, poor.

North Macedonia’s EU accession process gives an opportunity for the two countries to come closer together; and North Macedonia’s eventual access will undoubtedly accelerate that process. And this is ultimately in Bulgaria’s national interest. It is however difficult to understand how anyone can realistically expect any agreement providing answers to thorny historical issues within the “time-frame” of the whole EU accession process. Sofia and Skopje have still a long way to go; bilateral agreements and treaties are necessary steps, but it’s only a part, quite often the beginning of a long and arduous process that needs constant political support to produce results. It is important however for the two sides to continue their efforts to find some kind of formula that will allow for the beginning of North Macedonia’s accession process, strengthening the pro-European forces in the country. North Macedonia’s political stability is adversely affected by the delay, as are inter-ethnic relations in the country. While the whole region will benefit by a way out of the current impasse in Sofia-Skopje relations.

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