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Bulgaria-North Macedonia rapprochement: Can economy trump history?

Dimitar Kovachevski and Kiril Petkov; Photo: Government of North Macedonia

While he was still campaigning for November 2021 parliamentary election, the new Prime Minister of Bulgaria Kiril Petkov outlined his vision for overcoming the disputes with North Macedonia. Historians, he said, were not enough and the businessmen should also be included in the discussions.

It did not take long for Petkov to visit Skopje, which he did on 18 January, only two days following the inauguration of the Government of Dimitar Kovačevski, successor to Zoran Zaev. This was followed a week later by the joint session of the two Governments in Sofia, where new working groups were established.

Businessmen-turned-politicians Petkov and Kovačevski certainly find it easier to discuss the economy than identity issues, and there is hope that this approach would bear fruit. However, controversies over common history and the status of minorities have already been re-opened, showing how fragile mutual relations still are.

Economy and infrastructure are the areas which the Prime Ministers quickly agreed would be the steppingstone for relaxation of mutual relations. Following their meeting on 25 January in Sofia, they committed to a “new level of enthusiasm” and clear criteria for future cooperation.

“If we agreed, for example, that there will be an airline between Skopje and Sofia, the criterium is… to have commercial flights from 1 March. The same goes for other areas. For example, in infrastructure, criterium for the success is to build 13 kilometers of the highway to the border crossing Klepalo and to have it opened”, Kovačevski said.

The working group on the economy held a meeting on 1 February, deciding to set up a mechanism for transparency of investments between the two countries. Other bodies were also set up, including the working groups on European integration, and science and culture. According to Kovachevski, every week a different one will meet.

The Joint Commission on Historical and Educational Issues is also set to meet three times in the next four months, Petkov announced in January. The Commission, set up in accordance with the Bulgaria-North Macedonia Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation 2017 and made up of historians, is tasked with reaching a joint position on the common history of Bulgarians and Macedonians, but its work has proven to be challenging, especially when it comes to the period of 19th and early 20th centuries.

An unpredictable timeline

While constructiveness was the order of the day during the two official meetings in January, the fact remains that the Bulgarian veto represents a problem not only for North Macedonia but also Albania and the credibility of the enlargement process. The new initiatives, therefore, will hardly be judged only on their merits; they will be expected to unblock the EU accession process as soon as possible.

It is hard to predict when this might happen, cautions Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute from Skopje, for our portal.

“The work on the economy, infrastructure, and all other areas is highly significant to foster and improve the relations between the Macedonian and Bulgarian public, which deteriorated significantly in the last two years especially. In this sense, the joint work between Bulgaria and North Macedonia on these ‘new’ topics could contribute to the easing of tensions, but it is hard to see it as decisive with respect to the lifting of the veto itself. In this sense, I would be cautious in forecasting progress as to the start of the accession negotiations”, Kacarska says.

Asya Metodieva, Researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says that the new approach can benefit both Sofia and Skopje by removing obstacles to practical cooperation and a new sense of togetherness. Nonetheless, she adds, this strategy is unlikely to have immediate effects on the questions related to history.

“The scenario of reaching a temporary compromise may witness resistance from various voices on both sides. Bulgaria’s PM Kiril Petkov is already facing opposition at home from President Rumen Radev and members of the governing coalition”, Metodieva says.

Situation remains fragile

On 28 January, President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski received representatives of an organisation called “OMO-Ilinden”. For Skopje, this organisation aims to protect the rights of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, but for Sofia, it is considered separatist and anti-constitutional. Pendarovski was criticised by the Foreign Ministry of Bulgaria.

“Days after a successful joint meeting of the two countries’ governments, public tensions are mounting again as a result of the actions of the President of North Macedonia, which represent an attempt to revive topics that are in conflict with the 2017 Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation. Such actions do not contribute to finding solutions to political issues in view of stepping up North Macedonia’s European integration”, the Ministry stated.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev also used the opportunity to criticise Prime Minister Petkov’s, as he assessed, premature visit to North Macedonia. It is unknown to what extent Radev and Petkov, who were considered to be close politically, will allow the issue of North Macedonia to cause a rift between them.

Several days later, on 4 February, two governments jointly marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of a revolutionary Gotse Delchev, regarded and claimed as a national hero by both countries. However, not everybody was keen on this “joint” view of Delchev’s historical role.

On the day of the anniversary, opposition GERB in Bulgaria released a declaration describing Gotse Delchev as “a big political leader, revolutionary and fighter for the freedom of Bulgarians in Edirne Thrace” and stressing that “a society that falsifies history is not and cannot be part of the European family of shared values”.

In North Macedonia, opposition VMRO-DPMNE put forward a joint declaration by all parties on 3 February, proposing the organization of appropriate events and projects honoring “this important person from Macedonian history”. The ruling SDSM did not support the declaration.

Against this backdrop, it seems that numerous challenges still lie ahead for the Joint Commission for Historical Issues. In fact, the Macedonian co-chair of the historical commission, Professor Dragi Georgiev, told  Macedonian TV Telma that there was nothing wrong with freezing the Commission’s work.

“If there really is a desire to achieve some progress between North Macedonia and Bulgaria at all levels, this decision would not be so scary, because we have been in historical conflict with Bulgaria for 70 years”, he said.

The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry immediately rejected Georgiev’s suggestion. According to the official position, the activity of the historical commission is among the essential elements of the implementation of the Good Neighbourhood Agreement from 2017.

“Fast, but not a hasty solution”

“At this stage is not realistic to think of achieving a common narrative, and it should not be the goal”, Asya Metodieva says for European Western Balkans.

According to her, if Sofia and Skopje formally agree that they disagree on certain issues, and allow for two narratives to co-exist, this will possibly open more space for focusing on commonalities in the process of historical normalization.

“Political leaders on both sides have the responsibility to intensify, ritualize, and institutionalize such commonalities if we want to see Bulgaria lifting its veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks. The new dynamics between Sofia and Skopje show a political will to acknowledge the grievances of the other side. However, it is likely that the issues arising from the past will persist in burdening the relations between the two countries even if in an optimistic scenario the Bulgarian veto is lifted within this year”, Metodieva concludes.

The position of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia is also a point of contention, with Sofia expecting the minority to be recognized in the Constitution, which currently only mentions “Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Romanies, and other nationalities” in its preamble.

According to Dimitar Bechev, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and BiEPAG member, this issue could do the trick when it comes to the lifting of the veto.

“I think there is a chance the veto will be lifted – if North Macedonia amends the constitution to acknowledge Bulgarians as a community on its soil. That will allow Petkov to sell the u-turn domestically”, Bechev assesses.

This, however, would require two-thirds of the MPs and cooperation between the ruling coalition and the opposition VMRO-DPMNE – which is currently a pretty tall order.

According to Prime Minister Kovačevski, a framework agreement needs to be reached in a spirit of European values, mutual respect between the two countries, and maintenance of the dignity of citizens of both countries.

“We need a fast solution since we deserved the opening of negotiations with the EU, but we do not need a hasty solution”, Kovačevski stated over the weekend for MIA news agency, adding that he would not speculate on the dates.

Whatever the solution ends up looking like, it is almost certain that, with the current pace, it will not be hasty.

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