The issue of Macedonian national identity has returned to the international forum. Bulgaria’s position may complicate the process of integration of North Macedonia with the European Union and currently threatens to escalate another regional controversy based on their history. The aggravation of the returning historical conflict may also lead to a decline of political support for the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the victory of the largest opposition party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
History dispute. During the summit of the European Union – Western Balkans (see “IEŚ Commentaries”, no. 185) on 6 May, 2020, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov drew attention to the dispute between the two countries regarding the historical and cultural heritage. He confirmed the Bulgarian support for the European integration of North Macedonia, but he also pointed out that the Skopje authorities should adjust to the Treaty of Friendship between Macedonia and Bulgaria of August 2017. Borisov suggested that Sofia may block the accession negotiations of North Macedonia. Such statements addressing Macedonians were a call to work out an agreement between the two countries on the interpretation of the history that divides them. This means that after a very short period of time, the Macedonian issue returns to the bargaining table.
The Bulgarian side recognizes the Macedonian nation as a purely political concept, which is culturally part of the Bulgarian circle. According to the Bulgarian interpretation, due to political events in the 1940s, Josip Broz Tito successfully created a separate Macedonian nation. The official position of modern Bulgaria has never undermined the political and, therefore, national separateness of Macedonians. However, Sofia claims that the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and, generally, historical roots of the Macedonian people remain Bulgarian. In other words, the genuine, though artificial Macedonian nationality, actually derives from Bulgarian heritage. The Macedonian position is different. Adopted by earlier governments and supported, in particular, by the opposition, namely, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), assumes the separation of the Macedonian ethnicity and culture from its Bulgarian equivalent. According to this logic, the Macedonian ethnos existed in these lands before its Bulgarian counterpart. Some of the leaders of the Macedonian left associated with the presidential camp speak openly about the Bulgarian roots of the Macedonian people, emphasising, however, the cultural or linguistic separateness of Macedonians.
The Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation, which was signed on August 1, 2017, and entered into force on February 14, 2018, was a step towards the normalisation of relations enabling the growth of economic and cultural exchange or political dialogue between leaders of states. It was designed as a tool to help Bulgaria find an ally in the Western Balkans and North Macedonia to see an ally in the European Union. Along with the Treaty, the Bulgarian side prepared a list of demands on Skopje, on which it made its support for Macedonian membership aspirations in the EU conditional. First of all, Bulgaria insisted that the Macedonian authorities give up all claims regarding the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, remove the term “Bulgarian fascist occupier” from all World War II memorial sites, and begin the lustration process against former informers of the secret police in Yugoslavia, who allegedly harmed Bulgarians in post-war Macedonia. Bulgaria also suggested that the Macedonian side avoid using the term ‘Macedonian language’ during the accession talks, and instead use the term ‘official language of the Republic of Northern Macedonia’, thereby confirming its claim that Macedonian is only a Bulgarian dialect. Apart from the issue of language, the most disputes aroused by the character of the Internal Revolutionary Macedonian Organisation operating at the turn of the 20th century and the national identity of Goce Delcev. Declev is the hero of both countries from the time of the struggle for liberation from the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2018, under the Treaty on Good-Neighbourliness, a joint commission made up of Bulgarian and Macedonian historians, was set up to settle disputes about a shared past. However, the issue of Delcev’s nationality and the Macedonian language classification remained a matter of dispute, which is currently used by the Bulgarian side.
National opposition. The factor that plays a vital role in the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute over the historical heritage issue is the pressure by the political opposition in both countries. The Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation, leaves the issue of protecting national minorities in the sphere of each of the host countries. This means that none of the countries shall interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. It also strengthens the status quo regarding the recognition of minorities in both countries, i.e. the existence of the Bulgarian minority in Macedonia and the issue of non-recognition, and, therefore, the lack of protection for the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. Thus, the agreement caused much criticism in Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The main opposition parties, the VMRO-DPMNE in Macedonia and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), accused the then government leaders – Boyko Borisov in Bulgaria and Zoran Zaev in Northern Macedonia, of abandoning their compatriots abroad. Moreover, especially in North Macedonia, there have been claims that such a treaty undermines the national identity of Macedonians. It was pointed out that the Macedonian part paid a higher political price for signing of the Treaty, agreeing to a number of concessions to Bulgaria. The Macedonian Parliament ratified the Treaty by a majority of only 61 out of 120 members.
Boyko Borisov’s current actions are guided by the logic of strengthening his internal political position in Bulgaria. Building the image of a strong regional leader will undoubtedly positively affect the prime minister’s listings in Bulgaria in the short and medium-term. Refreshing the Macedonian issue will also help divert attention from the many internal problems Bulgarians face and the impending consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, appealing to nationalist values carries the risk of perpetuating the conflict rather than staving it off and eventually resolving it.
Bulgarian support for the SDSM aims to force the Macedonian authorities to quickly conclude an agreement with Bulgaria on the interpretation of history. The words of support for the SDSM expressed by individual politicians related to the Bulgarian government can be interpreted as further warning signs addressed at Skopje that the Bulgarian authorities are not afraid of escalating the conflict. The support expressed at such a time will have the opposite effect – it may lead to a decline in political support for the SDSM and a victory in the next elections for the VMRO-DPMNE, a party which is less conciliatory and more conservative, but also with weaker ratings in the European Union. As a consequence, this will expose Northern Macedonia to further slowing down the process of European integration.
Conclusions. The Bulgarian stance on North Macedonia, as expressed at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in May, will not remain indifferent to the process of enlargement and integration of the Western Balkans with the European Union. The threat of the Bulgarian veto and the escalation of the dispute with emotional intensity may also have a negative impact on the progress of accession negotiations between North Macedonia and the European Union. The re-activation of the historical dispute provides another argument for the sceptics about the idea of enlarging the EU to include a “Balkan boiler” and not preparing countries for cooperation and dialogue in the region.
The joint Bulgarian-Macedonian presidency in the Berlin Process (an initiative supporting regional cooperation of the Western Balkan countries and complementing the policy of the enlargement of the European Union) will lose its splendour in connection with Bulgarian activities. Additional claims against Northern Macedonia will harm the pro-European elite of this country. The Berlin Process Summit in Sofia in October 2020 will be a good opportunity to agree upon a common position. The recurring historical dispute between Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia shows how easy it is to escalate conflicts over historical heritage and that it can take years to solve such problems.