BALKAN BLOG: Is Bulgaria the next serious hurdle on North Macedonia’s EU path?

BALKAN BLOG: Is Bulgaria the next serious hurdle on North Macedonia’s EU path?
A monument to Goce Delcev in Skopje. Both Bulgaria and North Macedonia lay claim to the historical hero.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje May 12, 2020

After North Macedonia resolved the long-running name dispute with Greece, the public in the small Balkan country are now preoccupied with a new dilemma: will Bulgaria be the next serious obstacle for North Macedonia on its path to join the EU?

North Macedonia and Bulgaria signed a Friendship Treaty immediately after the Social Democrats came to power in Skopje in 2017, but an EU document has recently been released in which the EU's conclusions on starting negotiations with Skopje include an appendix with long list of Bulgaria's demands including non-recognition of the Macedonian language.

North Macedonia, together with Albania, was invited in March to launch EU accession talks, after years of obstacles posed by its southern neighbour Greece over the name dispute, concerning Athens’ objections to the use of the name “Macedonia”. 

After concluding the Prespa name deal with Greece, which added a prefix to the name of the country, which is now called North Macedonia, officials from the ruling SDSM claimed that despite the change of the name, the Macedonian national identity and the language are preserved.

But the appendix in the EU document says that Bulgaria wants the language spoken by Macedonians to be called the “official language of the Republic of North Macedonia”, which is by no means acceptable for the Macedonian people. The list also includes other demands, such as not claiming that a Macedonian minority exists in Bulgaria.

The Macedonian identity has long been undermined by the country’s neighbours, but the friendship treaty with Bulgaria, although challenged by the opposition, was seen as a guarantee that good neighbourly relations had been established and obstacles to the country's EU integration removed.

Trojan horse

Now, however, the treaty seems to be a Trojan horse for Macedonians as many hidden demands from the Bulgarian side may emerge from it.

Under the friendship treaty, Skopje and Sofia formed a mixed commission on historical and educational issues, whose work was suspended by Macedonian side in December 2019 due to the insurmountable disagreements about national hero Goce Delcev, who fought for Macedonia's independence during the Ottoman Empire; for Macedonians he was Macedonian and for Bulgarians he was Bulgarian.

The commission was due to be restarted after the April 12 election in North Macedonia, which was postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It therefore ended its work without a decision about Delcev.

Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovatchev, who comes from Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's ruling GERB, has now hinted in an interview with Bulgaria's portal that Bulgaria is threatening Skopje with a veto on EU membership talks.

Specifically, he said that Bulgaria will not agree to allow Skopje to start negotiations with the EU if it “continues to falsify history”.

"If the mixed history commission does not restart working by June and the Skopje authorities continue to falsify history, Bulgaria will not agree to start pre-accession talks with the country," Kovachev was quoted as saying. It was noted that this is his own opinion and not the official position of the government.

Kovachev's statement came one day after Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said the Macedonian language was a Western Bulgarian dialect with “Serbisms”.

According to Zaharieva, it would be in Macedonia's interest to accept history (according to Bulgarian terms), just as Bulgaria should accept the Macedonian reality.

She argued that Bulgaria would not allow its foreign policy to be used before the Macedonian elections, but would not change its terms either. She referred to statements from North Macedonia’s politicians in defence of the Macedonian language and historical identity.

Too high a price

On the subject, North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski said last week that the country does not need the EU if the price of joining the union is “to accept that we are not Macedonians” and to “say that the language we speak is not Macedonian”.

In an interview with Telma, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said on May 5 that it is impossible to build friendship if someone challenges the neighbour's identity. Dimitrov said that the language is not subject to recognition or non-recognition because in the 21st century, especially in Europe, the right to self-determination and self-expression cannot be denied. In addition, the existence of the Macedonian language is officially recognised by the United Nations.

Dimitrov noted that the issue is old, but has been dragging on for a long time because there was no bilateral agreement. He believes that the Macedonian identity cannot be negotiated, especially after the signing of the Prespa Agreement with Greece in 2018, which opened the way for the country to join Nato and to be invited to launch EU accession talks.

North Macedonia joined Nato in March 2020, but how the country will continue on its EU path is still unclear, given that both Bulgaria and Greece can set new conditions during the negotiation process. “We need both the Macedonian language and the Macedonian identity, we can't negotiate about that,” said Dimitrov.

Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Bujar Osmani is more optimistic. He said that Bulgaria was one of the countries that voted for the start of negotiations with the EU and if it wanted, it could have blocked the process already.

Osmani said that Bulgaria’s notes are only one-sided remarks, but are not seen as conclusions or conditions for the start of negotiations, although in reality the statements of the Bulgarian politicians indicate something completely different.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov told the recent virtual EU-Western Balkans summit on May 6 that Bulgaria supports North Macedonia's membership of the EU, but that the friendship treaty, which seems to contain many hidden controversial demands by Bulgaria, must be respected.

“Yes, we support them, but we insist on recognising the history. If Skopje does not respect the agreement, Bulgaria can block it in any chapter,” Borissov said.

May 5 was the day of the Macedonian alphabet. “Today we celebrate this important day, we speak the Macedonian language, which has gone through all the stages of creation, breakthrough, recognition, codification and recognition,” the interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski said on that occasion. “Let's keep and promote it, and pass it on to all generations after us with dignity,” said Spasovski in a video message.

The representative of the Macedonian team in the Macedonian-Bulgarian commission for historical and educational issues, Dragi Gjorgiev, recently stated that the issue of the Macedonian language was not open in their debates.

It would be absurd for that to happen, said Gjorgiev, arguing that with the recognition of the Macedonian language in the UN, that topic is closed and there is no reason for historians to talk about it.

Laying claim to history 

About issues related to Delcev and other personalities and events from the late 19th and early 20th century, Bulgaria not only raised them to the highest political level, but also set them as a condition that should be met by Skopje in order to be allowed to make progress in EU membership talks, argued Gjorgiev.

He said he was not surprised by the demands of the Bulgarian side. "All the misunderstandings that Bulgaria has with [North] Macedonia regarding the historical controversies will try to resolve in its favour. That pressure is already being felt and will become stronger, and I think that Bulgaria will not easily give up its positions,” Gjorgiev said.

The leader of North Macedonia’s opposition VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickovski, while laying flowers at Delcev's grave in a Skopje church on the 117th anniversary of his death on May 4, said that Delcev was the backbone of modern Macedonia and should not be the subject of negotiations with Bulgaria.

Bojan Maricic, North Macedonia’s national coordinator for EU integration said recently that some Bulgarian remarks included in the EU document on the start of negotiations with North Macedonia go beyond the friendship treaty signed by the two countries.

However, he does not expect Bulgaria “to become the new Greece”, when it comes to blocking the European integration, as he said the deal will be a defence for North Macedonia against "unreasonable demands”.

Leader of SDSM and former PM Zoran Zaev expects all issues with Bulgaria to be solved peacefully through the joint commission.

The EU also reiterated in the Zagreb Declaration adopted at the recent EU-Western Balkans summit that the implementation of bilateral agreements, including the Prespa Agreement with Greece and the Friendship Treaty with Bulgaria, remains important for the North Macedonia’s EU process.

Despite this, it has become clear for North Macedonia that Bulgaria and Greece have no intention of abandoning the privileges granted to them by their EU membership, and that they will use bilateral good neighbourly agreements to impede Macedonia's EU negotiation process.

Given the asymmetry of the agreements, to the detriment of the Macedonian side, since the beginning of the "building good neighbourliness" it was clear that these agreements would be huge obstacles for North Macedonia on its European path.

This is a problem elsewhere in the Western Balkans too, where historic conflicts must be resolved for applicant states to progress towards membership, but existing members have a much stronger position in negotiations. 

The problem is not so much in the demands of certain member countries imposed on EU aspirants, but the EU rules that are hidden behind the veil of democracy and in fact are far from democratic in reality.