North Macedonia/Bulgaria joint committee makes no real progress, new meetings to be held

North Macedonia/Bulgaria joint committee makes no real progress, new meetings to be held
The two countries both lay claim to the historical figure Goce Delcev, a revolutionary who fought for independent Macedonia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje October 18, 2020

North Macedonia's and Bulgaria’s joint historical committee make no real progress at the two-day meeting held in Skopje on October 15-16, but new meetings were scheduled, media reported.

The committee was set up to resolve the issues related to the common history of the two neighbours as part of the Friendship Treaty signed in 2017. Skopje unilaterally terminated its work in mid-December 2019 after the issue of the historical figure Goce Delcev, a revolutionary who fought for independent Macedonia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, became a stumbling block. This was the first meeting after the halting of discussions.

According to the co-chairmen of the joint committee nothing was agreed on Delcev, but there was a little progress on textbooks. Another meeting will be held by the end of the year and five more in 2021.

The co-chairman of the committee from the Bulgarian side and ex-ambassador to Skopje, Angel Dimitrov, described the meeting as “grey, cloudy, and rainy with short sunny intervals”.

For the co-chairman from North Macedonia, Dragi Gjorgiev, these were two days of "intense and hard discussions". Georgiev hinted at new proposals for finding a solution to the Delcev issue.

Bulgarian historians claim that Delcev was a Bulgarian national, while the Macedonian side repeated several times that if the commission insists on this position, then there will be no solution.

"Regarding Goce Delchev, we have on table new proposals and ideas, which have been discussed and will continue to be a topic of conversation at the next meeting in Sofia," Gjorgiev said, without disclosing details.

Bulgarian co-chairman Dimitrov was cited by Sofia-based daily as raising the possibility of finding consensus by November 10, a date put forward by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

"No one can give us deadlines, as we do not negotiate with colleagues, negotiations are conducted in politics. We have a scientific discussion and we want to be fair," Dimitrov was quoted. 

Borissov said previously that if Skopje refuses to accept Bulgarian demands by November 9-10 when the Sofia summit, part of the Berlin process, will be held, Bulgaria will veto the start of North Macedonia’s intergovernmental conference with the EU set to be held in December.

Bulgarian officials have said repeatedly that Sofia will block the first intergovernmental conference for North Macedonia if no agreement is reached on the controversial historical issues between the two countries.

North Macedonia’s Deputy PM for European Affairs Nikola Dimitrov said on October 16 that the country is making diplomatic efforts to find a way out of the situation and results are expected in the coming weeks.

“All EU member states are aware, especially the neighbours, that we are faced with a very simple choice — either we will have joint success or we will have a joint debacle,” Dimitrov said.

He added that it cannot be ruled out that there will be no intergovernmental conference with the EU by the end of this year, “but if the reason for that is the Macedonian language, I am ok with that”.

In September, Bulgaria sent a controversial memorandum to EU members with the aim of incorporating it into the accession negotiation framework for Skopje, explaining that Bulgaria has issues with North Macedonia that should be resolved prior to the start of negotiations. North Macedonia, alongside Albania, was invited in March to launch EU accession talks later this year.

Bulgarian officials claim that the Macedonian language is an artificial "communist-era product" and represents a Bulgarian dialect, which is unacceptable for the Macedonian side. Sofia wants the language of the country to be presented as the "Official Language of the Republic of North Macedonia", not as Macedonian.

“Our right to self-determination in the 21st century cannot be disputed. It is not European if someone interferes in the right of another nation to say what it is and what language it speaks and if the Macedonian language becomes an obstacle to our EU integration,” Deputy PM Dimitrov said.

However, there are intellectuals in Bulgaria that disagree with the Bulgarian state’s official position about North Macedonia.

Earlier this month, a group of over 30 Bulgarian historians and scholars condemned the memorandum sent by Bulgarian officials to EU institutions. They said that the memorandum is against the EU values.

In the statement sent to media in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian intellectuals said that the problem is that “outdated, romantic and mythological-historiography thinking dominates in Bulgaria itself”.

Austrian historian Ulf Brunnbauer, chair of history of Southeast and Eastern Europe at the University of Regensburg, Germany, was cited by Deutsche Welle last month as saying that the disagreement between Bulgaria and North Macedonia should not affect EU talks.

According to him, the memorandum represents a way for Bulgaria to press “its own nationalistic view on the history and culture of another country and its people”. 

"It would be similar to Germany telling the Austrians that they are actually Germans, or Denmark calling the Norwegians an anomaly because they used to be part of their empire and their standard language developed later from the Danish," Brunnbauer was cited as saying.