How nationalism undermines EU enlargement and values: the Macedonia-Bulgaria controversy
On the 8th of December 2020, Bulgaria refused to accept the negotiating framework for the start of accession talks with North Macedonia at a meeting of European Affairs ministers from every EU country. This has, for the moment, dashed the Balkan republic’s hopes of eventual European integration. Bulgaria said previously that it would use its veto due to contentions with its neighbour over history and language.
The Sofia government wants its Macedonian counterparts to accept the Bulgarian position on certain historical topics and to remove the term ‘Macedonian language’ from the negotiating framework because it considers it to be a Bulgarian dialect, although it was recognised as a distinct tongue by the UN in 1977. In an attempt to appease Sofia, the EU Enlargement Conclusions were amended to include a clause proposed by Germany stating that candidate countries should end the “misinterpretation of history”. Although Berlin claimed that this would apply to Macedonia and Bulgaria equally, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria, rejected the amendment. In a joint statement the Czech and Slovak foreign ministers affirmed that while they appreciated German efforts to resolve the Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute, they thought that the draft clause contained elements, like the “notion of falsifying history” that would undermine EU enlargement. It is claimed that Czechia and Slovakia gave this response partially due to the legacy of the Macedonian sainted brothers Cyril and Methodius who moved to Moravia in the 9th century to proselytise the Gospel and translate the Bible into Church Slavonic. These two saints are mentioned in the preamble to the Slovakian constitution for their role in spreading Christianity among the Slavs. German foreign minister, Heiko Maas admitted that his country had failed to find a solution to the Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute, but would continue trying nonetheless. The Macedonian premier Zoran Zaev criticised Sofia’s veto, insisting that it contradicted fundamental European values, but added that talks with Bulgaria would persevere. At this point one might ask what is behind this controversy and if there is a possible way forward.
Since the late Middle Ages, both Macedonia and Bulgaria were part of the Ottoman Empire. During the 19th century, the other European powers spread their influence over the Balkan nations in an attempt to weaken Turkish rule. In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, Russia drafted the San Stefano Treaty which promised the Bulgarians their own independent state encompassing Macedonia. The other powers, especially Britain, were against this and following the Congress of Berlin (1878), Macedonia remained under Ottoman control. Bulgarians, however, never forgot the San Stefano promises and Macedonia has since been the subject of their expansionist aspirations. They assumed that Macedonians were their close relatives and that the Macedonian language was a Bulgarian dialect. In the following decades, Bulgaria tried to take over Macedonia, especially through the actions of the Bulgarophile ‘Supremacist’ faction within the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. This group frequently clashed with the Organisation’s left-wing which desired a self-governing Macedonia.
After the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, Macedonia was divided between Albania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. Within the first three, Macedonians faced human rights violations and forced assimilation, but in Pirin Macedonia (now Bulgaria) Sofia adopted an ambiguous policy of claiming Macedonians to be Bulgarians, whilst simultaneously tolerating Macedonian political and cultural activities. Following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Bulgaria occupied most of present-day Macedonia, tried to ‘Bulgarise’ its people and deported Macedonian Jews to the Nazi death camps. This led to armed resistance from the Macedonian partisans. After 1945 close ties between the Yugoslav and Bulgarian communist leaderships resulted in the recognition of Macedonian identity and language in both countries. Attempts to unify Macedonia were thwarted by the 1948 Soviet-Yugoslav split. Sofia, therefore, reverted to its previous policy of defining Macedonians as Bulgarians. Forced assimilation of Pirin Macedonians was introduced and even to this day, the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria faces intimidation, harassment and restrictions on freedom of assembly and association which have been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights among others.
In 2017, Zaev became the Macedonian premier and immediately proceeded to resolve long-standing controversies with Bulgaria and Greece. He thus signed a Treaty of Friendship with his Bulgarian counterpart, Boyko Borissov, which established a joint historical commission in order to formulate a common narrative acceptable to both sides. However, divergent expectations led to friction. While the commission’s Macedonian members had a minimalist task, like giving recommendations on revising school textbooks to foster good-neighbourliness, the Sofia government tried to impose the Bulgarian view on Macedonian history, language and identity. It was effectively forcing Skopje to either accept Bulgarian “historical truths” or receive a veto on EU accession. After Zaev ratified via illegal means the Prespa Agreement signed with Greece that altered Macedonia’s constitutional name to North Macedonia, some commentators suggested that Bulgaria would start demanding more concessions from the Skopje government in exchange for Bulgarian approval of its neighbour’s EU integration. In fact, in November 2020, Bulgaria requested that Macedonian textbooks be edited to remove the claims to the Macedonian identity of certain historical figures and deny Sofia’s fascist occupation during World War Two, something amounting to pure historical revisionism. Zaev appeared to concede to these demands when he declared in an interview for Bulgarian media that Bulgaria’s war-time rule was “not fascist” but an “administration” and that Yugoslavia kept Macedonians and Bulgarians apart. This sparked outrage from Macedonian historians, public figures and politicians, including some within Zaev’s party SDSM. Unsurprisingly, the opposition organised protests all over Macedonia that lasted nearly two weeks.
What can be said is that behind this aggressive posturing from Borissov and his administration which comprises right-wing nationalists renowned for their antisemitism and hatred of ethnic and religious minorities, there is a ploy to gain support for the March 2021 parliamentary elections. The government is under pressure from months of street demonstrations, corruption allegations and an economic downturn due to the coronavirus pandemic being inadequately handled. As a result, 83.8 per cent of Bulgarians do not back Macedonia’s EU membership unless historic controversies are resolved. The ruling parties have also accused the socialist opposition of being weak on the issue, prompting them to accept hardline positions, meaning that it is not certain that matters will improve for Skopje if there is new leadership in Sofia. Moreover, the demands on its neighbour indicate that the Bulgarian establishment does not even try to hide their hegemonic aspirations towards Macedonia. By negating Macedonian national consciousness, Bulgaria attempts to absolve itself of its role as historical occupier and oppressor, whilst acting as a draconian gatekeeper for EU integration.
The Macedonia-Bulgaria controversy shows how EU members can use enlargement to further their foreign policy interests, something other states have done before. Many bilateral disagreements have been dealt during previous enlargement processes, but Bulgaria’s veto displays the asymmetry of power between EU and candidate countries and how the Union does not have the desire or tools to prevent such behaviour. Brussels is clearly uninterested in gaining new members since its current size makes it difficult to devise common policies without obstruction from national agendas. If there was the mood for enlargement, the EU would have applied pressure on Sofia to approve Macedonia’s accession. Germany’s disinterested response to the dispute reflects this. Although EU leaders are repulsed by Borissov, Berlin cannot afford to undermine him since his rise to power was sponsored by German conservatives in return for creating a favourable business climate in Bulgaria for German finance. Furthermore, the controversy endangers the EU’s cardinal principle of acknowledging diversity and differences without imposing a particular viewpoint vis-à-vis national identity or history on others. The weak response to Sofia’s veto, on the other hand, highlights the hypocrisy of a Union which promotes laudable values, e.g. peace, democracy and human rights, but often fails to defend them or sacrifices them for pragmatic motives, just as any great power would do.
As for Zaev, he is pursuing EU integration, just like his predecessors, on the false pretext that it will deliver public well-being. Indeed, his administration has been marked by corruption scandals, authoritarian tendencies and inefficient handling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, Macedonia has now ranked the third poorest country in Europe, is entering a recession and has the world’s fifth-worst coronavirus death rate. In this way, Zaev is on par with Borissov who is also known for his corruption, authoritarian methods, links to organised crime and failed economic policies. Macedonia’s EU accession seems even more unlikely since enlargement is not a priority for the Union’s Portuguese presidency. It would be wise at this point for candidate countries to consider alternatives to full EU membership, like joining the European Economic Area as suggested by leading German officials.
The Macedonian-Bulgarian dispute proves that if contentious issues between states, especially those related to history, are left solely to the politicians then either they will never be resolved or any compromise reached will not satisfy everyone. Some have compared the joint historical committee to the Franco-German Textbook Commission, but this is misleading because it was a bottom-up initiative started in 1935 that took its time before the first Franco-German historical textbook was published in 2006. So it would be beneficial for Macedonians and Bulgarians to increase their interaction through grassroots activities and cultural dialogues. Their respective politicians should devise agreements that would safeguard their national sovereignty and encourage cooperation on matters of mutual interest. Only in this way could a genuine consensus over reconciliation be reached even if it takes a while.
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