At the end of October, a new round of talks between Bulgaria and the Republic of Northern Macedonia (RNM) stareted to try to lead to a bilateral agreement aimed at resolving bilateral issues and giving the green light for Skopje to start accession talks with European Union (EU).
The point is that if our southwestern neighbor hopes to pass with only some conditional promises, this will not happen – Bulgaria has six main demands to lift its veto on the adoption of a framework for negotiations for Northern Macedonia.
Sofia will insist on firm borders for Skopje to adhere to so that it does not face another blockade by Bulgaria on its path to membership in the United Europe.
In the best of terms, the bilateral protocol will be finalized in early November, settling perfectly ahead of the December 14th session of the EU General Council, at which the issue of the framework for accession negotiations with the RNM and Albania must be reconsidered. .
If the October bilateral talks between Sofia and Skopje go well, this will allow our southwestern neighbor to finally have a date for the start of negotiations after 16 years in the EU waiting room.
Between northern Macedonia and this starting date for negotiations are the six points of Bulgaria.
They were launched by President Rumen Radev during the EU-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia on October 6th, and were then reaffirmed by caretaker Foreign Minister Svetlan Stoev at his meeting last week in Sofia with Croatian counterpart Gordan Grlic Radman.
Bulgaria has already handed over the protocol to Skopje, and if an agreement is reached in October’s talks, the two foreign ministries will quickly sign an agreement obliging Skopje to implement the agreements.
Webcafe.bg analyzes the 6 requirements of Bulgaria to Northern Macedonia in question:
• the inclusion of the Bulgarians in the constitution of Northern Macedonia
• the issue of the short and long name of the Republic of Northern Macedonia
• prevention of hate speech against Bulgaria in RNM
• Rehabilitation of the Bulgarian victims of communism in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
• resumption of the work of the Joint History Commission and more active participation of Skopje in it
• a clear statement of non-interference in the internal affairs of Bulgaria.
In principle, most of these requirements sound like common issues between two neighboring countries, but the very political and historical burden of the topic, as well as the different basic principles that both countries approach, can also lead to these common demands. And that could once again cost a new strain on the relationship.
And here is the question – can an agreement be finally reached on these issues between Sofia and Skopje? And to what extent are the two sides here willing to compromise?
Placing the Bulgarians in the northern Macedonian constitution
At first glance, this seems easy to settle. Northern Macedonia already lists ethnic Albanians, Serbs, Bosniaks, Turks and Roma in its basic law, but not Bulgarians. Earlier this year, an organization of Bulgarians in the RSM called on Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to be recognized in the country’s constitution.
Zaev himself is currently holding the position that although his government is ready to meet this requirement of Bulgaria, such a thing should happen at a later stage, when his country is already negotiating to join the EU.
The truth is that at the moment it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to push for such an amendment to the constitution. The reason for this is that such an edition requires a majority of 2/3 of all deputies in the Macedonian parliament, where Zaev has no such support.
Only the right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE, which is firmly against any concessions to Bulgaria, has 39 deputies, which in practice means that all other parties in the Assembly of Northern Macedonia must vote for changes to the constitution for them to happen. they.
To get to the more complicated point of this question – how many Bulgarians are in Northern Macedonia, because the positions of the two countries here differ dramatically. According to the 2002 census, about 1,500 people identify themselves as ethnic Bulgarians there. In September this year, a new census was held in the country, but it is not expected to increase the number of self-identified Bulgarians, as forecasts show a little more than 3,000 people.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev is talking about quite different figures – about 120,000 Bulgarians living in northern Macedonia, and according to him the latest census there should reflect this figure.
And this sounds more than logical, because all citizens of RNM are taken into account, who in recent years have taken Bulgarian passports based on Bulgarian ethnic roots on an application that they have signed themselves. Whether this is already happening because of the desire of these citizens to travel freely in Europe is another question, but there are some.
In addition, the Bulgarian side has raised the issue of harassment of self-identifying Bulgarian citizens in the RSM, which makes them hide their ethnicity and self-determination.
It is this side of the issue that can cause problems and lack of consensus even for a potential delay in the recognition of the Bulgarian minority in Northern Macedonia.
Non-interference in the internal affairs of Bulgaria
In practice, this raises the mirror question – Skopje should not try to raise the issue of recognizing the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. Although only 1,654 people said in the 2011 census that they identified themselves as ethnic Macedonians, up from 5,071 in 2001, various Macedonian political and cultural organizations have been trying to register in the country for years. – without success.
The organizations in question claim that their right to self-expression is systematically restricted in order to speed up their assimilation.
There are already 14 cases in which Bulgaria has been convicted in the European Court of Human Rights precisely for such refusals to register, and our country continues to refuse to recognize the existence of a Macedonian minority in our country.
Some media cite the 1946 census, when 160,541 people identified themselves as Macedonians in Bulgaria, and this and the comparison with current data are used as a reference point for the thesis of the assimilation of Macedonians in our country. However, the interpretation of these numbers must be made taking into account what exactly “Macedonian” meant in 1946 and what it means today. And these are two very different things.
The Friendship and Neighborhood Agreement in 2017 agreed on the issue, whereby the two sides pledged not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, leaving the issue of minorities to be resolved “according to EU and UN standards”.
The question now is whether Bulgaria will be satisfied only with reaffirming this promise, or will go further, insisting that Skopje renounce the idea that there is a Macedonian minority in the country at all.
The short and full form of the name of Northern Macedonia
Another controversial issue is how exactly the name of Northern Macedonia should be written, as Sofia insists that the Republic of Northern Macedonia be written in all official documents.
This is done with the idea to specify that it is not about the geographical area of Macedonia and its northern part, which falls within the territory of Bulgaria, but about the country.
At first glance, the issue seems strange, but it was at the heart of a 27-year dispute between Macedonia and Greece that led to an official name change and the addition of the word “North” to it by changing the country’s constitution.
All these dramas with the name of our southwestern neighbor – both on the Greek side first, and now on the Bulgarian side, come from the point of view that at some point with its name PCM can make territorial demands to other countries in which parts of the geographical and historical region of Macedonia.
Skopje is ready to offer written guarantees that the name does not imply any territorial claims to Sofia.
The important point here is how far the two countries will go in their stubbornness to use or not to use the word “Republic” in official EU documents, as Bulgaria insists in practice.
Rehabilitation of the victims of communism in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
In this case, Bulgaria wants rehabilitation for all ethnic Bulgarians killed by communist resistance during World War II, and then by the communist regime after its rise to power and the declaration of Macedonia as a republic within Yugoslavia.
The regime in Yugoslavia is extremely hard on the separation of Macedonia from Bulgaria and exerts serious terror on all citizens with Bulgarian self-consciousness, which is especially worse after the rupture in relations between the USSR and the leader of Yugoslavia Josip Broz-Tito.
In the first years after the establishment of communist regimes in the region, relations between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia warmed up after the war, and in 1946 Sofia sent to Skopje the remains of the revolutionary Gotse Delchev, after he was killed in 1903 in a clash with a Turkish loss at the village of Banitsa, present-day Greece.
But after 1948, when Yugoslavia broke with Stalin, relations with Sofia also deteriorated for decades. Evidence shows persecution of ethnic Bulgarians, their imprisonment and concentration camps, torture and even murders under unclear circumstances in Macedonia and the western suburbs, as part of Belgrade’s line to de-Bulgarianize the regions.
State security in Yugoslavia, known as the Department for the Protection of the People (OZNA), persecuted both Macedonian nationalists against the Belgrade government and Bulgarians as enemies of the federal state.
In 2008, authorities in northern Macedonia already passed a lustration law revealing all former secret police officers, barring them from running for office.
However, the controversial lustration process did not address the issue of rehabilitation of the victims, but only the eradication of former spies and collaborators. In the end, after much criticism coming from the country and abroad, the whole process was canceled in 2015.
Here it is very important what exactly Bulgaria will ask from Skopje, as well as what deadlines our neighbors can give us.
Complicating matters further is the fact that almost all former secret police archives that would shed more light on the process are kept in Serbia.
More engagement with the bilateral Commission on the History of the two countries
The committee in question was the big thing in the 2017 Neighborhood Agreement. And although in its first year this commission made some progress and cleared up controversial moments in medieval history, its work stalled when it came time to address issues from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The personality of the revolutionary Gotse Delchev and whether he was a Bulgarian or a Macedonian turned out to be controversial.
In parallel with this issue, the Bulgarian side began to receive reports that Macedonian historians refused to continue working together. Meanwhile, on the Macedonian side, scientists have spoken of political pressure.
In all this situation of tense tension, in 2019 the Bulgarian party IMRO, then a participant in the government of the country, intervened in the topic. Given its historical connection to the topic, the problem of the lack of involvement of Macedonian historians and the dispute over the identity of Gotse Delchev, which ultimately led to the imposition of the Bulgarian veto to determine a framework for negotiations on the accession of Northern Macedonia to EU.
From there, the whole deterioration of bilateral relations followed, and Macedonian historians began to talk again about their medieval history – an issue that seemed to have been resolved before.
In practice, Bulgaria currently accuses Northern Macedonia of not wanting to accept historical facts, while Skopje insists that the initial friendship treaty says experts should be left to decide historical issues on their own, without pressure from above.
Here is one of the really unsolvable clashes at the moment – about how the Macedonian identity is formed and about the Macedonian language. So far, Bulgaria has not recognized the Macedonian language, and in the event of the country’s accession to the EU, this issue must be clarified. According to Sofia, Macedonian is actually a dialect of the Bulgarian language, and this is something that no one in Skopje will recognize.
As for the question of identity, the debate is whether it is the fruit of Yugoslav propaganda, or whether it was formed naturally and in parallel with the Bulgarian one, and it will be difficult to achieve a breakthrough there.
According to Skopje, the ones launched by Sofia are only a reflection of the assimilation policies of our country from the past, while Bulgaria “occupied” a large part of today’s Northern Macedonia during the Second World War.
Bulgaria, in turn, would hardly recognize the very concept of an occupying power. Moreover, our country strongly disagrees with today’s wording in the history books in the RSB – “Bulgarian, fascist occupation forces”, insisting that it simply ruled the territory during the war.
However, these historical issues may find a solution, but much depends on what Sofia will require from the idea of ”more engagement” on the part of Skopje, as work here will be difficult and quick.
Prevention of hate speech against Bulgaria and Bulgarians
Perhaps the main request that Sofia has made in the last two years. Our country accuses Northern Macedonia of allowing and doing nothing to limit the language of hatred towards our country and ethnic Bulgarians.
According to our position, such hate speech has been embedded in Macedonian society since the time of Yugoslavia, and in the formation of the Macedonian state itself in the 1990s, the image of Bulgarian enemies was used to strengthen Macedonian national identity.
A perfect example of this is the use of the term “Bulgarian fascist occupying force” when referring to Bulgaria’s rule over the territories of present-day Northern Macedonia during World War II, and according to Sofia, the use of this term is hateful.
And while Skopje agrees to change the term simply to “fascist occupying force” so as not to blame an entire nation, this is unacceptable to the Bulgarian authorities, who are pushing for a softer definition of “Bulgarian administration”.
This reading will be quite difficult to swallow in Skopje, where historians insist that “fascist occupation force” is a relevant definition, as Bulgaria was then an ally of Nazi Germany and thousands of people were killed during the Bulgarian “administration”.
In parallel, Sofia can cite a number of examples of desecration of Bulgarian monuments in the RSM, including the latest case of the shattered cemetery of Bulgarian soldiers from the First World War near the town of Kavadarci, as well as a number of other similar performances.
In order to reach a consensus on this issue, both sides will have to accept some compromises. The question is how far the negotiators are ready to go.