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A case of the tail wagging the dog? Bulgaria, the EU and North Macedonia

Bulgaria’s veto on the opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia comes as a result of how the country’s elites envision a “Bulgarian world”.

December 10, 2020 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria in Brussels, July 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Unfortunately, in the history of the European Union and of all of Europe, November 17th, 2020 may become a momentous date to be remembered unless the situation is rectified soon. On this day, Bulgaria acted on its 2019 ultimatum of over 20 items to Skopje, and vetoed the highly anticipated opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia. Prior to this decision, the Bulgarian government and the country’s political elite loudly complained that the EU is unable to understand Bulgarian history and Sofia’s position on North Macedonia, which is “surprising,” because the “Bulgarian historical science” (българската историческа наука) “proves” that Sofia is right. The Bulgarian delegation proceeded in blocking the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia despite the leading Bulgarian scholars’ open letter of October 5th, 2020, in which they warned not to follow this dangerous path. Above all, as reported in the European press, Sofia wants North Macedonia to acknowledge that Macedonian is not a language in its own right, but a form or dialect of Bulgarian. Doing politics by ultimatums has been unprecedented in postwar Europe – until now.

To make decisions about a state’s language, identity and history is part and parcel of sovereignty, as practiced in Europe for the last three and a half centuries. Other polities have no right to intrude, lest conflicts arise. On the other hand, it must be noted that through time, a single language may diverge into more, as in the case of Latin, which spawned French and Italian. An opposite situation is possible too, when speakers of two languages decide that it is a single one, as in the case of the 1980 Language Union between Belgium’s Flemish and the Netherlands’ Dutch that resulted in the Netherlandish language. Yet the vast majority of speakers of Macedonian do not see their language as (part of) Bulgarian, and likewise do not claim Bulgarian to be a form of Macedonian. Why then can’t Bulgaria respect its neighbor’s sovereignty?

Many international observers rightly brand autocratic tendencies in present-day Hungary and Poland. But almost no one takes note of the fact that in the EU, rule of law is least observed in Bulgaria. On top of that, Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state. And now Bulgaria is using the EU to throw its weight abroad, this time by intruding on North Macedonia’s sovereignty. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Sofia’s veto is a blatant breach of Article 1 of the Helsinki Final Act (1975). Bulgaria is following Russia, which in 2014 violated multiple provisions of this document by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea. Turning a blind eye to what Sofia is doing is not an option, because it may soon confront the EU with yet another cycle of conflict and even warfare in the Balkans. In 2017, in return for Sofia’s support for Albania’s efforts to open accession talks with the EU, Tirana agreed to relabel the country’s Slavic-speaking minority of Macedonians as “Bulgarians.” Apart from North Macedonia, Bulgaria is also flirting with conflict in southern Moldova, where Sofia supports separatist tendencies among the area’s Bulgarian minority. At the same time, back home the Bulgarian authorities do their best to suppress and alienate Bulgaria’s Turkish minority and Roma population. This does not bode well, and it looks as though the Bulgarian government is emulating the Kremlin’s neo-imperial policy of the “Russian world” (Русский мир). While Moscow wants to regain control over all the post-Soviet countries, Bulgaria, in its quest for a “Bulgarian world” (Български свят), appears to be seeking to build a continuous sphere of influence in the Balkans from Albania to Moldova.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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