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North Macedonia’s EU challenges: the Bulgarian ego and mechanisms of defence

Following the resolution of an almost three-decades-long surreal name dispute with Greece, North Macedonia’s path to EU membership looked relatively optimistic. Until recently.

December 14, 2020 - Bojidar Kolov - Articles and Commentary

Bulgarian Minister of Defence Krasimir Karakachanov. Photo: Arno Mikkor (cc) wikimedia.org

On November 17th, the Bulgarian government officially announced that it does not approve of the EU negotiation framework for North Macedonia’s accession process and thus practically blocked the country’s membership process. What was the role of Bulgaria in supporting Skopje’s EU aspirations and what made possible Sofia’s anti-Macedonian turn in the past year? I will try to address these questions in the following analysis, with a little help from the psychoanalytic conceptual apparatus.

Macedonia’s pro-EU turn

In May 2017, the leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, became Prime Minister, promising to change the nationalist and isolationist course conducted by his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, for a whole decade. Less than three months after taking office, Zoran Zaev signed a Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighbourliness, and Cooperation with Bulgaria, which kicked-off Skopje’s renewed run for EU accession.

On January 1st 2018, Bulgaria took over the presidency of the Council of the EU. One of the key priorities of the Bulgarian presidency was the “European perspective” of the Western Balkans. Bulgaria was aiming “to achieve a clear action plan for each of the countries” and held an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia.

Despite the enthusiasm in Skopje, in October 2019, France, the Netherlands and Denmark opposed the initiation of the accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania and thus crushed Zaev’s EU dreams.

Bulgaria’s anti-Macedonian turn

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian position underwent various transformations, although there were no personnel changes among the decision-makers in Sofia. A few days before the accession talks were blocked, the Bulgarian government issued a “framework position” concerning the EU membership of Albania and North Macedonia.

Bulgaria declared to tie the accession process to conditions such as the use of the phrase “the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia” instead of “the Macedonian language.” “No document/statement in the process of accession should be considered as a recognition by the Bulgarian side of the existence of the so-called ‘Macedonian language,’ separate from Bulgarian,” the position asserted. Additionally, Sofia demanded the Joint Multidisciplinary Expert Commission for Historical and Education Issues (established under the Treaty) should “reach an agreement” regarding key events and figures “from the period of our common history until 1944.” Thus, the government believes North Macedonia will be pushed to “recognise the historical facts,” i.e., the Bulgarian historical narrative.

Nonetheless, before the start of the European Council in Brussels, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said, “It is very important for the Balkans, the region and our relations with North Macedonia and Albania that these countries are given EU Membership perspective. It would be a historic mistake if they were not allowed to enter EU accession negotiations today.”

In March 2020, the Council finally decided to open the accession negotiations with both North Macedonia and Albania. Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva announced that Bulgaria welcomed the decision and that “our friends are at the beginning of a long journey, but they will have our experience in the negotiation process at their disposal. I sincerely wish them success!”

Borissov and Zaev took part in joint ceremonies commemorating medieval figures and modern revolutionaries revered in the two countries; paying their respects together to the Holocaust victims from the territories of today’s North Macedonia (occupied by the Nazi-allied Kingdom of Bulgaria during WWII).

Little of this spirit of reconciliation and cooperation remains today. After Bulgaria announced that it considered vetoing North Macedonia’s accession talks, Zaev showed a degree of readiness to clear the misunderstandings. The tone from Sofia, however, became increasingly hostile. The Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister, Krasimir Karakachanov, called the Macedonian flag “a ventilator” and offered/threatened to send a regiment to North Macedonia to “remove all the monuments that do not correspond to the historical facts.”

The Bulgarian ego and mechanisms of defence

So, what could make this position possible, and even legitimate, in the eyes of many Bulgarians? Mechanisms of defence, according to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, are mental processes that enable the mind to reach compromise solutions to conflicts that it is unable to resolve. Although the application of psychoanalytic concepts to international relations bears a myriad of difficulties and potential drawbacks, it is still worth considering the logic of psychoanalysis when discussing issues of collective identity and foreign policy. If we think of the collective imagination as an intersubjective mind, and if we assume that the discursive processes in society can be studied as mental processes, then this logic does not seem that bizarre.

Repression — The levels of socio-economic inequality in Bulgaria are horrifying. About a third of its citizens live below the poverty line or are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The income ratio between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population is more than eight times – the highest in the EU. Entire groups of people are increasingly segregated and marginalised and do not have equal access to health care, justice and education. This picture inevitably brings unwanted distress for the majority of Bulgarian citizens, but it is in effect withdrawn from the public consciousness (policy, mainstream media, academic research etc.). Thus, this political debate has almost completely forgotten about the disturbing reality in the country and the events that made it possible.

Projection — One can find a clear example of projection in the way North Macedonia is vaguely accused of “hate speech” against Bulgaria. At the same time, the mainstream media and high officials in Sofia speak about a “made-up nation,” “made-up language,” a flag that resembles a “ventilator” etc. The Bulgarian media, historians and the political elite blame their Macedonian counterparts for “stealing history” and “negating Bulgarian statehood.” At the same time, they demand Skopje to “recognise that both its national identity and language have Bulgarian roots.” Such recognition would deprive Macedonian national identity of some of its key tenets in the very same way Karakachanov and Zaharieva imagine that the Bulgarian identity will be “robbed” if Sofia “recognises” the Macedonian language and historical narratives (meaning— if Bulgaria allows North Macedonia to join the EU as it is).

Regression — Bulgaria is clearly returning to earlier stages of development by blocking North Macedonia’s EU accession talks. The language Sofia is employing and the arguments it is using are reminiscent of the rhetoric utilised during the so-called “Revival Process” in the late 1980s. Back then, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian Muslims (mostly Turks) were expelled from the country for refusing to change their Muslim names and recognise that they are descendants of Islamised Bulgarians.

Displacement — The energy accumulated from repression is usually channelled into a more convenient and less painful object. The gruesome economic situation in Bulgaria and the country’s internal struggles with identity issues are being resolved by directing the discontent outwards. Bulgaria’s negligible international stance and its absence of soft, smart or hard power are compensated by flexing its muscles from the position of an EU member state which demands concessions from a candidate.

Denial — Bulgaria participated in three disastrous wars in the 20th century, and its leadership always put “reunification with Macedonia” among the main reasons behind its rationale. These wars all resulted in “national catastrophes,” as the phrase goes in Bulgarian. This repeated failure leaves the national historical narrative with a particular affect assigned to all things Macedonian. This emotion makes it rather painful for the collective imagination to accept that the people on the other side of the border do not consider themselves Bulgarian. The disavowal of the Macedonianness of North Macedonia is tightly connected to the fear of castration of Bulgarian national identity. The imagined Bulgarianness of North Macedonia thus becomes a fetish, “a token of triumph over the threat of castration and protection against it.”

Rationalisation — The fervent insistence on intensive work by the Joint Multidisciplinary Expert Commission for Historical and Education Issues is part of Bulgaria’s defence mechanism of rationalisation. The outwardly reasonable request to reach an agreement on historical “facts” by engaging the tools of historical science comes as a substitution for the true, but threatening, causes behind Sofia’s behaviour. To be sure, a dialogue between Bulgarian and Macedonian academia is indeed much needed, but the political demands for reaching the “objective truth” is anything but academic.

By observing these six defence mechanisms employed to protect the Bulgarian ego, one can clearly see that the whole issue around Sofia’s veto against the EU negotiation framework has little to do with any reforms in North Macedonia. That veto is in effect an issue of Bulgarian ontological insecurity. Unfortunately, such problems are much more challenging to resolve than any bilateral technical question. In this sense, there are three main scenarios: 1) Skopje reaches yet another symbolic compromise with its neighbouring country, which would ultimately leave both sides unsatisfied, 2) Sofia solves its internal problems and redefines its national identity, leaving North Macedonia alone or 3) A continuous deadlock akin to the one related to the name dispute with Greece.

In any case, EU enlargement negotiations cannot, and should not, be a place for national identity therapy. The painful and repressed feelings in both Bulgaria and North Macedonia have to be faced and overcome, but by other means and certainly not under external pressure. The European Union is supposed to be about the future, not the past. Let’s see if it still is.

This article is part of a collaboration between Lossi 36 and New Eastern Europe. Lossi 36 is an online media project publishing news, analysis, and photography from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Since 2018, we are committed to providing high-quality content while shining a spotlight on the work of students and up-and-coming professionals. Read the original post in its entirety here

Bojidar Kolov is a doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo and a master’s student in Religion, Politics and Democracy at the Stockholm School of Theology. He completed a Master’s degree in European Union – Russia Studies at the University of Tartu and graduated with a BA in Political Science from Sofia University. Before joining the University of Oslo, he worked at the Roma National Council in Zagreb and in the civic sector in Skopje.


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