Bulgaria’s veto for North Macedonia’s European hopes spells trouble for the region
Bulgaria’s veto for neighbouring North Macedonia’s accession talks to the European Union late last year could spell trouble in the long run for the rest of the region. By blocking Skopje’s European path, the decision taken by Bulgarian authorities goes to show how historical feuds in the region are still threatening to disrupt its already fragile and patchy path towards the EU.
The conditions that Bulgaria has set ahead for its much smaller neighbour include an official acknowledgement of having a common history, a change in the formulation describing the official language (Macedonian) which is being used in North Macedonia, and a roadmap for the implementation of a friendship treaty that the two countries signed in 2017. Bulgaria has also requested that the agreement includes Skopje’s renunciation of claims to the existence of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.
Sofia often argues that Macedonian historical figures and landmarks are actually Bulgarian and that North Macedonia’s authorities should accept this as historical truth.
Put in a similar position to one that the Balkan nation previously had with another neighbour – Greece – North Macedonia’s EU struggle shows just how exceptionally difficult and complicated the process can be. At this moment EU accession requires a lot more than a strong, determined political will to be resolved. The concessions that the Macedonian side would have to make in order to please Bulgarian demands will be a bitter pill to swallow should North Macedonia’s authorities choose to do so.
North Macedonia has already been in a similar situation before – in 2019 when it ended the three-decades-long naming dispute with Greece. After North Macedonia (back then called Macedonia) declared its independence in 1991, Greece strongly opposed the use of the term “Macedonia” since it also had a bordering region named Macedonia. The long-standing dispute finally resulted in the 2018 agreement under which Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia, making a clear geographical distinction between the country and the Greek region.
Just prior to that, a friendship agreement was signed in 2017 with Bulgaria and it was seen as a significant step in the right direction in relation to troubled bilateral relations in the Balkans. It showed a fresh approach and one where conflicts and bilateral disputes were not, as usual, swept under the rug but directly addressed. Back then, both sides boldly claimed that history should be left to the historians and that politics and politicians should not interfere in this process. Under the deal, Sofia and Skopje also agreed to establish a joint history commission which would work on issues relating to important historical events and personalities.
However, over three years later, the lack of progress on this friendship treaty, as claimed by Bulgaria, came back to haunt North Macedonia in its pursuit of opening the much anticipated EU negotiations framework. The latest salvo between the two sides quickly spread, with high officials from both countries trading blows over their different historical interpretations and each accusing the other of not respecting the treaty and endangering bilateral relations in the process.
While Macedonian officials acknowledged that they are ready to make additional explanations regarding the implementation of the friendship treaty in order to ease Bulgarian concerns, they are not willing to discuss the identity attributes that have been raised by its neighbour.
In an attempt to calm the nerves between the two sides, North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, gave an interview to Bulgarian media where he addressed another thorny issue – the role of Bulgaria during the Second World War and its military presence on the territory of today’s North Macedonia. Zaev suggested that Bulgaria was not in fact an occupying force and that Bulgarian forces were only administering the region.
Back home, Zaev’s interview was condemned and labelled by many as a desperate attempt to throw off Bulgaria in its intention to block its neighbour. The prime minister faced heavy criticism from the public and by prominent historians, politicians, as well within his own Social Democratic party. Subsequently, the government appointed another former high official and former prime minister from 2004-2006, Vlado Buchkovski, as a special envoy to Bulgaria in an effort to continue dialogue with Sofia. Known for his past efforts to bring Skopje and Sofia closer together while in power, Buchkovski stated that while he is not a miracle worker, he will “try to use his credibility to restore the trust between the two countries.”
In an interview for German media, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov claimed that the only county that actually wants North Macedonia to finally begin the EU accession process more than Germany, which is currently presiding with the EU, is in fact Bulgaria. However, he also stressed that the biggest problem for finding a way out of this situation is Skopje’s claim for the official recognition of Macedonian minorities in Bulgaria.
In a separate interview, Bulgarian foreign minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, went as far to suggest that relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia should mirror that of Spain and Latin America, claiming that “the fact that Argentines and Chileans speak Spanish does not make them any less Argentine and Chilean,” and that this could also be the case with the Macedonian people and Macedonian language. Zaharieva also accused Macedonian political elites of “spending the past 30 years of its [Macedonian] independence from Yugoslavia to stimulate and tolerate hate speech towards Bulgaria”.
In Bulgaria, some were not exactly thrilled by the decision to block North Macedonia. Many contested it, arguing that it was purely made as an electoral ploy ahead of the spring elections in the country. Others questioned the policy itself, warning that it could backfire and create an even bigger anti-Bulgarian sentiment in North Macedonia. Several Bulgarian news outlets also wrote that this decision risked isolating Bulgaria within the EU since Bulgaria’s actions were not backed by any other member state. As one outlet pointed out: “Bulgaria’s European partners do not understand the reasons behind this veto”. Academic scholars in both countries also warned that the veto is a lose-lose and threatens relations between Sofia and Skopje.
The veto also puts into the question the credibility of the EU’s enlargement process. In the case of North Macedonia, the decision to delay the start of the negotiations would be for the third consecutive time that the country is stopped in its European track since it signed the agreements with Greece and Bulgaria. In terms of the message the EU is sending to the rest of the region about the enlargement process, it is not a promising one.
While Germany’s push for the opening of talks with both North Macedonia and Albania is an encouraging sign, it could still amount to nothing, as Bulgaria insists on the conditions that it has set for Skopje. Moreover, such situations could potentially lead to the rise of an anti-European sentiment and a return to nationalism in the country.
North Macedonia has also been here before with the decision that Greece took in 2008 to block its neighbour from joining NATO (and a year later the EU), which led to the rise of the right-wing government led by former Nikola Gruevski. Now a convicted felon and living in exile in Hungary, Gruevski established an illiberal regime that lasted for eight years, strained relations with almost all of its neighbours and seriously undermined North Macedonia’s European hopes.
Last year, France was the EU country that vetoed the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania on the grounds that the accession negotiations had not an efficient framework. Even though amendments were made, the opening of the negotiation process remains on hold. Neighbouring Serbia has also made little progress in its accession negotiations during 2020 with Kosovo – still leaving the country and its European path in limbo. Based on these outcomes, the situation puts tiny Montenegro as the frontrunner in the region of becoming the next EU member, although without any definitive dates being set as of yet.
The dispute between Sofia and Skopje could also set a dangerous precedent regarding member states and candidate states when it comes to the enlargement process itself. Such a policy could mean favouring member states in various disputes with candidate countries. This would mean that these issues could be set as requirements, instead of important European standards such as rule of law and the fight against corruption. Neighbourly disputes in the Balkans are abundant and disputes range from different historical perspectives to maritime and border quarrels, and minority rights.
Rocky path ahead
Today, North Macedonia and Bulgaria are in the spotlight, but tomorrow this could be Serbia and Croatia (which also have different historical interpretations and disputes). Greece might object to Albania’s path towards the EU over minority rights, the list goes on. Hence actions such as those taken by Bulgaria could set a rocky path ahead for the region towards the EU. Tough calls and decisions need to be made in this pursuit, and as recent examples have shown, this will not be an easy task.
Joining the EU is a strategic goal for most of these countries, and all the efforts they have made during the last decade towards establishing a functional democratic society, an efficient rule of law and a free market economy, have been important steps in this direction. However as the North Macedonia’s case illustrates, sometimes these countries face even bigger external challenges in their pursuit of becoming EU members.
There is a positive side to this, however. Should these countries be willing to make difficult decisions and resolve such disputes, for the first time in their histories, they will have an opportunity to be finally sitting at the decision-making table themselves.
Bojan Stojkovski is a freelance journalist based in Skopje, North Macedonia covering foreign policy, technology and science. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, ZDNet, Haaretz and various regional publications in the Western Balkans.