No one in North Macedonia can believe that after the dispute with its southern neighbour Greece about the country’s name was finally settled, another more absurd and at the same time more intense dispute has now erupted.
The decades-long “name dispute” was resolved — not without tough and painful compromises — by adding the prefix North to the name Macedonia. Many people in the country oppose the name change, and others are dissatisfied with the solution but accepted it as a pragmatic way for the country to move towards EU and Nato integration. After changing the name to North Macedonia, the country became a Nato member in March 2020 and was hoping to make another breakthrough by finally launching EU membership negotiations by the end of the year after waiting for 15 years for this to happen.
But hopes faded after North Macedonia’s eastern neighbour Bulgaria set new and awkward requirements, despite the 2017 Friendship Treaty signed immediately after the Social Democrats, SDSM, led by PM Zoran Zaev came to power in Skopje.
These will be difficult for Skopje to accept, especially if they continue to be imposed in a form of a unilateral ultimatum, and because they affect the Macedonian language and identity.
Changing the name into North Macedonia brought a loss of identity for the country, which was hard for everyone to swallow.
What’s wrong with the language?
If the essence of the dispute with Greece was what’s in a name, now with Bulgaria it is what’s wrong with the language?
The punch is not easy to take, because it comes from a neighbouring country that has declared that it supports North Macedonia in its Euro-Atlantic integration and presents itself as friendly country.
What are the main Bulgarian requirements? Chief among them is to deny the existence of the Macedonian language, which Sofia considers to be a Bulgarian dialect. The Bulgarian authorities want the language to be presented in future EU documents as the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia. It should be noted that Macedonian is an official language recognised by the UN in 1977.
Bulgarian officials also want the entire history in the textbooks related to Macedonia and Macedonian people before the end of the Second World War in 1944 to be presented as Bulgarian, claiming that the country is an artificial creation of the communist Yugoslavia.
These are key conditions for Bulgaria to allow the start of negotiations and there are more. Under the Friendship Treaty the two countries set up a joint commission to resolve the historical differences, but revolutionary figure Goce Delcev, who fought for independent Macedonia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, became a stumbling block. Bulgarian historians claim that Delcev was a Bulgarian national, while the Macedonian side repeated several times that if the commission insists on this position, then there will be no solution.
One of the supporters of this romantic Bulgarian ideology is the Deputy PM and Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, a former informant of the secret service of communist Bulgaria.
In a series of provocative comments in recent months, Karakachanov and other officials threatened that Bulgaria will block the start of Skopje's negotiations with the EU expected by the end of 2020, if Bulgarian demands are not met.
In an interview with Bulgaria’s Darik radio, Karakachanov said that Bulgaria did make a compromise when it allowed North Macedonia to become a Nato member — but implied Sofia wanted to show the Macedonian side they could move forwards by making concessions, and that with more effort (ie further concessions to the Bulgarian side) they can progress towards the target of EU membership.
During the interview, Karakachanov presented a series of bizarre and extreme theses including one that part of the population of North Macedonia are Bulgarians, who are living under repression. He added, somewhat more softly, that others are Yugoslav Macedonians and that the third part of the population consider themselves to be descendants of the Alexander the Great.
According to Karakachanov, the August 2 Ilinden uprising for the liberation of the Macedonian territories from the Ottomans in 1903, a big holiday in North Macedonia, was actually a Bulgarian uprising. He said there is only one nation in these territories, namely the Bulgarian nationality.
He also said that it is wrong and unacceptable for North Macedonia to celebrate October 11 as a holiday that marks the start of the anti-fascist uprising in the country in 1941, because actually what happened that day, Karakachanov said, was a Bulgarian officer was killed.
The Bulgarian minister said that Sofia actually demands an “end to the falsification of the Bulgarian history” by Skopje and accused North Macedonia of not implementing the 2017 Friendship Agreement, even though this nowhere states that Sofia has a right to claim non-existence of the Macedonian language, but its implementation is left to the joint historical commission. Bulgaria’s new demands were made only after the signing of the agreement as the commission’s work got underway.
North Macedonia officials also say that the Friendship Treaty, which sets basic principles for economic, cultural and other cooperation, should be the basis for further cooperation with Bulgaria and that Sofia should abide by it.
Furthermore the Darik radio journalist commented that if North Macedonia could have taken down the plaques with the inscription Alexander the Great from his monuments and renamed his namesake motorway under the Prespa deal with Greece, so it should take down the signs on war memorials with “Bulgarian fascist occupiers”, to which Karakachanov replied:
“If needed we will send an engineer platoon to dismantle all memorials with inscriptions Bulgarian fascist occupiers.”
Karakachanov and other Sofia officials deny that Bulgaria was part of the Nazi axis and say that Bulgarian troops entered Macedonian territories that were part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia during World War II as liberators, not as fascist occupiers
Regarding the threat, North Macedonia’s Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska said on October 21 that Karakachanov’s statement as minister of defence of a Nato member country was “not appropriate”, adding that the time had passed when such provocations in the region were considered serious.
“This is not the way of communication of two Nato member states,” Sekerinska said.
Later Karakachanov tried to explain that Macedonian media had put his words about sending a regiment in a negative context, and actually it was not a threat, but an offer of help as a Nato member.
He ironically added that when Bulgarian troops will eventually come to North Macedonia they would be "welcomed as they were in 1912, 1918 and 1941” with flowers, bread and salt.
Bulgaria sees Macedonians as a brainwashed nation
Bulgaria’s current attitude towards Macedonians dates back to the 1950s when Macedonia was part of the former Yugoslavia and continued following its independence in 1991 as historical differences between the two countries made relations between them somewhat tense. Bulgaria, which itself holds some Macedonian territory gained during the Balkan wars in the early 20th century, was indeed the first country to recognise Macedonia as an independent country, but never recognised the Macedonian language.
According to the official Bulgarian standpoint, people who consider themselves to be Macedonians are actually Bulgarians who speak a dialect of the Bulgarian language but were brainwashed during ex-Yugoslavia former communist regime under Josip Broz Tito.
The Friendship Treaty signed between Zaev and Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov gave hope that the relations between the two neighbours would improve, but it was revealed to be a Trojan horse with hidden intentions, as the demands from the Bulgarian side unexpectedly followed.
In September, Sofia sent a memorandum to the EU states, explaining that it has issues with North Macedonia that should be resolved prior to the start of negotiations. In the document, Bulgaria says that the main open issues with Skopje are the language, the common history and the minority issues. The memorandum contains controversial claims including that the Macedonian language is an artificial "communist-era product" and represents a Bulgarian dialect.
The Bulgarian memorandum, which was supported by all political parties, also claims that North Macedonia is sponsoring anti-Bulgarian ideology.
Germany’s Minister for Europe Michael Roth reacting to the memorandum said there should be no additional conditions by member countries that are not a part of the Council Conclusions.
Bulgarian pressure comes at a time when Bulgaria has been shaken by the biggest political crisis since 2013 as from the beginning of July hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting, demanding the resignations of the government and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev.
The European Parliament earlier in October slammed Bulgaria due to the serious deterioration of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights and gave strong support to the protesters who have been taking to the streets for more than three months.
North Macedonia’s politicians set red lines
“We should not be part of the pre-election political discourse of neighbouring Bulgaria,” North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said when asked if the country was going to send a protest note following Karakachanov’s latest statements.
North Macedonian politicians have restrained themselves from comments that could be deemed provocative in the hope that the EU intergovernmental conference eventually will start in December.
However, Zaev and Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Nikola Dimitrov said that the country has its own red lines that cannot be crossed, namely the Macedonian language and identity.
Dimitrov noted that diplomatic efforts have been enhanced but it cannot be ruled out that there will be no intergovernmental conference with the EU by the end of this year.
“But if the reason for that is the Macedonian language, I am ok with that,” Dimitrov added.
“Our right to self-determination in the 21st century cannot be disputed. It is not European if someone interferes in the right of another nation to say what it is and what language it speaks and if the Macedonian language becomes an obstacle to our EU integration,” Dimitrov said.
North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski also said that the Macedonian language is codified and recognised worldwide, and therefore all claims to the contrary are untrue or present only a provocation so there is no need to negotiate or discuss them.
The latest reports say that Bulgaria is now concerned about the new name of its western neighbour, as the name North Macedonia might be interpreted in a way that the country might have territorial claims on part of the historical region (Pirin) Macedonia now part of southwestern Bulgaria.
Asked by a journalist to comment, Osmani said that government has no problem about making an additional explanation to the Bulgarian side that the new name does not represent a territorial threat to Bulgaria.
On the other hand, there are intellectuals in Bulgaria that disagree with the Bulgarian state’s official position about North Macedonia.
Earlier this month, a group of over 30 Bulgarian historians and scholars condemned the memorandum sent by Bulgarian officials to EU institutions. They said that the memorandum is against EU values.
In the statement sent to media in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian intellectuals said that the problem is that “outdated, romantic and mythological-historiography thinking dominates in Bulgaria itself”.
Austrian historian Ulf Brunnbauer, chair of history of Southeast and Eastern Europe at the University of Regensburg, Germany, was cited by Deutsche Welle last month as saying that the disagreement between Bulgaria and North Macedonia should not affect EU talks.
According to him, the memorandum represents a way for Bulgaria to press “its own nationalistic view on the history and culture of another country and its people”.
"It would be similar to Germany telling the Austrians that they are actually Germans, or Denmark calling the Norwegians an anomaly because they used to be part of their empire and their standard language developed later from the Danish," Brunnbauer was cited as saying.
The absurd conflict should be resolved by November 9-10 when Sofia is going to host a Berlin Process Summit that will be co-chaired by Bulgaria and North Macedonia. By then, Sofia should decide whether to allow Skopje to launch EU accession talks. Zaev expects all differences to be solved during the upcoming meeting with Borissov whom he regards as a great friend.
However the meeting is uncertain after it was reported recently that Borissov has tested positive for coronavirus.
Germany, which holds the EU presidency until the end of 2020, insists the two countries must overcome the differences to open the way for Skopje to launch EU accession talks. Not doing so would be regarded as a failure of the German presidency.
Diplomats say that Sofia is isolated in its position regarding North Macedonia, but has a right to veto the process.
Politicians in North Macedonia are still optimistic that the intergovernmental conference under the German EU presidency will be held in December.
“All EU member states are aware, especially the neighbours, that we are faced with a very simple choice — either we will have joint success or we will have a joint debacle,” North Macedonia's Deputy PM Dimitrov said.