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It’s time for Bulgaria and North Macedonia to move forward

Dimitar Bechev is a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and the author of “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe,” “Historical Dictionary of North Macedonia” and “Turkey under Erdoğan.”  

When Americans say something is history, what they mean is the issue in question is no longer important. For Europeans, however, it’s just the opposite. If it’s history, then it really matters. And in this sense, Bulgaria and North Macedonia are truly European. 

Since the early 1960s, the two countries have been embroiled in a dispute about the past, as Bulgaria and the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia — part of Yugoslavia at the time — argued vigorously over the national sentiments of prominent 19th and 20th century figures. The two communist governments broke spears over the medieval period too. 

But as their ongoing quarrel has spilled over into the European Union again and again in recent years — it is time for both parties to chart a course forward. 

In March 2020, Bulgaria green lit a Council of the EU decision to start accession talks with North Macedonia. But then, in November, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s administration vetoed the negotiation framework, expressing concerns about the lack of progress made in the joint historical commission set up under the 2017 friendship treaty, and worries about hate speech in North Macedonia and the treatment of those with Bulgarian national identity. 

North Macedonia, for its part, resented its European aspirations being held hostage by Sofia’s blatant effort to force a fundamental revision of the Macedonian national narrative.   

Former Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Predictably enough, what diplomats and policy wonks feared was a repeat of the old name dispute between Greece and (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, which festered for over a quarter of a century. After changing its name and going through so many hurdles to move into the EU, should North Macedonia fall prey to another neighbor?  

And if Bulgaria is in a position to hijack enlargement policy, what would that do to the bloc’s credibility in the Western Balkans and beyond?   

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. A proposal tabled by the outgoing French presidency of the Council of the EU is now charting a way forward. 

Already endorsed by the Bulgarian Parliament, the compromise allows North Macedonia to kick off accession talks against a commitment to include Bulgarians in the list of communities mentioned in its constitution’s preamble. However, substantive negotiations are set to begin only after amendments are passed by the Macedonian legislature. The French proposal accepts that the EU negotiation framework will reference bilateral documents adopted by Skopje and Sofia — including the historical commission. And last but not least, it offers Bulgaria a formula for how to avoid formally recognizing the existence of a separate Macedonian language. 

Interestingly, after initially dismissing this proposal, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski appears to have now accepted the deal, but it’s for parliament to green light any constitutional changes. On July 5, demonstrations in front of the Macedonian government in Skopje turned violent, and tensions won’t abate, even if Kovačevski whips up enough votes to adopt the proposal. Constitutional amendments, requiring a two-thirds’ majority, would be an even tougher nut to crack given the staunch opposition by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE party, which senses an opportunity to topple Kovačevski and provoke early elections. So, expect some more political jockeying in Skopje in the coming days and weeks. 

North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski | Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

The French compromise may well work. If it does, North Macedonia will belatedly embark on membership talks, having been judged fit by the European Commission as far back as 2009. And Bulgaria will have won concessions, giving the country’s politicians of various stripes enough cover to move forward and focus on domestic troubles. 

Yet the bad taste will linger. 

With some justification, detractors will question the wisdom of the EU indulging a member country’s historical claims. Many in Skopje will contend, as they have for some time, that there’s no point in joining the EU, if the price is acknowledging ethnic Macedonians were once — and, implicitly, still are — Bulgarian. And in Bulgaria, the patriotic fervor unleashed by the veto will take time to deflate. Politicians will be tempted to exploit it, and they may even be tempted to wield another veto further down the line. We’re not quite out of the woods yet.  

But does this mean that historical disputes should be banished from the EU once and for all? In an ideal world, yes. 

Historians should be left to debate freely and in good faith and, if they don’t see their role as propagandists, to challenge both the Macedonian and Bulgarian retelling of the past. The two countries’ intertwined past is complex and doesn’t lend itself to cliches — which, in fairness, is hardly unique if you look around Europe. Asking whether Gotse Delchev — the turn-of-the-century revolutionary venerated in both Sofia and Skopje — was Bulgarian or Macedonian is akin to asking whether Charlemagne was French or German.  

More realistically, however, Bulgarian and Macedonian leaders should simply agree to disagree, and shift their focus to the more practical concerns of their constituents. From trade to infrastructure and telecoms to energy, there’s a lot to be done — and the EU should be there to help.

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