Skopje will not be able to start negotiations with the European Union until they agree with Bulgaria on the disputed issues of the Macedonian nation, language and history from Sofia’s point of view
The approval of the « negotiating framework » for the start of official negotiations on the accession of North Macedonia to the European Union was supposed to be a formality, but it turned into a scandalous event No. 1 for the EU, the Balkan region, as well as for all countries that are preparing to join the European Union. EU ministers meeting by videoconference on November 17 were unable to approve negotiating position due to Bulgarian veto. Until the last moment, Western European capitals, primarily Brussels and Berlin, believed that Sofia would not insist on its demands and would agree to « continue negotiations » on historical issues with Skopje, which would continue parallel to negotiations on EU membership. However, the Bulgarian authorities were relentless.
Bulgaria’s irreconcilable position, as well as the essence of its claims to the neighboring country, caused, perhaps, general surprise in Europe. For the first time, the countries of the European Union find themselves in a situation where they are forced to « force to peace » not a candidate, but an EU member. It was Bulgaria, and not North Macedonia, that the leaders of the European Union tried to reason with, who advocated putting seemingly theoretical historical issues « outside the brackets » of the European integration process of the Balkan region. But the Bulgarian authorities remained unconvinced.
In Brussels, they even started looking for a « Russian trace ». It is possible that they will find. However, the primary cause of the current « historical » conflict in the Balkans is still the processes taking place within the Bulgarian society and politics..
Reason number 1 was the movement aimed at the final disposal of the socialist heritage in all spheres of life – including the historical.
Bulgarians, in particular, decided to deal with the « legacy of the Comintern ». (The Comintern is the Communist International, the Third International is an international organization that united the communist parties of various countries in 1919-1943). One of the most famous decisions of this structure was the Resolution on the Macedonian Question of January 11, 1934.. At a meeting in Moscow, the Political Secretariat of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, by its decision, recognized the existence of a separate Macedonian nation. The decision was based on the belief that the region of Macedonia is one of the centers of the future imperialist war, and therefore it is necessary to weaken the contradictions between the countries that control it (Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia). The decree was the first official political document in which an international organization recognized the existence of a separate Macedonian nation.
At the end of World War II, the Bulgarian leadership (Georgy Dimitrov) « under Stalin’s dictation » pursued a policy of « Macedonization » of the Bulgarians living in the Macedonian region, located on the Bulgarian territory. And since the mid-1940s. When the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed and the Socialist Republic of Macedonia became part of it, the development of the region’s Macedonian identity was actively pursued by the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.
In Sofia, they emphasize that they do not want the Macedonians to necessarily identify themselves as Bulgarians now, but they demand that the Macedonians recognize that they were once Bulgarians. Bulgaria is convinced: one cannot go to the European Union with « portraits » of Stalin and Tito, one must recognize the role of communist tyrants in the creation of the Macedonian nation, and only then the « Republic of North Macedonia » will be able to move on to the EU.
In addition to « cleansing the region » of the remnants of totalitarian ideologies, there is another goal, or reason number 2. In Sofia, they do not speak about it directly, but at the expert level it is actively discussed.. We are talking about Bulgaria’s course to strengthen its weight as a regional player.
Otto von Bismarck, in addition to all the other meme phrases known to us, 130 years ago said this: « The one who controls the Vardar Valley will be the master of the Balkans. ». Vardar is the « main river » of Macedonia – both the historical region centered in the Greek Thessaloniki, and the modern state of North Macedonia, also known as « Vardar Macedonia ». Bismarck’s phrase is found in guidebooks, essays on the history of the Balkans, and recently it can be seen more and more often in interviews with experts who explain why the « Macedonian question » was so important for Greece and has now become so important for Bulgaria.
Within the framework of the paradigm about the importance of symbolic Macedonia for the region, the Greeks have already achieved the renaming of the former Yugoslav republic from « Macedonia » to « North Macedonia ». And now the Bulgarians want to exclude from the international use the concepts of « Macedonian nation », « Macedonian language » and rewrite Macedonian history, « throwing out » from it « Macedonian » national heroes.
Bismarck’s quote, which Bulgarian historians mention in conversations with journalists, best explains the fact that the current conflict between Sofia and Skopje is not scientific, but political, and even geopolitical. Bulgaria today does not claim the territory of a neighboring state, but still wants, let’s say, to preserve at least the historical memory of the connection with « Vardar Macedonia », promoting the thesis of the Bulgarian origin of the Macedonians. This will allow Bulgaria not only to register the informal Bulgarian influence on a single Vardar valley, but also to declare itself as a regional leader..
For the Balkans, in principle, it is an axiom that history is an instrument of politics, and issues of national memory concern the peoples of the region much more than the level of GDP. However, now this reality of South-East Europe will have to be fully realized by the rest of the continent..
From the point of view of Brussels, the most optimal option for unblocking negotiations between Skopje and the EU because of Sofia’s veto is the achievement of bilateral Bulgarian-North Macedonian agreements on « continuing the dialogue on historical issues ». North Macedonia would be fine too. In this case, negotiations on EU membership would start and go on as usual, and in parallel, scientists from the two countries would lead to non-binding round table discussions. But such prospects do not suit Bulgaria, because in Sofia they understand: they will not have another such chance to « reformat » the neighboring country according to « Bulgarian templates » and strengthen their influence in the region.
Thus, as of today, everything suggests that Skopje will not be able to start negotiations with the European Union until it agrees with Bulgaria the disputed issues of the Macedonian nation, language and history from the point of view of Sofia.
Until the situation is resolved, the European Union will experience a real « enlargement crisis », and all countries that have taken, or at least declared (like Ukraine) a course of European integration, have to think about what kind of vetoes from EU members can be expected in their case.
The first is the emergence of new humanitarian (historical, linguistic, national …) barriers on the way to the European Union. Official documents of the EU and Euro-optimists do not warn about them, but in fact they can significantly complicate the process of European integration.
The second is the possibility of an individual member of the European Union to block the process of accession to the EU of a candidate country, guided not by objective and generally recognized, but by internal subjective reasons.
The third is the admissibility of discussion, and even challenge of the national identity, history and national heroes of the candidate country by the EU member state.
On the way to the EU, Ukraine may well face the need to reconcile its history with Romania, national heroes with Poland, monuments with Hungary, the rights of minorities with the same Bulgaria … While Ukraine is not even officially a potential candidate for accession to the European Union, these questions can be postponed and thought about tomorrow. However, this is unlikely to be a responsible decision, taking into account the course of European integration enshrined in the Constitution..
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North Macedonia, Bulgaria, European Union, Bulgarians
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