North Macedonia VS Bulgaria: Another sacrifice is necessary

  • Marija Kadovic
  • 29.5.2020 10:35

Just when it seemed that the Republic of North Macedonia was going to continue its path toward the European Union without any significant problems, ghosts from the past came back to haunt the country. After resolving the name issue with Greece and joining NATO, a spark of the unresolved issues with Bulgaria appeared which threatens to burst into a fire that may be much harder to extinguish than the disagreement with Greece.

Bulgaria shows a willingness to support the opening of negotiation with its neighbour on membership in the European Union. Still, in return, it demands that disputed issues over history and language be resolved as Sofia wants. As a price to pay for Bulgarian support in joining European Union, Sofia requires that European Union does not use the term “Macedonian language”, but instead to use “the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia”. Furthermore, Bulgaria requests that North Macedonia must reject claims that Macedonian minority lives in Bulgaria, and to accept Bulgarian interpretation of their shared history.

The dispute that exists between Macedonia and Bulgaria over the language and nation is not something new. These issues could be traced back to Bulgarian recognition of Macedonia as an independent state in 1992, after the fall of Yugoslavia. However, although Bulgarians were the first to recognize this newly independent country, the government did not accept the existence of Macedonian identity and language.


Disagreements over Macedonian language, identity and history

The Bulgarian government considers North Macedonia as forming part of what was historically Bulgarian territory and Macedonians to be a subgroup of Bulgarians and not a separate nation. Therefore, Sofia requests that North Macedonia drop the claim that the Macedonian minority exists in Bulgaria’s western Blagoevgrad Province. Throughout the years, the Macedonian government worked on asserting a separate Macedonian national identity and downplayed their cultural and linguistic similarities with Bulgarians. However, in order to benefit from Bulgarian EU membership, many Macedonians possess Bulgarian passports and with that undermine efforts of the Macedonian government.

“The Bulgarian government is concerned that the unique Macedonian language may lead Macedonians to lay territorial claims in southwestern Bulgaria, where a similar dialect is spoken.”


Bulgarians consider the constitutional language of Macedonia to be the product of the evolution of the Bulgarian language and the dialects of that language. Linguistic differences raise fears for territorial claims in both countries. The Bulgarian government is concerned that the unique Macedonian language may lead Macedonians to lay territorial claims in southwestern Bulgaria, where a similar dialect is spoken. The Macedonian government worries that accepting Bulgarian claims could allow Sofia to use the same logic for territorial claims.

Although it looked like the language dispute was resolved in 1999 with a joint declaration when both sides promised not to have territorial claims on each other, in that time Bulgaria accepted a compromise to become part of NATO. Nowadays, Bulgaria is again bringing into question Macedonian language, which is essential for the national identity of the country and that was recognized by the United Nations in 1977 and confirmed by the Prespa Agreement signed with Greece.

Interpretation of history presents another issue between these two Balkan countries. In August 2017, the two countries signed a Treaty on friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation to straighten their relations. According to the treaty, a bilateral committee was established to try and achieve consensus on key individuals and events that exist in the common histories of these two countries. Although historians managed to come to an agreement about the medieval part of history, the committee is still unable to achieve compromise over the liberation struggle against the Ottoman empire. Disagreement over national hero Gotse Delchev, who fought for Macedonia’s independence during the Ottoman Empire, and whom both countries consider their own, further aggravated the situation and stalled the committee in  December 2019. 


Consequences of Bulgarian demands 

Although the disagreements between Macedonia and Bulgaria were able to be put to the side until now, EU accession talks have put Bulgaria into a favourable negotiating position that they may try to use to their advantage. Despite the claims that they want Macedonia to become part of the European Union, there is a possibility that Bulgaria will veto the start of Skopje’s accession talks with the European Union. This would put Macedonia back at the negotiation table with another European Union member.

After making compromises with Greece and giving up its name to become part of the European family, Macedonia may show less willingness to negotiate with Bulgaria, because acceptance of Bulgarian demands would undermine Macedonian identity and existence. These “two brothers” are at the end part of a dysfunctional Balkan family and stability of their relations affects the whole region. For their position among European countries Macedonians sacrificed their name, however with Bulgarian demands that bring into question their identity, Macedonians will have to ask one important question: is European Union membership worth it?


“However, if North Macedonia is cornered by Bulgarian demands, Russia will not let the opportunity to increase its impact in the Western Balkan pass, and North Macedonia could fall under Russian influence, just as Serbia and Republika Srpska.”


If Bulgaria vetos Macedonian membership, the stability of the whole region, whose states aim towards European membership will be brought into question, because Macedonia will turn toward other powers for protection. Russia could use this opportunity to increase its influence in North Macedonia, which is currently limited due to limited economic cooperation and European orientation of both the ruling party and Macedonian nationalist opposition. However, if North Macedonia is cornered by Bulgarian demands, Russia will not let the opportunity to increase its impact in the Western Balkan pass, and North Macedonia could fall under Russian influence, just as Serbia and Republika Srpska.

If the European Union wants the stability of the Balkans, it needs to start negotiations that will lead towards membership of North Macedonia. European Union members should show appreciation towards the sacrifice that Macedonians made in negotiations with Greece. Furthermore, they should put pressure on Bulgaria against exploiting the situation or vetoing the start of accession talks. On the other side, the work of the committee over historical disagreements should be continued, and both sides should try to achieve a compromise on these issues.

Bulgarians must understand that Macedonians have the right to self-determination. If Macedonian people believe that they are not Bulgarians and they want their state, they have the right to have both of them. Bulgarian government should not forget that ethnic character has changed a lot and that Macedonians are not the only people that live in Macedonia, but also Albanians, Greeks, etc. If Bulgarians consider Macedonians brothers as they claim, they will continue to support them towards their path to the EU. Vetoing Macedonia’s path toward the EU could lead to dissatisfaction within Bulgaria due to the huge number of Macedonians on its territory. Furthermore, it could increase tensions between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, and at the same time jeopardize the stability and prosperity of the whole region.

About author: Marija Kadovic


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