On November 7 Bulgaria announced its refusal to start negotiations with North Macedonia on joining the European Union.
The Bulgarian authorities insist that, first, it is necessary to resolve the existing interstate disputes about the national identity, the language of the inhabitants of North Macedonia, and the belonging of national heroes. Without the approval of all member states, it is impossible to start negotiations on EU enlargement. The Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev believes that by blocking the negotiation process, Bulgaria is violating the terms of the 2017 Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighborly Relations, and Cooperation, which Skopje considered the basis for starting negotiations with the EU. There are several reasons why the doors to European integration were closed for North Macedonia again, and why Ukraine can learn a lesson from the current situation.
The Bulgarian authorities do not consider the Macedonians as a separate ethnic group, insisting that they have Bulgarian roots. The Macedonians living in Bulgaria are not recognized as a national minority. Skopje does not agree with this. Despite the fact that there are many similarities between Bulgarians and Macedonians in language, culture, mentality and most of them profess Orthodoxy, these are two different ethnic groups. The formation of the Macedonians was influenced by the Slavic tribes who settled in the 7th century on the territory of modern North Macedonia, as well as the Illyrians, Thracians, Dardanians, Polovtsians, Avars, Greeks. The Bulgarian ethnos appeared as a result of the mixing of the Slavs and the Turkic-speaking nomads of the Bulgars.
Before gaining independence in 1991, their lands were part of the ancient state of Macedonia (together with Greece and partly Bulgaria), the Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the state formations of Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia. Modern Macedonians have nothing to do with the ancient Greeks-Macedonians, and their national identity began to form in the 19th century. In North Macedonia, in addition to the Macedonians, other ethnic groups live Albanians, Turks, Roma, Serbs, Bosnians, Aromanians, Bulgarians.
The Bulgarian authorities claim that the "Macedonian language" is a dialect of the Bulgarian language, but the Macedonians consider themselves the founders of the Cyrillic alphabet used by the Bulgarians, claim that its authors, Saints Cyril and Methodius, were Slavs from the Greek city of Thessaloniki (there is a version about the Greek origin of the saints) ...
Sofia insists that Macedonian historians stop calling the annexation by the Bulgarian Kingdom (an ally of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) of part of the Macedonian lands during the Second World War as a "fascist occupation". There is a controversy around the personality of the leader of the "Internal Macedonian-Odrin revolutionary organization" Georgy Delchev, who is at the end of the 19 - early 20 century sought autonomy from the authorities of the Ottoman Empire for Macedonia and the city of Edirne. Delchev is considered a national hero in both North Macedonia and Bulgaria, and cities are named after him.
Bulgarians compete with Macedonians and Serbs for the spiritual and historical heritage of the city of Ohrid, nicknamed "Slavic Jerusalem". Now it is part of North Macedonia, but from 990 to 1015 it was the capital of the Bulgarian kingdom. Cyril and Methodius were engaged in educational activities in Ohrid in the 9th century. In 1019, the Ohrid Archdiocese was founded there, which in the 20th century became the object of competition between the Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox Churches. Since 1945 it has been subordinate to Belgrade. In 1967 in Ohrid, the Macedonian Orthodox Church broke away from the Serbian Orthodox Church, which was not recognized by Ecumenical Orthodoxy.
Interests of Bulgarian politicians
Today the Bulgarian National Movement party from the ultra-right bloc United Patriots is behind the incitement of the Bulgarian-Macedonian disputes. Since 2017, they have been coalition partners of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the ruling center-right party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria. With their views, the Bulgarian ultra-right resemble Russian chauvinists, who impose the stereotype that Russians and Ukrainians are supposedly one people, and the Ukrainian language is the dialect of the Russian language.
In 2018, the leader of the Bulgarian National Movement, Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov promised to prevent North Macedonia from joining the EU (a NATO member since 2020) because Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called the Macedonian language independent. He expressed dissatisfaction with the work of the Bulgarian-Macedonian History Committee, created to resolve contradictions, insisted on the inclusion in the Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighborly Relations and Cooperation of an addition stating that Bulgaria and North Macedonia allegedly had a common history until 1944. In October 2020, Karakachanov threatened to send Bulgarian troops to North Macedonia to dismantle monuments bearing the words "Bulgarian fascist occupiers".
Volen Siderov, a former member of the United Patriots bloc, leader of the ultra-right Ataka party, expresses claims to the Strumica region in North Macedonia, which in 1919 was ceded to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes under the Treaty of Neiisk. He argues his position by the fact that the treaty is allegedly not relevant, since the kingdom does not exist. In 2018, the vice-speaker of the Bulgarian parliament, leader of the Volia party Veselin Mareshki, supported the Macedonian citizens who ignored the referendum on changing the country's name in order to settle the dispute with Greece. In September 2018, he was sentenced to four years in prison for extortion and blackmail.
The Bulgarian ultra-right are afraid of Skopje's claims to the border historical and geographical region of Pirin Macedonia and therefore deny the self-sufficiency of the Macedonian ethnos and language. By the way, they managed to distinguish themselves on the Ukrainian issue. Karakachanov and Siderov oppose tougher anti-Russian sanctions, as they bring losses to Bulgarian business.
The government's incitement to disputes with North Macedonia may be related to the desire of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to distract Bulgarian citizens from corruption scandals and anti-government protests organized by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, demanding the government's resignation and early parliamentary elections.
For many years, the leadership of individual EU member states has been blocking the negotiation process with problem states like North Macedonia, which is one of the most corrupt and poor countries in Europe. There is a potential for conflict there. In January-November 2001, an armed conflict broke out between the Macedonian government and Albanian separatists. Brussels also slows down the European integration of Turkey and Albania out of fears of an influx of Muslim migrants.
From 1992 to 2018, the Skopje negotiations were blocked by Athens due to a dispute over the name of the country (there is a province of Macedonia in Greece) and the cultural and historical heritage of Tsar Alexander the Great, which was settled in the Prespa Agreement. However, even changing its name to "North Macedonia" the country did not come close to the cherished goal.
In October 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron voted against starting negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania on accession to the EU at a meeting of the European Council, since, in his opinion, first, it is necessary to reform the EU, including changing the procedure for admitting new members. Paris proposed to gradually open up access to various EU programs, financial assistance as the candidate countries move towards fulfilling the requirements for meeting the membership criteria. Now Bulgaria is slowing down the process.
Despite the fact that enlargement in the Western Balkans is a strategic goal of the EU, today solving other problems is a priority. Brexit is a challenge for the EU, as the UK was the third-largest donor in the bloc after France and Germany. The situation is complicated by the debt crises in Greece and Italy, the migration crisis, and the threat of Islamic extremism. The terrorist attacks of Islamic extremists in the cities of France and the Austrian capital Vienna became a pretext for the European Commission to search for ways to reform the Schengen Agreement and strengthen border protection within the EU. In particular, the 21-year-old Tunisian Brahim Assaoui, who killed people near the church in Nice, initially arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and only then came to France, using the freedom of movement in the EU.
The EU accession fiasco will help reduce Macedonians' confidence in the ruling We Can coalition, which includes Zoran Zaev's Social Democratic Union, the Albanian and Turkish minority parties, as they did not meet their expectations. Opposition political forces opposing the renaming of the country will seek revenge, including the center-right party "Internal Revolutionary Macedonian Organization - Democratic Party of National Unity of Macedonia" Christian Michkovski, the Marxist "Left" party of Associate Professor Dimitar Apasiev. The ultra-left politician opposes the membership of North Macedonia in NATO and maintains ties with the Pan-Slavists, who advocated the unification of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus into the Union State of Russia. In 2017, Apasiev took part in the All-Slavic Congress in Moscow, where this idea was voiced, and following the results of the 2020 elections, his party entered the Macedonian parliament.
Conclusions for Ukraine
The situation in relations between North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and the EU is instructive for Ukrainian politicians, who make European integration a strategic goal. As the experience of Skopje shows, socio-cultural and historical disputes, which periodically darken Ukraine's relations with Hungary, Poland, and Romania, can thwart EU accession. After the Law "On Education" came into force in 2017, according to which the language of the educational process is the Ukrainian language, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry announced its intention to block the rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis canceled his visit to Kyiv. The Verkhovna Rada has extended the opportunity for national minorities to receive secondary education in their native language until 2023 at the request of the EU.
Polish conservatives tend to accuse Ukrainians of the genocide of Poles on the territory of Volyn in 1943 and they are against the recognition of UPA soldiers as veterans of the Second World War. In 2018-2019, Poland had a law criminalizing the symbols of the UPA, denial of the genocide of the Poles, and local vandals systematically organize pogroms of the graves of UPA soldiers.
In relations with Romania, disputes arose over the ownership of the shelf of Zmeinyi Island (Ukraine) in the Black Sea, Maikan Island (Ukraine) on the Danube River, about the Romanians' dredging or dumping of soil into the Danube waters. The idea of Great Romania is popular among Romanian ultranationalists, which, in their opinion, should include the border territories of the Odesa and Chernivtsi regions.
If in the future Ukraine comes close to joining the EU, the neighboring member states will take advantage of this to demand various concessions in exchange for supporting the European integration aspirations of Ukrainians.