Some nationalists take them over as Slavic-speaking Greeks. Other than southern Serbs or western Bulgarians. In their recent history, the Macedonians have never had it easy to be recognized as a nation with their own language. To this day, Macedonia is widely regarded by its neighbors Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia as a “construct” and an “artificial nation”.
The Bulgarian government is currently proving that the “Macedonian question” – one of the key political questions in the history of the Balkans – is far from being explored only by historians. It demands from the neighboring country Northern Macedoniathat it officially declares that the Macedonian nation is of Bulgarian origin and that the country’s language, Macedonian, is a West Bulgarian dialect. As long as the North Macedonian government does not comply, Bulgaria will not consent to the start of EU accession negotiations with the Western Balkan country.
A fundamental decision on this should be made on Tuesday during a video summit of the EU European Ministers. But Bulgaria had previously announced that it would block a decision. It stayed that way. After the summit, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Sakhareva stated briefly that Macedonia did not meet the Bulgarian conditions.
Is Bulgaria abusing its right of veto?
After Hungary and Poland vetoed the EU budget, the Bulgarian stance on the blockade of North Macedonia brought the Union another crisis. Bulgaria is setting a new precedent in Brussels’ enlargement policy – it grotesquely uses its view of history as a political means against a neighboring country.
This is about more than just North Macedonia, a country of two million people, which has long since met all the technical requirements for EU accession negotiations. It is about how governments of individual EU member states abuse their veto rights for nationalist domestic political campaigns. In doing so, they are seriously damaging the EU’s credibility in its most important neighboring region, the Western Balkans.
In an interview with SPIEGEL, the social democratic head of government in North Macedonia revealed that Zoran Zaev, disappointed with the Bulgarian attitude, which he calls “absurd and ridiculous”. “We have done a lot in recent years to make good progress on our path towards European integration,” says Zaev. “We have proven that we can behave in a European way.” He accuses Bulgaria of “demanding things in a completely un-European way” that “affect our identity and our dignity as a nation. The rest of Europe is unlikely to understand this dispute. But it contains a bitter message for the future of Europe because it affects fundamental EU values such as ethnic and linguistic diversity «.
The long way to the EU
Macedonia has been an official EU candidate country for fifteen years. Blocked for a long time Greece the beginning of admission negotiations – it accused its neighbor of making implicit territorial claims to the Greek region of the same name through the state name Macedonia. The name dispute, however, had essentially to do with Greek domestic politics and not with alleged demands of Macedonia.
Nevertheless, the social democratic reform government under Prime Minister Zaev signed a historic agreement with Greece two years ago: It added the geographical suffix “North” to its state name worldwide unique concession a country to a neighbor. It thus cleared the way for the start of EU accession negotiations.
But last year it was France, which marks the start of negotiations with North Macedonia as well as with Albania blocked because it pushed for reform of the EU enlargement methodology. It has now been implemented. Now the newest obstacle for North Macedonia is called Bulgaria.
The two countries signed a friendship treaty in 2017 that shifted historiographical disputes to the work of a historians’ commission. It has already made numerous advances on contentious issues. But a few weeks ago the Bulgarian government surprisingly presented a new catalog of demands on North Macedonia.
Compared to SPIEGEL, Zoran Zaev suspects “domestic political reasons”. He’s playing on them months of anti-corruption protests against the right-wing conservative-nationalist government under Prime Minister Boyko Borissow. The parliamentary elections will take place in Bulgaria next spring. Borissov needed a catchy topic to distract from the protests against his corrupt system, so the presumption.
For North Macedonia there should be another attempt in December to clear the way for the start of accession negotiations. However, it is uncertain whether Bulgaria will give in. Prime Minister Zaev urgently warns against taking away the EU perspective from his country. “If this motivation no longer exists, it will not only slow down the reform process in the country,” says Zaev. Then North Macedonia would also face the prospect of a new, radical nationalism which, as so often in the history of the Balkans, could turn into violence.