8 min read

What's happening with Bulgaria and North Macedonia?

Last weekend, North Macedonia's parliament voted in favor of a proposal to resolve an ongoing dispute with the country's neighbor Bulgaria.

As an EU member state, Bulgaria has the ability to block North Macedonia's path to EU accession. Many people in Bulgaria believe that Macedonians are not a separate ethnic group and do not have a unique language. Macedonians disagree. Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia's EU path while these debates are hashed out.

Last weekend's vote paved the way for North Macedonia's EU membership talks to begin at last.

The deal says that North Macedonia’s constitution must be amended to recognize the country's Bulgarian minority. All remaining issues will be discussed between Skopje and Sofia as the country continues down the long road toward EU membership.

But the proposal isn't without controversy. Sixty-eight lawmakers from the country's 120-seat parliament voted to pass the draft of the deal. But that only happened after members of the main opposition party walked out. Now Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski will have to convince those lawmakers to support the proposed change to the constitution.

The situation has echoes of 2018 when North Macedonia changed its name from the UN-recognized name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM, just rolls off the tongue) to North Macedonia to resolve a somewhat similar dispute with its neighbor Greece. The government expended a lot of political capital to get that done. Many people were dissatisfied. But ultimately, resolving the name issue with Greece led the country to encounter more problems with its neighbor Bulgaria.

People in North Macedonia are tired and frustrated with having to make so many compromises for their EU future. They feel like they're being strongarmed by their neighbors.

I spoke to four people about what's going on between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Everyone I talked to gave me their personal opinion, not that of their employer or institution. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any Bulgarians willing to talk about this subject (if you're Bulgarian and want to weigh in, please get in touch!).  

These interviews have been edited lightly for length and clarity. Here's what people had to say:

Cristina: North Macedonia's lawmakers voted to pass the French-brokered deal with Bulgaria so they could move forward with EU membership talks. But there have been numerous protests against the deal, and opposition leaders were not present for the vote. What is in the agreement, and why is it so controversial?

Jan Cingel, CEO of the consulting company Strategic Analysis:

The agreement basically says that North Macedonia has to solve [the] outstanding issues it has with Bulgaria that concern minority rights, language, identity, and history.

The agreement codifies that these bilateral issues between North Macedonia and Bulgaria will be a part of North Macedonia's [EU] accession process. That means North Macedonia will not be progressing in the process until it agrees with Bulgaria on all issues, naturally the way Bulgaria wants it to.

This is the most dangerous part of the agreement: it is unbalanced.

In the media, it is often called “the French compromise." But a compromise requires both sides to withdraw a little bit from their initial positions in search of common ground with their counterparts. The so-called French compromise is one-sided. It favors Bulgaria as the member state of the EU.

The details of the agreement are [as follows]: North Macedonia has to now include the Bulgarian minority in its constitution. Only then the real EU integration negotiations can start between Skopje and Brussels. And even then, Bulgaria will hold a veto over the process and will request North Macedonia to accept its views on history, Macedonian identity, and language.

Bulgaria stipulates that North Macedonia’s identity stems from Bulgarian identity, and the Macedonian language does not exist, that it is just the Bulgarian language.
That is the most controversial part, that a debate over the history and identity of a candidate country can be part of its EU integration process.

Cristina: The origin of the Macedonian language has become a significant point of contention between Bulgarians and Macedonians. What can you tell me about how that debate began? And what role does the 2017 Friendship Treaty between the two countries play in this?

Aleksej Demanjanski, an independent analyst specializing in Southeastern Europe:

In 1999, Macedonian Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski and Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov signed a joint declaration on relations between the two countries.

However, over the past twenty years, the Bulgarian side seemed rather dissatisfied with the situation. In 2017, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov signed a new Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation.

The treaty is the basis on which a historical commission was formed to deal with matters such as historical figures and their commemorations, the situation regarding textbooks and monuments, and more.

The documents presented as part of the French proposal essentially integrate progress on these matters within the negotiating framework of the European Union.

As North Macedonia works on its negotiating chapters with the European Union, it will be required to hash out these outstanding issues with Bulgaria in parallel.

The protocol between Bulgaria and North Macedonia is a sort of roadmap to tackle these issues emerging from the treaty.

Yet, the onus for almost everything is on North Macedonia with almost no reciprocity from Bulgaria, aside from agreeing to also combat hate speech and keep its archives open.

Ultimately, the implementation of the protocol and elements of the 2017 treaty will be arduous and difficult for both sides and will slow down North Macedonia’s progress on EU accession to a glacial pace.

Cristina: The opposition party VMRO-DPMNE has said that they will not support any future constitutional changes, which require a 2/3 majority vote. Could they potentially block these changes, or will the Prime Minister be able to push them through?

Meto Koloski, co-founder and board member of the United Macedonian Diaspora:

I cannot see how the current government could push through a constitutional change without the support of the opposition, which holds 44 seats in parliament.

The current government coalition only has 61-62 seats in parliament, while you need 80 to pass a constitutional change.

Cristina: The opposition in North Macedonia argues that the deal puts the country's history and identity at risk. Can you explain the rationale behind that argument?

Katerina Klimoska, a Ph.D. student in international relations and conflict management:

Many in North Macedonia are warning about this. The process that is foreseen does not have the characteristics of a European compromise. Instead, it means one country will have to change its language, history, culture, identity, etc.

Only one side, North Macedonia, is being asked to change its history and say a big part of its history is Bulgarian. What an absurdity, right? It is not even surprising that multilateralism is in danger when such processes are imposed on a nation.

We want to be part of the European Union. We are actually geographically in Europe. We are Europeans, but we want the process to happen the European way. This, now, is quite the opposite.

Cristina: Many analysts and experts argue that the European Union is making a mistake by agreeing to this deal. Why?  

Jan Cingel, CEO of the Slovak consulting company Strategic Analysis:

Both sides agreed in the Friendship Treaty of 2017 that they would find a solution to their outstanding issues through negotiation. For that reason, the joint committee of experts was established.

The Friendship Treaty, however, does not say that these bilateral issues should be part of North Macedonia’s EU accession process.

This is a very dangerous precedent that opens Pandora’s box in the Balkans, as now, officially and with the consent of the EU, issues of identity, history, and language can be part of the EU negotiations process.

In the Balkans, there are bilateral conflicts among almost each and every state in the region. If these conflicts were allowed to be part of the candidate or candidate-to-be's EU integration process, there would be no EU enlargement at all.

What I'm writing:

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• U.S. lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation directing the Biden administration to develop a strategy for the Black Sea. Last October, experts began warning Congress that the U.S. needed to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region. Those calls have gotten more urgent as Russia used the Black Sea to cut off Ukraine's exports, including critical grain shipments.

What I'm reading:

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