Between Skopje and Sofia

15. 3. 2017

Agreement on Good Neighborly Relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia faces serious difficulties related to the crucial issue of nationality.

Bulgarian-Macedonian relations are marked by geopolitical proximity on the one hand and shared cultural and historical heritage on the other hand. Yet, while the first of the features brings these states closer, the second one poses an obstacle to development of the partnership scenario. The dispute between Bulgaria and Skopje over the identity of the Macedonian Slavs materializes in two separate (although parallel to each other) policies: firstly, the official interpretation of history and cultural heritage, and secondly, policy towards national minorities conducted by the authorities of the two countries.

For Skopje, the primary cause of tensions with Sofia remains the official Bulgarian interpretation of the national character of the Macedonian Slavs. Bulgarian authorities recognize Macedonians as a separate nation only in a political sense, i.e. as a group aiming at preservation and governing of their own state. The political aspirations of the Macedonians are accepted by Bulgaria, but at the same time Sofia maintains that the ethnic roots of the Slavic Macedonians are Bulgarian. According to this view, during the process of formation of the Macedonian national consciousness, the political awareness has dominated the cultural identity. In other words, separate political national identity created during existence of Yugoslavia replaced an earlier one, based on cultural ties, which linked ethnic Macedonians with Bulgarians.

Macedonia’s position is ambiguous. On the one hand, Macedonian leaders clearly point out that good neighborly relations with Bulgaria remain a priority of the Macedonian foreign policy. This position has been confirmed by numerous visits of both countries’ officials, by the scale of bilateral trade, etc. On the other hand, the Macedonian authorities strongly emphasize the historical and cultural distinctiveness of the Macedonian Slavs. The building of the monument of Tsar Samuil in the center of Skopje, who was a medieval ruler, considered by Bulgarians as one of their greatest leaders, has become a symbol of “appropriation” of Bulgarian cultural heritage by Macedonians.

It should be underlined that Sofia has not made any territorial claims towards its western neighbor. Instead, Sofia’s territorial ambitions have been replaced by cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and historiographical resentments. Macedonians have been recognized in Bulgaria as a group of ethnic Bulgarians, who were artificially created as a separate nation only after the World War II. Macedonian history and culture are, according to this logic, a part of Bulgarian history and culture, and as such do not constitute a separate historical narration that would contradict the Bulgarian one. Subsequently, authorities in Sofia have still not recognized the existence of the Macedonian minority on its territory. According to the logic adopted by the Bulgarian authorities, the existence of the Macedonian nation has only a political dimension, and thus is limited to the territory of the Macedonian state. Recognition of Macedonians as a separate nation in the cultural sense would require revision of the Bulgarian history upon which the Bulgarian nation has been created. Changing national mythology brings a risk of territorial claims, and therefore could have unpredictable consequences for Bulgaria along with the whole region.

Wishing to end these disputes and permanently neutralize possible Macedonian claims arising from their vision of national heritage, Sofia pushes for signing the Agreement on Good Neighborly Relations. It is foreseen as preventing Skopje from future development of territorial and ethnic demands towards Bulgaria. Macedonia on its part remains reluctant to deepen formal bilateral relations with Bulgaria by signing the Agreement, although meetings of the relevant diplomats have intensified over the last few years. Macedonians consider the agreement as asymmetric and disadvantageous for them. Provisions governing the question of national minorities in both countries remain the most contested issue. According to the proposed text, the Macedonian authorities are obliged to refrain from interfering in the affairs of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. Moreover, this minority would not be (and has not been) even formally recognized by Sofia.

On the other hand, the Agreement would guarantee protection of the Bulgarian minority in Macedonia. Bulgarian authorities point at frequent cases of discrimination against members of Bulgarian minority in Macedonia. According to Sofia, Skopje policy has clearly anti-Bulgarian character. In other words, while Bulgarian minority in Macedonia would enjoy protection of bilateral and multilateral acts, Macedonian minority in Bulgaria does not have the status of ethnic minority. This is the logical consequence of Bulgarian claims about the exclusively political dimension of Macedonian nationality, i.e. limited to the borders of Macedonian state. Possible solution of this clinch would be for Skopje to give up claims about existence of Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, and at the same time for Sofia not to formalize the issue of cultural unity of both nations.

A more pragmatic dimension of the Bulgarian- Macedonian dispute about national identity and cultural heritage can be seen on the example of the process of granting Bulgarian citizenship to the Macedonian Slavs. Simultaneously to the gradual integration of Bulgaria with the EU, and thus with increasing attractiveness of Bulgaria for potential immigrants, the question of donation of Bulgarian citizenship began affecting relations between the two countries. Bulgaria, which is facing serious demographical problems, has introduced a very liberal citizenship policy. Macedonian authorities, in turn, try to counteract it, fearing excessive increase of Bulgarian minority members in Macedonia and thus of the Bulgarian influence. Over the last decade, approximately 50,000 Macedonians (including former Prime Minister of Macedonia, one of the founders of the ruling VMRO – DPMNE party, Ljubco Georgievski) obtained Bulgarian citizenship and passport, and thus the opportunity to travel and work more freely throughout Europe.

Back in the 1990s, the number of people declaring Bulgarian nationality in Macedonia did not exceed two thousand. Since 2010, the application for Bulgarian citizenship by Macedonian Slavs does not need to be supported by any separate document confirming their Bulgarian roots. It is enough to claim that one of the ancestors was Bulgarian. As a result, and despite the practice being strongly stigmatized by the Macedonian authorities and the media, about 5% of Macedonian Slavs decided to adopt Bulgarian citizenship. Macedonian authorities fear this “bulgarization” process of their society. Regardless of the motivation that guides applicants for Bulgarian passports, a growing number of Bulgarian citizens in Macedonia provides the government in Sofia with further arguments in a dispute concerning national identity and cultural heritage. Moreover, it de facto extends a possibility of interference in the internal affairs of Macedonia, while depriving Skopje of similar tool towards Bulgaria.

The “Bulgarization” of Macedonians is “counter balanced” by attempts to create or re-create Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. While the Macedonians in 1930s were not officially recognized in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia as a distinct ethnic or national group, at the turn of the 40s and 50s their number in Pirin Macedonia (Bulgarian part of the Macedonia as a region) exceeded 170,000. After Yugoslavia gained independence from the Soviet Union and relations between Belgrade and Sofia froze in 1950s, this number dropped to just a few thousands. Since then, the authorities in Skopje have made repeated claims of hundreds of thousands of Macedonians in Bulgaria, who have been subjected to oppression and assimilation. Today, the political and social activity of Macedonians in Bulgaria is limited but visible. Manifestation of the smoldering Macedonian identity in Pirin are activities of the United Macedonian Organization Ilinden—Pirin, which was openly accused of activities as an agent of foreign country and banned by the Bulgarian authorities in 2000.

The Bulgarian authorities accuse the Macedonian leaders of spreading anti-Bulgarian stereotypes in the media, cinema, literature, and in official textbooks of history and geography. The President of Bulgaria Rossen Plevneliev complained to the EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle in October 2012: “It is strategically important for the long-term stability in the Balkans that the government in Skopje starts applying the European approach towards its neighbors, without claims and manipulations. It is high time that the government in Skopje be done with its anti-Bulgarian campaign, and the manipulation of historical facts. The responsible European approach towards one’s neighbors and the next generation is to preserve history whatever it might be.”

According to Sofia, representatives of the Bulgarian minority in Macedonia often lose their jobs, are intimidated, questioned by the police, find themselves under pressure from the media and public institutions. Bulgarians also criticize the flagship initiative of the Macedonian government, “Skopje 2014,” highlighting the historical heritage of Macedonia (part of which is the monument of Tsar Samuil). Accordingly, this project has provocative connotation, indicating aggressive attitude of the authorities in Skopje towards their eastern neighbors.

Relative deterioration of bilateral relations is a direct result of two parallel—yet opposite towards each other—processes. On the one hand, the Bulgarian authorities are still not able to accept a separate culture, and thus ethnic identity, of the Macedonian nation, while the necessity to protect the rights of Bulgarian minorities abroad have been increasingly emphasized in public speeches. On the other hand, the government in Skopje builds Macedonian national identity in opposition to the Bulgarian one: “We are Macedonians, for we are not Bulgarians.” For Sofia, this takes a chauvinist and unacceptable form.

Issues of national identity are subjective and emotional, and therefore are of great value as a tool of political mobilization. Therefore the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute should be understood through the prism of domestic politics in both countries. The worse the economic and social situation in their respective countries is, the more likely will the political elites of south-eastern Europe refer to nationalistic arguments. Their intensity will depend on the needs arising from current demands of the domestic political scene. Thus it should not be perceived as an “eternal” or a “natural” conflict between two neighboring Balkan nations. It is rather a consequence of delayed formation of Macedonian national identity and of paternalistic policies of Bulgaria towards Macedonians as a nation.

Jan Muś

Lecturer and analyst specializing in the contemporary South-Eastern Europe and transformation processes in CEE.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.