text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Why does Bulgaria continue to thwart North Macedonia's bid to join EU?

king samuil statue bulgaria

The "Macedonian Question" is one of those Balkan conundrums that even outsiders with more than just passing knowledge of the history and geography of the region can have trouble understanding. Because the troubles, the controversies and the historical and present-day injustices have accumulated to mind-boggling proportions it is impossible to detail them in a single magazine article. Here are some of the main points.

What is now the Republic of North Macedonia is an ancient land but a very new state. It sprang from the ashes of former Yugoslavia in 1991, becoming the only former Yugoslav republic to cede from the federation without a war. Bulgaria, which had just shaken off 45 years of hardline Communism, was the first country to recognise its independence (tellingly, the second was Turkey and the third was Russia). Some EU states followed, but others did not. Notably, Greece objected to the name of the new republic, Macedonia, which Greece feared might imply territorial ambitions to the northern Greek province bearing the same name. It referred to the new state as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. That was the name Skopje was known by by the international community – up until 2019, when Greece agreed to the more nuanced "North Macedonia."

The name issue may have been at the heart of the former Yugoslav republic's dispute with Greece, but it was not all. Several generations of Macedonians had been taught that they have a great history different from both that of the Greeks and of the Bulgarians. They were, their school textbooks said, direct descendants of Alexander of Macedon popularly referred to as Alexander the Great.

Though the ancient Greeks considered the Macedonians non-Greek, the modern Greeks see Alexander the Great a staple of their national identity. A statue of him on horseback stands in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki and the tomb of his father, Philip of Macedon, is in Vergina, also in today's Greece. The North Macedonians had to do away with Alexander and especially with the Star of Vergina, which used to be on their flag, but which the Greeks said belonged to them as it was discovered in Philip's tomb.

Western readers will probably be already baffled but this is just the beginning of Macedonia's long-standing controversies.

With Greece out of the way to EU recognition and ultimately accession, a new "enemy" appeared on Skopje's horizon.

Though Bulgaria was the first to recognise the former Yugoslav's republic independence it vehemently rejected the existence of a Macedonian language, which the Bulgarians say is a Bulgarian dialect, and – importantly – the existence of a Macedonian nation. To this day in Bulgaria you will be hard-pressed to find a translator from or to Macedonian. Statements by Skopje officials are rendered on Bulgarian TV without translation. Some people, especially in the western parts of Bulgaria, may have no trouble understanding spoken Macedonian, but the Bulgarians in the east find it very difficult if not impossible.

Bulgaria has been adamant on the Macedonian question. No Macedonian identity, no Macedonian language, no "falsification" of Bulgarian history which the Macedonians claim as their own. Consequently, Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia's bid to join the EU.

What is the historical truth? You will hear very different stories depending on whom you talk with in Sofia or Skopje. One example: To the Bulgarians King Samuil, a medieval ruler who had his capital in Ohrid (in today's North Macedonia) was a great king of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. When he died, he was buried on the Agios Achillios isle (in today's Greece). To the Macedonians, King Samoil [sic] was a great ruler of the Macedonian Kingdom. His statue proudly adorns Skopje's central square. Was he a Bulgarian or a Macedonian?

King Samoil in Skopje

King Samoil in Skopje

When Bulgaria regained its independence from Ottoman rule in 1878, the historical region of Macedonia as well as other regions (notably Aegean Thrace) populated by ethnic Bulgarians were left outside Bulgaria proper. They would remain as part of the Ottoman Empire all the way to the Balkan Wars. For a brief time Bulgarian troops held over Macedonia in the 1910s. But Sofia lost most of it in the aftermath of the Balkan wars (1912-1913) and the First World War (1915-1918). In the latter Bulgaria sided with Germany, owing to the German promises it would help it regain... Macedonia.

Bulgaria suffered heavily in the First World War. One of the most traumatic consequences of those times, which history textbooks still dub a "national catastrophe," was not in that Sofia had lost large areas of land, but in that huge amounts of people were displaced. Greeks and Turks left Bulgaria en masse. Thousands of ethnic Bulgarian refugees streamed into the country from Macedonia and Aegean Thrace. The followup "exchange of populations" had been endorsed by the Great Powers, but the scars of the actual human waves were too deep to heal.

In the Second World War the Bulgarians made the same mistake. Sofia sided with Nazi Germany one of the main reasons being Hitler had persuaded the Bulgarians he would help them regain Macedonia and Aegean Thrace. Initially, Hitler did deliver. Bulgarian troops marched unopposed into what is now North Macedonia, northern Greece and southern Serbia. A Bulgarian caretaker administration was installed. The language of schooling became Bulgarian. The Bulgarian police were in charge. Bulgarian civil servants ran the local life. Sofia was quick to represent the "administration" as liberation. Many Macedonians saw it as "occupation."

Infamously, the Bulgarians deported 11,343 Jews from the "New Territories," as the lands to the west and to the south were now officially referred to. These people were herded onto Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars, by Bulgarian troops and Bulgarian police, and transited through Bulgarian territory to the Bulgarian port of Lom on the River Danube, whence they were sent upriver to Vienna and on to the concentration camps. Very few of them survived.

Once the war was over both Bulgaria and Yugoslavia became Communist states. Historical Macedonia straddled the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, northern Greece (partially coinciding with the Greek province of Macedonia) and southwestern Bulgaria, the so-called Pirin Macedonia. In the early post-war years there was talk of setting up a federation with Yugoslavia. The people of Macedonia at that time were seen by Bulgaria as a distinct Macedonian nation. But Bulgaria's and Yugoslavia's top leaders soon quarrelled with each other. While Bulgaria's Georgi Dimitrov was a loyal Stalinist, Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, who had fallen out with Moscow, chose his notorious "third way."

At that time Yugoslavia set to work to create an even more distinct Macedonian identity. Linguists were employed to codify a new language, literary Macedonian. Historians started rewriting the history books. Staples of Bulgarian identity like the Miladinov Brothers, Gotse Delchev, Yane Sandanski and a plethora of others turned Macedonian.

At that time the People's Republic of Bulgaria did nothing. It continued to encourage the Macedonian nationhood: elderly people in southwestern Bulgaria may still remember that in those days they had to put down "Macedonian" as their nationality in identity cards.

The situation changed in the 1970s when Bulgarian nationalism was reawakened. The Communist leadership scrapped the "nationality" paragraph from identity documents altogether. Everyone in Bulgaria was now "Bulgarian." Sofia was preparing itself for the forcible Bulgarisation of ethnic Turks, which finally took place in the mid-1980 and presaged the fall of Bulgarian Communism in 1989. It went down in history as the "Revival Process."

Against this background it is not difficult to see that generations of people both in Bulgaria and in North Macedonia feel very passionately about issues like language, history and identity. In fact, in many cases they feel more passionate about history, language and identity than they do about business, building roads and railways, and looking ahead.

In more than one way this explains Bulgaria's current position regarding Macedonia. Sofia insists on several points and is adamant it will not budge unless all of them are fulfilled. It wants Macedonia to "admit" that the Macedonian language is nothing but a Bulgarian dialect and that the Macedonian nation has evolved from the Bulgarian. It wants Macedonia not to "falsify" history and to terminate the use of "hate speech" against Bulgaria (by the latter it means Nazi-allied Bulgarian occupying troops during the Second World War not be billed "fascist"). And it wants Skopje to officially recognise the existence of a Bulgarian "minority" in North Macedonia (Bulgaria itself has ignored a number of European Court of Human Rights rulings mandating it to acknowledge the existence of a Macedonian "minority" in Bulgaria).

All of the above go well with the current sentiments of many Bulgarians, especially of those who in the past voted for Bulgarian political parties such as the United Front for the Liberation of Bulgaria, Ataka, and the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. They also go down very well with the demands of the extremist Vazrazhdane, or Revival, political grouping that is now represented in the National Assembly in Sofia.

From the standpoint of Sofia the Bulgarian demands to North Macedonia make sense. From the standpoint of Skopje North Macedonia's refusal to comply with them also makes sense. But from the standpoint of the EU, which North Macedonia wants to join but is being blocked by Bulgaria, demands about "recognition" of medieval rulers and linguistic disputes have clearly nothing to do with the political and economic realties of the 21st century. They belong to the Middle Ages and to the language textbooks respectively. They cannot be used to further current political agendas.

"Old Europe," as the original (non-former East bloc) members of the European community were known as have had a fair share of similar disputes as well. Think the Basque Country and Catalonia, consider the Czechs, Slovaks and Moravians. Think Sudetenland in the more distant past, and of the differences between Norwegian and Danish further back. All of those have either been ironed out and settled for good, or at least are not being used to justify current policies. "Non-falsification of history" and "linguistic unity" have never been conditions for gaining membership of the EU – or of any other international organisation. Rule of law, respect for human rights and specific economic requirements are.

Obviously, Bulgaria does not see it that way.

A few days after the new Bulgarian government stepped in office Prime Minister Kiril Petkov indicated there was going to be an U-turn regarding North Macedonia. The issue could be solved "within six months," he said. Kiril Petkov will be in for a rough ride on this because he will have to face not just extremist political parties but also many ordinary Bulgarians who consider themselves to be of Macedonian stock about 10 generations back. It would be difficult to convince them that the EU is actually not about the past but about the present. It is about political and economic integration not about medieval history, Balkan wars or language fidelity. If a sufficient number of Bulgarians were to realise that Kiril Petkov's job would actually become very easy. 


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