Skopje’s choice, Become Bulgarian and gain EU membership, or maintain Macedonian identity. Writes Paul Antonopoulos
France’s proposal to advance North Macedonia’s EU membership bid is dividing the Balkan country, almost exactly how it was before the 2018 Prespa Agreement. A French compromise is difficult for Skopje to accept because all of Bulgaria’s demands will essentially be accommodated for.
However, it is a decision Skopje might have to make if they want to continue their EU membership process without further delay.
The political atmosphere in North Macedonia is very similar to the one that reigned ahead of a referendum on accepting the Prespa Agreement with Greece to change its name, whilst also acknowledging that the Ancient Macedonians were Greek – an atmosphere of frustration for having to succumb to a demand to gain membership in a Western organization.
Sofia is also using the issue of North Macedonia’s eventual EU membership to achieve its own national interests.
It is recalled that the early 20th century was dominated by competing Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian claims over Macedonia and a struggle between Serbia and Bulgaria, and later the Yugoslavs, to claim the identity of the Slavs of Macedonia. Serbia has abandoned its claims over the Slavs of Macedonia, but Bulgaria insists that the language, culture and heritage of the North Macedonians is in fact Bulgarian.
Despite Bulgaria being the first country to recognize North Macedonia’s independence when it separated from the collapsing Yugoslavia in 1991, Sofia does not recognize their language as Macedonian and stresses that the language is a Western Bulgarian dialect instead. It is noted that the Macedonian nation and language was engineered by Yugoslav communists in an attempt to legitimize Marshal Tito’s claims over the northern Greek province of Macedonia and to weaken Bulgarian identity to ensure demands for unification with Bulgaria could not emerge.
North Macedonians feel that as part of the Prespa Agreement they sacrificed their own founding mythology by having to acknowledge that they are not descended from the Ancient Macedonians. Thus, pushing Bulgarian identity may be another step too soon for a country and people still in the process of reversing decades of Yugoslav propaganda. Because of this, the French proposal can lead to increased tensions in North Macedonian society.
The ruling coalition, led by the The Social Democratic Union, does not have enough votes to amend the constitution (requiring a two-thirds majority), which is needed to meet Sofia’s demand that the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia be declared a constitutional minority. A report in February 2022 found that 86,566 North Macedonian citizens received a Bulgarian passport in the last 15 years, with numbers peaking in 2020 and 2021 at 9,098 and 7,696 people respectively. This is a significant amount of people considering North Macedonia’s Slavic population only numbered 1,073,375 individuals in the 2022 census.
None-the-less, the issue of North Macedonia’s EU candidacy is just one of the points of discontent that exists within the country. The government lost its legitimacy after last year’s local elections and the Social Democrat government did not manage the COVID-19 crisis well. In addition, its Albanian coalition partner is also losing support.
The two dominant ethnic groups of the country not only have shaky relations, but even internally within their communities there are huge divisions. Succumbing to Bulgarian demands, as the French proposal effectively is, has the potential to see the current government fall.
Recalling the June 28-30 NATO Summit in Madrid, French President Emmanuel Macron put forward a proposal to override Bulgaria’s veto of North Macedonia’s EU integration. However, the proposal still contains Bulgaria’s most important demands, such as Skopje formally recognizing its Bulgarian roots, recognizing the Bulgarian minority in its constitution and abolishing “hate speech” against Bulgaria.
While North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski and Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani see the French proposal as an acceptable compromise that does not undermine North Macedonian identity, the right-wing VMRO – People’s Party opposition considers it an unacceptable ultimatum, which is why they staged a mass demonstration in Skopje on July 3.
In this way, Skopje finds itself in a difficult juncture where it must decide whether to take another step in reversing Yugoslav-era indoctrination to advance the EU membership process at the price of political popularity, or try and maintain a fighting chance for the 2024 elections by rejecting the French proposal and putting a halt in the EU membership process.
Paul Antonopoulos, independent geopolitical analyst.
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