Tensions deepen between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Writes Ahmed Adel
The most recent escalation between North Macedonia and Bulgaria has culminated in the withdrawal of the Bulgarian ambassador from Skopje. In addition, accusations were made by both sides that the other is a Russian agent. Effectively, Russia has become the scapegoat that both Sofia and Skopje are using to explain why they have not found a solution to their differences.
Tensions between the two neighboring countries, which have linguistic similarities and share a historical legacy stemming back to Medieval Bulgaria, emerged after the secretary of the Bulgarian cultural canter, Hristijana Pendikova, was beaten in the North Macedonian city of Ohrid on January 19. The tensions reached an unprecedented level when Sofia made the decision to recall the Bulgarian ambassador to North Macedonia, Angel Angelov, for consultations.
Meanwhile, threatening tones are heard from both sides – North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski proposed a ban of certain Bulgarian citizens, including one MEP, from the 151st birthday of anti-Ottoman Bulgarian nationalist leader Gotse Delchev. Delchev has also been adopted as a North Macedonian national hero.
Although Pendarovski did not name that person, everyone knows that his statement was about Angel Dzhambazki, MEP from the VMRO-BND. Dzhambazki warned Pendarovski that all those who tried to ban the entry of VMRO leaders would end up irrelevant.
This was followed by a response from the former Bulgarian foreign minister and current president of the foreign policy committee of the Bulgarian parliament, Ekaterina Zaharieva. She claimed that Pendarovski “serves the interests of Serbia and Russia.”
“Bulgaria must have a very definite and sharp reaction to the statement of President Stevo Pendarovski. Unfortunately, this is not the first time he has made sharp statements that do not help the development of bilateral relations,” added Zaharieva.
Meanwhile, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov announced the decision to withdraw Angelov from Skopje for consultations. For his part, Milkov also threatened to veto the accession of North Macedonia to the EU, with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev also doing the same.
However, Zaharieva is not the only one claiming Russian involvement in North Macedonian-Bulgarian relations. In fact, both countries are peddling accusations that the other is serving Russian interests. Pendarovski also stated recently that the organisers of the anti-North Macedonian campaign in Bulgaria are connected to Moscow.
Effectively, when something happens and it does not go in their favour, one side accuses the other of being pro-Russian. This accusatory rhetoric has only now escalated because of the situation in Ukraine.
Ivan Stoilković, president of the Democratic Community of Serbs in North Macedonia and member of the North Macedonian Parliament, believes that by blaming Russia for interfering in the relations between Skopje and Sofia, the two countries find a culprit for the collapse of diplomacy instead of self-reflecting why they cannot overcome their impasse.
The core of the problem in relations between the two countries is that Bulgaria wants to reverse decades of communist-era propaganda that separated Slavic North Macedonians from their Bulgarian roots. Essentially, Sofia is trying to recover the identity and historical memory of Bulgaria in North Macedonians after decades of Yugoslav indoctrination.
According to Stoilković, North Macedonia has acted naively by thinking it would achieve something with a permissive policy. Bulgaria’s ultimate goal, he believes, is to permanently erase North Macedonia and the North Macedonian people from the historical map.
Identity in North Macedonia is quickly changing because the Tito regime is becoming a long-lost memory. North Macedonia has already relinquished its claims to the legacy of the Ancient Macedonians and Alexander the Great by signing the Prespa Agreement with Greece in 2018. Bulgaria is now reclaiming its medieval and pre-World War I history from North Macedonia, which will be another blow to the identity invented in Yugoslavia.
Since the collapse of European communism in 1991, Bulgaria showed very little interest in trying to revive the Bulgarian identity of North Macedonians. However, since the signing of the Prespa Agreement, tensions between North Macedonia and Bulgaria have flared, particularly after Sofia decided to block North Macedonia’s integration into the European Union over the language, identity, and history dispute.
Bulgaria’s veto was partially overcome last summer when negotiations on North Macedonia’s EU membership were officially opened. Sofia still conditions the recognition of a Bulgarian national minority in the North Macedonian constitution. Still, changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, which the ruling North Macedonian left-wing coalition does not have.
None-the-less, as Sofia and Skopje are locked in a battle for identity, history and language, they both allege that the other is a Russian agent. By making accusations of being a Russian agent, both sides are making disingenuous attempts to smear the other in the eyes of the European Union. Although the smears are unlikely to result in anything tangible, it does demonstrate the level of Russophobia that has gripped Europe, particularly when opposing parties can just casually accuse the other of being Russian agents.
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