text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarian nationalists pose adamant demands on former Yugoslav republic


In Bulgaria, Winston Churchill (who held southeastern Europe in contempt) is sometimes quoted as saying the Balkans have more history than they are able to stomach. The 20th century offers many examples of internecine conflicts and wars anyone, not just the Balkans, would have found too difficult to come to terms with. Beginning with the two Balkans wars, which preceded the First World War (in which the various Balkan states found themselves along opposed battlefronts), the exchange of populations in the 1910s and 1920s (between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria), the Second World War (in which Balkan nation confronted another Balkan nation), the ensuing civil wars (in Greece) and the imposition of Communism (in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania), the mistreatment of various ethnic minorities leading to ethnic cleansing in various forms... all the way to the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s have left large populations displaced and/or in severe political, economic, cultural or identity crises. With the accession of some Balkan states to the EU one might have thought centuries-old disagreements and animosities would have been laid to erst. The most recent example of the spat between Bulgaria, an EU member state, and North Macedonia, an EU member hopeful, suggests otherwise.

What is at stake?

Macedonia, since 2019 known officially as the Republic of North Macedonia, is a tiny, landlocked state bordering on Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Since at least the Middle Ages it has been contested by all of those – as well as, in the 19th and 20th centuries – the Great Powers who, with varying intensity and using various means, have vied for influence over it. Characteristically for the Balkans, the claims of Macedonia's neighbours not only diverge but sometimes have nothing to do with each other. Albania and Kosovo claim the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia (roughly a quarter of the population) should have more rights. Until a year ago Greece was vehemently opposed to the name of the former Yugoslav republic because it coincided with the name of a large identically named province in northern Greece. The Macedonians claim they are the proud descendants of Alexander the Great (whom the Greeks consider to be a major figure in Greek history). The Macedonians also say they speak Macedonian and have a Macedonian identity – proposals that the Bulgarians find impossible to accept because, as one Bulgarian president put it, the history of Macedonia is the "most romantic part of Bulgarian history." The official Bulgarian line is that the modern Macedonian language is but a bastardised version of a western Bulgarian dialect and the Macedonians are in fact Bulgarians who were forcibly "Serbianised" in Communist Yugoslavia after the Second World War. Bulgaria recognises no Macedonian minority in Bulgaria proper, and a shady organisation of "ethnic Macedonians" calling itself OMO-Ilinden remains banned. In Bulgaria, however, there is a political party, called Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. It is considered by many to be of extreme nationalist inclinations as it is in one block with Valeri Simeonov's National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Volen Siderov's Ataka. It is currently allied with the ruling GERB. Its leader, Krasimir Karakachanov, is Boyko Borisov's defence minister.


A rally in central Skopje with the 24-metre-high equestrian statue of Alexander the Great in the background

In 1991, when Macedonia became the only former Yugoslav republic to break away from Belgrade without a war, Bulgaria was the first country to recognise its independence. It said it did so in a bid to foster stability in the region. It has remained intransigent in its refusal to recognise the Macedonian language, leading to a somewhat comical situation where a Macedonian dignitary being interviewed on Bulgarian TV gets no voiceover translation – bemusing for many Bulgarians in western Bulgaria but quite incomprehensible to those in the eastern parts of the country where the local dialect differs significantly from modern Macedonian.

To understand both Greece's opposition to the name and Bulgaria's reluctance to accept the language one might want to conjecture similar situations in the West. Imagine, say, the highly unlikely event of Normandie breaking away from France, declaring independence and starting calling itself the Republic of Kent. How would the people of Kent, still part of the UK, react? Possibly, the main concern of the overwhelming majority would be the continued opportunities to sail across the Channel to buy cheaper wine. But what if the citizens of the new republic lay claims to Canterbury as their historical capital? Or on William the Conquerer as their foremost historical stalwart?

From a purely linguistic point, modern Macedonian is indeed based on western Bulgarian dialects. In the 1950s, however, Skopje employed a team of linguists to devise a codified Macedonian language sufficiently distinct from Bulgarian. They did – and over the next decades that language developed in entirely different directions from modern Bulgarian. To claim that modern Macedonian is but Bulgarian is like to insist modern Norwegian is in fact Danish with some unusual pronunciation.

The situation is further compounded by the realities of everyday life. The perceived notion of many Bulgarians, some of whom third or fourth generation descendants of ethnic Bulgarians who settled in Bulgaria proper as a result of the early 20th century exchanges of populations, is that they are "Macedonians." After a few drinks many Bulgarians will happily start signing Macedonian songs and declare themselves "Macedonian."

In recent years, a significant number of Macedonians from the former Yugoslav republic have taken a more practical approach to the issue of their identify. They have applied, and been granted, Bulgarian citizenship – an easy course of action as the Bulgarian authorities favour anyone who can prove Bulgarian lineage. With Bulgarian EU passports under their belts they now have legitimate access to Western Europe and beyond.

Greece used to block Skopje's attempt to join the EU and other Western structures for many years over the name of Macedonia, but the dispute was settled in 2019 through diplomacy. The language, history and identity issues with Bulgaria remain nowhere near it.

Bulgaria and North Macedonia set up a joint commission three years ago to settle the outstanding historical issues. The commission, consisting of historians, linguists and diplomats on both sides, have so far agreed on some historical issues including King Samuil (the 11th century Bulgarian king whom the Macedonians consider to be their own) and Alphabet Day (marked on 24 May and celebrating the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th century). According to Bulgarian Professor Ivan Ilchev, however, there is still "a sea of disagreement," with no likely solution in sight.

One of the major issues of discontent on the negotiating table is the nationality of Gotse Delchev, the 19th century revolutionary whom both Bulgaria and Macedonia hold as a staple in their national mythologies. In western Bulgaria Gotse Delchev is the namesake of a town, while the remains of the actual man are buried across the border in Skopje.

In Bulgaria in the meantime, Krasimir Karakachanov's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation is adamant it will never recognise either the existence of the Macedonian language or of a Macedonian identity. To better ram the message home with his voters, Karakachanov also adds he will never accept the Istanbul Convention on the Rights of Women and Children, will block gay marriages and will continue to view the term "gender" as a diabolical invention of decadent Western civilisation designed to deprive the Orthodox Bulgarians of what he refers to as "traditional Bulgarian values."

For the time being the issue of North Macedonia is nowhere to a solution, not as far as Bulgaria is concerned. Interestingly, Karakachanov's language indicates he and his VMRO supporters are more concerned about airtime ahead of the 2021 general election that will have to deal with a lot more important present-day issues like the rule of law, corruption and the quality of democracy in Bulgaria rather than the national identity of 19th century revolutionaries. But, like so many times in Bulgarian history, the issue of Macedonia (and these days the issue of gay marriages) is so emotional that common sense barely stands a chance. 

And Now for the Salad...


Interestingly, no one can agree about the salad either. In France, Salade Macédoine is a vegetable salad. In Italy, a Macedonia is a fruit salad. In Greece, Makedoniki salata contains aubergines... It isn't difficult to see why in cuisine the term “macédoine” has come to mean exactly what it means in diplomatic history: a complicated (and inseparable) mixture. 


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