text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Perils, pitfalls threaten to derail 'French proposal' for Bulgaria, North Macedonia

king samuil

Slavi Trifonov, the showman and crooner credited with propagating chalga culture in Bulgaria, could not have put it more plainly. As he "withdrew" his ministers from the outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's reformist government, thus causing a major political crisis, he let out a rallying cry: "It's for Makedoniya-a-a!" His message was simple, yet powerful. By mentioning the M-country he touched upon the souls if not the minds of millions Bulgarians who have never been to the Republic of North Macedonia, do not know the name of its prime minister and could not care less about North Macedonian politics, but who have grown up with the received knowledge that what today calls itself the Republic of North Macedonia has been Bulgaria since at least the Middle Ages. After all, it has become a commonplace that after the second drink of rakiya every other Bulgarian would happily claim Macedonian lineage – and declare readiness to fight over it.

Relations between Sofia and Skopje have exacerbated significantly in recent years as Bulgaria, now a member of the EU, vetoed the former Yugoslav republic's application for membership, posing on it conditions that North Macedonia was unable or unwilling to accept.

The situation threatened to become one of those Balkan quicksands that few countries in the region, historically speaking, have been able to overcome without a serious conflict. Yet, a last-minute proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron provided some Western-style common sense to Bulgarians and North Macedonians. The proposal caused significant commotion in both Sofia and Skopje, but was subsequently approved by the parliaments of both nations. Outgoing Foreign Minister Teodora Ganchovska and her North Macedonian counterpart, Buyar Osmani, signed it. The big question now is whether they will be able to live by it.

The short answer is a maybe. What the media in both countries were quick to dub the "French proposal" seeks to attenuate differences in historical perception, education, linguistics and ethnology that used to (and still do) infuriate historians, teachers, linguists and anthropologists in Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The overwhelming majority of those are related to more or less distant history. A few, however, concern real-life issues and situations, for example Bulgaria's demand to recognise a Bulgarian ethnic minority in Macedonia and guarantee its rights in the former Yugoslav republic's basic law. That is the short answer. Yet, short answers rarely resolve the overwhelmingly intricate realities in the Balkans.

To understand why most of the provisions of the French proposal will not work one needs to look at some complex backgrounds, some of which dating back to the Middle Ages, and analyse all the modern perils and pitfalls they hold.

Consider Bulgaria's demand for constitutional inclusion of what it calls a Bulgarian ethnic minority in North Macedonia. First of all, accounts about how many Macedonians harbouring a Bulgarian national identity there are in North Macedonia vary wildly. According to the latest census in North Macedonia, some 3,000 citizens of the former Yugoslav republic identity themselves as Bulgarians. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev claims their number is about 120,000. In recent years thousands of citizens of North Macedonia have adopted Bulgarian citizenship as under Bulgarian law anyone claiming Bulgarian lineage is entitled to a passport. An EU passport. How would one count them? As Bulgarians or as Macedonians? Would not Bulgaria's demands about a North Macedonian constitutional change tacitly recognise the existence of a Macedonian nation, a notion Sofia has vehemently denied since the former Yugoslav republic declared independence, in 1991? Importantly, any changes to the North Macedonian Constitution would require a lengthy parliamentary procedure in Skopje. Some political parties in North Macedonia, notably the VMRO-DPMNE, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity, are opposed. Whether their opposition can be surmounted is as good a guess as any.

Through the French proposal Bulgaria reinstates its demand that North Macedonia pledges non-interference in its domestic affairs. Evoking some Cold War language of "non-interference" and "peaceful coexistence" used by the likes of Kosygin and Gromiko to justify human rights abuses in the former East bloc, this Bulgarian demand, translated in plain language, is closely related to the projected constitutional changes above. It means Skopje should give up support for those Bulgarian citizens living in Bulgaria who claim Macedonian identity. Bulgarian citizens living in Bulgaria claiming Macedonian identity? According to the 2011 census just 1,654 Bulgarians declared they were Macedonian. However, various political and cultural organisations claiming to speak for them are denied legal registration in Bulgaria. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights has found against Bulgaria in 14 separate cases related to its refusal to recognise the Macedonian identity. Whether Skopje will agree to honour the Bulgarians in North Macedonia as long as Sofia does not recognise the Macedonians in Bulgaria remains to be seen.

History – both distant and near – remains a major sticking point between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. It is not difficult to see why. Historical figures and events, including the medieval Bulgarian King Samuil, are being represented by generations of Macedonian historians as being "Macedonian," a unabashed attempt to manufacture history as a means for nation building. Things become more complicated nearer the present time. A major Bulgarian national hero, Gotse Delchev, is seen as a Macedonian revolutionary in Skopje. Under Communism, Ivan "Vanche" Mihaylov, a controversial Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation operative in Sofia who became known for his ruthless tactics of extortion and later befriended the Croatian pro-Nazi leader Ante Pavelic, was unmentionable. Now the Sofia establishment lauds him as a freedom fighter. A cultural centre in Bitola, North Macedonia, was named after Ivan Mihaylov. Predictably, the Macedonians were infuriated. The centre was torched in an incident the Bulgarian media dubbed an outburst of anti-Bulgarianness. It was like opening up a French cultural centre in Jerusalem and naming it Maurice Papon...

Though the French proposal stipulates historians should decide on scientific grounds alone how to even out the differences between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. A joint commission set up for that purpose in 2018 has stalled. Historians might agree on joint celebrations to mark Saints Cyril and Methodius, St Clement of Ohrid, King Samuil and 19th century educator Grigor Parlichev, but it would be farfetched to conjecture any agreement on the more controversial issues, like Bulgaria's involvement in the Second World War.

Whether Bulgaria was an invader or a liberator of the former Yugoslav republic is yet another major divisive issue that apparently prompted a clause in the French proposal to outlaw "hate speech" used in Macedonia against Bulgaria. In this instance "hate speech" means Macedonians referring to the Bulgarian army, police and civil service that ran Macedonia in 1941-1944 as "fascist invaders."

What are the facts? During the Second World War the Kingdom of Bulgaria was a Nazi ally. Why it joined the Axis and whether King Boris III was an enthusiastic or perfunctory associate of Hitler is beside the point. The fact is that German and Bulgarian troops marched almost unopposed into Macedonia. Under Communism, Bulgarian historians did not object to labelling the Third Bulgarian Kingdom "fascist." In fact, one of the Communist coinages was "monarcho-fascism." It intended to signify the ancien régime of political parties and royals that the Communists dismantled when they came to power. Perceptions of history changed as soon as Communism collapsed in 1989. The pre-Second World War system was hailed as genuine democracy. The Communists had to bear the brunt of everything that went wrong in Bulgaria since 1944. They have to bear the brunt for everything that has gone wrong in Bulgaria since 1989 as well.

The post-Communist historians capitalised on an obscure issue in the war arrangement which they claimed exonerated Bulgaria. Legally, Bulgaria did not "occupy" Macedonia. It just "administered" it. Hitler had promised to render Macedonia, Aegean Thrace (now in northern Greece) and parts of southern Serbia to Bulgaria once he won the war.

Bulgarian troops, Bulgarian police and Bulgarian civil servants were sent to run Macedonia. Some Macedonians may have rejoiced, but others did not. The anti-Nazi partisan movement in Macedonia during the war is now being seen as a building bloc for the Macedonian national identity.

The real trouble in the Balkans is that history the way it is seen here is not what history means in the West. History – especially bits of it that various nations, ethnicities, political groupings and individuals feel has been unkind to them – is being used as a tool and a weapon. It is meant to "prove" historical notions and "justify" present-day policies. Old wounds are not allowed to heal or are being constantly reopened. One of the most permeating adages about the Balkans is that they have too much history to stomach. Nothing illustrates better Winston Churchill's bons mots than the current quarrels between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

Which brings on the most comic aspect of the BG-RNM conflict. Bulgaria vehemently refuses to recognise the existence of a Macedonian language. According to official Bulgarian linguists it is nothing but a recodification – done in the late 1940s and early 1950s by Yugoslav linguists – of a western Bulgarian dialect. The Macedonians are adamant that their language is their own and no one but themselves can claim heritage or ownership of it. The Bulgarians do have a point. Macedonian did not exist as a language before the Second World War. The Macedonians also have a point. This is the language they use for their everyday communication. Macedonian translators translate books into it and Macedonian actors dub Hollywood films in it. Bulgaria's stand about the "non-existent" Macedonian language is as bemusing as it can get. When a Macedonian official gets interviewed on Bulgarian TV and radio there is no translation provided. When government representatives sign protocols and treaties the Macedonians sign in "Macedonian." The Bulgarian sign in "the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia."

The "language issue" is so absurd and so difficult to understand by anyone unfamiliar with Balkan politics that an example to illustrate it might come in handy. Imagine at some point in the future the UK holds a referendum – let's call it Brentry – and the majority of Brits decide to rejoin the EU. France gets in the way. It objects, and it vetoes Britain's accession application as long as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not acknowledge that... many longer English words, especially the ones that end in -ation, are historically French.

Against this backdrop Slavi Trifonov rallying cry "It's for Makedoniya-a-a!" becomes easier to understand. The "Macedonian Question," as it was referred to in the 19th century, is very much alive. Because it is mainly an emotional issue it may delay or derail any common sense approach to practical things like the joint celebration of a saint or whether or not to provide translation for radio broadcasts. More often than not unscrupulous politicians can and do use it to promote agendas that have nothing to do with Balkan history or the importance of inclinations in a sentence. It certainly did topple a government already. 

What about the Jews?

Over 70 years after the Second World Wart the sorry fate of Macedonia's Jews is one of the insurmountable obstacles between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. In 1941 Bulgarian troops, then allied to Nazi Germany, entered Macedonia. In the course of several years they were joined by Bulgarian police, Bulgarian civil servants and Bulgarian educators to run the country. The official word being used in Skopje to describe that period is occupation. In 2022 the Bulgarians continue to call it "administration," citing a legal technicality: Hitler had promised to give the former Yugoslav republic to Bulgaria, which considered it its own, once he won the war.

Holocaust Memorial Centre, Skopje

The Holocaust Memorial Centre at Skopje

The Bulgarians were quick to introduce their infamous Protection of the Nation Act of 1941. Modelled on the Nuremberg laws for racial purity the Bulgarian act was meant to render Bulgaria, including its "New Lands," as Macedonia was called at the time, jüdenfrei.

In 1943, Bulgarian troops and Bulgarian police herded about 11,000 Jews from Skopje, Bitola and elsewhere into Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars. The human cargo was transported through Bulgarian territory to the Bulgarian port of Lom on the River Danube. The Bulgarian Commissariat for Jewish Affairs had commissioned a number of barges to take the Jews to Vienna and then on to Treblinka, in Nazi-occupied Poland. None survived.

Bulgaria refuses to acknowledge its role in the event, shifting the responsibility to the Germans. The Macedonians use Bulgaria's refusal to apologise to prove their stand that the Bulgarians were invaders and occupiers rather than just administrators.

Skopje's ultramodern Holocaust Museum has a telling if poignant display of artefacts dating back to the 1940s, including a Bulgarian State Railways cattle car that was used to bring Macedonia's Jews to death. 


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