ECMI Minorities Blog. Identity Disputes and the EU Enlargement: The Case of North Macedonia

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Authors: Marika Djolai and Ljubica Djordjević

The Prespa Forum Dialogue conference held in North Macedonia at the start of July reinforced the commitment to the Prespa Agreement signed back in 2018, which resolved a long-standing name dispute between Greece and North Macedonia. At the time, it seemed that a 15-year roadblock to North Macedonia’s EU accession path was finally removed, and the country could swiftly move forward, but this has not been the case. Two years later in 2020, the Bulgarian veto on the EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia once again brought to attention the identity dispute between the two nations and the implications for the accession process.

The hardline position of the Bulgarian side was not a surprise, bearing in mind the formal positions and statements that the Bulgarian government and parliament adopted in October 2019. Bulgaria, in the past few years a staunch supporter of North Macedonia’s EU perspective, now conditions this on the full respect of good neighbourly relations and proper implementation of the Treaty of Friendship that two countries signed in 2017.

Conditioning the EU membership on good neighbourly relations is an established practice since 1997, while the Agenda 2020 as such is also not problematic. The Bulgarian insistence on proper functioning of the Joint Commission for Historical and Educational Issues, established with Article 8 of the Treaty of Friendship, is also legitimate. Its purpose is to set-up objective interpretation of historical events and how these delicate and contested issues are narrated in the textbooks, that would be acceptable for both countries. Despite commitment to reporting annual progress to their respective governments, the idea behind it is to remove the discussion from the political arena to more neutral dialogue forums. However, North Macedonia’s suspension of the commission’s work in 2019, followed by a Bulgarian Memorandum culminating in the most recent Bulgarian government intervention, re-politicized the issue and interfered with the very essence of the work of the Joint Commission. In doing so Bulgaria is trying to impose own interpretation of history as the outcome of the work of the Joint Commission and misuse the EU enlargement process to this end.

At the core of the dispute lies a rather static understanding of the nation: the fact that nation is a dynamic phenomenon is almost fully ignored in the political discourse, at least on the Bulgarian side. The ‘right’ to self-identification (and interlinked self-determination) is not reserved only for ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ nations: the processes of national building were not closed in the 19th century. Even if one agrees with the argument that the Macedonian nation is a ‘young one’ being formed in 1944, this does depreciate it as a nation, its right to self-identification and further nation-building. Implying ‘hierarchies’ between nations on temporal grounds (mirroring the old civil law premise “prior tempore, potior iure”), which is unfortunately common in the Balkan region, is at best arrogant and paternalistic, and can even amount to (covert) racism. This also raises important questions of identity traits on which (ethnic) Macedonians build and develop their nation, and whether recycling history and 19th-century-style national-building, as visually demonstrated in the project Skopje 2014, are really necessary.

The identity dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia also ignores the fact that the latter is a multinational state and that Macedonian identity in civic terms transcends its identity in ethnic terms. And it is precisely the civic, supra-ethnic, social cohesion that needs to be strengthened, also through the means of the EU enlargement. In this respect, ethnic communities other than Macedonian also bear the responsibility for the civic turn in the North Macedonian society and should take an active role in the process.

The status of the Macedonian minority gets tangled with the EU enlargement agenda in an interesting way, following Bulgaria’s request that North Macedonia refrains from any action (including within multilateral fora) supporting the claims for its minority protection. This approach to kin-state support is not only disputable from the perspective of the established European standards but it also contradicts Bulgaria’s own insistence, in the very same government and parliament declarations, on the full recognition and protection of the Bulgarian minority in Albania.

When it comes to formal recognition of Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, the government maintains its hardline position despite repeated recommendations of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) to engage in dialogue with persons who identify as Macedonians and to explore possibilities for the protection, at least on an article-by-article-basis. The problem goes beyond minority protection, given that Macedonian citizens’ associations or political organizations cannot be registered or active, despite the several findings of the European Court of Human Rights that such stance amounts to violation of the freedom of association. Bulgaria, however, insists on the objective criteria pertinent to the existence of a national minority and sees no objective identity traits that would justify minority protection for Macedonians. Although similar approaches can be found elsewhere in Europe (Poland and Silesians, Romania and Aromanians, Ukraine and Ruthenians, to name a few), it contradicts the principle established in international law that existence of a minority is a question of facts and not official recognition. Notwithstanding the relevance of the objective criteria (minority identity traits), these should not be arbitrarily defined and misused to deny minority protection to a specific group. 

Finally, the Bulgarian-Macedonian ethnic mishmash raises the question of the status of Bulgarians in North Macedonia. Bulgaria also conditions the North Macedonian EU path on “the rehabilitation of victims of the Yugoslav communist regime, repressed due to their Bulgarian self-awareness”, but also on a request to “end all forms of hate speech against (…) citizens of North Macedonia with Bulgarian self-awareness”. However, it fails short of requiring minority protection for ethnic Bulgarians in North Macedonia. This is not surprising bearing in mind that such request would in essence contradict the Bulgarian position on the (ethnic) Macedonian nation living in the country.

The request pertinent to freedom of Bulgarian self-identification in North Macedonia and expression thereof is fully legitimate. Identity disputes also affect the EU accession of Albania, where Bulgaria acts from the position of a kin-state and conditions its support with the quality of minority education in Bulgarian and the proper conduct of population census. In this context, it remains intriguing whether it will affect the kin-state policies of the two countries and have some spill-over effect of the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute in Albania.

Given all this, why then did the Bulgarian government opt for using the EU enlargement process to instigate an old identity dispute and suppress minority claims through the pressure on their kinstate? The answer lies outside of identity sphere. In 2020, Bulgaria was facing months of anti-government protests of citizens raising voice against corruption. The country’s Rule of Law index has been consistently at the bottom of the EU member states and regionally.  Bulgaria’s long-serving, and now former, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, left the post recently marred by allegations of misconduct and deep ties with mafia. The times of building the ‘great friendship’ with (North) Macedonia and its dissolution both happened during his government mandate.

Bringing identity disputes to the fore is an attempt to divert the public’s attention from state weakness and the reasons behind it. By joining the EU, Bulgaria has been given an opportunity to strengthen internally and tackle its many challenges, most notably the state capture and failed to deliver benefits to its citizens. The dispute over a rule of law, claims of government corruptions and divergence over the EU values all add to its peculiar state of affairs. North Macedonia, while fighting their own anti-corruption battle, chose an option to wait for the next Bulgarian government to be elected in July.

In reality, over 100,000 North Macedonian citizens (more than 5%) have acquired Bulgarian citizenship, while thousands of others are in the process of obtaining it, which goes to confirm political engineering of the identity dispute. Most of them are becoming irregular migrants, with Bulgarian EU citizenship providing them with legal right to work and reside anywhere in Europe. As a result, North Macedonia is being weakened by a massive brain drain, making it less competent and able to integrate in Europe, with or without EU accession.

In sum, although some of the conditions of the Bulgarian side may be legitimate, using the EU accession process and the imbalance of powers stemming from asymmetric relationship, is not in line with the European standards of good neighbourliness. Furthermore, the EU should offer solutions to the “Macedonian question” and other minority questions that correspond to the 21st century need for more nuanced diversity management. By doing so, it will avoid contributing, at least tacitly, to the perpetuation of paridigms from the time of the Balkan wars of the early 20th century. The EU usually doesn’t have the tools to pressure member states on their internal politics but in this case, given the existing minority frameworks that are ratified by Bulgaria, it has a strong basis for insisting on finding solutions to guarantee minority rights and resolving bilateral issues between the two countries, which is also about maintaining the proclaimed European standards and values.

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