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An Unmitigated Breakthrough

Bulgaria and Macedonia sign a historical treaty that could prove a key turning point in a region riddled with identity questions.

by Boyko Vassilev 29 August 2017

“Professor, please answer the Macedonian Question!”

 

In the early 90s, historian John Lampe told me that he had once found such a funny letter in his mailbox, which was obviously meant to be a joke. History knows more than one Macedonian question, and most of them don’t lead to easy answers. The dispute with Bulgaria is one of the trickiest.

 

Yet suddenly, we have good news. On 1 August, Bulgaria and Macedonia signed a friendship treaty to improve ties. And if you deem this a trivial matter between neighbors, think twice. This is the Balkans, after all, a place where Sigmund Freud’s principle about the “narcissism of small differences” applies: the smaller the difference, the bigger the problem. Consider the Serbs and Croats, but first and foremost the citizens of Bulgaria and Macedonia.

 

The tiny difference between them is precisely the problem: how big is it, and is there any at all? This “question” hits painful depths in both countries, and touches upon such delicacies as history and language, national identity and nation building. Bulgaria says that Macedonia is a very new nation that (unduly) split from Bulgaria after World War II. The present elite of the Republic of Macedonia bets it all on the premise that The Difference has been here forever.

 

In that respect, the issue with Bulgaria is much more complicated than the “name” issue at the heart of Macedonia’s tensions with Greece (Athens does not recognize the name “Macedonia,” which is also the name of one of its historical provinces, to put it very briefly). The former is about identity, the latter only about history, and ancient at that. The Greeks as a people are far away from the Macedonians, so The Difference there is big, and therefore less harmful.

 

Experts like John Lampe have used volumes to explain the whos, whens, and ifs of the Macedonian Question. No Bulgarian or Macedonian citizen can describe it in less than 100 pages and without putting a lot of emotion into it, and with good reason. Historical personalities are not the only ones shared across the border. Families are split in between – and everyone has their own story.

 

I shall not try either. It should suffice to say that Bulgaria and Macedonia signed a preliminary declaration in 1999 in an attempt to get out of the history trap and pursue normal relations, like building railways, doing business, and organizing cultural events and celebrations.

 

However, then-Prime Ministers Ivan Kostov of Bulgaria and Ljubco Georgievski of Macedonia lost their respective elections soon thereafter. The celebratory air dispersed, and the declaration did not turn into a treaty for another 18 years.

 

Part of the explanation lies in the transformation of VMRO-DPMNE, the long-term party of power in Macedonia since the signing of the declaration. After a defeat at the hands of the Social-Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) in 2002, the center-right party made a comeback, got rid of former Prime Minister Georgievski (who later acquired Bulgarian citizenship), and under the leadership of Nikola Gruevski embarked on nationalism of a peculiar “antique type,” which included claims that the Macedonians descend from the ancient Macedonians of Alexander the Great. Those efforts were reflected in ambitious monument building in downtown Skopje. Relations with Bulgaria and Greece deteriorated – and Macedonia neither joined NATO nor advanced toward the EU.

 

Enter new Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Paradoxically, in the 1990s it was his Socialists, descendants of the former Yugoslav nomenklatura, who were reserved toward Bulgaria. Zaev’s violent clash with Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE led, however, to a role switch and more conciliatory attitude toward the country’s neighbor. Additionally, the dynamic young premier, who was bullied by DPMNE’s supporters in the Macedonian parliament on the night of 27 April, wants to accelerate EU and NATO accession. So, this is a time to mend fences with Sofia and Athens. The fact that Bulgaria will hold the EU presidency next year surely helped.

 

Finally, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov went to Skopje and the treaty was signed. It was not an easy accomplishment. VMRO-DPMNE made trouble up until the last moment, and there were provocations also on the Bulgarian side. This resulted in a minor compromise. Initially, the signing should have been on 2 August, Saint Elias’ day – which commemorates in both countries the 1903 Ilinden uprising against the Ottoman Empire and serves as Macedonia’s national day. The initial thought was of a common celebration that would unite people in both countries, but the previous day was chosen instead: the fewer symbols, the better.

 

The agreement’s content follows more or less the declaration from 1999, which had found ingenious ways to handle sensitive issues. Take the case with the Macedonian language. Does it exist? Or is it a Bulgarian dialect? This conundrum blocked several treaties in the early 1990s. The 1999 formula was elegant: treaties will be signed in “the languages according to both constitutions.” This clever choice of words was repeated in 2017. Elsewhere, the two countries agreed to improve economic ties and renounce territorial claims. They will try to celebrate common holidays (such as Ilinden). Historians, the Sofia and Skopje counterparts of Lampe, will sit around the table and discuss delicate issues; I would like to be there and listen, since the fireworks of such a show would surely be promising.

 

Everybody, except VMRO-DPMNE, welcomed the treaty: the Bulgarian parliament (unanimously), the EU, NATO, the United States. Everything was so cool, so optimistic, so un-Balkan.

 

Do not get me wrong, we should not expect miracles. Macedonia should not expect an integration breakthrough until it settles its issue with Greece. Scandals over history and identity will not automatically end, because this is the Balkans, after all, the place where questions seldom find easy answers.

 

Yet, life is better after the treaty. If, finally, Macedonia accepts the past – and Bulgaria the present – a tangible answer will finally emerge.

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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