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“If you don't want to solve a problem, set up a commission.” This old saying about communist bureaucracy often comes to mind these days, and never more frequently than when the “Common Multi-Discipline Expert Commission on Historical and Educational Issues of Bulgaria and North Macedonia” is involved.
This commission with the very long name was established by an accord between the two countries signed on 1 August 2017. Seven historians from Bulgaria and seven from North Macedonia were set the task of discussing, and possibly even resolving, bilateral issues of the utmost delicacy – those of history, identity, and schoolbooks.
Separate from the Prespa Accord between North Macedonia and Greece in 2018, the 2017 agreement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, which established the historical commission, aimed to boost cooperation and relieve tensions between Skopje and Sofia, thereby paving Skopje’s road to EU and NATO membership. The agreement brought acclaim, mainly from abroad.
The commission's purpose is noble and well-intended. At the time, the new Macedonian government, under Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, was in a hurry to make up for a decade-long delay in Euro-Atlantic integration after the long rule of nationalist Nikola Gruevski. Bulgaria was about to take up the EU presidency, and used the opportunity to renew its support for its Balkan neighbor. Not only had Bulgaria been the first to offer official recognition in 1992, but it recognized the new country under its constitutional name “Macedonia” – a name that others disputed for many years.
Yet few expected the history commission to achieve rapid success.
Consider the Balkan preoccupation with history. Here, nothing is easy. History is rarely “the tie that binds,” especially shared history. Bulgaria considers Macedonia to be a new nation, which Tito’s Yugoslav communists forcibly split off from the Bulgarian nation after World War II. Needless to say, the official Macedonian version concentrates more on ancient national roots, trying to find greater differences with Bulgarians.
Given that politicians are naturally wary of navigating such stormy waters, it is no surprise that they passed the responsibility over to historians – and this decision was soon justified. The commission started work under the battle cries of both sides, each eager to call out every nuance as treason. Whether the issue was a medieval tsar or a 20th century uprising, every historical matter evoked scandal.
However, the conflict has now reached new heights of virulence in the debate over Georgi (Goce) Delchev. Delchev, who died in battle in 1903, was a revolutionary against the Ottomans, and a key figure in the Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization (IMARO), later IMRO. But whom does he belong to?
The Bulgarians of the commission pointed to Delchev’s own words that he was a Bulgarian, and they also claimed IMARO itself as Bulgarian. The North Macedonians retorted that if they “surrendered” Goce, the Macedonian identity would go bust. The North Macedonians of the commission proposed for both nations to commemorate Delchev on 7 October, which was the date, in 1946, when communist Bulgaria gave Delchev's remains to Skopje, as a gesture to Tito, then prime minister of Yugoslavia. When Tito clashed with Stalin two years later, this decision was revoked. After 1989, the “surrendering” of Delchev’s remains to Yugoslavia was re-cast as treason. Therefore the Bulgarian historians repudiated the 7 October proposal as a provocation.
Nationalist parties on both sides of the border added fuel. In North Macedonia, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party of former Prime Minister Gruevski (himself in exile in Hungary) has been criticizing Zaev for softness vis-a-vis Bulgaria and Greece, exploiting frustrations that Macedonia has changed its name, yet still hasn’t been invited to start negotiations for EU accession.
Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, the VMRO party of Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov is part of the ruling coalition, always eager to prove its credentials for toughness.
At the height of the most recent argument, last week, the newly elected North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski sounded a rare note of compromise, saying that Goce Delchev declared himself a Bulgarian but fought for an independent Macedonia. Pendarovski was criticized in his country for the first part of his statement, but there is a chance for a breakthrough here.
Delchev himself would probably not like all this fuss. A leftist dreamer, he was surprisingly ahead of his time. Countering the notion of fighting for land or glory, he famously stated: “I understand the world only as a field for cultural competition between nations.”
Today cultural competition has become a matter of identity, begging certain questions. Is historical truth enforceable? How can societies agree on issues if they do not want to? Since the history commission has no clear goal and mandate, it is unclear what it should be trying to achieve – common celebrations, changes in history schoolbooks, a change to identities? And, if by some miracle, the historians agree, what next? How can one establish – or re-establish – identity by decree, even if it conforms to the canons of history?
It is possible that these difficult issues were hived off for the historians to work on, to allow the politicians to work on practical bilateral issues – transport, infrastructure, trade, integration. In other words, perhaps politicians handed the task over to historians simply because it was insoluble.
Brussels seems to have little interest in these complexities of Balkan history and identity, but this is irresponsible. Identity is a bomb with a malfunctioning fuse. We see that with the chaos that Brexit and the ISIS “caliphate” brought to the UK and Middle East, respectively. Now imagine that in the Balkans – if not properly handled, this bomb could misfire in the future. And then no one would be satisfied with the excuse that a commission was to blame.