‘Thirty flags will now fly together, a symbol of our unity and our solidarity’. With these pompous words, pronounced during an otherwise low-profile ceremony last March, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg officially welcomed the Republic of North Macedonia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It took almost three decades for Greece to lift its veto on the Euro-Atlantic integration of its northern neighbour over a name dispute. ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ was the hard-won compromise reached in June 2018 on Prespa lake, at the border between Greece and the former Yugoslavian country, by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev.
The agreement, harshly criticized by both countries’ internal political oppositions, paved the way not only towards NATO admission but also towards accession in the European Union. North Macedonia, who had joined the United Nations in 1993 under the provisional name ‘FYROM’ (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) had been granted candidate status already in 2005, but it wasn’t until the Prespa deal was ratified that EU accession talks could be kick-started. The European Commission was tasked with preparing the negotiating framework for both Albania and North Macedonia only last March, after Emmanuel Macron’s decision to put the process on hold had led Zoran Zaev to resign in January, leaving the country in the hands of a transitional government that will be incumbent until the next general elections.
Negotiations are now finally reopening, but there are still obstacles that threaten the path of North Macedonia towards EU membership, and cast shadows of uncertainty about the future of the country: if relations with Greece have significantly improved, those with Bulgaria are going down a dangerous path.
The Macedonian question
Nationalism and the ethnic violence it brought to the Balkans penetrated the region quite late, imported from western Europe. Still at the beginning of the 20th century, when Orthodox Slav peasants living in Ottoman Macedonian were asked whether they felt Greek or Bulgarian, they couldn’t even understand the question. ‘We’re Christians!’, they replied.
During the four centuries of Ottoman rule, ethnic differences were simply not relevant among Balkan populations. But when nationalism took root, Macedonia —which included North Macedonia but also most of today’s Kosovo, northern Greece and parts of western Bulgaria— did not take long to become the object of desire of Bulgarian irredentism.
Bulgarians felt betrayed by the Great Powers, who took away from them the big portion of the region they had been granted after the end of the Russo-Turkish war in 1878. Great Britain and Austria were scared by the presence of a big Bulgarian state under Russian patronage, and decided to split Bulgaria into two parts and give Macedonia back to the Ottomans. But the romantic idea of a Greater Bulgaria remained. Sofia has given up its territorial claims on Macedonia, but still considers the Macedonian language nothing but a Bulgarian dialect, and challenges the existence of a Macedonian ethnicity of its own, distinguished from the Bulgarian one.
A bulky neighbour
It is these historical disputes, touching the deepest chords of the two countries’ national identity, that the bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighbourliness, and Cooperation addressed in 2017. The two countries decided to tighten their infrastructural and economic links, and Bulgaria committed to championing the Euro-Atlantic integration of its counterpart. A commission of historians was also set up to reach an ‘objective, scientific interpretation of historical events’ and to modify school textbooks accordingly. Upon the signing of the treaty, Prime Minister Zaev and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov laid flowers together on the grave of Gotse Delchev, a revolutionary active in Ottoman Macedonia at the turn of the 20th century and claimed by both countries as a national hero. But that symbolic gesture of rapprochement fell short of settling the dispute about Delchev, soon turned into a source of tension within the commission. North Macedonia’s decision to indefinitely suspend the historians’ work last November was interpreted in Sofia as a lack of good faith.
Krasimir Karakachanov, leader of the nationalist party IMRO and Bulgarian Minister of Defense, has ridden the wave, exploiting the widespread discontent towards North Macedonia for his own political gains. Last October, the Bulgarian government put forward its framework position on North Macedonia’s EU accession, listing a harsh set of conditions to be fulfilled upon agreement to the negotiating framework.
Last March, on the margins of the Council of the European Union’s conclusions on enlargement, the Bulgarian delegation reiterated its inflexibility: the commission of historians would need to resume its work, North Macedonia to drop any claim on a ‘Macedonian minority’ living in Bulgaria; and most importantly, no EU institution should refer to the existence of a ‘Macedonian language’, adopting the formula ‘the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia’ instead.
History is often regarded as an inert mass of more or less consistent facts, whose rigorous study can —at the very best— prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past. The Macedonian dispute shows instead that, especially when dealing with nationalism, history is more like a battlefield of conflicting interpretations of the past, on which the present and the future depend. According to Yorgos Christidis, Professor of Comparative Politics in the Balkans at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, with its recent moves ‘Bulgaria has committed itself to a very clear diplomatic position vis-à-vis North Macedonia, creating a deadlock that will require a whole lot of creativity to overcome’. The only way out may be a formula allowing the two sides to ‘agree that they disagree’, and move on.
Further delays in the EU accession process may sow disappointment among North Macedonians, providing the perfect occasion for China, Turkey, and Russia to step in and fill the gap left by the EU. But in spite of Beijing and Ankara’s increasing economic influence in the Western Balkans, the EU remains the main reference point for Skopje.
In 2019, 75% of North Macedonia’s exports and over 60% of its imports were to and from the Union, with 10 billion trade volume. The EU has also helped stabilize the country and strengthen the rule of law after the 2015 wiretap scandal involving Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, leader of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party. The EU acted as a mediator between Gruevski and the then main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union (SDSM); its leader, Zoran Zaev, became Prime Minister after early elections were held the following year. As for Gruevski, he was sentenced to two years of jail for the purchase of a luxury car, but he fled to Hungary, where he has been granted asylum.
Zaev had consecrated his premiership to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the country. Last October, when Macron blocked the opening of accession talks at an EU summit in Brussels, SDSM’s leader called for early elections and resigned.
The snap election, initially scheduled for mid-April, has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and will take place on July 15. The new election date, officialized last Monday, has been a matter of dispute between the two major parties: the Social Democrats were keen on speeding things up and open the polls already in early July, on a wave of enthusiasm for access to NATO and for the opening of EU negotiations. VMRO-DPMNE, citing the difficulties the country still has in limiting the spread of coronavirus contagion, wanted to postpone the elections and possibly exploit the outburst of popular discontent caused by the economic side-effects of the pandemic.
All major parties, including the ones representing ethnic Albanians, are in favour of European integration, but VMRO-DPMNE — who has criticized the deals with Bulgaria and Greece as unnecessary sacrifices — may adopt a less accommodating stance towards the country’s neighbours, eventually clashing with Sofia. The commission of historians will probably reconvene after the elections, but it will have a hard time finding a way to satisfy both countries’ public opinion.
A recent survey by the International Republican Institute shows that 74% of North Macedonians are in favour of EU accession, but over 60% of respondents still have an unfavorable opinion of Greece, and 56% of Bulgaria. Skopje may have taken a decisive leap towards the Euro-Atlantic orbit, but its future is still linked hand in glove to the legacy of its past.
 See M. Mazower, The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day, Midsomer Norton, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000.
Photo: Robert Atanasovski / AFP
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