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Analysis 14 Dec 12

Bulgaria’s Brussels Blockade Leaves Macedonia Bitter

Bulgaria’s decision to join Greece and block Macedonia’s EU accession talks has sparked anger in Macedonia - further chilling relations between Sofia and Skopje.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

The cover of Macedonian daily, Vest with the headline, “Shoot cousin, shoot!”

The cover illustration of the Macedonian daily, Vest, with the headline, “Shoot cousin, shoot!”, well displays the resentment felt among many Macedonians after Bulgaria recently joined Greece in blocking the start of Macedonia’s accession talks with the EU.

The line from the cover borrows from a well-known Oscar-nominated Macedonian movie, Before the Rain.

As in the film, the main character utters these words with a calm smile, confronted by a gun pointed by a dimwitted cousin.

The headline on Vest about the Macedonians’ Bulgarian “cousins” is reflected in internet discussions too.

Posts reading “Thanks Bulgaria, thanks for nothing!”, or “God help us with these backstabbing neighbours”, overwhelmed networking sites following the December 11 EU meeting in Brussels.

At the meeting, where Macedonia had hoped to obtain a start date for membership talks, Greece again justified a blockade citing the bilateral dispute over Macedonia's name.

While the Greek blockade is old news, and had to some extent been expected again, Bulgaria’s move was more of a surprise.

Bulgaria only emerged this year as a potential obstacle to Macedonia’s EU aspirations, saying on December 11 that it could not support a country that had failed to nurture good relations.

Dimitar Bechev, head of the Sofia office of the think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, describes the growing dispute with Bulgaria as ominous.

“The danger is that we enter an enchanted circle of nationalism from both sides, which will only complicate things,” he said.

“The Bulgarian move might spark nationalistic reactions from Macedonia with more hardline statements coming from there,” Bechev added.

Thus far, Macedonian officials have refrained from commenting directly on Bulgaria’s move in Brussels.

In an address, the Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, expressed disappointment about the decision in Brussels, but trained criticism solely on Greece.

Bechev says this may be because the Skopje government is less interested in EU membership than it claims to be.

EU's Foreign Affairs and General Council | Photo by: europa.eu


It “has already proven prone to using the Greek veto as an excuse for a lack of reforms and progress at home,” he maintains.

“Bulgaria is now giving more room to the Macedonian government to search for excuses!” he added.

As a result of combined Greek-Bulgarian objections, the EU Council in Brussels concluded that any decision on opening accession talks would be based on the report of the European Commission, to be published in spring 2013.

This will monitor whether Macedonia has taken serious steps to settle the “name” dispute with Greece, and whether it has improved relations with Bulgaria.

What hurt Macedonians most in Brussels was that Bulgaria opposed the EU bid of its neighbour after Macedonia recently accepted all the terms that Bulgaria put on the table - in exchange for a promise support in relation to the EU.

In November, Sofia outlined three consecutive steps that it wanted Macedonia to undertake, which Macedonia almost immediately accepted.

The first was a signed agreement on good neighbourly relations in accordance with EU standards, based on a 1999 declaration that both countries had signed.

The second was building infrastructure to enhance co-operation and establishing working groups to strengthen relations in key areas.

The third was the creation of a high-level council, tasked with managing annual intergovernmental meetings.

In addition, Bulgaria’s President, Rosen Plevneliev, wrote to his Macedonian counterpart, Gjorge Ivanov, proposing joint celebrations of the notable personalities and events “in our common history”.

To that Macedonia also assented, proposing only that first on the list should be events “oriented towards our common future”, such as EU Day.

However, on Tuesday, hours before the start of the EU meeting in Brussels, Plevneliev and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov repeated that Bulgaria’s support for Macedonia was “not unconditional” and accused Macedonia of waging an “anti-Bulgarian campaign”.

They said they would change their minds only after Macedonia had translated its stated good intentions into actions.

Macedonia’s “prospect of EU membership will be unlocked not by propaganda and ‘marketing campaigns’ but through real actions to strengthen good neighbourly relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia,” they wrote.

Bechev says that several factors explain Bulgaria’s moves, including general elections due to be held in July 2013.

Bechev argues that Bulgaria also acts on a well-known syndrome of the “EU as an elite club”, copying past Italian blockades used to impede Slovenia’s EU accession, Slovenian obstacles used against Croatia as well as the ongoing Greek blockade of Macedonia.

More personal motives may also be important, observers note. The autumn premiere of the Macedonian movie, The Third Half, drew strong criticism in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian FM, Nikolay Mladenov | Photo by: mfa.bg

Inspired by wartime events in Skopje, the film is set against the background of the deportation and destruction of Macedonia’s Jewish community.

But three Bulgarian MEPs, Evgeni Kirilov, Andrey Kovatchev and Stanimir Ilchev, accused the movie of disinformation and of defaming their country by suggesting that Bulgarians had assisted the Nazis in deporting Macedonian Jews to death camps.

“The movie may have hit [Bulgarian Foreign Minister] Mladenov personally, as he invests much effort in good relations with Israel,” Bechev explained.

“At the moment, the policies of Greece and Bulgaria are tending to match one another. But even by playing neutral, Bulgaria is helping the Greek position regarding Macedonia,” Bechev said.

Some Macedonians see Bulgaria’s recent moves as unprincipled, after Macedonia gave such a constructive-seeming response to Sofia’s demands.

“Greece conditions [Macedonia] with a name change and Bulgaria conditions good neighbourliness. In the background of both lies the non-recognition of Macedonia’s identity, language and people,” the journalist Aleksandar Damovski wrote in a recent column.

While an “anti-Macedonian” policy is a constant for Greece, it is only now becoming more open from Bulgaria, too, as Macedonia gets closer to the EU, he continued.

Others voices are more cautious, however, saying it is important not to alienate Bulgaria any further.

“If there are reasons for any increased Bulgarian mistrust of Macedonian policies, that should be carefully considered from our side,” a former Macedonian ambassador to Bulgaria, Gjorgji Spasov, warns.

In contrast to Macedonia’s strained ties to Greece, marred by the longstanding dispute over Macedonia’s name, Bulgaria and Macedonia have had relatively friendly relations in the past.

Dimitar Bechev, head of the ECFR's Sofia office says that the Bulgarian move may only complicate things


Bulgaria was the first country to recognize Macedonia when it proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Moreover, Sofia, unlike Athens, recognises its neighbour under its constitutional name, that is “Republic of Macedonia”.

On the other hand, Sofia is reluctant to recognise the existence of a Macedonian language, separate from Bulgarian, and many Bulgarian historians still maintain that Macedonians are ethnic Bulgarians.

Bulgaria also does not recognize the existence of a Macedonian minority in southwest Bulgaria, though Macedonia reluctantly admits that there are people with a Bulgarian identity living in Macedonia as well.

Bulgarian nationalists in the past long claimed Macedonia as part of Bulgaria and Bulgaria also occupied Macedonia in the Second World War.

Back in March 2008, Macedonia’s then President, Branko Crvenkovski, joined the Bulgarian President, Georgi Parvanov, in laying a garland at a monument in Melnik, Bulgaria.

This acknowledged the fact that both countries celebrated Jane Sandanski, an Ottoman-era revolutionary, as a national hero.

“Now, such thing would be unthinkable,” Bechev laments, noting how relations have deteriorated since then.

In 2010 a draft friendship treaty proposed by Bulgaria caused turbulence when some in Skopje claimed it was an attempt to establish Bulgarian dominance in bilateral relations.

“The longer we stay outside the EU and NATO, the more terms and preconditions we will receive from neighboring countries,” former Macedonian Foreign Minister Denko Maleski said.

He says the pressures from Greece – and now Bulgaria – have in common that they are both seen in Macedonia as attempts to threaten its identity.

Former Macedonian FM, Denko Maleski says that Macedonia must find workable solutions with neighbours

“The alliance of these two countries brought to the surface a serious problem, the theme of identity,” he says.

“We are in dispute with Greece about the ancient past, arguing over who is the reincarnation of the ancient warrior kings... and  we are also in dispute with Bulgaria over more recent history”, Maleski notes.

He says the only way out of the current stalemate is for all sides to work harder to calm antagonisms and overcome differences.

“Without their [neighbours’] support we cannot continue further in Euro-integration,” he said.

But for now, he does not see much sign of a change in policy from the Macedonian side. Bechev is equally downbeat.

The issues minorities and of radically opposing views on history are “hard issues entangled in much symbolism”, he said. “I do not see much readiness from either government to make progress.”

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