The two sides are focusing on building economic cooperation while avoiding addressing the elephant in the room.
“In a few days, we have achieved more than in the last two years,” said Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov during his first official visit to North Macedonia on January 18, 2022.
The neighbours have a long-lasting dispute, which resulted in Bulgaria vetoing North Macedonia’s path to EU accession. It blocked North Macedonia first in 2020 and renewed this stance during the General Affairs Council’s meeting in Luxembourg last June.
Bulgaria was the first country to recognise North Macedonia’s independence (then known as the Republic of Macedonia). However, controversies over shared history, language, territorial dispute, and recognition of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia drove a wedge between both governments. There is a frequently heard opinion that Bulgarians and Macedonians are the same people, but due to geopolitical factors, after World War II, “Bulgarians were divided into two countries.”
At present, both have new governments which seem ready for a solution. Last year, the Harvard Boys Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev broke the country’s electoral deadlock in Bulgaria. After three elections in a year, a new government was finally in place.
On the other hand, after a local poll on October 31, the North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned. The political crisis lasted two months and resulted in Deputy Finance Minister Dimitar Kovacevski becoming the new prime minister.
'If my neighbour is happy, my own work will go easier, too'
On January 18, two days after the new prime minister’s election, Petkov visited Skopje, the North Macedonian capital. On his part, Kovacevski said they found “common ground for mutual respect” and described the meeting as the start of a new chapter in mutual relations.
Along the same line, Petkov stated that Northern Macedonia has no territorial claims, which is a positive signal from their end. The problem is that the geographic region of Macedonia includes some parts of southwest Bulgaria. As a goodwill gesture, hours before Petkov’s visit, Skopje informed the United Nations that the short name “North Macedonia” and its antecedent “Republic of North Macedonia” refer only to the country, not the broader geographical region.
Additionally, the Skopje-Sofia air route is expected to become a reality within two months. A railway line between the capital cities and the problematic language used towards Bulgarians in Macedonian textbooks were discussed. Last year, in the same context, former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev promised to remove “Bulgarian” before the term “fascist occupier,” routinely used in history books.
Similarly, Kovacevski has also pledged to strengthen the flow of communication and handle swiftly any anti-Bulgarian acts, said Petkov.
However, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev stated that Petkov’s Skopje visit was “hasty” and that acts of this nature could be misinterpreted as concessions from the Bulgarian side.
In response, Petkov retorted that the Skopje meeting was not an act done in a hurry. Rather, it “was awfully late,” given that it took 30 years to reach this point.
A week after the Skopje meeting, Kovacevski arrived in Sofia for an official visit. The counterparts agreed on three key dossiers: agriculture, small and medium enterprises, and the Sofia-Skopje railway.
An axe without a shaft is no threat to the forest
The issues related to the Macedonian language and identity recognition were avoided. Kovacevski said in the Skopje meeting that all historical disputes would be of secondary importance. Other subjects, such as the Bulgarian minority in Macedonia and Bulgaria’s veto, remained untouched. Kovacevski pointed out that the Bulgarians will be included in the constitution. However, that could happen only after lifting the neighbour’s veto.
A quirk of a fate, Bulgaria expects the contrary.
At the moment, “we have real results - something we have not seen so far in our relations,” said Petkov in Skopje. Nevertheless, internal disagreements still simmer. Bulgarian President Radev has stronger views on the dispute.
Kovacevski shares a similar fate in his country. Even though he seems sincere about the minority problem and the needed actions, his coalition in the parliament does not have the majority to pass such a law. Equally, if the Bulgarian government tries to show goodwill and take the first step, two of the four parties in the governing coalition would most likely not support this step.
The EU's dithering
To find a solution, Zaev and Radev attended a joint meeting with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron, at the Western Balkan Summit last year. However, issues related to “the historical truth” widened the gap.
In 2018, A Joint Commission for Historical and Educational Issues was formed by the two countries. Through this platform, scholars from Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia were supposed to discuss controversial historical and educational topics. Recently, Petkov explained that Bulgaria would not change its participants in the commission, which is expected to hold at least three meetings in the next four months.
Speaking to TRT World’s “Across the Balkans,” Ivaylo Ditchev, a political analyst and professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria, criticised the work of historical commissions. He sees them as ineffective, fixated on medieval issues, and unnecessary in the EU process. They act as a paravane, a way of hiding politicians behind scientists.
According to him, they create a dangerous precedent for following talks in the region: what if Serbia and Kosovo resort to a similar approach to solve their dispute in the future? He stressed that the commissions would continue to exist, but the main focus would be on the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia.
Asked if he was optimistic about a breakthrough, Ditchev replied that he was positive about Bulgarian steps but had doubts about the EU process. Countries like France and the Netherlands question the enlargement process. Thus, Bulgaria could become an instrument in this strategy.
Regarding the importance of the issue for the Bulgarians, Ditchev said that today 15 percent of Bulgarians oppose their neighbour’s membership in the EU, and 50 percent of people in North Macedonia see Bulgaria as their main opponent. Considering how close these nations are geographically, culturally, and historically, such polls are problematic.
In conclusion, the Skopje-Sofia meetings started a new chapter in the countries’ relations. However, both sides preferred to avoid the deep-seated sources of tension and only focused on economic developments. It is an encouraging start, but bilateral relations still have a long way to go.