As global order teeters in the face of pandemic, a stubborn conflict in the Western Balkans is showing that even serious calamity is not forcing hostile governments to bury grievances and work toward positive-sum solutions. As both Bulgaria and North Macedonia extend COVID-19 states of emergency amid lingering pandemics, the former has mounted another challenge to Macedonian identity—an academic squabble that has very real consequences.
The fight is anything but esoteric, with the dispute now part of mainstream political discourse in both countries. As was the case with the decades’ long struggle between Greece and the then-named Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), politicians in Bulgaria and North Macedonia either actively exploit these issues for short-term advantage or feel pressured to defend national honor with over-heated rhetoric. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva—effectively the country’s chief diplomat—recently declared that, “the nation that they [Macedonians] have been creating from 1944 must not be based on lies and anti-Bulgarian propaganda.” A potential Bulgarian veto looms over the EC’s decision this month on whether to open North Macedonia’s long-postponed EU accession talks.
The Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute is poorly understood by anyone beyond area specialists. The contours of the dispute, however, are relatively straightforward. Bulgaria’s grievance is grounded in its losses after the first and second Balkan Wars from 1912 to 1913. In the initial war, Bulgaria, together with Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro, drove the Ottomans out. As a result, Macedonia was partitioned, but Serbia and Greece—not Bulgaria—got 90 percent of the territory. Bulgaria was furious because 25 years earlier, it had been awarded most of geographical Macedonia at the end of the Russo-Turkish war. But the 1878 San Stefano Treaty was quickly revised by the Great Powers at the Berlin Congress the same year. This betrayal—the sudden return of Macedonia to the Ottomans—planted the seeds of Bulgarian revanchism. In the second Balkan War, Bulgaria waged war on Serbia and Greece to reclaim more land, but lost, ending up with only a small chunk. To this day, Bulgaria has treated its loss of Macedonia as a national tragedy and injustice.
Following World War II, the Serbian-controlled portion of Macedonia became one of the six constitutive Yugoslav republics. From the moment of the country’s founding, Belgrade feared subversion from its neighbor. Bulgaria was part of the Warsaw Pact and closely aligned with Stalin and his Soviet successors. Tito moved swiftly to bolster Yugoslav Macedonia, recognizing Macedonians as a distinct and constituent “Yugoslav people” and recognizing Macedonian as an official language. In a first for a communist country, Macedonia’s Orthodox Church later became autocephalous.
In the Bulgarian telling, the separate Macedonian identity is simply Tito’s contrivance. Sofia claims that the language is just a western-Bulgarian dialect. Bulgaria insists on the superiority of its tongue, based on its premise that the Bulgarian language was in continuous use since the age of Saints Cyril and Methodius. The two brothers standardized the spoken Slavic in the 9th century and translated the religious scriptures into Slavic for their mission of evangelizing the Slavs. Cyril and Methodius were ethnic Bulgarian—so say today’s Bulgarians—and the language they standardized should be called “Old-Bulgarian.”
The Bulgarian narrative portrays Cyril and Methodius’ disciples as Bulgarian, and the history that followed from the 9th century until modern times as exclusively Bulgarian. Based on this premise, present-day Macedonians are in fact Bulgarians—or at least had been until 1944, when Tito’s People’s Republic of Macedonia was formed. For its part, Macedonian historiography rejects this narrative and calls Cyril and Methodius’s language “Old-Slavic.” The two saints are known as the “Macedonian brothers Cyril and Methodius,” based on their origin from Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki in Greek Macedonia). Macedonians consider their language related to both Bulgarian as well as Serbian, and chart its development independently from the South Slavic dialects spoken in historical Macedonia.
With historians on the two sides stuck, Bulgaria has now issued several demands as Brussels considers opening North Macedonia’s EU membership application. Sofia insists on absolute use of the name Republic of North Macedonia, scrapping the short form North Macedonia, which allegedly implicates territory of present-day Bulgaria. Instead of calling the language Macedonian as the Greeks have done, Sofia insists on a demeaning reference: “the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia.” Further, Sofia would forbid the EU from in any way recognizing the existence of a separate “so-called ‘Macedonian language’.” The Bulgarian Statement includes a demand that all history of the two countries up to 1944 be regarded as “common history”—that is, a single history of a Bulgarian nation until a Macedonian nation “was invented in 1944 by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz-Tito.” North Macedonia rejects this position, as it traces the development of its distinct ethnic and linguistic identity back to the Balkan “national renaissances” of the 19th century and early 20th century.
The way forward is not to attempt immediate resolution of these arcane disputes—an impossibility, particularly given Bulgaria’s advantageous position—but to manage them. Germany and France, backed by the United States and the UK, need to step in where the EU can’t. Paris has a particular obligation here given that it last fall vetoed the long-awaited opening of North Macedonia’s EU negotiations. President Macron’s insistence that the accession process be reformed paved the way for the collapse of the government in North Macedonia. Due to COVID-19, new elections have been postponed, leaving an unruly caretaker coalition in place just as Bulgaria imposes heavy new demands on the small country. Instead of asking the weaker party to concede (as the French Ambassador to North Macedonia recently suggested) Paris needs to work with Berlin on a pathway to compromise. What is needed is a dignified and productive process, undergirded by three shared principles:
First, there are only losers to national disputes over national identities. Greece and North Macedonia are perfect examples. For decades, Greece “prevailed” in its name dispute over its weaker neighbor by insisting it officially use the ridiculous “FYROM” designation in international bodies. And yet Athens’ victory was, to use a term from ancient Greek history, Pyrrhic. Greece’s position was almost universally derided; its diplomats were mocked as sympathy went to the Macedonians; its posture contributed to the image of Greece as a problematic, Balkan country when the financial crisis hit. Its overbearing policy damaged the value of the substantial Greek investment in its poorer, northern neighbor and increased internal and regional instability—all denting Greece’s ambitions to be the responsible leader of the transitioning Balkan region.
Meanwhile, Greek hostility only intensified Macedonian attachment to Alexandrian heritage. In the end, decades of pressure made it harder when two sensible and courageous leaders—Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and North Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev—finally came forward to make the inevitable compromise. Despite Bulgaria’s power advantages, Sofia will never—absent military conquest and decades of subjugation—convince Macedonians that they are not who they think they are, nor that their historical heroes are not Macedonian, nor that their national origin story is different from what they believe it to be. And even brutal occupation has, at best, had middling success at eradicating national narratives.
Second, national identity never rests on historically-provable facts. As the scholar Benedict Anderson put it, national identity is instead a product of “imagined communities,” and imagination, by definition, is ethereal, not tangible. It is grounded in shared interpretations of past events captured in story, song, totem, creed—a narrative creating a feeling in an individual of belonging to a nation. The stories, songs or totems supersede historical proofs; their mere retelling and acceptance is what gives them vibrancy.
The problem in the Balkans is that these identity narratives are deemed mutually exclusive. The mere assertion of a national narrative in one country is seen not just as an affront, but a negation of the other country’s national narrative. Though trivial to outsiders, the offense to national feeling and national pride is palpable—almost existential. Irresponsible politicians seize on the issue for domestic gain, creating an expectation that subsequent leaders are burdened to meet. This is precisely why outsiders are needed, to help politicians find the courage needed to manage what is a mostly unresolvable issue.
In the current case, Bulgaria’s governing coalition consists of right-wing parties, among which is the Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov‘s VMRO far-right party. This party is the most vocal advocate for hardline policies toward North Macedonia. Ironically, Macedonia’s opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, bears the same prefix as the Bulgarian VMRO. This is part of the clashing historical narratives in the two countries. VMRO stands for the “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization,” which Macedonians consider their own organization that was created at the end of the 19th century to end Ottoman rule in Macedonia. Bulgarians consider it an organization of Bulgarians in the Macedonia of the time that fought for Bulgaria’s interests in Macedonia.
Bulgaria believes that the mere mention of a Macedonian identity prior to 1944 is a negation of the Bulgarian history of Macedonia, which in turn negates the Bulgarian identity itself on the territory of Macedonia. Over 20 years ago, the then-Bulgarian President Peter Stoyanov exclaimed at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly: “Macedonia is the most romantic part of Bulgarian history!” This phrase continues to be echoed today by Bulgarian officials who consider it a provocation and hostile, anti-Bulgarian propaganda if Macedonians refer to their history prior to 1944 as Macedonian.
Third, the essential step in this case, or any identity dispute, is for each side to acknowledge the sensitivities of the other and to express willingness to avoid infringing or negating the other’s identity. This “sweet spot” is attained through concrete gestures and, more importantly, a recommitment to the process of ironing out differences in historical interpretation through rigorous, fair, joint scholarship and exchange. The historical commission of the two countries could be supplemented by dispassionate international experts—for example from the London School of Economics, an institute famed for its expertise in this area. The commission could identify areas of agreement as well as dispute, discussing ways to avoid infringing upon identity claims, while continuing to refine a mutual understanding of history.
Compromise is possible. For example, the two countries might agree that their Slavic heritage is of equal significance and that they’re both heirs to it, as some Bulgarian intellectuals suggest. Simply avoiding any “national designation” of cultural heritage prior to 19th century would be another good compromise.
But more important than any specific proposal is the urgent creation of a visible, credible internationally-backed process. To avoid a devastating Bulgarian veto, which would produce crippling tensions between the two countries (and more intrigue from foreign powers with ulterior motives), Sofia and Skopje must be actively engaged on their identity issues. The investment is worth it. Identity disputes still dog much of Europe, threatening the cohesion of several countries. Without a true pan-EU identity, the Union still needs to devise ways for its members to express their national identities and narratives that are not mutually antagonizing. Bulgaria and North Macedonia, with some outside assistance, can create a European model for the free, responsible, and non-provocative expression of national identity.