In 2004, North Macedonia was one of the first post-Yugoslav states to be granted candidate status with the European Union. But 16 years later, the country has yet to open direct talks with the EU.
Over the course of this decade and a half, Skopje has faced demands that no other candidate state has: first to change its name and lately to change the way it defines its official language and historiography.
For years, Greece blocked North Macedonia’s membership due to its old constitutional name – Republic of Macedonia – arguing that it implied claims on Greek cultural heritage, that of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia and its famous emperor, Alexander the Great.
Hope was rekindled in 2018 when the issue was resolved with the signing of the so-called “Prespa Accord”, which led to the country being renamed as “Republic of North Macedonia”. Article 7 of the document specifies that the term “Macedonian” refers to the Slavic language spoken in the country.
With the lifting of the Greek veto, North Macedonia was set to become an official candidate for membership this year. But in October, another neighbor – Bulgaria – decided to impose its own.
Bulgaria has been one of the biggest supporters of North Macedonia’s accession to the EU. In 2017, the countries even signed a “good neighborly agreement” which, as I wrote at this time, provided a model for pursuing a purely political understanding of national identity as a matter of self-determination to be considered independently of history.
Bulgaria now accuses North Macedonia of failing to abide by the deal, with alleged violations ranging from a lack of investment in infrastructure that would better connect the two countries to the slowness of the historic binational commission set up to resolve historiographical differences. But the heart of Bulgarian claims lies in a challenge at the origin of the Macedonian nation and the standardized language.
In raising this question, Sofia has in fact gone against the basic idea of her friendship agreement with Skopje: regardless of when a nation is created and under what historical circumstances, once it is established, the right to self-identification as a nation becomes a sovereign right not to be challenged by another sovereign entity.
Various Bulgarian officials have claimed that Macedonians are Bulgarian but are unaware of this fact, while the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has refused to label the language of North Macedonia as “Macedonian”, arguing rather than the language no is a standardized version of a Bulgarian dialect. This is a very special position, given the fact that an average linguistics student would know that a standard language is in fact the product of the codification of a certain dialect or set of dialects.
On the question of historiography – yes, there are differences and yes, they must be remedied. But it should be noted that the commissions responsible for settling intercultural and historical disagreements in Europe have worked for decades to resolve them. The Franco-German Textbook Commission, for example, has been active since the 1980s; the German-Polish one – since the 1970s. The Bulgarian-Macedonian commission started operating only a year ago, and this year it had to suspend its activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is also important to stress that the Binational Commission assumes that the nation-state of North Macedonia was born within socialist Yugoslavia. So the Bulgarian insistence that Macedonians “admit” this does not make sense and it seems only motivated by the desire to humiliate.
Of course, there are national political reasons for the veto; The current Bulgarian government, a coalition of centrist and far-right powers, has faced large protests calling for his resignation this summer and is now struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. But there also appears to be Bulgaria’s lingering frustration with North Macedonia.
In the Bulgarian public sphere, we often speak of Macedonian “bulgarophobia”. On this point, the Bulgarian side is probably right and this phenomenon was recently revealed by the shameful internal reactions to the interview of Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev granted to the Bulgarian news agency BGNES on November 25.
Macedonian intellectuals and politicians, even those belonging to or close to Zaev’s Social Democratic Union, attacked the Prime Minister for his “surrender to Bulgarian fascism” for having declared during the interview that “Bulgaria is not not fascism ”and“ Yugoslavia separated the two nations ”. His words were interpreted as blasphemy, a deep insult to the proud Macedonian “anti-fascist resistance” against the Bulgarian occupation during World War II of what was then only southern Serbia.
A non-critical and exclusive equation of Macedonian identity with anti-fascism and partisan heroism has been so normalized that those who point out that not all Macedonians were anti-fascists and not all Bulgarians were fascists during the war , and even less today, are seen as unspeakable heresy. The name of this heresy is “revisionism”.
There seems to be a consensus within Macedonian academia that ‘revisionism’ is an explicit negative term: revisiting parts of history that might help paint a more nuanced picture of Macedonian-Bulgarian relations seems unimaginable, even for some members of the Macedonian. historical commission.
If Bulgarian and Macedonian societies want to fight their respective nationalisms and move away from their ossified notions of national historiography, the Bulgarian veto must fall. It is also of prime importance that Bulgarian and Macedonian intellectuals, who have engaged in positive and constructive cross-border exchanges, are not deterred by the vicious attacks they have faced and persevere in their efforts to build bridges.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.