On the 25th of January, the first Bulgaro-North Macedonian inter-governmental summit in several years began in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. This marked a thaw in the two countries’ relationship after years of confrontation over historical and memorial issues which culminated in Bulgaria’s vetoing the negotiation process for North Macedonia’s accession to the EU in November 2020.
The dispute that led to Bulgaria’s veto is firmly rooted in legacies of nation-building and could not possibly be explained in its whole here. But the main outline is this.
Bulgaria considers North Macedonia to be an inherent part of the Bulgarian nation; to share one same cultural history with her, but to have been separated from her by Great-Power intervention in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Whilst some Macedonians recognise those cultural links, and indeed some self-identify as Bulgarians, others have contested them to the extent of negating them altogether in compulsory school programmes.
The contestation of historical “facts” was deemed by Bulgaria to be unacceptable. And ever since November 2020, one could barely see any route away from the deadlock, with each side firmly staying its course: Bulgaria blocking EU integration; North Macedonia refusing to give in on memorial questions.
In fact, the impetus towards a normalisation of the bilateral relationship seems to have come about in great part thanks to the recent change in leadership in both countries, with liberal-centrist and Harvard graduate Kiril Petkov, and social-democrat Dimitar Kovačevski as Bulgaria’s and North Macedonia's new PMs, respectively – the former since last December, the latter only since the 16th of January.
Indeed, as a token of good faith, Petkov visited Skopje on the 18th of January, signalling an openness to dialogue rather than iron-solid and stubborn intransigence on Bulgaria’s side. As a result, Kovačevski readily showcased a similar pre-disposition on North Macedonia’s side, thereby paving the way for fruitful negotiations the following week at the summit.
The summit is not a regular meeting between two heads of government, but a discussion forum between, virtually, two entire governments, with various so-called “working groups” involving the competent ministries from both countries. As such, the scale of the negotiations is unprecedented, ranging from economic questions to infrastructure, but also addressing matters of education, history and culture.
Crucially, negotiations on historical-cultural issues, which brought about the diplomatic deadlock in the first place, have been conducted in parallel to the rest of the discussions, so as to prevent potentially contentious questions from obstructing progress in unrelated matters.
Significant advances have already been achieved in the past few days. Here are the most remarkable propositions that have been put forth.
On Culture and History
Unsurprisingly, and despite being decoupled from other negotiations, historical-cultural matters nevertheless occupied the centre of attention.
The most notable advance in that domain has been a nominal agreement by Kovačevski to include the Bulgarians in the Constitution of North Macedonia. At a press conference, he said it was “normal for groups self-identifying differently [i.e., Macedonian Bulgarians] to be included in North Macedonia’s Constitution”. This idea was first put forth by organisations representing Macedonian Bulgarians in an open letter to the Bulgarian President, PM, and parliament several weeks ago, and subsequently officially taken on by the government. Constitutionally enshrining the status of Bulgarians as one of many communities forming the Macedonian nation – alongside the Albanians and Serbs, for example – would legally protect them from discrimination and provide a safeguard against the erasing of the Bulgarian heritage in Macedonia.
However, Kovačevski did not specify when such a constitutional amendment could be expected; crucially, whether it would be conditioned upon Bulgaria's lifting its veto, or whether it would be a step towards incentivising her to do so. This is an essential point since the Bulgarian and Macedonian public opinions are sensitive to these minutiae.
What is more, the success of such as constitutional amendment is entirely contingent upon a constitutional majority in the North Macedonian parliament – currently set at two-thirds of the seats – adopting it. But Kovačevski's governing coalition (between the social-democrats and the Albanian-dominated Democratic Union) is short of a constitutional majority, and as such would have to rely on the support of at least some portion of the opposition for the amendment to pass.
It should also be mentioned that not all Macedonian Bulgarians favour the constitutional solution. The Bulgarian Cultural Club – Skopje (BCCS), for example, argues that such a solution would be just as useful as Bulgaria’s veto in improving bilateral relations; namely, useless – if not harmful. Indeed, the BCCS’s president, Lazar Mladenov, warns that including the Bulgarians in the Constitution would further divide Macedonian society. According to Mladenov, the best path towards a rapprochement lies in the deepening of economic and cultural ties; in focussing on what the two countries have in common, rather than in institutionalising their differences.
Having said that, it remains that Kovačevski's nominal agreement to yield to the demands of the opposing party carried great symbolic weight, showing his willingness to work towards a compromise just several days after Petkov did the same thing by visiting him in Skopje.
Economy and Infrastructure
Advances in matters related to the economy and infrastructure have been significant and concrete, despite not attracting as much attention as the more politicised historical-cultural issues.
Both sides have committed to establishing a permanent aerial connection between Sofia and Skopje. Concrete steps have already been taken towards achieving that goal, as Bulgarian aerial controllers have already been dispatched to Skopje, the plan being for there to be regular flights by March. Furthermore, there have been discussions of building a Sofia-Skopje railway and of further connecting the two countries’ motorways. The EU responded positively to these projects, with Ursula von der Leyen saying that the European Commission was ready to participate in their funding.
These ambitious infrastructural integration projects are intended, in turn, to foster mutual economic development and, by so doing, to normalise permanently bilateral relations. In the words of PM Petkov: “If we tie the two economies and the infrastructure together, this will result in a long-term relationship, which will not depend on this or that person”. What Petkov means by that is that, given the rather unstable nature of politics in the two countries, should new politicians rise to power and seek to fuel bilateral disputes, they will be disincentivised to do so by the high related costs – namely, those of hurting the domestic economy.
As such, the new strategy undertaken by Petkov and Kovačevski is somewhat reminiscent of the logic which underpinned the early Franco-German reconciliation and European integration (although the circumstances are entirely different today).
The path to a complete normalisation between North Macedonia and Bulgaria is still a distant prospect, with many forces on both sides of the border standing in the way of its realisation. The integration of North Macedonia to the EU is even more distant because, should Bulgaria lift its veto, there would remain the rest of the EU members to convince. But with the stepping down of Angela Merkel – one strong voice in favour of enlargement in the Western Balkans – and the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the French presidential elections; and, moreover, with some countries like the Netherlands already firmly opposed to further enlargement, North Macedonia might stay out of the EU for a long time, assuming her accession still bears any credibility. Despite all of these considerations, the political tact displayed by Petkov and Kovačevski these past days, and the considerable progress they have achieved, are nothing short of laudable.