Author: Mariglen Demiri, researcher
The relations between the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Bulgaria in recent years have been quite strained and have dramatic characteristics. This is mainly due to many factors, the problem is much more complex than the simplistic interpretations presented in the media, which often have inciting motives, especially when it concerns our society in North Macedonia. On the other hand, the problem persists and has political implications on a daily, weekly and indefinite basis. The implications are effected in the internal context of the state and apply new layers to the social and political mood of the citizens. Those effects change the physiognomy of the political mood of the citizens, further confuse the orientation and ideological profiling that does not correspond to social necessities and herald an antagonistic relationship based on the national agent.
The several vetoes on North Macedonia after the signing of the Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Bulgaria in 2017, gave a wind at the back of the right-wing political initiatives in both societies, feeding them with a large arsenal of arguments about why ones, that is, the others, are enemies and as such should be treated in a hostile manner. All that comes after the so-called Prespa Agreement with Greece and the accepted obligation to open the Constitution of the country and change the Constitutional name.
Without going into the degree of sincerity of the motives of these initiatives for signing this kind of agreements, according to which (now already) North Macedonia would be integrated into a wider egalitarian cultural and economic exchange with its neighbors, still these agreements contribute to increasing of the nationalist sentiment mostly among the Macedonians, but also among the Bulgarians. Not only the agreement signed in 2017, but also the vetoes on the European integration of North Macedonia are intensifying the initiative of the mostly nationalist circles, “equipping” them with additional argumentative offensives for an antagonistic approach in relation to the members of the “other” community, beyond the borders of ” ours”. The nationalist approach and rhetoric are not only present among the right-wing politically profiled agents, but also among those on the left, (in our case) “Levica” which builds on these debates in society and articulates them through the traditionally defined national myth that narrates the struggle and emergence of Macedonia through a substantializing mode, characteristic mainly of right-wing understandings of the nation. Populist anti-establishment components enter here in the construction of their position, which regardless of motives for honesty or dignity, the opportunistic moment cannot be rejected.
Double acting protests
In that direction, a very significant moment was the protests in 2022 as a kind of manifestation of the portrayed clash between the two states. The protests were preceded by the so-called French proposal and the blockage in the way to the integration of the country in the EU. Although one of the reasons for the protests was the proposal, its internal logic of contradiction indicates the welcome of this proposal, especially in the context of its opposition to the complete rejection of the idea of European integration.
An insignificant part of the protest movement had remarks regarding the veto placed by Bulgaria on the integration path of North Macedonia in the European Union and the necessities imposed by the French proposal. The remarks in the form of arguments moved, and still move, in the direction of (I) rejection of the European agenda and European integrations, but also (II) strengthening of the mythological paradigm with antagonistic positions towards others, historical suprematism and mono-ethno-national political project.
The thesis that under the initiative of these protests there was a motive initiated by the welcome of the veto and the French proposal, is determined by the data available and visible through the iconography, the statements of the participants, as well as the statements of the organizers. The presidents of the opposition parties stated that Europe is not an option, if assimilation follows, that, however, another option will be found and that after all “the EU is not the only alternative”.
These attitudes are present among nationalist and sovereignist political agents over the years, who perceive the political subject of the Macedonian through the national syntagm of democracy of the dominant and domicile group that participates in political and social life. Hence, negotiations, giving up part of the sovereignty of the state and institutions in the name of a higher transfer of relations, losing the storytelling monopoly of the state in the direction of an ethnic/national community and changing the myth and the story, represents a serious usurpation in the processes not only of self-understanding, but also of the established culture of relations and cultural codes that the improvement of relations on the one hand, but also the reconciliation with Bulgaria on the other, should cause. In that direction, the protests abounded with calls for ASNOM and anti-Bulgarianization of Macedonia and Macedonian history.*
Cultural clubs as the antipode of the “cultural competition between nations”
Although in the past, Macedonian Bulgarians had their own cultural clubs, there were also initiatives to open cultural clubs with provocative names, such as the initiative for the “Radko” club, a name that is considered a pseudonym of one of the historically controversial presidents of VMRO, Ivan (Vancho ) Mihailov. The registration of this club was rejected by the Constitutional Court of the then Republic of Macedonia, and this decision motivated the initiators of the club to sue the state in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2001 and in 2009 to obtain a positive verdict for them, although before 2009, in 2008 a club of Macedonian Bulgarians was registered under the name Bulgarian Cultural Club-Skopje.
On the other hand, the Macedonians from Bulgaria also struggled with the establishment of their own clubs in Bulgaria. These initiatives were followed by a series of lawsuits before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where the number of judgments obtained for violation of human rights, especially in relation to the registration of cultural clubs, is over 16. Some of these clubs functioned illegally in various forms and associations, and as of last year, 2022, the formation was formally institutionally confirmed.
What these clubs have in common is that in both cases the initiatives are taken by two ethnic minorities in two different countries. One of those countries has been a formal member of the EU since 2007. In both cases, the establishment and registration was a consequence of the long-standing initiative of the two countries to reconcile the confrontational positions that have been held in the two countries for the last 30 years.
In both cases, the opening of the clubs was accompanied by the presence of politicians from one or the other country, indicating that they care about the minority in the neighboring country.
In both cases, the official openings of the clubs were also followed by protests by political entities in the localities where they were established. In Bitola, Ohrid and Blagoevgrad. Each of the protesters had their own arguments as to why the clubs should not be registered and opened.
In Bitola and Ohrid, the names of the clubs were disputed due to the problematic biographies of the persons after whom the clubs were named. Ivan Mihailov and Tsar Boris III were recognized by the demonstrators, part of the public and the intellectual caste as collaborators of the fascists during the Second World War and precisely because of that fact, they publicly resented it, and some of them even protested in front of the clubs’ headquarters . The club in Bitola was also set on fire, and the person who committed the crime was sanctioned.
In Blagoevgrad, the situation is similar, but with significant differences. Namely, the name of the club is Nikola Vaptsarov, it is not followed by political atavisms of the caliber of the Bulgarian clubs in North Macedonia, however, the opening of this club was followed by the presence of politicians from North Macedonia as a sign of support for the Macedonians from the Pirin part of Bulgaria and protests by representatives of the right-wing and nationalist political camp in Bulgaria. What is paradoxical is the fact that two political parties with the sign VMRO (DPMNE and BND) attended the opening of the Macedonian cultural club in Bulgaria, one with support, the other with protest, where it was finally staged by some media and a small, maybe to say a non-existent incident.
What remains at the end?
After so many vicissitudes in the relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, the public still seems to be quite poorly informed about the nature of the conflict between the official bodies of the two states. Despite so many investments and initiatives in the direction of raising the quality of information, the political-social picture remains trapped in the monolithic perception of reality, either in our case, in North Macedonia, or in the case of Bulgaria.
The majority of the citizens in both countries believe that the Bulgarians, that is, the Macedonians, all but one, are their enemies. When they protest against the decisions and vetoes made by their “enemies”, they expect all members of their nation to stand in solidarity with their demands, because the “enemies” are always close, united and in continuous attack. Thus rejecting any possible heteronomy and heterogeneity of others, and adding the category of “traitors” to their ranks.
The citizens in North Macedonia, especially Macedonians, who know that in addition to the veto, the then prime minister of Bulgaria, Kiril Petkov, was highly criticized for his leniency towards North Macedonia and the Macedonians, are rare. I also assume that those Bulgarians who are affected in some way by this dispute, and who have information about the political and ideological profile of the people who protested, especially in front of the headquarters of the cultural club Ivan Mihailov in Bitola, are rare. Namely, that a large part of them in the past were part of an association called “Todor Aleksandrov”, and some of them saluted with the famous Nazi salute “Sie Heil” at sports competitions, and on the other hand protested against the Nazi and fascist collaborationist Ivan Mihailov.
What can be observed as a rounding of a wider panorama of events that happened in one calendar year in two different countries and societies is that this clash produces a public that is not in the mood for a solution and overcoming the clash, but for its intensification. The narrative structures that emanate from these political and socio-cultural events indicate a struggle in the trenches on both sides, with a lot of emotion and no desire to abandon the petrified positions of both sides in the name of mutual understanding..
The syntagm of Goce Delchev, the canonized historical figure in both cultures, that he understands the world as a field for cultural competition between peoples, seems to be rejected or ignored completely, and the fight for Goce Delchev remains to be fought, fiercely with all forces.
What remains as a challenge, not to the two states, but to the two societies, those living organisms, which daily feel the impulse of living relationship, cooperation and exchange, is to judge their relationship based on their experiences built through the prism of the economy, friendship and cooperation. The daily inundation with news that partially represent the situation as it takes place in both societies, and which does not reflect the core of both societies, namely, that both societies, in addition to problems and clashes on the political level, full of nationalist sentiments, have succeeded to survive the “cold” and continue to build relationships free from the big stories of politics and hatred.
*Demonstrators chanted “Resignation”, “Never northern, only Macedonia”, “ASNOM lives”, “Bulgarian fascists”
This analysis is part of the project: „Demystifying the (un) neighborly relations on the path to the EU: The case of North Macedonia and Bulgaria“, through the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of EUROTINK-Centre for European Strategies and can in no way be considered to reflect the views of the Canadian Embassy in Belgrade and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.