Assoc Prof Naum Kaychev: Skopje's EU path goes through compliance of the agreement with Bulgaria

It cannot be excluded that behind the Vevcani incident stands the so-called “deep state”, i.e. the secret services

The visit of Vlado Buckovski to Bulgaria was an attempt by the authorities in Skopje to show will for continuation of the dialogue. The provocation in the village of Vevcani was carried out by circles close to the pro-Serbian opposition VMRO-DPMNE political party. In 2012, at the same carnival in Vevcani, Greece was symbolically buried in a coffin and the Greek flag was burned, said the deputy co-chair of the Joint Bulgaria-North Macedonia Multidisciplinary Expert Commission on Historical and Educational Issues in a special interview to EUROPOST.

Mr Kaychev, the relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia seem to be at one of their lowest points. Did Vlado Buckovski's mission manage to change anything?

As far as I can see, this visit was an attempt by the authorities in Skopje to show will for continuation of the dialogue as well as a signal for implementation of the bilateral agreement, which is the only way to successfully continue the country's European integration. The future will show to what extent these gestures will be supported by concrete actions. It is crucial for me to see if there will be results in the joint historical commission of the two countries. 

Why did it come to this provocation of burning the Bulgarian flag at the carnival in Vevcani, and who is actually benefiting from it?

Everything points to the fact that this provocation was carried out by circles close to the pro-Serbian VMRO-DPMNE political party. On the other hand, the annual carnival in Vevcani - held from 13 to 14 January to celebrate the New Year according to the old calendar - which I've had the opportunity to visit personally in the past, is a traditional and important folklore and public event in the calendar of the republic. It has more than just regional character, sometimes causing national consequences. In the past, various political events and provocations took place there. In 2012, for example, Greece was symbolically buried in a coffin and the Greek flag was burned. The police should certainly have foreseen and prevented a recurrence of such events, but they have not done it. Therefore, the question arises as to whether the “deep state”, meaning Skopje's special services, were behind the incident, or if there was influence by other interested parties. 

Both sides condemned this incident. Are the authorities in Skopje sincere, according to you?

This will be shown by the effectiveness of the investigation and the actions of the judicial system in North Macedonia to find and punish the perpetrators, as well as whether the authorities will allow similar incidents to happen in the future.

For many years, the Bulgarian authorities were among the most serious advocates of North Macedonia's integration, at least in words. What has changed in the last year so that it was exactly Sofia that put a spoke in the wheels of Skopje on its path to Europe?

The changes are not only from the last year. In February 2019, once Bulgaria fulfilled its commitment and ratified our neighbour country's NATO accession, in the spring of 2019 Skopje stopped implementing the Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness - not only in the part regarding the historical commission, but in almost all other aspects. This provoked the public declaration of the Bulgarian Parliament as well as the Framework Position on North Macedonia and Albania of October 2019. The authorities in Skopje did not change their attitude, and at the end of last year it was only logical that the expected start of EU membership negotiations was postponed, also due to the position of Sofia.

However, wasn't this to some extent a pre-election move, an attempt to bring grist to the mill of the so-called patriots (United Patriots is a nationalist electoral alliance in Bulgaria - editor's note) who could be left overboard after Bulgaria's elections on 4 April 2021?

My explanations in response to your previous question correspond to this one as well. Regarding the Framework Position and the declaration of the Parliament, i.e. regarding the position towards North Macedonia, there is an agreement between all the main political forces and factors in Bulgaria. 

Do you expect that after the forthcoming elections Sofia will give a green light for the start of Skopje's EU accession talks?

Irrespective of what government will be formed after the elections, I expect it to observe the principles of the current one. If Skopje starts implementing the Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness not in words but in deeds, Bulgaria's agreement for the start of EU accession talks could be achieved in the near future.

Can we expect pressure on Bulgaria, by certain countries, to let North Macedonia on the European path, or to keep holding it in front of the barrier?

Such pressure is possible, but I do not believe that this in itself could work out. To start negotiations with the EU, firstly, there must be an implementation of the treaty with Skopje, and secondly, the EU Member States must give a green light to Albania as well, because Tirana and Skopje would most probably move in a pack, due to a number of reasons related to regional stability. 

Where exactly is the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia positioned in the fight between the Great Powers for supremacy on the Balkans?

The origin of the problem is mostly internal, but the external factors are positioned within it in one way or another. It is often claimed that Russian influence benefits from Bulgaria's stand. Moreover, it is frequently overlooked that Russia has consistently supported, including through a number of declarations by its Foreign Ministry, the ideology and government of Nikola Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE in the period 2006-2017. The encouragement of Macedonism (Skopje's ideology for existence of a separate Macedonian people and language long before 1944) continues to this day. On 5 January this year, the Russian Embassy in Skopje made an announcement about St Naum Ohridski, in which it failed to mention the word “Bulgaria” - as though this great man of letters was not sent and encouraged by the Bulgarian Tsar Boris, as though the town of Ohrid was situated at that time in some other country different from Bulgaria. Instead, it was declared that St Naum had been one of the founders of some sort of “Old Church Slavonic language” which was the basis of the “Russian, Macedonian and other Slavonic languages”. I think that the political goals behind such underhanded games with history and philology are perfectly clear.

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Ass. Prof. Naum Kaychev, PhD, has been serving as deputy co-chair of the Joint Commission on Historical and Educational Matters, a bilateral body set up in partnership with North Macedonia, since May 2018. He graduated in history at the Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridski” before specialising in Athens, Belgrade, Budapest and Zagreb. Currently, Kaychev heads the Department of Byzantine and Balkan History at the Sofia University. He is a member of the Macedonian Scientific Institute and the Bulgarian Society for British Studies. He served as Bulgaria's consul-general to Toronto, Canada, from 1999 until 2002 and to Bitola, North Macedonia, from 2007 until 2010. He has authored two monographs and dozens of scientific articles and studies, mainly on Macedonian history.

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