Naum Kaychev: The connectivity between Bulgaria and North Macedonia is at a tragic level

Sofia will back a decision to launch accession talks with Skopje, but serious conditions will be posed

Sofia will back a decision to begin accession talks, which will entail setting a date for their actual opening. However, Bulgaria's support will not be unconditional; it will have some requirements attached, which will be posed over the course of the long negotiation process. Bulgaria will insist that the Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation signed by the two countries is observed, says Ass. Prof. Naum Kaychev, PhD, deputy co-chair of the Joint Commission on Historical and Educational Matters with North Macedonia.

Mr Kaychev, North Macedonia anticipates its accession negotiations to be effectively launched with an invitation by the EU in the coming days. What should be Bulgaria's stance on the matter?

Bulgaria's stance has already been formulated. On 15-17 October, Sofia will back a decision to begin accession talks, which will entail setting a date for their actual opening. However, Bulgaria's support will not be unconditional; it will have some requirements attached, which will be posed over the course of the long negotiation process.

What should Bulgaria do to ensure that it has its cake and eat it too - in other words, for North Macedonia to get the start of its accession talks, but not at the expense of Sofia's interests?

In addition to the mentioned support for the European Council's decisions, the Bulgarian government and parliament have adopted a framework position on their support for North Macedonia, whose content is intended to be later integrated into the EU's negotiations framework, i.e. the general terms under which North Macedonia will conduct its multi-year accession talks. In a nutshell, Bulgaria will insist that the Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation signed by the two countries in 2018 is observed. This includes not only a stage-by-stage progress and then ultimate success of the Joint Commission on Historical and Educational Matters - in solving disputes regarding the two countries' common history and implementing its decisions in museum exhibitions, monument inscriptions and historical textbooks and curriculums - but it also includes opening the media, cultural and economic areas of the two countries to each other.

Is there any likelihood that North Macedonia does not get an invitation to the negotiating table? As we all know, there are Member States expressing reservations about the country's readiness to start accession talks.

It is perfectly plausible that, under the pressure exerted by France with the support of countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, the “real” invitation is blocked. I cannot rule out the possibility of yet another compromise decision like agreeing to begin negotiations on principle but not setting a concrete date, postponing the launch for an unspecified time in the first half of 2020. We are in for a very interesting week of Brussels and European diplomacy.

If North Macedonia does not get the invitation after all, how would that development impact the fragile political stability in Skopje and, more specifically, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, whose political future inarguably hinges on the country's progress on the EU accession front?

I presume that the current status quo would not be preserved and the EU would make some compromise, face-saving gestures that would allow the ruling coalition led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDUM) and Zaev to stay in office for about a year longer.

Similarly to Bulgaria and Romania years ago, North Macedonia and Albania are now walking hand-in-hand towards EU membership. Could they be separated at some point?

Despite the publicly professed “regatta” approach, i.e. assessing candidate countries based on their individual accomplishments, the history of EU integration shows that membership hopefuls have moved in packs just like in the case of Bulgaria and Romania. It is possible that nuances in the progress of one of the two countries are observed, but at this point I do not anticipate serious divergence. It is worth noting that the three Member States bordering or closest to the Western Balkans - Bulgaria, Croatia and Greece - have come out with a joint statement in support of opening accession negotiations simultaneously with North Macedonia and Albania.

How has North Macedonia's progress towards NATO membership affected the country's relations with Bulgaria?

Generally speaking, our western neighbour's NATO membership is in the long-term interest of Bulgaria. However, our experience is that since the opening of the accession procedure in February, working with our Skopje colleagues has become increasingly harder.

What place do the potential EU accession invitations to North Macedonia and Albania have in the puzzle that is the struggle between the West and Russia for influence in the Balkans?

The Yugoslavian wars, and especially the Kosovo War of 1999, have taught us that European security is inextricably tied to that of the Balkans. It is in the EU's long-term interest to prevent grey areas in southeastern Europe, as any political or economic vacuum can be exploited by the East, Southeast or even the Far East.

The Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation between Sofia and Skopje was signed a little over two years ago and came into effect in February. How would you assess its observance on the part of Skopje?

Pro forma the Treaty is implemented, mutual visits are reported at the level of ministers and top government officials. However, after the initial revival in trade and tourism, now we witness a certain ebb. I have a favourite gap test for the bilateral relations and treaty observance - the availability of the Bulgarian TV programmes in our southwestern neighbouring country and vice versa. In the hotel where we usually stay in Skopje, the leading TV channels of Croatia, Serbia, Albania and other regional TVs are readily available, but there is not a single Bulgarian channel. The same applies to the TV channels people can watch at home. Some months ago, a private TV channel “tv Evropa” boasted of signing distribution contracts, but there is no visible change in Skopje.

You are the deputy co-chair of the Joint Commission on Historical and Educational Matters set up with North Macedonia, whose mission is a new bid for resolving the bilateral controversial issues in these spheres. What has the Commission achieved in the last year?

The Commission held its first sitting in July of 2018 and within the first seven-eight months we managed to successfully constitute and adopt the proposals for joint commemoration of the key figures in our common medieval history - St Clement of Ohrid, St Naum of Ohrid, their teachers the brother Sts Cyril and Methodius, Tsar Samuel. Substantiation which is based on historical sources and outlines the leading role of the medieval Bulgarian state is important. For instance, St Clement Ohridski was sent to Ohrid by Prince Boris I of Bulgaria, and was ordained for bishop of Velika by the order of Tsar Simeon, hence we consider Samuel as the sovereign of the medieval Bulgarian kingdom. If developed, commemoration of these historical figures may contribute to rapprochement of the two countries and their citizens.

You have admitted that the latest sitting of the Commission held in Sofia in mid-September was totally fruitless. How would you explain that?

As of April, the sittings have become increasingly difficult and this trend culminated in September. Our colleagues from North Macedonia resorted to a series of tactical manoeuvres for protracting debates on various insignificant points. So, for instance, we have been discussing for over half an hour whether the name of the present country should be mentioned as the Republic of North Macedonia or simply as Macedonia, which is a much vaster historical and geographic region encompassing at least three states, although it is clearly stated in the country's constitution. The reason for that was the unwillingness of our colleagues to start a real discussion about the personality of Gotse Delchev in the context of his time because they see the historical evidence as “inconvenient”. The representatives of North Macedonia have taken a firm and unyielding position which runs counter to the historical sources.

What are the issues on which it is most difficult to reach an agreement in the debates with the North-Macedonian historians?

From a qualified historical angle there are no inconvenient or difficult topics, but our colleagues from North Macedonia very often hold different opinions about historic events, which they base on present-day concepts and views.

To what extent can we possibly compromise over the division of history? On what issues Bulgaria should not make concession in no event?

In the Joint Commission we do not divide history. On the contrary, our mission is to trace the elements in the common history of both countries as it is stipulated in the Treaty. We do not operate with such notions as “compromise” and “concessions”. We comply with the historical evidences, which dictate our decisions regardless of how these decisions look from the outside.

To this day in many cities of North Macedonia there are memorial plaques commemorating the combat of the local partisans against the “fascist Bulgarian invaders” during the WWII. Have you discussed this issue in the Commission?

We haven't reached the period of the WWII as of yet. It would be logical that all inscriptions on monuments and museum collections be in compliance with the Commission's decisions. This is not part of our actual work but an issue pertaining to the implementation of our decisions which, in turn, is the responsibility of relevant state institutions in both countries. In our case, these are mostly the institutions of the Ministry of Culture of North Macedonia.

There is no railway connection nor highway between Sofia and Skopje. How would transport infrastructure improvement affect the bilateral relations?

It is said that the railway line will be built by 2025-2028 but it all looks like a rather distant prospect. In North Macedonia the way near the border town of Kriva Palanka looks more like a third-rate dirt road between villages. In Bulgaria the project for the construction of speedway between Dupnitsa and Kyustendil seems to be totally forgotten. On the whole, the connectivity between our two countries can be described as “tragic”. It is almost at the same level as it was during the rule of Communist dictators Todor Zhivkov and Josip Broz Tito. Not a single new border check point was opened since then. I think that it speaks for itself, apparently we have a lot of work to do.


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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