Putting a spoke in your little brother's wheel

Macedonians' path to EU membership probably goes through admitting their forefathers were Bulgarians

Photo: EPA One of the heroes's bridges at the Skopje centre.

The intrigue that for months had been surrounding the question whether North Macedonia would start its accession talks with the EU came to a conclusion several days ago with Bulgaria's rather expected and resounding “No”. Or at least “Not yet”. Not before Skopje rethinks its attitude towards Bulgaria.

Many may have been taken aback by this development, considering the fact that, ever since it became a sovereign state, Macedonia and its efforts towards building national institutions and getting a roadmap for joining the European project have been supported by Bulgarian officials at every turn, at least in words. That was the case even when Skopje fulminated against Sofia without reason, while emissaries scoured the Pirin region for a non-existent “Macedonian” minority.

Bulgaria's position is completely justified, even if it comes much too late. For a quarter of a century, the former Yugoslav republic was embroiled in a dispute with Greece over its name. During that entire period, Bulgaria never found it appropriate or necessary to stake a claim to any issue involving Macedonia. It was not until Skopje and Athens reached a compromise to the surprise of many, leading to the emergence of North Macedonia, that Sofia finally decided it was time to clearly state what it wants from its southwestern neighbour.

That is, if demands like “ending efforts to manipulate shared history” can even be categorised as clear. Manipulation is infinitely mercurial and difficult to explain to the general public, on either side of the Bulgarian-Macedonian border, that for decades have been fed ideals and manipulations presented as the ultimate and unassailable truth.  

To the Europeans at large, disagreements between Sofia and Skopje over historical facts seem scholastic and pointless at the very least. How can one explain to the average French person why there is a dispute over the nationality of Gotse Delchev when the French are taught that their country was founded by Chlodwig, the leader of the Franks (a group of German tribes), or Clovis, as is his French name, and yet Germany has no claim on him as a historical figure? Will the Austrians and the Germans ever argue about the nationality of Mozart or Beethoven? By the by, Beethoven, whose 250th birthday anniversary was celebrated across Europe this year, was born in Bonn, had Flemish roots and worked for a long time in Vienna before his death there. What nation has a claim on Christopher Columbus, or Cristobal Colon as is his name in Spanish, who discovered the American continent on an expedition for the Spanish crown, but who is believed to have been born in the Italian town of Genoa?

Against this backdrop, the disputes between Bulgaria and Macedonia look petty and contrived. At the same time, they are bitter and fierce. Because something more than nationality and country is at stake here, something that remains important even in these times of globalisation - identity. When it is made up and fabricated, identity is defended that much harder.

You only need to take a 15-minute walk in downtown Skopje to understand the issue at hand. You will quickly discover that anyone born on the territory of modern North Macedonia, or the territory of the historical and geographical region of Macedonia, or anyone who is even remotely connected to this region is labelled strictly Macedonian. From 5th century BC to this day.

At this peculiar political-historical Disneyland can be seen monuments of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (born near nowadays Skopje) and of Bulgarian Tsar Samuel and the brothers Sts Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, and hundreds of others. But most telling are the two bridges over the Vardar River, made in the style of Charles Bridge in Prague and teeming with statues of prominent Macedonian “heroes” - from Amyntas I (6th century BC), considered to be the first ruler of the Macedonian lands, through ancient and medieval rulers and boyars, scholars, writers and revolutionaries of more recent times, and ending with the popular folk singer Tose Proeski, who died in a car accident in 2007. Any comment would be pointless here.

In their attempt to create and establish own identity, the Macedonian leaders have resorted to outright use of theatrical props. And there could be no other way about it, since the so-called Macedonian nation was born under the Comintern's dictation in the 1930s, and the Macedonian literary language was created as a counterbalance to the Bulgarian language in 1944 by a specially convened linguistic commission. The Bulgarian dialects from the region of Veles, Prilep and Bitola were taken for its basis, and euphemistically called “the central dialect”. In the following decades, the “Macedonian” language was enriched with thousands of foreignisms and Serbisms, just to be as different from the Bulgarian language as possible. Which has now been fully achieved.

And now the Macedonian leaders are angry with their Bulgarian counterparts for not recognising their language and not “letting them into Europe”. Moreover, they themselves do not want it to even be mentioned that they have something in common with the Bulgarians. No matter that in the last two decades tens of thousands of Macedonian citizens have received Bulgarian passports. It was enough for these people to just prove the Bulgarian origin of their ancestors through a simple declaration. Why then Skopje does not learn from its citizens, who are obviously smarter than their own rulers?

Bulgaria has no long-term interest in keeping Macedonia away from Europe. It is far better for Sofia if the small country joins the EU than for it to be a thorn in Bulgaria's side. However, everything has its price. It is high time for Skopje to understand that and to make a small concession. It is enough to simply admit that today's Macedonian language was created - yes, created and invented, on the basis of the Bulgarian dialects from the region of Macedonia, and that the ancestors of today's Macedonians for the most part considered themselves Bulgarians.

Until that happens, Bulgaria has every right to be putting a spoke in the wheel of “its little brother” on both sides of the Vardar River as well as to demand concessions in order to open the door to Europe. In addition, isn't it reasonable for Bulgaria to ask the EU for something? To be finally admitted, for example, to join the Schengen Area, something that it has long earned. It is a matter of diplomacy.

More on this subject: EU accession

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