I have long looked at Bulgaria as a successful example for Serbia to follow. The two countries have much in common; speaking closely related Slavic languages and sharing the Christian Orthodox religion, both nations were shaped by the experience of centuries of Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Empire wholly destroyed the medieval Serbian and Bulgarian states, so their modern successors had to be built from scratch as they were carved out of the decaying Empire during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The uncertainties, among the nationalists of both people, as to where their true national borders lay, were part of the reason for the confused strategies for expansion and consequent military catastrophes experienced by both.
Until the 1990s, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Serbia had been luckier in the outcome of its wars. Serbia and Bulgaria were on opposite sides in the Second Balkan War of 1913 and in the First and Second World Wars. Though it would be a gross oversimplification to say that Serbia had been victorious and Bulgaria defeated on the battlefield in these three wars, yet Serbia certainly ended up on the winning and Bulgaria on the losing side in all three of them. Bulgaria then suffered the misery of a Communist regime imposed by the Soviet Union – one of the most brutal in the Soviet bloc – while Serbia enjoyed the comparative liberalism and prosperity of Tito’s independent model of socialism, so that particularly from the 1960s, Serbia appeared to move far ahead of its eastern neighbour. I recall being told in Belgrade how, for visitors from Bulgaria and Romania, Serbia was the West.
For all that, Bulgaria achieved a victory in defeat. Definitely confined within its actual state borders after its final defeat in World War II, further expansionism was no longer an option. Serbia, on the other hand – its political and intellectual classes suffering from the illusion that its borders with its Yugoslav neighbours, by virtue of supposedly being ‘administrative’, were not set in stone – embarked upon a final, catastrophic expansionist adventure in the 1990s. Consequently, the repressive and impoverished Bulgaria of the 1980s joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007, while the relatively prosperous and liberal Serbia of the 1980s became the new Balkan loser and outcast in the twenty-first century. Bulgaria has generally pursued a responsible foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, recognising the independence of Macedonia under its constitutional name of ‘Republic of Macedonia’ in 1992, recognising the independence of Kosovo in 2008, and avoiding anti-Western nationalist outbursts of the kind characteristic of Serbia and Greece. Bulgaria has contributed troops to the allied forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, Bulgaria’s record was not perfect; a trace of its former irredentist ambitions remained in its refusal to recognise the existence of a Macedonian nation or language. This has involved also the refusal to recognise the existence of the ethnic-Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and undemocratic restrictions on the minority’s freedom of expression: the ethnic-Macedonian party ‘OMO “Ilinden” – Pirin’ was ruled unconstitutional by the Bulgarian Constitutional Court in 2000. This, in turn, resulted in the censure of Bulgaria by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the ban was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
This caveat aside, the Bulgarian lesson for Serbia appeared clear: keep the country tightly confined within its own legal international borders and shut off all outlets for irredentist activity, and it will evolve into a responsible member of the international community. Unfortunately, membership of the EU, far from acting as a framework in which Bulgaria would continue to evolve harmonious relations with the rest of the Balkan region, has breathed new life into the weakened body of Great Bulgarian chauvinism. In December 2009, despite Bulgaria’s continued defiance of the European Court of Human Right’s refusal to permit the registration of OMO ‘Ilinden’-Pirin, the EU’s Committee of Ministers decided to end the monitoring of the execution of the 2005 ECHR judgement regarding the matter.
That month, Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov of the Citizens for European Development in Bulgaria (GERB) held a joint news conference with his ally Volen Siderov, leader of the fascist party National Union of Attack (‘Ataka’) to announce a referendum on the abolition of Turkish-language news broadcasts on Bulgaria’s BNT1 public television channel, despite the fact that nearly 10% of Bulgaria’s population of nearly eight million is ethnic-Turkish and has a long experience of persecution in Bulgaria, particularly in the Communist era under Todor Zhivkov. Borisov was, however, forced to abandon the plan for a referendum in the face of international and domestic opposition, including from the Bulgarian president and parliamentary opposition.
Image: Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov
Now, Great Bulgarian chauvinism has reappeared on the international stage: Bulgaria has abused its EU membership to veto, at a meeting on 11 December of the General Affairs Council of the EU, the setting of a date for the opening of talks with Macedonia on its EU accession – despite the fact that the European Commission and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule recommended that, since Macedonia has met all the necessary criteria, it should be permitted to start accession negotiations. This was the fourth time that the start of accession negotiations with Macedonia has been vetoed – by Greece on each previous occasion.
Whereas in 2009, the then Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov helped to block Borisov’s anti-Turkish referendum, on this occasion, current Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev – GERB’s candidate for the post – has joined Borisov to lead the nationalist assault. The veto was apparently coordinated with Greece – the country that has consistently obstructed Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and with which, back in 1912-1913, Bulgaria joined to dismember the historical region of Macedonia. It is as if Germany and Austria had banded together for nationalistic reasons to block Poland’s or the Czech Republic’s EU accession. Greece (population nearly 11 million) and Bulgaria (population over 7 million) are now openly collaborating against Macedonia (population 2 million) in a manner reminiscent of the collaboration of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman against Bosnia-Hercegovina during the 1990s.
Bulgaria’s new hostility to Macedonia focuses on its attempt to dictate to its smaller neighbour an official version of history that accords with the Bulgarian-nationalist viewpoint – including the way history is taught in schools and the way national anniversaries are celebrated. Thus, Plevneliev had proposed in October that Macedonia and Bulgaria celebrate certain historical anniversaries jointly, in order to stress the supposedly Bulgarian character of Macedonia and the Macedonians. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov rejected this, responding that Macedonia would only jointly celebrate anniversaries concerning the two states’ contemporary friendship: Europe Day; the date on which Bulgaria recognised Macedonia’s independence; and the date on which the two states established diplomatic relations.
The Bulgarian government is also attempting to curb freedom of expression in Macedonia. It has cited, as a reason for its veto, the production of a film in Macedonia, The Third Half, that highlights Bulgaria’s role in deporting the Macedonian Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust, at a time when the land that is today the Republic of Macedonia was under Bulgarian occupation. According to the website of Yad Vashem:
In February 1943 the Bulgarians signed a pact with Germany, in which they agreed to deport to the east 20,000 Jews from their territories. Since nowhere near 20,000 Jews lived in the newly annexed territories of Macedonia and Thrace combined, the Bulgarian authorities intended to include Jews from Bulgaria itself in the deportations. In March 1943 almost all of the Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Thrace (some 4,000) were arrested and surrendered to the Germans, who then deported them to their deaths at Treblinka. Another group of about 1,200 Thrace Jews was moved to Salonika and then sent to Auschwitz. At the same time, all of the Jews of Macedonia were rounded up by the Bulgarian authorities; all but 165 were deported to Treblinka. Some 200 Macedonian Jews survived the war, along with some 250 Jews from Thrace, who either joined the Partisans or hid with their Christian neighbors. Other Thrace Jews managed to escape to Italian-held territories during 1941–1942.
In his attack on Macedonia over the film The Third Half, Borisov whitewashed the Nazi-allied Bulgarian regime’s role in deporting the Macedonian Jews: ‘If we could save all Jews in the world, we would have, but we couldn’t and saved the 50,000. Other countries couldn’t do much and didn’t do much, maybe one two countries that saved 300-400 people. And Bulgaria deserves to see movies made against Bulgaria? Why? Because of its friendliness, its love, its openness … this is the same as accusing someone that there are thirsty people in Africa.’
Thus, Macedonia’s EU accession has been further obstructed because a film was made in Macedonia highlighting the role of the Bulgarian occupiers in deporting Macedonia’s Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust, and the Bulgarian government wishes to suppress the memory of Bulgaria’s participation in the Holocaust. The EU has enabled Bulgaria to do this, just as it has enabled the resuscitation of Great Bulgarian irredentism vis-a-vis Macedonia. As the film’s director Darko Mitrevski said, ‘To call “Third Half” anti-Bulgarian is analogous to calling “Schindlerˈs List” anti-German. My movie is anti-fascist. The fact there are EU parliamentarians who classify anti-fascism as “hate speech” is a European Parliament problem as well as a problem for the country they represent, not mine.’
The EU this year received the Nobel Peace Prize. It was already undeserved, but in light of the EU’s currently active role in undermining peace and stability in the Balkans, it is definitely time that this award be revoked.
Last month, I was interviewed by the Macedonian daily newspaper Nova Makedonija. The edited text of my interview was published in the Macedonian language. I reproduce here the full interview in English.
What kind of policy steps are you suggesting for the Macedonian government to take in order to get the invitation for NATO?
The Macedonian government has to accept that, on account of the Greek veto, it will not be able to join NATO in the short term. It must therefore pursue a long-term strategy in this regard. This means showing itself to be a staunch friend of NATO and in particular of the US, for example through support for the allied military effort in Afghanistan, and playing a constructive role in the Balkan region. Macedonia must continue to reform and develop its military, maintain the Ohrid Agreement, and show itself to be a mature and responsible democratic state. This will pave the way for NATO membership in the long run.
You are calling Greece a ‘regional troublemaker’ and you ask for the Western leaders to bring a real pressure to bear on our neighbour. But it seems that not only do they not press Greece, but also they hold down Macedonia by saying we will not be able to join NATO or the EU till the name issue is resolved. In this kind of situation how real is it to expect that the veto might be overturned ? Why is there a lack of will to press Greece?
The problem is not so much that the Western leaders support Greece, as that they don’t perceive enough of an interest in supporting Macedonia. With other problems facing them globally, Western leaders find it easier to do nothing about Greece and Macedonia. And since Greece, as a NATO and EU member, has the upper hand vis-a-vis Macedonia, the Western leaders are effectively siding with Greece by default. Macedonia must be patient, and try to win the battle for European and Western public opinion, by systematic lobbying, and by developing close bilateral relations with those countries that are sympathetic to it – such as the US, UK, Turkey, Italy and Russia.
The winner of the presidential election in Macedonia, Gjorge Ivanov, said that his first priority is to resolve the name issue, stressing that direct negotiations between Macedonia and Greece could unblock the process. What do you think about this idea?
I am very skeptical that direct negotiations between Greece and Macedonia can unblock the process, because Greece is unwilling to accept any reasonable compromise. My personal suggestion for a compromise would be ‘Republic of non-Greek Macedonia’ – Mr Ivanov could try that, though I suspect Athens would think up some objection…
Greece refuses to admit that the negotiations are not only about the name, but also about the Macedonian identity. How could we resolve this problem with Greece, which is crucial for our integration into NATO and the EU and at the same time not lose our identity?
Macedonia must be patient. The Greek veto is not going to be lifted any time soon, but Macedonia cannot surrender to Greece without losing its identity. The Greek policy is to make the international community de-recognise the existence of a Macedonian nation, hence, it wants to force the Republic of Macedonia to adopt a name that turns ‘Macedonia’ into a geographic, rather than a national term. So long as Athens thinks it can bully Skopje into backing down, it’s going to try. And so long as the EU believes that Greece is more uncompromising than Macedonia, it will encourage Skopje, as the more reasonable side, to back down. That is the way the EU operates – it always rewards the stronger and more unreasonable side. So it doesn’t pay to be conciliatory.
I think it’s important, therefore, that Macedonia should not view membership of NATO and the EU as a shibboleth. Macedonia must accept that it won’t join either organisation soon, but that this is not the end of the world. It should try to achieve as many of the benefits of membership as it can, by forging a close economic and military relationship with the NATO and EU states, as well as with Russia and other countries. In the long run, Skopje must make both Athens and the EU realise that it isn’t going to back down, no matter how long it has to wait to join NATO and the EU. In the meantime, Macedonia has friends, and it isn’t going to collapse.
Are you an optimist that in the near future we could find a solution to the problem?
No. A solution depends upon the democratisation of Greece, and a shift in Greek political culture to one that is post-nationalist, rather than nationalist. It is a slow process, but it will happen eventually. We can compare this with Turkey’s attitude to the Armenian genocide: official Turkey still won’t recognise this genocide, but more and more educated Turkish citizens are willing to speak about it. Greece will gradually democratise, and as it does, educated Greeks will challenge the nationalist paradigm over Macedonia. Macedonians must be patient and accept that they must wait for democratic change to take place in their southern neighbour.
According to you, is it a good idea that the EU help Macedonia and Greece to resolve the problem in the way thay are helping Croatia and Slovenia? The negotiation process under the UN seems to be in a dead end, but on the other hand, some argue that EU mediation is not such a good idea because Macedonia is not an EU member so they will not be on an equal footing with Greece.
I am skeptical about a negotiated settlement in both the cases of Slovenia and Croatia, and of Greece and Macedonia. In both cases, the EU is refusing to distinguish between right and wrong, and negotiations will necessarily favour the stronger side; i.e., the side that is already in the EU, and that wields the veto. Ultimately, Macedonia needs to resist EU pressure to accept an unprincipled compromise – not just for its own sake, but for the sake of all Europeans. I, as a European citizen, do not want to live in an EU that supports territorial expansionism – as in the case of Slovenia vs Croatia – or that supports racism – as in the case of Greece vs Macedonia. I want to live in an EU that does distinguish between right and wrong. So, for the sake of all Europeans, I hope Croatia and Macedonia do not back down.
Do you think that Macedonia will win the process in The Hague where we are suing Greece for violation of the Interim Accord, with its veto at the Bucharest summit last year? Greece is claiming that that was the unanimous decision of all NATO members.
I think Macedonia has a reasonably good chance. But, whatever the international court decides, it is just one battle in a struggle that will continue regardless.
Beside the remarks of international organisations such as the UN and the Council of Europe in reports on Greece’s refusal to recognise the Macedonian minority in Greece, Athens keeps denying the rights of this minority. Why is there no international pressure over Greece, seeing that, as a member of the EU, it must respect minority rights?
The failure of the EU to pressurise Greece on the question of the ethnic Macedonian minority in Greece is an absolute disgrace. Again, it comes down to inertia and a lack of perceived interest on the part of the EU members.
You say that Greek determination to keep Macedonia out of NATO and the EU has been bolstered by the opportunistic support of Sarkozy and that there is no contrary support for Macedonia from within EU ranks. Why there is no support for Macedonia in the EU; is that a result of our diplomacy, or something else ?
Macedonia has been very unlucky in France’s choice of president. Ultimately, a relatively small country like Macedonia has only a limited ability to influence the states of Europe. Macedonia has not been as unlucky as some in the treatment it has received from the EU and its members – you need only to look at how Bosnia was treated in the 1990s, or how long it took for Kosovo to achieve international recognition.
Macedonian diplomats need to lobby hard, but propaganda that appeals to the educated European public is also important. The Greek position, that people speaking a Slavic language cannot really be ‘Macedonian’, is simply racist. Educated Europeans need to be reminded of this. Also, as Macedonia develops its tourist industry, more and more Europeans will visit the country and become aware of the problem. Macedonians must be firm but appear reasonable – nobody respects nationalists.
Do you think that NATO and the EU will learn the lesson that by allowing the ‘rogue NATO and EU members’, as you call them, to blackmail their neighbours by using their vetoes, is creating a dangerous precedent facilitating aggressive nationalist demands?
I hope so, but this will depend on Macedonians, Croatians and their friends making the point as frequently and as effectively as they can. The position of Macedonia and Croatia is the one that the West must uphold, rather than that of the aggressive nationalist countries, Greece and Slovenia – satisfying the latter will open a Pandora’s box, encouraging other EU and NATO members to adopt similar aggressive demands against their neighbours. Europe needs to be made aware of this.
Do you think that it is possible that the right of individual NATO and EU states unilaterally to veto the membership of aspiring members will be abolished ? Surely, for this there would have to be a new NATO agreement that could be vetoed by Greece, and even if this happens, there could be other member states close to Greece that could support her veto – France for example ?
It won’t happen soon, but that is no reason not to talk about it. Talking about abolishing the veto is the first step to achieving it. Once people begin to talk about it, even as a distant possibility, then it is on the agenda, and European and Western politicians will start having to acknowledge the issue. Then they might begin to feel that by pandering to the trouble-makers, they are simply creating more problems for themselves for the future.
What kind of risk does this kind of blackmailing bring to the Balkans ? Do you think that the peace in this region could be infringed if Macedonia remains outside of NATO and the EU any longer ?
It is in Macedonia’s vital interest to join NATO and the EU in the long term, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world if it doesn’t do so in the short term. As I said, a temporary alternative would be to forge a close military and economic relationship with these bodies, and develop close bilateral relations with their friendlier members, such as the US, UK, Italy and Turkey, as well as other powers, such as Russia. Serbia could provide a model – it has strengthened its position vis-a-vis the EU by developing its friendship with Russia. Ultimately, I am afraid that if Macedonia and Croatia back down to Greece and Slovenia, it will encourage more aggressive nationalist demands by individual NATO and EU members, and that that will destabilise the Balkans and retard the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
You said that ‘With Albania set to join NATO and significant ethnic-Albanian minorities present in Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, Tirana could, if it so wished, create a veritable nightmare for the Western alliance by making issues out of the latter’. Could you please explain what do you mean by this remark?
Just imagine if Macedonia were to capitulate to Greece, and if Albania were to draw the conclusion from this that it, too, as a member of NATO, could impose unreasonable demands on NATO candidate countries, including Macedonia. What then ? I do not wish to cast aspersions on Albania, which has behaved very responsibly in its regional policy, but in principle, Tirana could for example demand that Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia grant it border rectifications, or grant their ethnic Albanian minorities territorial autonomy, if they want to join NATO. Where would you be then ? I’m not saying that this will happen, but a Macedonian capitulation to Greece would encourage this sort of thing.
It doesn’t pay to back down to aggressors. And, as I said, the EU, as a fundamentally unprincipled body, will generally reward unreasonable behaviour and put pressure on those who appear ready to bend. Macedonia may discover that sacrificing its name and identity will increase rather than solve its problems.
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