On 17 May 2015, former Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev appeared at a mass rally in Skopje, Macedonia. He was on a mission to offer support to the protests against prime minister Nikola Gruevski's cabinet blamed for rampant corruption, rigging elections, wiretapping opponents and whitewashing police violence. Flanked by Zoran Zaev and other dignitaries of opposition Social Democratic Union (SDSM), Stanishev wound up his speech with "Nema pravda, nema mir," (no justice, no peace), the protestors' chant. The multitude gathered in front of the government headquarters cheered. Still, the whole scene felt slightly awkward.
With the exception of the closing sentence, Stanishev had delivered an eulogy of democracy and the rule of law in English. The son of a native of Yugoslav Macedonia who had made it to Sofia in the 1930s, the Bulgarian politician postured atop the stage as a high-powered emissary of Brussels, not a local boy. It was all about the Party of European Socialists (PES) rather than cultural intimacy.
Watchers in Sofia couldn't miss the irony. After months of street protests in Bulgaria against the government of Plamen Oresharski nominally led by Stanishev's Socialist Party (BSP), the party's former leader now posed as a champion of people power and accountability.
This episode sheds light on why Bulgaria has been prominent by its absence in the crisis engulfing Macedonia since February 2015. In theory, Sofia has all it takes to claim a leading role: geographical and cultural proximity, contacts with the main players in the field, professed interest in Macedonian affairs rooted in history, and, not least, EU membership. In practice, Bulgaria is at best an afterthought. If it wasn't for Zaev's May 2015 trip to Sofia, where he met with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, or the insistence of ethnic Albanian parties to have their representatives included in the bilateral talks with the Bulgarians, part of the so-called Albanian Platform promulgated after Macedonia's inconclusive elections in December 2016, few would have noticed Macedonia's eastern neighbor.
Though the then foreign minister Daniel Mitov did visit Skopje on several occasions in 2015, Bulgaria played a supporting role at best.
Why is that?
First, there is a general lack of interest in what goes on in Macedonia. That is true of the Bulgarian public at large and even of "patriotic" parties such as VMRO. Since the early 1990s, VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov (now minister of defense) has been building a political career by milking issues with broader resonance beyond the perennial "Macedonian Question", starting from electricity prices all the way to asylum seekers from the Middle East.
At the same time, heavyweights such as Boyko Borisov do not feel they can get political mileage by intervening in Macedonian affairs. After the storming of the Macedonian parliament on 27 April, the prime minister remarked that Bulgaria is concerned about instability next door but did not go any further.
Second, Bulgaria seems to care more about the past than the present. Issues like military cemeteries or the joint celebrations of historical events such as the 1903 Ilinden Uprising are hotly debated in TV studios but they are few takers for day-to-day concerns of ordinary Macedonians across all ethnic communities, be it economic opportunities (or lack thereof), corruption and clientelism, media and education. We have enough of those on our side of the fence. Bulgarian politicians have more to say about symbolic issues such as who invented the Cyrillic script than what plagues the Macedonian university system - or the judiciary, security services, the award of public contracts, you name it. Which goes to show that there is no special relationship, no matter how much Sofia decision-makers and talking heads wax lyrical about Macedonia.
Third, and related, the "usual suspects" covering Macedonia in Bulgarian media and, more broadly, the public sphere are either looking at Skopje politics through the prism of history or indulging in predictions of the country's imminent disintegration under the weight of ethnic tensions. Granular and informed analysis is in short supply.
Belligerent talk in Sofia only fans Bulgarophobia on the other side of the border, feeding a vicious circle. Unlike other EU member states like Slovenia, Bulgaria is bound to be viewed with suspicion rather than as a friend or an honest broker. Having Karakachanov and the United Patriots in the current cabinet led by Borisov does not augur well in that respect.
Last but not least, who are the Bulgarian allies and interlocutors in Skopje? Back in 1998-2001, Ivan Kostov's government established good rapport with Ljubčo Georgievski, relaunching relations with the friendship declaration of February 1999. But for all its reputation of being "closet Bulgarophiles", the governing VMRO-DPMNE party under Gruevski showed no interest in developing ties with Sofia. Bulgaria's former President Plevneliev, overall a hawk on Macedonia, sought to engage his Macedonian counterpart Gjorge Ivanov but the truth is that Ivanov was (and still is) a figurehead beholden to Gruevski.
Now, with Zaev prime minister and Nikola Dimitrov foreign minister there is a chance for an opening but let's see how it all pans out. Bulgarian diplomats and officials seem to have little contact with the civil society activists who were behind the protests.
Yet, Bulgaria's aloofness is not necessarily something to feel unhappy about. Albania and Serbia both stepped into the Macedonian fray with questionable motives. Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama facilitated the Albanian Platform to wear the mantle of national leader of all his fellow Albanians across the Balkans, with elections on 25 June 2017 looming on the horizon. Similarly, Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić banged on and on about the threat of a "Macedonian scenario" spilling over into Serbia in case he would win the presidential polls on 2 April (which he did with flying colors). Pro-government media in Belgrade echoed the allegations of a plot by George Soros and the West more broadly circulated by Gruevski's own propagandists. Had Bulgarian leaders engaged in the same risky games, seeking cheap dividends from the turmoil next door, they would have added to the harm done. There is a word to be said therefore about disengagement.
The change of government is certainly good news for Macedonia as well as for the EU, which has invested in the country's stability. Skopje is turning to Greece in the hope of unblocking accession to NATO and the US by resolving the dispute over Macedonia's name. That is also a chance for Bulgaria to revive bilateral relations, long in a state of deep freeze. Prime Minister Zaev's trip to Sofia and the prospect of the much awaited friendship treaty to be signed on 2 August (the day of the Ilinden Uprising as well as of the establishment of Macedonia as a republic within Yugoslavia in 1944) augur well.
But let's not get carried away. The new government in Skopje might face headwinds domestically and the crisis could strike back with vengeance. Macedonia's resolve to mend ties with neighbors could soon fray if Greece refuses to soften its stance. Joint celebrations of historical events with Bulgaria does not imply a convergence of views with regard to the past. The jury is out on whether there will be progress on substantive issues: e.g. on upgrading infrastructure connections between Sofia and Skopje which are, mildly put, far from adequate. Thumbs up for Borisov and Zaev's personal diplomacy but, in fairness, there is a lot to be done.
* Dimitar Bechev is is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council as well as as a researcher at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill