In December 2020, the leaders of Bulgaria and North Macedonia were supposed to have met for their first intergovernmental conference, as stipulated in the 2017 Good Neighborhood Agreement signed by the two states. The historic committee, set up under the same agreement, was also supposed to have settled longstanding disputes about the shared past of the two countries and would have agreed how to celebrate their shared national heroes.
Sofia, which had become the most prominent advocate of the Balkan states' Euro-integration, putting it at the forefront of its 2018 EU Presidency agenda, would have welcomed the launch of the negotiation process between Brussels, on the one side, and Tirana and Skopje. The two countries would have then been on track to take down the borders that have divided them for the past 75 years, looking forward to a common future in the EU.
Pipe dreams of good relations
Of course, this is the Balkans where nothing happens so easily. In fact, under a cannonade of accusations about government-incited, anti-Bulgarian hate-speech campaigns and not adhering to the 2017 agreement, Sofia cancelled the intergovernmental conference and, in practice, blocked the launch of N. Macedonia's accession bid in Brussels. While the move raised many eyebrows in the West, it had been on the cards for quite some time.
In practice, relations between Sofia and Skopje never moved anywhere after the signing of the agreement four years ago - not one significant cross-border infrastructural, economic, defense, social or cultural project has ensued. On the contrary, moods on both sides of the border have hardened. Sofia accused Skopje of lobbying EU states behind its back to accept its demands on how to describe the language of N. Macedonia in official documents. And Skopje was outraged by Sofia's ultimatum asking EU members to back Bulgaria's historic and ethnolinguistic claims over its southwestern neighbor.
To many outsiders, the debacle might sound incomprehensible and hard to follow. And while many observers are tempted to find simple answers by citing Bulgarian nationalism, the upcoming elections in the country and the like, this is only part of the story. A more nuanced view would entail looking at the failure of the fractured political elites on both sides to agree over key points needed to bring positive bilateral change.
A zero-sum historic game
In practice, Sofia and especially the nationalist lobby that dominates Bulgaria's position on N. Macedonia (VMRO of Defense Minister Krassimir Karakachanov is named after the revolutionary organization that led the uprising in present-day N. Macedonia and South Macedonia in the 1900s) want Macedonians to cease claiming that their history, language and identity are separate from Bulgaria's, and instead acknowledge them as an offshoot.
They want N. Macedonians to describe their Macedonian language as a dialect of Bulgarian (thus not mention it as a separate official European language when they join the EU, like there is no Austrian language and only German) and renounce claims that national heroes - from medieval kings to XIX-XX c. revolutionaries - held a separate Macedonian identity. In comparison, what then-Macedonia agreed with Greece in Prespa in 2018 was that the country renounces all claims over its Greek heritage, territory and ethnic minority living in the Macedonia region of Greece. Bulgaria wants the best of both worlds - both N. Macedonia renouncing claims to have a minority in Bulgaria, but also better protection of "people with Bulgarian self-consciousness" in Skopje, as well as acceptance of the shared history and language of the two countries.
Basically, Bulgarian nationalists believe there is an unnatural partition between the two countries and want Macedonians to acknowledge that they have been brainwashed by the Comintern and Tito's Yugoslavia since 1944. While not as extreme as their early 1990s calls for annexation of the newly independent country, the demand is too much for N. Macedonians - even the friendliest amongst them.
Denying shared identity
"Bulgaria's position is completely irrational and offensive to the Macedonians and our entire nation," Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said in a video address after the news of Bulgaria's blocking of the accession bid launch broke. "In the 21st century, it is neither European nor democratic to tell another how to feel, how to self-determine. It is not European (manner) to write the history of another nation."
The problem of invoking particular nationalistic understandings of history, however, is not only Bulgarian. According to mainstream N. Macedonian historiography, Bulgaria is associated with "fascist occupation" during WWII, whereas Macedonian nationalism stood in vehement opposition to this. N. Macedonian professor of philosophy and political theory Katerina Kolozova, writing in Al Jazeera, gave a poignant example of the abuse of history on the N. Macedonian side for political purposes by citing a recent interview of Mr Zaev for the BGNES Agency, where he said that "Bulgaria is not fascism" and "Yugoslavia kept the two nations apart".
"His words were interpreted as blasphemy, a profound insult to the proud Macedonian 'anti-fascist resistance' against the Bulgarian occupation during World War II of what was at that time simply South Serbia," she writes. "An uncritical and exclusive equation of the Macedonian identity with antifascism and partisan heroism has been so normalized that pointing out that not all Macedonians were antifascist and not all Bulgarians were fascist during the war, let alone nowadays, is perceived as an unspeakable heresy. The name of that heresy is "revisionism," Ms Kozlova concludes.
Hate speech on both sides
It is undeniably true that there are serious problems with both some questionable historic views held in Skopje, and with the dominance of anti-Bulgarian rhetoric in its media. As Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva has stressed in every recent interview, a content analysis of the N. Macedonian media landscape showed almost 15,000 news pieces that were antagonistic to Bulgaria.
But it is also undeniable that Bulgarian hardliners dominate the position of Sofia and send equally unreasonable messages. "The government of North Macedonia plays the anti-Bulgarian card and does not deserve to be part of the EU," Angel Dzhambazki, MEP from VMRO told Nova TV. "Let it be clear - it is not Bulgaria that halts N. Macedonia's accession process, but the political elite there - both government and opposition," his colleague Andrey Kovachev told Focus News. This hostile tone has also permeated Bulgarian pro-governmental media, which damns any liberal intellectual daring to propose reconciliation with Skopje as a national traitor. This shapes public perceptions - 80%of Bulgarians told Gallup International - Balkan they believe that Macedonians falsely deny that their historic ancestors used to have Bulgarian identity and 45,5% believe Bulgaria should not accept that a separate Macedonian language exists.
Is there a way forward?
Against this background, a few positive developments have taken place - Bulgaria sent some of the first Covid-19 vaccines to Skopje, and the two sides agreed (at least in principle) that there should be a clear roadmap with deadlines to ensure future progress.
"We have no demands from Bulgaria. Neither territorial, nor regarding [Macedonian] minority in the country. I only truly wish that our brothers will accept us as Macedonians and our language - as Macedonian," said Mr Zaev in an interview for DW, adding that historical disputes ought to be decided by historians and not by politicians.
In another interview, just after New Year, Mr Zaev said that bilateral dialogue continues despite the hurdles. He added that Skopje is anticipating a clear plan for progressing negotiations in the shape of an announced action plan from Sofia and deadlines for reaching specific parts of the agreement. He added that the N. Macedonian side is already clarifying how to defy domestic anti-Bulgarian hate speech and how to progress with Corridor 8 projects under a tripartite "Initiative 8" platform alongside Albania.
Realistically speaking, however, the moment when Skopje should have gotten a push has passed. Not backing the launch of the EU accession process during the German presidency not only stalled it in the short term, but has galvanized anti-N. Macedonian attitudes among the key political fractions in Bulgaria. Additionally, it might lead to destabilization of the fragile current pro-EU balance in Skopje, where the government's primary raison d'etre is EU accession.
In any case, both nations have entered a mutual vicious cycle of hostility and hardened rhetoric, which is unlikely to simmer down, whatever the outcome of negotiations. It is important to note, however, that this has characterized both sides for most of the 1990s - 2000s apart from the brief 1999 and 2017-2019 period of détente (the language issue was a hurdle for the start of any sort of good neighborhood agreements before 1999).
Yet, it must never be forgotten that bilateral relations depend mostly on the EU's own internal drive towards - or against - expansion. Left on their own, Sofia and Skopje tend to regress into bickering due to the predominance of toxic, vision-less post-Soviet political and cultural elites on both sides.