November 1, 2012
The Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev told Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle yesterday (31 October) that Macedonia is “not ready” to start accession negotiations. Thus, Bulgaria joined Greece in vetoing the opening of the talks, which in spite of the Commission proposals have been delayed for a fourth consecutive year.
Füle visited Bulgaria to clarify the Bulgarian position with respect to Macedonia. The government of Boyko Borissov had made noises indicating that it was not going to allow Skopje to steal from its history and keep its eyes shot on a series of megalomaniac and provocative acts (see background).
But Füle got more than explanations: he was told that Bulgaria doesn’t see Macedonia as ready to begin accession negotiations.
The European Commission and Füle in person had invested a lot of political ambition in unblocking the stalemate between Skopje and Athens of the so-called “name dispute”.
On 10 October, Füle proposed a compromise approach on Macedonia, recommending that negotiations would start before a resolution of the name dispute with Greece is found. It calls for finding a solution at “an early stage of the accession negotiations”.
It was the fourth time that the Commission has recommended the start of accession negotiations with Macedonia, and each time the efforts were blocked by Greece. But this time it appears that some momentum has been introduced by a fresh move by Athens for signing a bilateral memorandum, in which both sides would commit to respecting the other’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and renounce any territorial claims.
Carefully prepared staements
The situation looks different today. Plevneliev told Füle in a carefully prepared statement that before expecting any good news from Brussels, Skopje would have first to improve its relations with Bulgaria.
“The authorities in Skopje will unlock their EU perspective not through propaganda and marketing campaigns but through actual reforms and actions for good-neighborly relations,” Plevneliev was quoted as saying by the website Novinite.
The Bulgarian President pointed out that Sofia does not deny a EU perspective to Macedonia, and in fact supports that, but takes into account the fact that the former Yugoslav republic is not ready to start talks for EU membership.
“Bulgaria cannot grant a EU certificate to the actions of the government in Skopje which is systematically employing an ideology of hate towards Bulgaria,” Plevneliev stated.
“It is strategically important for the long-term stability in the Balkans that the government in Skopje starts applying the European approach towards its neighbors, without claims and manipulations. It is high time that the government in Skopje be done with its anti-Bulgarian campaign, and the manipulation of historical facts. The responsible European approach towards one’s neighbors and the next generation is to preserve history whatever it might be,” Plevneliev added.
Reportedly, Füle disagreed with Plevneliev, and argued that Macedonia has been waiting for too long “before a closed door” expecting membership in NATO and the EU.
“I am one of those people who believe that it is not good to leave our partners waiting before the door for too long. I believe that integration is the best means for coping with nationalism, and I am convinced that isolation boosts nationalism,” he was quoted as saying.
Commission reminds of EU values
A diplomatically-worded communiqué says that the Füle understands that Bulgaria has concerns, but urges both countries to address and solve any open issues in a good neighbourly spirit based on the EU values.
“I welcome the fact that Presidents have exchange letters, and that Ministers Mladenov and Poposki are contributing to improving relations between the two countries. I am confident that through constructive dialogue and common understanding real progress can be achieved,” the Commission press release says.
But precisely this exchange of letters has added fuel to the fire. Plevneliev had proposed that Bulgaria and Macedonia jointly celebrate certain historical dates, avoiding a nationalist reading of history. Such a holiday is Ilinden, the name of the uprising on 2 August 1903 which marked the highest point of the struggle for liberation of the Bulgarians in Thrace and Macedonia, by then under Ottoman domination. Macedonia has a different reading of the events of 2 August and denies the role of Bulgaria in liberating its present territory.
Much to the disappointment of the Bulgarian authorities, The Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov responded to Plevneliev, pretending he didn’t understand the purpose of the proposal. According to the Macedonian website MINA, Ivanov gave Plevneliev three dates which Macedonia would consider celebrating jointly with Bulgaria: – Europe Day; the day Bulgaria recognised Macedonia and the day Bulgaria and Macedonia established diplomatic relationship.
This, without any doubt, was seen in Sofia as an offense. The foreign minister Nickolay Mladenov and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov reportedly made strong statements, confirming to the Commissioner Bulgaria’s determination. This took place, by the way, against the background of a nasty episode between Sofia and Brussels – a threat by the EU executive to publish an extraordinary monitoring report on Bulgaria’s ailing judicial system, hours after lawmakers in Sofia appointed a controversial figure to the country’s Constitutional Court despite EU warnings.
Thus the Bulgarian authorities felt encouraged to hit back at the Commission, and Füle couldn’t possibly choose a worse timing for his Sofia visit.
It may be argued that the government of Boyko Borissov is of a populist tendency prone to nationalistic openings. But series of statements from the major opposition political force – the Bulgarian Socialist Party, signal that both the governing GERB party and the Socialists share the same positions on Macedonia.
With respect to Macedonia, the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the leader of the nationalist VMRO-DPNE is apparently the major instigator of tensions with Bulgaria. In 2011, he was re-elected as Prime Minister. Last January, he opened the triumphal arch “Porta Macedonia” in Skopje as a monument to 20th anniversary of Macedonian independence, and admitted that he personally has been the instigator of the Skopje 2014 project, dubbed by critics “the Macedonian Disneyland”.
Greece considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. Similarly, Bulgaria considers that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its medieval history and the 19th- and early-20th century struggle against Ottoman domination.
Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje. Both nations claim Alexander as a native son.
Similarly, an exhibition of medieval manuscripts organized by the government in Skopje in Brussels recently infuriated Bulgaria, as these manuscripts are in fact Bulgarian. The manuscripts in fact mention Bulgaria and the Bulgarian language, and never Macedonia, which exists as a country only from 8 September 1991.
Macedonia has also invested heavily in badmouthing Bulgaria, the most striking example being the film “Third halftime” that depicts wartime Bulgarians as fascists.
During World War II, Macedonia was occupied by Bulgaria and Italy. Bulgarian authorities, under Nazi pressure, were responsible for the deportation of around 7,000 Jews from Skopje and Bitola. No Jews were deported from Bulgaria during World War II. In 1943, Bulgarian officials took the historic decision “to refuse the Nazi regime’s order to deport Bulgaria’s Jewry despite the presence of German troops in the country.” The refusal saved all 48,000 Jews living in Bulgaria at the time from being deported to death camps. No similar popular mobilization took place on the territory of present-day Macedonia.
- Commission: Press statement by Commissioner Štefan Füle following the meeting with Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikolay Mladenov in Sofia