Future Perfect at Sunrise, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Cristina Maza sorts out the North Macedonia-Bulgaria dispute.

Introduction (by Claire) inspired by Cristina Maza’s Lazo Letters.

North Macedonia’s parliament voted last week in favor of a deal, brokered by France, to resolve a longstanding dispute with Bulgaria.

The dispute is the kind for which to the Balkans (and American academia, for that matter) are infamous. Macedonians believe that Macedonians and Bulgarians are a separate ethnic group, each with a unique language. Bulgarians disagree. Macedonia is Bulgarian in origin, they say, and Macedonian is but a Bulgarian dialect. So strongly do Bulgarians feel that Macedonians are perversely denying their own Bulgarian essence that two years ago, Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia’s accession to the EU. They demanded Macedonia acknowledge its supposedly oppressed Bulgarian minority in its constitution (there are about 3,500 ethnic Bulgarians in all of North Macedonia) and renounce anti-Bulgarian “hate speech.”

The vote paved the way, at long last, for North Macedonia to begin EU membership talks. Under the terms of the deal, which Macron mediated, North Macedonia must now amend its constitution to recognize its Bulgarian minority and include, in the preamble, the acknowledgement that Bulgarians were among their founding peoples. Bulgaria won’t be obliged to reciprocally recognize the Macedonian language. Remaining issues between Skopje and Sofia are to be discussed further down the road. Sofia reserves the right to interfere at later stages of North Macedonia’s accession if it feels aggrieved.

Debate over the deal gave rise to weeks of furious protests in Skopje, with thousands of outraged Macedonians gathering in front of government buildings, hurling invective and petrol bombs. “We don’t need Europe if we have to be assimilated,” said opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski. “If Europe isn’t ready to accept us civilized Macedonians where we belong, then we’ll wait until there are people who will understand that Macedonia and Macedonian identity is above and before all.”

In the end, 68 MPs from North Macedonia’s 120-seat parliament voted to approve the deal, but only after members of the main opposition party refused to vote and stormed out. In other words, 68 MPs voted for a deal whose implementation requires revising Bulgaria’s constitution, which requires the agreement of two-thirds of the parliament, or 80 MPs. Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski now has his work cut out for him: He must somehow win around at least a dozen of the opposition lawmakers who have been loudly denouncing him as a traitor hell-bent on condemning his country to Bulgarian ethnocide.

Note from Claire: This article was originally published with a different map. To my horror, a reader pointed out that it showed Kosovo as part of Serbia. I just didn’t look closely enough. The error was entirely mine, not Cristina’s. I’m praying I’ve fixed the mistake before the Kosovars notice and firebomb my apartment.

North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. Or to be more precise, the Republic of Macedonia was a candidate for EU membership. Greece objected to that name because an adjacent Greek region is also called Macedonia, and besides, Macedonia sounds like the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. So before Bulgaria, Greece blocked Macedonia’s accession talks. (As EU members, Bulgaria and Greece have the right to do this. Each step along the accession path requires the unanimous agreement of the 27 member states. This is especially unfortunate for Albania, because the EU grouped it with Macedonia in its accession bid. Albanians have spent the past 17 years asking God why he put them in that crazy neighborhood.)

Athens accused Skopje of cultural appropriation: The Vergina Sun and Alexander the Great were Greek symbols, they said, and Macedonians had no right to use them: It was irredentism, and would surely result in Macedonians trying to conquer Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Serbia, all for old time’s sake.

Preposterous as it sounds, the naming dispute destabilized the Balkans for a quarter of a century. Indeed, the Macedonian Question has vexed Europe since the nineteenth century; the question was subordinated for a time under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—the secret police and State Security Administration just locked up any comrades suffering from an access of ethnic exuberance—but when Yugoslavia collapsed, the feuding recommenced.

Resolving the Great Macedonia Name Dispute required the highest order of diplomatic finesse. Greece somehow persuaded the UN Security Council that the Republic of Macedonia’s name represented a threat to the security of the region, so in 1993, the UN admitted the country under the provisional name, “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” (Pronounced “Fyrom.”) UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was impressed into service to mediate, as was former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Bill Clinton named Matthew Nimetz his Special Envoy for the Naming Dispute between Greece and Macedonia, a job title that actually existed. From Nimetz’s memoirs:

Viewed from Athens, Greece owned the name Macedonia. Northern Greece was Macedonia. Its inhabitants were Macedonians. Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great were Hellenic heroes, and the legacy, patrimony, culture, and tradition of ancient Macedonia was Greek. They wished their northern neighbor well but pointed out that its citizens were Slavic in background with a totally different culture, a people who had entered the region eight centuries after the Macedonian identity had been established as part of the Hellenic world (the Albanian citizens of their northern neighbor were recognized as having ancient roots in the region, but Albanians were a distinct ethnicity and clearly not Macedonians). Just as important, Greeks viewed Macedonianism as a conceptual unity that could not be shared. If the northern neighbor was to gain recognition as “Macedonia” and its people as “Macedonians,” then the name and identity would be lost to the Greek side through what they perceived as wrongful appropriation by the northern neighbor.

Viewed from Skopje, the assessment was equally stark. They had lived in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, a republic within Yugoslavia, since the end of the Second World War, and with independence they had logically and lawfully adopted the constitutional name Republic of Macedonia. How could they change their name? As a people, they identified themselves as Macedonians, as had their parents, grandparents, and previous generations. They had a unique language that they were proud of and a literary tradition, and that language was Macedonian, recognized broadly throughout the world as their language. All in all, Macedonianism was at the core of their identity. How could they give all that up? How could another country, with the name Greece and whose people were Greeks, tell them what to call themselves? As one young man said to me, “I wake up in the morning, and when I shave, I look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a Macedonian.’ What should I say tomorrow when they take away my identity?”

As the negotiators toiled, Greeks massed by the millions in Thessaloniki to protest, waving banners that said, “Macedonia is Greek!” The Greek government imposed a trade embargo on the Fyrom, which it proposed to lift only when the Fyromese removed from their flag a star that the Greeks felt resembled the star on Philip of Macedon’s tomb.

At last, from the diplomats’ unceasing labors, a deal emerged—the 2019 Prespa Agreement. The Fyrom had caved, changing its name to North Macedonia. They removed the offending star from their flag. All such stars, they sullenly agreed, would henceforth be retired from public use.

The Macedonian government expended a great deal of political capital to get the deal done. Many Macedonians were none too happy about it. This was understandable, not least because the deal only encouraged Macedonia’s neighbors to keep making insane demands. “We cannot say ‘Yes’ before being convinced that our neighbor won’t be building its identity by stealing from Bulgaria’s history,” said Bulgarian president Rumen Radev at the EU Council summit in 2021.[1]Claire—It’s worth noting that the president of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, is a notorious Putinversteher and Bulgaria is one of the more Russophilic countries in Europe. On the other hand, the … Continue reading

Macedonians are now seething and asking themselves if joining the EU is worth this kind of humiliation. Cristina Maza wanted better to understand this, so she interviewed the people below about the agreement.[2]Everyone, she stresses, offered her their personal opinion, not that of their employer or institution. But she couldn’t find any Bulgarians willing to talk about it. (If you’re Bulgarian and want … Continue reading

Their comments have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Alexander Nevski church, Sofia, via Pixabey.

Cristina: North Macedonia’s lawmakers voted to pass the French-brokered deal with Bulgaria so they could move forward with EU membership talks. But there have been numerous protests against the deal, and opposition leaders weren’t present for the vote. What’s in the agreement, and why is it so controversial?

Jan Cingel, CEO of the consulting company Strategic Analysis:

The agreement basically says that North Macedonia has to solve [the] outstanding issues it has with Bulgaria that concern minority rights, language, identity, and history.

It codifies the agreement that these bilateral issues between North Macedonia and Bulgaria will be a part of North Macedonia’s [EU] accession process. That means North Macedonia won’t be progressing in the process until it agrees with Bulgaria on all issues, naturally the way Bulgaria wants it to. This is the most dangerous part of the agreement: It’s unbalanced.

In the media, it’s often called “the French compromise.” But a compromise requires both sides to withdraw a little bit from their initial positions in search of common ground with their counterparts. The so-called French compromise is one-sided. It favors Bulgaria as the member state of the EU.

The details of the agreement are [as follows]: North Macedonia now has to include the Bulgarian minority in its constitution. Only then can the real EU integration negotiations start between Skopje and Brussels. And even then, Bulgaria will hold a veto over the process and will request that North Macedonia accept its views on history, Macedonian identity, and language.

Bulgaria stipulates that North Macedonia’s identity stems from Bulgarian identity, and the Macedonian language does not exist, that it is just the Bulgarian language. That is the most controversial part, that a debate over the history and identity of a candidate country can be part of its EU integration process.

Cristina: The origin of the Macedonian language has become a significant point of contention between Bulgarians and Macedonians. What can you tell me about how that debate began? And what role does the 2017 Friendship Treaty between the two countries play in this?

Aleksej Demanjanskian independent analyst specializing in Southeastern Europe:

In 1999, Macedonian Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski and Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov signed a joint declaration on relations between the two countries. However, over the past twenty years, the Bulgarian side seemed rather dissatisfied with the situation.

In 2017, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov signed a new Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation. The treaty is the basis on which a historical commission was formed to deal with matters such as historical figures and their commemorations, the situation regarding textbooks and monuments, and more. The documents presented as part of the French proposal essentially integrate progress on these matters within the negotiating framework of the European Union.

As North Macedonia works on its negotiating chapters with the European Union, it will be required to hash out these outstanding issues with Bulgaria in parallel. The protocol between Bulgaria and North Macedonia is a sort of roadmap to tackle these issues emerging from the treaty.

Yet, the onus for almost everything is on North Macedonia with almost no reciprocity from Bulgaria, aside from agreeing to also combat hate speech and keep its archives open.

Ultimately, the implementation of the protocol and elements of the 2017 treaty will be arduous and difficult for both sides and will slow down North Macedonia’s progress on EU accession to a glacial pace.

Cristina: The opposition party VMRO-DPMNE[3]Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization—Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, an ultra-nationalist, pro-Russian, pro-Serbian and anti-Western party with a reputation for abusing … Continue reading has said that they will not support any future constitutional changes, which require a two-thirds majority vote. Could they potentially block these changes, or will the Prime Minister be able to push them through?

Meto Koloskico-founder and board member of the United Macedonian Diaspora:

I cannot see how the current government could push through a constitutional change without the support of the opposition, which holds 44 seats in parliament. The current government coalition only has 61-62 seats in parliament, while you need 80 to pass a constitutional change.

Cristina: The opposition in North Macedonia argues that the deal puts the country’s history and identity at risk. Can you explain the rationale behind that argument?

Katerina Klimoskaa Ph.D. student in international relations and conflict management:

Many in North Macedonia are warning about this. The process that is foreseen does not have the characteristics of a European compromise. Instead, it means one country will have to change its language, history, culture, identity, etc.

Only one side, North Macedonia, is being asked to change its history and say a big part of its history is Bulgarian. What an absurdity, right? It is not even surprising that multilateralism is in danger when such processes are imposed on a nation.

We want to be part of the European Union. We are actually geographically in Europe. We are Europeans, but we want the process to happen the European way. This, now, is quite the opposite.

Related reading

✍? What Cristina’s writing

• Ukraine’s first major political upheaval since the start of the war raised alarms among anti-corruption activists and political analysts. Last week, Ukrainian President Zelensky announced he was removing Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and the head of Ukraine’s security services, Ivan Bakanov, due to concerns that dozens of their employees are working with the Russian invaders in occupied parts of Ukraine. But anti-corruption activists and other political insiders say Zelensky has different motivations for the dismissals.

• US lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation directing the Biden administration to develop a strategy for the Black Sea. Last October, experts began warning Congress that the US needed to step up its involvement in the region. Those calls have become more urgent with Russia using the Black Sea to cut off Ukraine’s exports, including critical grain shipments.

? What Cristina’s reading

• Russia has “almost certainly” used private mercenaries from the Wagner Group for recent fighting in eastern Ukraine, including in the capture of Popasna and Lysychansk, the UK Ministry of Defense said.

• The European Union’s seventh wave of economic sanctions hits Russian gold, a major bank, and the nationalist motorcycle club known as the Nightwolves, the Guardian reports.

• Russia added Greece, Denmark, Slovenia, Croatia, and Slovakia to its list of “unfriendly” countries, which previously included the Czech Republic and the United States, CNN reports.

• The White House warned that Russia is beginning to roll out plans to annex large parts of southern Ukraine by installing proxy officials and preparing to hold sham referendums, the Financial Times reports.

• The US estimates that Russian casualties in Ukraine have reached around 15,000 killed and perhaps 45,000 wounded, Reuters reports.

• The International Criminal Court and Ukraine are discussing having Kyiv deliver at least one Russian official—a prisoner of war—to the court, Bloomberg reports. The Russian prisoner may be willing to testify against senior Russian commanders.

• The head of Russia’s foreign spy service met Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan this week, just three days after CIA Director William Burns visited Yerevan for talks, Reuters reports.

• The European Union signed an agreement with Azerbaijan to double gas imports to the EU from Baku by 2027, Al Jazeera reports. The deal will mainly benefit Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria.

• Ireland has suspended visa-free travel for refugees coming from much of Europe in a bid to make more space for Ukrainian refugees, Politico Europe reports.

• The Taliban forced a longtime war correspondent to retract some of her articles publicly by threatening her with jail time. In an article for Foreign Policy, reporter Lynne O’Donnell recounted how she was “detained, abused and threatened” by Taliban officials during her time in Kabul.

• Sri Lanka’s President Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency, giving him broad authority amid growing protests demanding his resignation, the Associated Press reports.

• Wickremesinghe appointed Dinesh Gunawardena, an ally of the Rajapaksa political family, as his Prime Minister, hours after security forces conducted an overnight raid of the main protest camp, the Associated Press reported.

• China is asking the United Nations to bury a highly anticipated report on human rights violations in Xinjiang, according to a letter seen by Reuters and confirmed by three diplomats.

Cristina Maza is the National Journal’s award-winning foreign policy and defense correspondent. Read more by Cristina Maza here



Claire—It’s worth noting that the president of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, is a notorious Putinversteher and Bulgaria is one of the more Russophilic countries in Europe. On the other hand, the Bulgarian prime minister is solid: In early July, Bulgaria threw out 70 Russian diplomats, the largest expulsion since the UK PNGed 105 Soviet diplomats in 1971.

There’s history here. In 1934, the Political Secretariat of the Executive Committee of the Comintern adopted an official resolution on the Macedonian Question, becoming the first significant international organization to recognize the Macedonian nation and language. (The Bulgarian Communist Party was exceedingly displeased.) From then on, the slogan of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization was “The right of the Macedonian people to self-determination up to secession.”

The Soviets were not known for their especial sensitivity to the principle of self-determination, so one wonders why. The answer is in the context: the rise of Hitler. The USSR believed the region would be a pivot in the coming imperialist war, and sought leverage to “blunt the contradictions” among the disputing parties.

This is not to say current tensions may be attributed to Putin; the Balkans are more than capable of inflaming their own tensions. But Russia is surely fanning the flames so better to keep the West divided and preoccupied. Russian agents assiduously worked to scuttle the Prespa Agreement, leading Athens to expel two Russian diplomats for inciting opposition to the deal in the country. As Bellingcat reported:

[North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran] Zaev raised concerns about the efforts of a Greek-Russian businessman, once an MP from Russia’s ruling United Russia Party, to provoke a nationalistic revolt in the country. The businessman in question, Ivan Savvidis, was accused of paying far-right Macedonian nationalists and soccer hooligans, as well as the Greek clergy and government officials, to stoke opposition to the Prespa Agreement. American intelligence was also able to intercept communications showing that Mr. Savvidis was working as a Kremlin conduit, as reported by the New York Times.

Macedonian troll factories, according to Bellingcat, are widely used by the Kremlin to spread disinformation to third countries. (The PizzaGate conspiracy theory sprung fully-formed from the forehead of one Krum Velkov, a journalist in Strumica.)

2 Everyone, she stresses, offered her their personal opinion, not that of their employer or institution. But she couldn’t find any Bulgarians willing to talk about it. (If you’re Bulgarian and want to weigh in, she says, please get in touch.)  
3 Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization—Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, an ultra-nationalist, pro-Russian, pro-Serbian and anti-Western party with a reputation for abusing Albanians. See Piacentini A. 2019, “Make Macedonia Great Again! The New Face of Skopje and the Macedonians’ Identity Dilemma,” in Reinventing Eastern Europe: Imaginaries, Identities and Transformations, edited by Evinç Doğan.


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