Dimitar Tsanchev is a Bulgarian diplomat and permanent representative of Bulgaria to the European Union.
BGNES: Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Dimitrov and RSM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev keep repeating that it is not a European value to deny a person the right to self-determination. What does Bulgaria deny to RSM? What is the real problem between PCM and RB? History, name, nation, modernity?
DT: The mentoring tone with which Skopje, from its position as a candidate for membership, insistently teaches the EU, which it wishes to join, what its interests and values are, is inappropriate and ridiculous.
The problem between us is clear. It consists in the non-fulfillment by PCM of a signed and ratified international agreement – the 2017 Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation with Bulgaria. If Skopje had started implementing this agreement, we would not be in today’s situation. Unfortunately, however, we have reached a stage where trust has been breached. We can no longer assume that Skopje is a reliable and loyal partner.
The fact that the PCM is signing contracts, adopting legislation and reforms without being seen as tied to their further implementation is quite worrying, especially when it comes to a candidate country. That is why we have proposed in the draft Negotiating Framework for Skopje’s accession to the EU to include mechanisms that allow for the effective monitoring of the implementation of the bilateral agreement signed between us throughout the negotiation process. No one can expect or ask Bulgaria to give European legitimacy to the non-implementation of the 2017 Treaty by Skopje.
Bulgaria has no claims to the sovereignty of the PCM, nor does it dispute the sovereign right of its citizens to self-determine as they see fit. To claim the opposite is nothing but an attempt to maliciously distort the Bulgarian position.
The facts are eloquent. Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the independence of the then FYROM. Thanks to Bulgaria, the young republic was protected from the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. During the first years of FYROM’s existence, Bulgaria provided vital economic and military assistance. Later, during the presidency of the EU Council in 2018, Bulgaria did everything in its power to support Skopje’s European perspective. We have given unconditional support for PCM’s accession to NATO in 2019, so that the country can establish itself as part of the Western world.
Despite these gestures of goodwill, Skopje never found the courage to abandon the ideological elements in its state doctrine that had remained unchanged since the days of communist Yugoslavia. With the conclusion of the Prespa Agreement, a positive step was taken towards Greece. However, Skopje continues to build its identity exclusively by appropriating and distorting the history of Bulgaria.
Contrary to popular belief, historical controversy is not just academic. It has many tangible consequences nowadays. The falsified history, based on no historical sources and facts, is present in the textbooks. Through it, in hatred of Bulgaria and the Bulgarians, a third generation of RSM citizens was brought up, whose ancestors by the middle of the 20th century had identified themselves as Macedonian Bulgarians. It is on these historical falsifications that Skopje builds its minority claims against Bulgaria. Confrontational stereotypes represent the ideological basis for discrimination of RSM citizens with Bulgarian self-consciousness. Violation of the rights of people in the PCM who self-identify as Bulgarians is a serious problem to which this candidate country should pay particular attention,
As I said, Bulgaria does not dispute the right of the citizens of RSM today to self-determine as they wish. This includes providing an opportunity for the citizens of RSM with Bulgarian self-consciousness to define themselves as such, without fear of repression and persecution. The freedom of self-determination also applies to all those who lived in the past, who in their lifetime defined themselves as Bulgarians and had dedicated themselves to the Bulgarian cause in Vardar Macedonia. All respected historical sources, the diplomatic archives of the Great Powers in Europe and the United States, testify to the predominantly Bulgarian character of the Slavic population in this part of Macedonia until the end of World War II, when the Yugoslav communist regime decreed the creation of a new “Macedonian” nation. new “Macedonian language”, and began to impose them through mass repression. We believe that Skopje has good reason to derive its national pride from its current achievements, instead of trying to monopolize the history and geography of its neighbors and make claims on them.
What’s the problem with the name? Bulgaria insists that Skopje notify the UN member states in a verbal note that the short name “Northern Macedonia” refers only to the state-political entity with the constitutional name “Republic of Northern Macedonia”, but not to the geographical region of Northern Macedonia. This is because parts of Northern Macedonia fall within the sovereign territory of Bulgaria. Unfortunately, for two years now, Skopje has continued to delay sending such a Verbal Note to the UN, although it has already done so in NATO and the OSCE. We really do not understand what problem Skopje sees in making it clear that there are no territorial claims and minority claims against a neighboring country.
BGNES: The Macedonian media constantly criticize that the Republic of Bulgaria is alone in this dispute. Are we really alone?
DT: It is natural for EU member states that are not immediate neighbors to be less sensitive than Bulgaria. Our relations with Skopje are understandably more complicated and we are not able to take an abstract position or express our support uncritically.
Some countries support enlargement because they believe that the inclusion of new members will change the East-West balance in the Union in their favor. Other Member States are skeptical about any further enlargement. In both cases, these are positions that have nothing to do with the qualities of PCM.
The Bulgarian position enjoys the impressive support of our public opinion, which is enough. It should also be noted that the public in the western Member States is largely skeptical of enlargement.
We must not forget the bigger picture. One can easily list the cases in which individual EU Member States have defended their national interests despite the lack of understanding on the part of others. In fact, almost every Member State has been in a similar position at some point. This often applies to policies of greater strategic importance to the EU than enlargement, for example – the EU budget, migration, the COVID-19 response, etc. Enlargement is no exception. A number of other Member States have blocked or slowed down developments in this area on various occasions. The requirement for consensus between Member States on policies such as enlargement is, in fact, designed precisely to avoid leaving one Member State alone. Consensus may seem ineffective in the short term,
Ultimately, all of Bulgaria’s proposals to improve the PCM Negotiating Framework are based on existing precedents from previous or ongoing accession negotiations. Some of these precedents have been set by Member States that oppose them today.
BGNES: What exactly does the Republic of Bulgaria want from North Macedonia to start the negotiations?
DT: In general, the next stage of the accession process can be divided into two steps: First, the adoption by the EU of a Negotiating Framework; Second, the holding of an Intergovernmental Conference between the EU and the PCM.
Bulgaria’s position on these steps (and all subsequent ones until accession) is defined in the Framework Position of the Council of Ministers, adopted by the Council of Ministers on 09.10.2019 and subsequently approved by all political parties in a Parliamentary Declaration of October 10, 2019 Both documents are publicly available, as Bulgaria intends to be as transparent and predictable as possible in its actions.
With regard to the Negotiating Framework, Bulgaria has proposed three main elements, the aim of which is to protect ourselves from unfounded claims by Skopje and to ensure that PCM will consistently and consistently behave as a reliable and predictable partner.
First, given the tendency of the Republic of Northern Macedonia not to fulfill its ratified international obligations, Bulgaria proposes to include a separate Chapter 35 in the Negotiating Framework, through which the implementation of these commitments will be continuously assessed throughout the negotiation process. If this is deemed impracticable, Bulgaria has made an alternative proposal to include additional opening, intermediate and closing indicators within the chapter “Basic Principles” of the Negotiating Framework.
Secondly, we have proposed in the EU documents (and in particular in the Negotiating Framework) to use the formula used in the Negotiating Framework of Montenegro – the “official language” of the candidate country, thus respecting the international legal commitments that Bulgaria and PCM have taken over in the 2017 Treaty, which speaks of the “official languages” of the two countries.
Third, until the aforementioned Verbal Note is sent from Skopje to the UN, Bulgaria insists that only the full constitutional name of the candidate country, the Republic of Northern Macedonia, be used in the Negotiating Framework to distinguish the state-political entity of the Republic of Northern Macedonia from the geographical region. Northern Macedonia.
As a candidate country, Skopje has no official role in drafting the Negotiating Framework. This is an internal matter for the EU. However, the PCM has a very important task – to secure Bulgaria’s support for holding its first Intergovernmental Conference with the EU.
This means, for example, to permanently and definitively put an end to all claims and policies that promote a non-existent “Macedonian minority” in Bulgaria. It also means achieving tangible results in the work of the Joint Historical Commission, in particular a source-based reading of our “common history” as set out in the Treaty, and the application of these results to historical monuments, celebrations, sponsored from the state media content, textbooks, etc.
BGNES: What is the attitude of RSM to the Bulgarian conditions? How far can the Republic of Bulgaria retreat? Is there active lobbying of Skopje against the Republic of Bulgaria in Brussels and other capitals?
DT: It is clear that significant efforts and time are needed to overcome the problems raised by Bulgaria. Any effort saved today will cost much more tomorrow. That is why we need to create a viable framework for solving the problems during the accession process – this is the logic of the Bulgarian position on the Negotiating Framework.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to allay our concerns, Skopje has lobbied and launched a defamation campaign against Bulgaria. The consequences of this are twofold:
First, our fears that Skopje does not even intend to start fulfilling its international obligations have been confirmed.
Second, this approach testifies to Skopje’s conviction that it does not need to compromise because Bulgaria’s position will change.
The last element is as irrational as it is naive. Bulgarian public opinion strongly supports the national position, which is shared by all major political parties. Bulgaria cannot give up its thousand-year-old national history, the ancestral memory of millions of Bulgarian citizens, heirs of Macedonian Bulgarians, who dedicated themselves to the Bulgarian cause in Vardar Macedonia.
BGNES: How would you comment on the scandal with the Slovenian institute IFIMES and the direct involvement of the government in Skopje in a negative media campaign against Bulgaria?
DT: NGOs and think tanks are an indispensable element of modern democratic life. Civil society is among the guarantors of the democratic structure of our societies. Attempts to abuse such organizations should therefore be unequivocally condemned.
The case of the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) is particularly striking. It shows how an organization can be set up and funded to spread fake news. A number of articles prepared by this organization contain false allegations, and in some cases hate speech, against Bulgaria and, more recently, against Germany. In some publications, both member states have been described as revisionist mafia states, nostalgic for World War II.
Two IFIMES directors, Ziad Becirovic and Alhaf Bakhtar, are linked to Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s cabinet as advisers. For the past three years, the RSM government has funded IFIMES in the amount of 12,000 euros per year.
IFIMES disinformation activities are aimed not only at Bulgaria and Germany. They also target other partners such as Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. IFIMES ‘interpretations clearly coincide with the political agenda of other countries in the region and beyond. It is unfortunate that Skopje is involved in such actions. The fact that, unlike some of the honorary members of the institute, PCM failed to distance itself particularly convincingly from IFIMES is also indicative.
BGNES: Many European documents require the disclosure of the files of the former Yugoslav DS UDBA in all former Yugoslav republics, including the RSM. How do you explain Skopje’s refusal to do this for 30 years? after the disappearance of Yugoslavia?
DT: After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Skopje missed the opportunity to break with its atavistic state doctrine. “Macedonianism”, once serving Yugoslavia’s territorial claims to Greece and Bulgaria, continued to be at the heart of FYROM’s foreign policy and domestic doctrine. This led to a long-standing dispute with Greece, to ethnic tensions with the Albanians within the PCM, and above all to the maintenance of unfounded claims against Bulgaria.
The publication of the Yugoslav-era secret service archives and the lustration of the members of these services will reveal a dark page in the history of the PCM. These archives contain evidence of large-scale ethnic engineering, which began in the mid-1940s and was carried out through repression, show trials against Macedonian Bulgarians, and the 1945 mass executions known as Bloody Christmas. They will show how in August 1945, at the insistence of Belgrade and Moscow, the language norm, based on the local Bulgarian dialect, was declared the “official Macedonian language”, for which Serbian high school graduate Blagoy Koneski created a grammar in 1954. At the same time, in concentration camps such as Naked Swelling, all those
Several years ago, the RSM parliament adopted a statement apologizing to the victims of communism. This is a positive but insufficient first step in the right direction. Macedonianism has ruined the health, life and relatives of too many families on both sides of the border, so naked declarations will not work.
All Eastern European EU member states had the courage to face their totalitarian past. This process was painful, but still necessary and inevitable if we want to learn the lessons of the past and not repeat the same mistakes in the future. That is why history cannot be so lightly dismissed as irrelevant to the modern world.
BGNES: RSMacedonia claims that the language of hatred and aggression against the Republic of Bulgaria was the result of disappointment with the Bulgarian veto. But the hatred there has been institutional since 1945. Does it exist not only in the media, in textbooks, but also in the public appearances of politicians? Is there a place in the EU for such a society?
DT: The language of hatred and discrimination against Bulgaria and the Macedonian Bulgarians is present with varying intensity in the public sphere throughout the communist and post-communist history of the RSM. Public institutions have always participated in these practices with complete impunity. The new intensification of hate speech today aims to intimidate the citizens of the RSM with Bulgarian self-consciousness and to prevent their free self-determination as Bulgarians in the forthcoming census.
The most visible recent example of a hate-based campaign is related to RSM 2021 Eurovision contestant Vasil Garvanliev. He was subjected to a large-scale intimidation campaign, including with the participation of civil servants, only because of his proximity to Bulgaria – the fact that in addition to Macedonian, he also had Bulgarian citizenship, and that he identified himself as a Macedonian of Bulgarian origin. There was even a petition demanding that Mr Garvanliev withdraw from the competition.
Another example concerns members and supporters of the Bulgarian Cultural Center of Bitola who were summoned and detained at the local police station for hours on March 11, 2021, without any valid reason, presented in writing or orally. Some of the members of this center were visited and interrogated at their workplace by security officials.
On March 27, 2021, a Bulgarian citizen was not allowed to bring into the RSM Bulgarian literature from the XIX century on the grounds that the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs of the RSM had not issued the necessary approvals. The authorization regime for the import of books and other administrative barriers created by PCM customs constitute non-fiscal discrimination within the meaning of the EU-PCM Stabilization and Association Agreement. Local citizens from different cities in the RSM – a total of 34 people promoting Bulgarian literature from the 19th century – have been visited and questioned by police officers over the past 20 days. All this is contrary to the announced European civilization choice of Skopje.
In recent months, former RSM prime ministers Lyubcho Georgievski and Vlado Buckovski, as well as former Foreign Minister Denko Maleski, have spoken in public statements about the Bulgarian roots of the RSM population. They stressed the need to overcome the legacy of the former Yugoslavia and to build qualitatively new relations with Bulgaria. Following their appearances, all three were subjected to an unprecedented campaign of hate speech and direct threats.
The described developments go beyond the bilateral relations between Bulgaria and RSM. They question the extent to which this candidate country fulfills the Copenhagen criteria, the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, and the European Charter of Human Rights.
Concerns about the discrimination of RSM citizens with Bulgarian identity were also expressed in the European Parliament’s Report on the Republic of Northern Macedonia adopted last week.
Against this background, this candidate country is teaching the Member States what European values are…
BGNES: What’s next?
DT: Based on what has already been said so far, I expect Skopje to continue to rely on lobbying, relying on others to put pressure on Bulgaria, hoping for a change in our position after the elections. As such a change is clearly not going to happen, Skopje will have to gradually find ways to formulate a more rational position for society and start engaging with Bulgaria. Experience has shown that this process can take years, but can also take faster. It all depends on Skopje. Bulgaria, despite everything, remains open to dialogue.