The problem between us is clear. It consists in the non-fulfillment by the RNM of a signed and ratified international agreement. Bulgaria has no claims to the sovereignty of the RNM, nor does it dispute the sovereign right of its citizens to self-determine as they see fit. Skopje did not find the courage to abandon the ideological elements in its state doctrine that have remained unchanged since the days of communist Yugoslavia. Skopje continues to build its identity exclusively by appropriating and distorting the history of Bulgaria. Instead of trying to allay our concerns, Skopje has lobbied and campaigned against Bulgaria. IFIMES's publications contain false allegations, and in some cases hate speech, against Bulgaria and, more recently, against Germany.
The publication of Yugoslav-era secret service archives and lustration will reveal a dark page in the history of the NRM.
These are just some of the messages and assessments of the Sofia-Skopje relations in the exclusive interview of Dimiter Tzantchev, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the EU, for BGNES Agency
BGNES published the full text of the conversation.
BGNES: Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Dimitrov and the Prime Minister of RNM Zoran Zaev constantly repeat that denying the right to self-determination it is not a European value. What does Bulgaria deny to RNM? What is the real problem between RNM and RB? History, name, nation, modernity?
Dimiter Tzantchev: The mentoring tone with which Skopje, from its position of a candidate country, teaches the EU which it wishes to join, what the Union interests and values are, is ridiculous and inappropriate.
The issue at hand is fairly simple and stems from the non-implementation by Skopje of a signed and ratified international commitment – the Treaty on good neighborly relations from 2017. Had Skopje started to implement this Treaty, we would not be in today’s position. Regrettably however, we find ourselves at a stage were trust is breached and we can no longer assume that Skopje is a trustworthy and loyal partner.
The fact that Skopje adopts treaties, legislation and other reforms without burdening itself with their further implementation is concerning to us. Therefore, we suggested binding provisions to that effect in the draft Negotiating Framework for the accession of Skopje to the EU. They would allow the effective monitoring of the implementation of the bilateral agreement throughout the entire negotiation process. Nobody can reasonably expect Bulgaria to grant European legitimacy to the non-implementation of the 2017 Treaty by Skopje.
Bulgaria has no claims over RNM’s sovereignty, neither does Bulgaria dispute the sovereign right of RNM’s citizens to self-identify as they deem fit. Pretending otherwise is merely an attempt to simplify and vilify Bulgaria’s stance in order to oppose it more easily.
The facts speak for themselves. Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the independence of the then fYROM. We successfully prevented the post-Yugoslav conflict from engulfing the fYROM. Throughout the troubled first years of fYROM’s existence, Bulgaria provided vital economic and military assistance. Later on, under its Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018 Bulgaria did everything in its power to promote Skopje’s EU perspective. Unconditional support was given for Skopje’s accession to NATO, as this was supposed to anchor this country firmly to Western civilization.
Despite these gestures of good will, Skopje did not have the courage to depart from the ideological tenets of its Yugoslav-era identity. While a positive step was made towards Greece with the conclusion of the Prespa agreement, Skopje continued to derive its identity from the appropriation and revision of Bulgaria’s history.
Contrary to a common belief, the historical dispute is not simply academic. It has very tangible nowadays repercussions. The falsified history, not based on any historical sources and facts, is present in the textbooks. Through it, a third generation of citizens of the RNM, whose ancestors by the middle of the XX century had identified themselves as Macedonian Bulgarians, is being educated today in hatred of Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. It is precisely on those historical falsifications that the Skopje builds its minority claims against Bulgaria. The perpetuation of confrontational stereotypes represents the ideological grounds for the discrimination of Skopje’s citizens with Bulgarian self-identification. Violation of the rights of the RNM’s citizens self-identifying as Bulgarians is a serious problem to which this candidate country should pay particular attention, because it calls into question its compliance with the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership.
As I said, Bulgaria does not dispute the right of RNM citizens to self-identify as they wish. Yet, free self-identification equally extends to those who lived in the past and vested their lives for the Bulgarian cause in Vardar Macedonia. All reliable historical sources, the diplomatic archives of the Great powers in Europe and of the USA bear testimony to the predominantly Bulgarian character of the Slavic population in this part of Macedonia up until the end of WWII when the creation of a new “Macedonian” nation and a new “Macedonian language” was decreed by the Yugoslav communist regime and enforced through mass murders and repression.
We believe that Skopje has sufficient grounds to derive its national pride from its current achievements instead of monopolizing its neighbors’ history and geography.
What is the problem with the name? Bulgaria requires that Skopje conveys a Verbal Note to UN member states to inform them that its short name “North Macedonia” does not refer to the geographical region of North Macedonia, but only to the state whose official constitutional name is “Republic of North Macedonia”. This is because parts of the geographical region North Macedonia fall within the sovereign territory of Bulgaria. Regrettably, though, Skopje still refuses to author such a Verbal Note, which only confirms Bulgaria’s concerns 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 it does not have territorial and minority claims against a neighboring country.
BGNES: The Macedonian media constantly insist that the Republic of Bulgaria is alone in this dispute. Are we really alone?
Dimiter Tzantchev: It is only natural that EU member states, which are not immediate neighbors, have a lesser sensitivity than Bulgaria. Our relations with Skopje are however logically more complex and we are not at liberty to adopt an abstract position or to repeat uncritically our support.
Some member states support the Enlargement because they believe that the inclusion of new members will alter the East/West balance within the Union in their favor. Other member states are skeptical about any further Enlargement. In both cases, these are positions, which have not much to do with the merits of the RNM.
Bulgaria’s stance enjoys however the overwhelming support of its own public opinion, which is enough. We also note that the public in Western member states is predominantly skeptical towards Enlargement.
We should not lose sight of the bigger picture. One can very easily produce a list of instances where individual member states of the EU have defended their national interest despite the lack of understanding from others. In fact, almost every member state has been at some point in a similar position. This has often concerned policies of much greater strategic importance to the EU than Enlargement, namely the EU budget, migration, the response to COVID-19 etc. Enlargement is no exception. A number of other member states have on different occasions blocked or delayed developments in this area. The requirement for consensus among member states on policies such as Enlargement is in fact precisely meant to avoid that anyone is left behind. Consensus might seem ineffective in the short term but it forces us to vest greater diligence vis-à-vis each other and ultimately is a tool of solidarity.
Finally, all of Bulgaria’s suggestions for the improvement of the Negotiating Framework for Skopje are based on existing precedents from previous or ongoing accession negotiations. Some of these precedents were set by member states who oppose them today.
BGNES: What exactly does RB want from RNM to start the negotiations?
Dimiter Tzantchev: In very general terms, the next step of the accession process can be divided into two sub-steps: first, the adoption by the EU of a Negotiating Framework; second, the holding of an Intergovernmental Conference between the EU and the RNM.
Bulgaria’s position on both of these sub-steps (and all subsequent ones until accession as well), is defined under a Framework Position adopted by the Council of Ministers on 09.10.2019 and later approved by all political parties via Parliamentary Declaration on 10.10.2019. Both documents are publically available, as Bulgaria intends to be as transparent and predictable in its actions as possible.
With regard to the Negotiating Framework, Bulgaria has tabled three main elements, all meant to protect it from unfounded claims from Skopje and aimed at ensuring that Skopje develops a track record of being a loyal and predictable partner.
First, considering the tendency of the Republic of North Macedonia not to implement ratified international obligations, Bulgaria suggests the inclusion of a separate chapter 35 in the Negotiating Framework under which the implementation of such commitments would be continuously assessed. If this is deemed unfeasible, Bulgaria has put forward a suggestion for the incorporation of additional opening/interim/closing benchmarks within the “Fundamentals principles cluster” 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 RNM have taken over in their 2017 Treaty, which speaks of the "official languages" of the two countries.
Thirdly, in the absence of a Verbal Note by Skopje to the UN, as I already mentioned, Bulgaria insists on exclusively using the full name “Republic of North Macedonia” in the Negotiating Framework in order to distinguish the political entity “the Republic of North Macedonia” from the geographical region “North Macedonia”.
As a candidate-country, Skopje has no formal role to play in crafting the Negotiating Framework. This is an internal EU matter. Nonetheless, the RNM has a very direct role in ensuring Bulgaria’s support for holding its first Intergovernmental Conference with the EU.
This implies for instance putting a definitive and verifiable end to any claims and policies promoting a non-existent “Macedonian minority” in Bulgaria. It also includes achieving tangible results in the work of the Joint historical commission, namely with regard to the source-based reading of our “common history”, as embodied in the Treaty, and applying these results with regard to historical monuments, joints celebrations, state-sponsored media content, schoolbooks et c.
BGNES: What is the attitude of PNM to the Bulgarian conditions? How far can RB retreat? Is there active lobbying of Skopje against RB in Brussels and other capitals?
Dimiter Tzantchev: You can easily see that the issues raised by Bulgaria require significant efforts and time to be overcome. Every efforts spared today, might cost even more tomorrow. Therefore, we need at least to set a viable framework for dealing with them throughout the accession process – this is the rationale behind Bulgaria’s stance on the Negotiating Framework.
Instead of trying to dissipate our concerns, Skopje undertook to lobby and to wage a slanderous campaign against Bulgaria. The consequence is twofold:
First, this has confirmed Bulgaria’s concerns that Skopje does not intend to ever start implementing its international obligations.
Second, this approach bears testimony to Skopje’s belief that there is no need for compromise, because Bulgaria’s position would change. This last element is as unreasonable, as it is naïve. Bulgarian public opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of the national position, which is shared by all main political parties. Bulgaria cannot give up its thousand-year-old national history, the family history 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 Ifimes Institute and the direct involvement of the government in Skopje in a negative media campaign against Bulgaria?
Dimiter Tzantchev: Non-governmental organizations and think-tanks are an indispensable element of our democratic live. Civil society is among the guarantors of the democratic fabric of our societies. Therefore, attempts to misuse such organizations should be unequivocally condemned.
The case of the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies /IFIMES/ is particularly compelling. It illustrates how an organization can be set up and financed with the intent to disseminate falsehoods.
A number of papers produced by this organization contain false claims and in some cases hate speech against Bulgaria and recently against Germany. In some instances, both member states were qualified as WWII nostalgics and revisionist mafia countries.
Тwo of the IFIMES directors, Zijad Becirovic and Aljaf Bakhtyar, are related to the cabinet of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev as advisors. The RNM’s government has been financing the IFIMES to the amount of 12 000 euros a year for the past three years.
The IFIMES disinformation activities are not only aimed at Bulgaria and Germany. They often target other partners such as Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. Its overall narrative very obviously coincides with the political agenda of other regional and extra-regional countries. It is regrettable that Skopje has indulged in such common endeavors.
The RNM’s failure to credibly distance itself from the IFIMES, as some of its honorary members already did, is quit noteworthy.
BGNES: Many European documents call for the disclosure of the files of the former Yugoslav State Security UDBA in all former Yugoslav republics, including the RNM. How do you explain Skopje's refusal to do this for 30 years after the disappearance of Yugoslavia?
Dimiter Tzantchev: After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Skopje missed an opportunity to break with the atavistic state doctrine of “Macedonism”. “Macedonism” once serving Yugoslavia's territorial aspirations towards Greece and Bulgaria continued to be the essence of FYROM's foreign and domestic policy doctrine. This led to the decade’s long dispute with Greece, to the ethnic tensions with Albanians within the RNM and, above all, to maintaining irredentist claims against Bulgaria.
The publication of the Yugoslav era secret services archives and the credible lustration of these services’ members would reveal a very dark page in Skopje’s history. These archives contain evidence of the ethnic engineering, launched at a large scale in the mid-40s amid repression, show trials against Macedonian Bulgarians, and even family name changing campaigns that followed the summary executions of 1945 known as "The Bloody Christmas". They will show that in August 1945, on Belgrade’s and Moscow’s insistence, а linguistic norm based on the local Bulgarian dialect was proclaimed as the "official Macedonian language". It was given a grammar in 1954 by a certain Serbian high-school graduate Blagoj Koneski, while concentration camps like Goli Otok were crammed with those opposing the campaign of ethnic engineering launched by the Yugoslav Communist Party.
The RNM Parliament issued some years ago a Declaration apologizing to the victims of communism. This is a positive yet insufficient first step in the right direction. Too many families on both sides of the border have lost loved ones at the hands of “Macedonism”. A declaratory quick-fix will not do.
All Eastern EU member states have had the courage to face their totalitarian past. This process was painful yet necessary if we are to learn the lessons of the past and not repeat the same errors in the future. This is why history cannot be so light handedly dismissed as irrelevant to our modern day world.
BGNES: The RNM 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?
Dimiter Tzantchev: Hate speech and discrimination against Bulgaria and against Macedonian Bulgarians have been present in the public sphere with different intensity all throughout the communist and post-communist history of the RNM. Public institutions have always participated in these practices in full impunity. The recent increase rather aims to intimidate and to prevent citizens from freely self-identifying as Bulgarians at the population census.
The most publically visible recent example of a hate campaign relates to the RNM’s Eurovision contender Vasil Garvanliev who was subjected to a massive intimidation campaign, including by state officials, because of his declared closeness to Bulgaria. A petition was even launched advocating for Mr. Garvanliev’s withdrawal from the song competition.
Another example relates to members and supporters of the “Ivan Mihailov” Cultural Center from Bitola, who were summoned and detained at the local police station for hours on March 11, 2021, without any justification, written or verbal. Some of the members of this Center were visited and questioned by security officials at their work place.
On March 27, 2021, a Bulgarian citizen was prevented from importing XIX century Bulgarian literature in the RNM on the grounds that the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs had not issued the necessary approvals. Local citizens from different cities in the RNM promoting XIX century Bulgarian literature were also visited and questioned by police officials in the past 20 days - 34 people in total. All this is at odds with the declared European civilizational choice of Skopje
In the past weeks, former Prime Ministers of the RNM Ljubco Georgievski and Vlado Buckovski, as well as former Minister of Foreign Affairs Denko Maleski, have all publically spoken about the common Bulgarian roots of the RNM’s population. They outlined the need to overcome the legacy of ex-Yugoslavia and build qualitatively new relations with Bulgaria. Following these interventions, all three of them were subjected to hate speech and threats.
The described developments span beyond bilateral relations between Bulgaria and the RNM and put into question the compliance by this candidate-country with the Copenhagen criteria, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and with the ECHR. The discrimination of Macedonian citizens with Bulgarian identity is a concern reflected also in the recent European Parliament Report on the Republic of North Macedonia.
Yet, this candidate-country is teaching the Member States what European values are…
BGNES: What's next?
Dimiter Tzantchev: From what I have already outlined, my expectation is that Skopje will continue to rely on lobbying and on others to exert pressure on Bulgaria while hoping for a change in our position after the elections.
Since such a change will obviously not taken place, Skopje will need to gradually find ways to return to a rational public narrative and to start meaningfully engaging with Bulgaria. This process can take years, as the experience shows, but it can also proceed quicker. It all depends on Skopje. Despite of everything, Bulgaria remains open for dialogue. /BGNES