Ioannis Armakolas: Historical issues raised by Bulgaria may spiral out of control

An interview with the specialist on Southeastern Europe about the Bulgarian veto on the beginning of Macedonian accession negotiations with the EU.

On November 17, Bulgaria announced that it would block the opening of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations with the EU. Sofia believes that Skopje is not complying with the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation which was signed in August 2017. This treaty made possible the conclusion of the Prespa Agreement between North Macedonia and Greece, as well as Macedonian accession to NATO.

The Barricade continues to look for opinions from the region of Southeast Europe on the Bulgarian veto. Today we are publishing the English transcript of an interview with Dr Ioannis Armakolas – University Professor, Specialist on Southeast Europe and Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), given on November 17, 2020. The interview was initially given to the radio station of the Greek capital, Athens 98,3 FM on 17 November. Dr Armakolas says that such interventions of national interest in the accession process are not uncommon, but they can open a Pandora’s box in the case of Western Balkans.

One hundred and seventeen years after the death of Gotse Delchev in Caries (Banica), Serres, a national hero both in Bulgaria and in North Macedonia, he became one of the reasons why Sofia has blocked the negotiations for the accession of Skopje to the EU. At yesterday’s presentation ceremony in which Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev received a Human Rights Award from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, German Foreign Minister Haiko Maas said that he doesn’t expect today’s teleconference of foreign ministers (on 17 November 2020) in the European Union to give the green light to the start of North Macedonia’s EU negotiations. We will now turn to a topic that has not received the attention of either the Greek or the international media, with the exception of Dr Ioannis Armakolas, an Assistant professor in the Department of Balkan, Slavic & Oriental Studies at the University of Macedonia, Athens, and Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

Two years after the Prespa Agreement, exactly one year after the French veto on the start of EU negotiations with North Macedonia and a few months after the adoption of a new methodology for the enlargement of the European Union, one could have expected that Bulgaria’s neighbor would finally start negotiations. What has happened, and why has Bulgaria blocked the road for North Macedonia?

Indeed, after all that North Macedonia has been through, the compromises it has made, someone would have expected that the country would start accession negotiations immediately, but now Bulgaria is in its way, adopting a rather “strange” position. I say “strange” position, because 3 years ago Sofia signed a treaty with Skopje to promote friendship and good neighborliness, which of course needs time to function and because this exact treaty foresees that North Macedonia’s EU accession needs to be facilitated, not the contrary. Until recently, Bulgaria itself had not indicated that it would take such a strong position, even to block the beginning of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations with the EU.

What exactly does Bulgaria want? Bulgaria believes that its neighboring country is not implementing the bilateral agreement that was signed in 2017, claiming that the side of North Macedonia does not accept the Bulgarian interpretation of recent history. Sofia also believes that there is a rhetoric of hatred towards Bulgaria and that Skopje should officially declare that the Macedonian language spoken in North Macedonia has Bulgarian roots.

This is very difficult for North Macedonia to accept, at least at this stage, but Bulgaria believes that it cannot accept the beginning of negotiations for North Macedonia’s accession to the EU, if Skopje does not accept this specific interpretation of history or at least give a guarantee that it will be accepted very soon. In my view, this is a very “strange” position.

And why is Sofia insisting?

Look, I think that Bulgaria has hardened its stance due to the upcoming elections and the so-called “patriotic outbidding” that all political parties partake and that may explain their strong positions. But as you may understand, this has consequences. In my view it won’t be easy for the Bulgarian government at this moment to make compromises, since it has put itself in a corner, when it says that all of its demands must be accepted by North Macedonia before even accession talks can begin. I underline that the negotiation process of North Macedonia will be long and it may take even 10 years before the country finally joins the EU.

In other words, could the new methodology of accession negotiations, which is already in place, allow for those questions to be raised during the negotiations?

Yes, of course. Let us not forget that the negotiation process gives to all interested parties the opportunities and space of time to “breathe” politically, to negotiate, to find through all the European instruments ways to reach an agreement. Blocking the opening of accession talks could only create problems.

What are the dangers, if these questions – the historical confrontations – become prerequisites for the start of EU accession negotiations? Does the current position of Sofia set out a precedent leading others to raise similar issues in the future? Let us not forget that the Balkans and the countries of the region that want to join the EU, some of which are already candidates, attach a great deal of importance to these historical disputes.

First of all, we should clarify that every blocking of the process by one or more states creates a precedent. Greece’s blocking of North Macedonia for more than a decade created a precedent, just as the blocking of Croatia’s accession by Slovenia set a precedent as well as the position of France last year created a precedent. All states, of course, pursue their national interest and within this framework, it is not that Bulgaria is doing something different.

The problem here, however, is that the questions raised by Bulgaria, as you mentioned — the questions of history and even of recent history — can easily get out of control. Let me first clarify that these questions of historical interpretation are not part of any of the conditions set by the European Union. These are not part of the Copenhagen Criteria, related to the rule of law, the economy, the functioning of democracy, whether a state can control its borders, whether it has dealt with organized crime and corruption, and so on. They are part of what we call “good neighborliness”, which rightly has a place in the process and should continue to have a place.

In the past, while speaking abroad, when the Greek position was criticized in various places, I have many times tried to explain that if a country can block another for issues related to fisheries, poultry or agricultural products, why much deeper national issues related to identity cannot be raised? Issues related to the core of national sensitivities need to be put forward, not the contrary.

But in this case, there are two significant issues: Firstly, questions of identity, and especially those related to the interpretation of recent history should raised as issues of cooperation instead of being reasons for a member state to ‘block’ EU membership talks, even before the European perspective of an EU candidate unfolds, even before it begins its negotiations, and especially since these may last for as long as a decade; thus, giving enough time for both to reach a common solution. These exact issues have currently led to a difficult and deadlocked situation that is absolutely limiting the choices of both countries.

Secondly, in this case we are not talking about ancient history, about Alexander the Great, about the ancient Macedonians, which have been thoroughly examined and settled in international scientific and scholarly work. In this case, at issue is very recent history, which can reasonably receive many different interpretations.

For example, Bulgaria speaks about the rhetoric of hatred by North Macedonia with regard to the period of the Second World War. What does Sofia want to argue with all this? That the Bulgarian occupation forces, as allies to the Axis powers, have done certain things in North Macedonia, and that the citizens of North Macedonian should not talk about it or they have to speak about it in a certain way, with a certain rhetoric. It is a bit strange, as you may understand.

But what will happen tomorrow, if this Pandora’s box opens, for example when in a few years Serbia will be eligible to join. Should then Croatia impose on Serbia how to speak or write about the war in the 1990s? Or when Serbia finally joins the EU, could it then impose on Kosovo how Pristina should write about the wars of the same decade? And we are not talking about war crimes, which obviously should not be accepted or for which there should be cooperation with International Courts for their punishment or how to deal with hate speech. In this case, we are talking about the interpretation, on how a neighboring country should think about its occupation during the Second World War. Imagine for a second, if the Germans had imposed on Greece, in the process of its accession to the European Community, how it should discuss World War Two and the German occupation…. These are unthinkable things.

Following last year’s France’s veto there have been reactions and initiatives by several EU member states aiming to give a solution to the impasse. In the case of Bulgaria and North Macedonia with a few exceptions there is generally “silence”. Why is this happening? Do most EU member states see this as a bilateral conflict? Do they perhaps have other problems like dealing with the Covid-19? But, at the same time what are the EU’s signals now for other EU candidate countries?

What you mention is true and at the same time you are right. First of all, let me explain that given that Albania remains behind (I do not think that anyone is seriously arguing that Albania can start accession negotiations immediately), and North Macedonia is ready, this situation makes the deadlock even more problematic.

The EU looks rather like a “tired” body, without impetus and unfortunately without a vision for the region, despite all its assertions to the opposite. But at the same time, we must admit that this is a difficult equation; because if a member state wants to block the process for a candidate country at all costs, by paying the diplomatic “price” for it, it can do so. There is no easy way to avoid such a move. But the fact that Bulgaria can do this, despite the fact that Skopje has been ready for years to begin accession talks, despite the fact that this move is certainly against North Macedonia itself and against the stability and the European perspective of the entire region, it clearly shows the limits of the EU’s influence and consequently of Germany’s as well. Because if the EU’s German presidency, with the power and leverage it has, is unable to convince the Bulgarian side to find ways to communicate and to allow North Macedonia to begin its accession talks, it would become much harder in the future.

Do you think that there is enough time for a compromising solution until December? Taking into consideration that Greece is clearly in favor of the EU’s enlargement, is there any way that Athens could contribute in convincing Bulgaria to set aside its objections and to positively act in this case?

There is time until December [there will be an EU summit on 10-11 December to discuss Macedonia’s accession again – translator’s note].

I think that it is especially important issue for Greece, and I am sorry that it has not been adequately explained or debated by the Greek media. Similarly, I do not see any great “mobilization” by the Greek diplomacy.

Even if it is difficult for anyone to say what might have happened, one could argue that if the political leadership and the citizens of North Macedonia had known what they would have to go through until the beginning of the EU accession talks, it is doubtful that they would have easily reached a compromise with Greece. They would likely not have agreed to change their name, to change their constitution, they might not have agreed to reject an entire part of their historical narrative. Thus, all this effort made by the Greek diplomacy all the previous years and even today to come closer to North Macedonia is currently put to question.

People in North Macedonia are expecting some sort of support from Greece, not against Bulgaria but mainly because Greece is a “key” state in the region and has good and close relations with Sofia and nowadays with Skopje as well.

Some issues related to the Prespa Agreement could also surface now due to Bulgaria’s stance and this should have been a warning for the Greek diplomacy…

It is clear that if the European perspective of North Macedonia or of the whole Western Balkans is terminated, there is a risk at all levels including about the implementation of the Prespa Agreement, the use of the new name and various other issues.

Even if North Macedonia’s European prospect moves forward, but after they have made huge compromises, after they have suffered heavy defeats, if they get to feel that they don’t have friends and partners in their neighborhood, there is the risk that when the moment of their accession is finally reached, they will have every reason to become themselves tough and difficult in their cooperation with their neighbours. Then, they will raise their own issues to third parties and other EU member states.

Consequently, the Europeanisation of the Western Balkan region will only be possible through cooperation and compromise; certainly not through blackmails aiming to “kneel down” a country before entering the EU, especially a weakened country, as it happens right now.

Photo: Ioannis Armakolas (source: Ioannis Armakolas)

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