A blockade of the Macedonian road to the EU risks undermining the region’s European prospects

An interview with Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă, international relations expert on the Balkans, about the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute over good neighbourliness and common history

Dr Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations and European Studies at the National University of Political Science and Public Administration (SNSPA) in Bucharest, Romania. Since 2019 she has coordinated the SNSPA Center for European Studies and she is also habilitated to advise PhD students in international relations. She has a direct research interest in EU integration, Europeanization and post-conflict reconstruction of the Western Balkans. In recent years she has combined academic research with experience in the field of European diplomacy in the Balkans. She is a graduate of the National Program for Young Diplomats organized by the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Romanian Diplomatic Institute (2011), and she worked as a Political Officer intern for the Romanian Embassy in Sarajevo (2013) and the Delegation of the European Union in Prishtina (2014). She has extensive publications in the field of EU enlargement, and she is an alumna of the European Fund for the Balkans. Most recently she published a chapter in the book “International-led State-building and Local Resistance. Hybrid Institutional Reforms in Post-conflict Kosovo” edited by Arolda Elbasani, Routledge, 2019. 

On 17 November 2020 Bulgaria did not approve the start of the negotiations for the EU accession of North Macedonia. A week later the prime minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev gave an in-depth interview to the Bulgarian news agency BGNES on current Bulgarian-Macedonian relations and on the “shared history” of the two peoples, which provoked great disturbance among the political opposition in North Macedonia and intensive discussion in  Macedonian society. 

Dr Troncotă, Bulgaria has made great efforts to assert itself as the lobbyist for the accession of the Western Balkans to the EU during and after the EU Council in 2018. A year ago, France, Denmark and the Netherlands blocked the start of Macedonian (and Albanian) EU accession negotiations. Now Bulgaria, in turn, is blocking North Macedonia. Who benefits from this development at a regional and international level? How are these developments with the Bulgarian veto on the opening of North Macedonia’s negotiations with the EU seen from Romania and how do you explain that today, Bulgaria is blocking North Macedonia and is changing its former image as a promoter and “benefactor” of European accession to the Western Balkans?

The decision of Bulgaria was for me personally, but of course also geopolitically, quite surprising – given the progress being made in Bulgarian-Macedonian bilateral relations (progress that culminated in the conclusion of the Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness, in 2017). Moreover, the agreement affects both the implementation of the 2017 Treaty and that of the Prespa Agreement between Athens and Skopje (2018), given that the latter document describes a gradual process of steps that depend on the progress of North Macedonia’s EU accession. In addition to the long-term damage it has caused to the European course of North Macedonia, the entire region and (especially) the credibility of the EU – affected anyway – the Bulgarian political elite is also creating political and image prejudice towards Sofia. We are talking, however, about blocking the country that has begun the first formal EU accession process that we know is difficult, but which has not lasted so long for any other candidate state except for the notable case of Turkey, because North Macedonia has been in the “waiting room” of the EU for over 15 years. More precisely it has been there since 2004 when it sent the first formal application for membership. And we are also talking about Bulgaria, the first country to recognize North Macedonia’s independence after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Referring to the reasons behind the decision taken by the Bulgarian authorities, part of the explanation lies, I think, in the desire to divert attention from the shortcomings and scandals that have defined Bulgaria’s domestic policy and the anti-corruption and anti-government protests of recent months. But this plan has failed, with Sofia now more than ever in the spotlight on European issues. This image of an external “benefactor”, of a facilitator of the European integration of the Balkans to which you refer is clearly seriously affected, being replaced, as I said, by its opposite, even that of “aggressor”, and Sofia will have to make a consistent effort to return to the label previously obtained during its presidency.

As for the “beneficiaries” of this dispute, we can turn our attention to the EU’s direct competitors in the region in general, and in North Macedonia in particular. I am referring here to Russia, China and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. As I said, Bulgaria’s veto affects the EU’s credibility in the eyes of the political elites and ordinary citizens of the candidate countries. However, I have a glimmer of hope that at the European Council on 10-11 December 2020, Borissov will still be able to mitigate if not change his position. As the European perspective of North Macedonia has been repeatedly questioned in recent years, it is possible that Skopje will turn its attention to other “investors”. We are talking about a fragile democracy where the pro-European forces are still insufficiently strong, and now they have reason to be disappointed by the structure to which they have aspired to adhere for over a decade and a half. I fear that all the other EU strategic competitors in the Balkans will be able to seduce North Macedonia in the event of political “abandonment” by the EU through the Bulgarian veto, while the EU does not impose conditions related to culture, the country’s constitutional name or respect for democratic principles and values. Thus, a new diplomatic incursion by Beijing (already active in the region) or Moscow could result in completely different relations, in the light of Bulgaria’s main opposition, with an EU that has passively witnessed this decision. It is difficult to make a prediction, but whatever happens at the Council, we have for the most part only cause for concern on this subject.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said: “Thirty years after the start of the transition, you cannot want to be in the EU and celebrate one of the darkest dictators – Tito”, which provoked reactions of solidarity with Macedonians in the former Yugoslavia. How significant is Tito’s legacy in the Western Balkan countries to becoming a foreign policy challenge point in the region 30 years after the end of the Cold War?

We are referring here to the most prominent political figure of socialist Yugoslavia, around whom the destiny of the multiethnic state that existed between 1945 and 1991 was built; a political figure who contributed, through constitutional means, to maintaining an apparent peace between the constituent peoples. He is also a character to whom the former Yugoslavs owe a special relationship with the West but also one of the initiators of an alternative geopolitical project to the Manichaean logic of the Cold War – the Non-Alignment Movement. It is thus easy to understand that the mere mention of Tito in the agreement would give rise to extensive debate. Especially since the document describes the former socialist leader in not exactly historical terms – Tito did not adhere to the policy promoted by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin; on the contrary, he chose the path of non-alignment to guarantee the security and autonomy of the Yugoslav state.

But history also has its point of view. The so-called issue of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria (discussed in the dispute and challenged by Sofia) has existed since the late 1940s, when the leaders of the USSR and Yugoslavia – Joseph Stalin and Josip Broz Tito – tried to settle the post-war order of the Balkans by creating a Balkan federation between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. What the Sofia authorities are saying is that there was a “brainwashing” campaign for the people of North Macedonia, who have been given a new identity and a new language, both distinct from those of the citizens of Blagoevgrad, or Sofia. Basically, using Tito’s image as a dictator and policies aimed at ensuring Yugoslav unity, Bulgaria is imposing its own nationalist vision on the history and culture of another country and its people. Of course, this is not the first Balkan country to do this. We could even identify a pattern, a recurring pattern, although the strategies and situations are different, mentioning only the case of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute in northern Mitrovica as a simple example.

How well is the essence of the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute about the “shared/common history” (a phrase used in the August 2017 Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation between the two countries) understood in Romania? To what extent have both states made efforts to clarify their positions on this issue before the Romanian state and society?

Beyond the classic appreciation for the good relationship of friendship and good neighbourliness promoted by the two states, the Romanian authorities have made little attempt to understand the essence of these disputes, given that Bulgaria and North Macedonia have not clarified externally the benefits of signing this document. The regional context was also unfavourable, with discussions within the historians’ commissions formed on the basis of the Agreement even reaching a stalemate – triggering the November 17 veto. Moreover, we come to fully understand the details of this “shared history” and at the same time challenge it only when it becomes a high-level political weapon – at which point the diplomatic representatives of the two states involved engage in extensive lobbying (see, for example, the recent videoconference of the “Friends of North Macedonia” group, organized immediately after Sofia’s veto).

How will this veto, especially if it remains in force after December 2020, change regional international relations in South-East Europe? If we take into account that from January 2021 there will be a Democratic president in the White House – Joe Biden – what changes will he bring to the international reactions in the region? It should be noted that despite the historical Bulgarian-Macedonian relationship, regional cooperation summits are currently taking place with the participation of the three member countries of the Eastern Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria and Greece) + Serbia, but without North Macedonia …

As stated above, there is no doubt that the veto jeopardizes bilateral relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, while also affecting the implementation of the Prespa Agreement which has led to the normalization of relations between North Macedonia and Greece. There are already voices comparing the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute with the one between Serbia and Kosovo, as we mentioned before, although of course the proportions of this comparison must be maintained. If the stalemate persists in 2021, and Bulgaria maintains its veto at the next EU Council meetings, we can say that the preconditions are being created for a new large-scale diplomatic dispute, which will once again slow down the European course of North Macedonia, already affected by the vetoes imposed in the past by Greece or France, for various reasons. We need to ask ourselves how the citizens of North Macedonia will feel if, for the third time in recent years, they are cornered by an EU state, the organization that they want to join for a better life. I have many friends in North Macedonia who have become extremely Eurosceptic in the last month amid this dispute. We are no longer talking about so-called “enlargement fatigue”, but there is a real risk that these negative reactions against North Macedonia will even produce an attitude of challenge and resistance to deepening the European accession process, considered until recently the most important guarantee of security and democratic and geopolitical aspiration of this small ex-Yugoslav state.

Moreover, the EU’s passivity in this matter may raise issues, as we are also dealing with cultural disputes in other areas of the Western Balkans. Let us not forget, however, that Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Bosnian are the “heirs” of a geopolitical linguistic construct – Serbo-Croat, the only official language in the former Yugoslavia. Given the disputes that exist mainly at the borders of the states that speak these languages, it is not excluded that Zagreb will play the national language card when Serbia (and especially) Bosnia show signs of rapprochement with the European Union.

As for the effects of Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House, expectations are quite high. We expect first of all a paradigm shift in the relationship of the American administration. The new president is expected to try to reposition the United States in the region – more sharply, thus weakening the growing influence of actors such as China or Russia. One method would be to support the European integration of states already in the process of negotiation (Serbia, Montenegro) or those at the beginning of this process (Albania, North Macedonia). This process would be facilitated by the good relationship that the newly-elected president has with the leaders of the European institutions, but also by his vision of the region (let’s not forget that he visited Bosnia during the war, even in 1994, as a representative of the American Congress). Joe Biden is also expected to support initiatives aimed at contributing to the region’s economic development, such as the “mini-Schengen” project implemented by the six Western Balkan states.

On the other hand, aware of the importance of normalizing the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo, the new US leader will be actively involved in this process, but his methods are expected to be different from those of his predecessor. Biden’s team of national security advisers can help strengthen the sovereignty and integrity of the two entities, by actively participating in negotiations to normalize relations, finalizing a roadmap whose purpose is the mutual recognition of the independence of the two states – what the EU as an official mediator has failed to do since 2011 when this process formally began. These processes must be conditioned only by the will of the political leadership of the two states, not by external factors (recognition of other states, relocation of diplomatic headquarters, etc.) and remains another painful Gordian knot that must be cut for the evolution of the region.

One last sensitive item on the new president’s agenda must be Bosnia and Herzegovina. Given that the Dayton Accord seems to have reached its limits (constitutional, political and institutional), 25 years after its signing, the Biden Administration can be an important player in the process of rethinking Bosnia’s constitution. Not necessarily by developing and imposing a Dayton 2, but by establishing a framework through which the central government in Sarajevo can take over the constitutional reins of the state, in order to eliminate interethnic tensions and limits imposed on economic development that threatened the very existence of the state. The state remains affected by corruption and poverty, being totally dysfunctional from a political and administrative point of view, where the future of the citizens in this multi-ethnic puzzle are the victims of the games between “еurocrats” and “ethnocrats” as I called them in my doctoral work. These roles are sometimes played by the same politicians.

Finally, referring to the regional cooperation summits of the so-called “Craiova Group” (Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia), the initiative does not have a written agreement (through which EU member states would commit to supporting the European path of candidates), so it would be possible to accept new members in the near future. However, it should be noted that the initiative was born in 2015, when Greece was still in dispute with North Macedonia (then the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) over its name and “shared history”. Given the normalization of relations through the Prespa Agreement, it was expected that Skopje would be considered as a new member of the Group, once accession negotiations (scheduled for the end of this year) began. Given Bulgaria’s recent decision to block this process, I expect the Craiova Group to remain a four-way discussion for the time being, with the possibility of expanding it according to regional geopolitical developments.

Photo: Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă (sursă: Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă)

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