Tuesday

31st Jan 2023

Interview

Does North Macedonia really exist?

  • North Macedonia's president Stevo Pendarovski: "The mainstay of our identity is our language, after that, history"

Its language and history give North Macedonia its identity for president Stevo Pendarovski, but for Bulgaria neither of them are real, in a dispute holding up EU enlargement.

"The mainstay of our identity is our language, after that, history, our shared history with our compatriots," Pendarovski told EUobserver in an interview.

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"It's not a secret that we codified the Macedonian language in 1945, but it's a separate language, very close to Bulgarian, but it is not, and has not been, a Bulgarian language," he said.

The codification took place at the end of World War 2, when the then "People's Republic of Macedonia" was created as part of Yugoslavia.

Prior to that, the territory had been ruled by Bulgaria, Serbia, and, going further back, by the Ottoman Empire.

Despite this, for Pendarovski the people who lived there always had their own ethnic identity.

But "the Bulgarians are saying that all of our history up to 1945 was Bulgarian. That everything from the 10th century up till then has been Bulgarian," Pendarovski noted.

"They're saying ethnic Macedonians do exist ... [but] that all of a sudden we woke up one morning [in 1944] and said: 'Aha! We're really ethnic Macedonians now, [but] yesterday we were ethnic Bulgarians'," Pendarovski added.

"So, that's absolute historical nonsense," he said.

It might not matter what Bulgaria thought, if Sofia was not now blocking Skopje's EU accession talks unless North Macedonia formally accepted its views.

Bulgaria wants its version of history to be enshrined in a new bilateral treaty, or in a new annex to an existing treaty from 2017, before it lifts its veto on the EU process.

It also wants its ideas to be inscribed in the EU negotiations.

"A 'Macedonian language' or ethnicity did not exist until 2 September 1944," Sofia said in a six-page memo recently circulated to EU states and seen by EUobserver.

"Their creation was part of the overall building of a separate non-Bulgarian identity [by Yugoslavia], aimed at cutting the ties between the population of the ... [region] and Bulgaria," it said.

"The creation of the 'Macedonian language' in 1944 ... was an act of secondary codification (re-codification) based on the Bulgarian literary language, additionally 'enriched' with vernacular forms, thus simulating a dialect-based 'natural' process," it added.

The EU accession talks, when they go ahead, should include special monitoring to make sure Skopje complied with Bulgaria's views, for instance, in school textbooks and on national holidays, Sofia also said.

And after North Macedonia joined the EU, any use or mention of the "Macedonian language" in EU documents should be asterisked to say such a language existed only "according to the constitution of the Republic of North Macedonia", it said.

"The enlargement process must not legitimise the ethnic and linguistic engineering that has taken place under former authoritarian regimes," the Bulgarian memo said.

Light in tunnel?

North Macedonia has appointed a special envoy to seek a compromise and there is hope Bulgaria will be less hawkish following its elections in March.

But Germany, during the past six months of its EU presidency, failed to get a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, Portugal, the incoming EU presidency, is less influential in the Western Balkans, and the rhetoric being used by Skopje and Sofia, at this stage, did not bode well.

"We cannot accept a discussion on this topic ... it's crazy," Pendarovski told EUobserver.

"Bulgaria cannot accept ... the revision of our common history," Sofia's EU memo said.

The last time Skopje faced a long wait on its path to the West, in 2008, when Greece vetoed its Nato accession due to a name dispute, its then prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, clung to power via nationalism and corruption.

No matter what happened next, nobody in the current government had the same "authoritarian tendencies", Pendarovski noted.

But even if the country's pro-EU leaders stuck to their values, voters might lose faith as time went by and turn to populists instead, he warned.

"Do you think we'll have the same credibility speaking about the EU, reform, and the support of our European friends in Brussels, if we're stuck, going nowhere?", North Macedonia's president said.

"Voters will say: 'Is Europe thinking about us? Maybe they dislike us ... Maybe we should look to other parties', and eurosceptics could gain ground," Pendarovski said.

Some Western Balkans leaders, when faced with EU setbacks, have, in the past, issued grave warnings about the rise of Russian influence or even a return to instability.

For Pendarovski, Russia was more of an export market and an energy supplier than a threat, however.

It was also his "firm belief" that "conflicts in the Balkans are over, there's no enthusiasm for that".

"I do not predict anything bad to happen in the years to come even if we remain, as we are now, semi-forgotten in Brussels", he said.

EU and US needed

But if people in North Macedonia were to ever have a decent standard of living and if their children were to stop going abroad for jobs, France and Germany had to keep pushing for reform, he added.

"I'm always begging the Europeans: 'Please be here and watch over us'," he said.

Bosnia and Kosovo were further behind on the path to EU enlargement, he noted.

And if the whole Western Balkans was to have a "bright future", then the EU would also have to join forces with the US to solve its worst problems, he said.

"Without heavy involvement by the United States, by Washington and by Brussels, in close synchronisation of their activities, we're not going to see any movement on that issue," Pendarovski said, referring to a possible deal between Serbia and Kosovo on Kosovo's independence.

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