Bulgaria has underlined time and again that it wants a reset of relations with Macedonia, calling on Skopje to end what Sofia describes as manipulations of history, anti-Bulgarian rhetoric and incidents of harassment of self-identified Bulgarians in the former Yugoslav republic.
Official Skopje has stated its willingness to do proceed on this path but the opening days of 2013 have again underlined just how far there is to go.
Complicating matters, of course, is that much of the anti-Bulgarian campaign emanates from within the media in Skopje and in the field of popular culture.
In these, the first few days of the year in which Bulgaria – along with Israel – will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi death camps, a series has started in a newspaper in Skopje to emphasise the part of Bulgarians in the transportation of Jews from Macedonia to join the six million murdered in the Holocaust.
The newspaper series is in effect a form of sequel to controversial Macedonian film the Third Half, which has annoyed Sofia for its portrayal of Bulgarians as active collaborators in the Nazi death machine. Bulgaria at least has been spared having to hear much more about the film, which locally was put forward as an Oscar foreign language film award candidate but which a few months ago failed to make the shortlist.
Not coincidentally, Bulgarian media have taken up the theme of Bulgaria and the Holocaust, with local news agency Focus quoting Sofia deputy mayor in charge of culture and education, Todor Chobanov, as saying that there were “important facts that are not well known or are unknown to both the scientific community and the general public” about Bulgaria’s role in preventing deportations to death camps, including in providing thousands of transit visas to people from outside Bulgaria so that they could reach Palestine. These had not been isolated cases but systematic policy carried out by Bulgarian diplomats, he said.
History is, of course, a recurring theme in Bulgarian – Macedonian relations, even if also in the context of the messages exchanged between leaders in Sofia and Skopje that it should be left to historians.
Bulgaria has emphasised that it wants Macedonia, if Skopje wants its bid for European Union membership to succeed, to adhere to officially confirmed EU accession and membership criteria regarding good neighbourly relations. To advance this, Bulgaria wants a treaty with Macedonia on that topic.
Bulgaria reinforced its point about the importance of good neighbourly relations when it joined in opposition in late 2012 to Macedonia being granted a date for the start of accession negotiations, citing Skopje’s underperformance on the issue as motivating its opposition.
An intriguing note came on January 9 2013 when Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov was recorded as having told a Cabinet meeting in Sofia that the Bulgarian Academy of Science had been assigned to work out material on neighbourly relations with Macedonia: “What we should know and understand when we go to vote in Brussels and what the President and other state officials say in official positions”.
Borissov told his ministers that the rector of Sofia University and the head of the Bulgarian Academy of Science would be invited to Cabinet meetings to advise on this matter.
However, a separate incident made it clear that the future of bilateral relations between the neighbouring countries was more than a matter for academic debate and the ponderings of Cabinet ministers.
Considerable media attention was given to an incident in Macedonia, in Strumica in the second week of 2013, when police raided the homes of seven people with dual Bulgarian and Macedonian citizenship, interrogating the group and holding one of them in custody for a day, confiscating documentation related to Bulgarian citizenship.
According to the Bulgarian Cultural Club in Skopje, the group were authorised to represent applicants for Bulgarian citizenship but Macedonian police said that the operation was to look for forged documents.
Media in Sofia quoted the head of the Bulgarian Cultural Club, Lazar Mladenov, as saying that the police action was pressure on people not to freely express their Bulgarian identity. Members of the group said that they would complain about the action to the European Commission and to the European Parliament. The cultural club has complained to Sofia before about alleged incidents of harassments of people with Bulgarian identity in Macedonia.
Meanwhile, whatever the more public controversies, officials have begun work on steps towards improving bilateral relations.
According to Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry, on December 14 2012, in Kriva Palanka in Macedonia, the first working meeting between representatives of the foreign ministries of Bulgaria and Macedonia was held. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss and define future activities and the contractual framework for good neighbourliness and co-operation between the two countries, the Foreign Ministry said.
A further meeting is expected to be held in Bulgaria.
However, while this quiet work of diplomacy goes on – and in 2012 Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov initiated a consultative process to come up with a comprehensive policy on relations with Bulgaria’s neighbours – there are still risks that politicians could again seek to turn up the temperatures.
Macedonia has elections in March and even the vote is a municipal one, relations with Bulgaria generally have been an easy populist topic; and for that matter, Bulgaria has parliamentary elections in mid-year and it is not beyond the imagination that some of its populist politicians in minority parties will seek to stoke up the Macedonia issue in pursuit of a few votes. There is never a shortage of people willing to help highlight provocations, and given some of the recent bizarre episodes in Skopje, such as the expulsion of opposition members and journalists from parliament as the budget was passed, it is clear that foreign policy always serves as a good distraction from other issues.
(Parliament in Skopje, Macedonia. Photo Dominik Tefert)