Zoran Zaev and Boyko Borisov in Skopje

Zoran Zaev and Boyko Borisov in Skopje

The signing of the good-neighbour agreement with Macedonia, long pursued by Bulgaria, is undoubtedly a success for Sofia's diplomacy. However, the practical and long-term effects of the agreements remain to be seen

11/08/2017 -  Francesco Martino Sofia

After 18 years of waiting, the good-neighbour agreement between Bulgaria and Macedonia became reality on August 1st, when prime ministers Boyko Borisov and Zoran Zaev signed the document in Skopje.

The agreement, made possible by the renewed convergence of interests between Sofia and Skopje after the rise of power of Zoran Zaev in Macedonia, is undoubtedly an important success for Bulgarian diplomacy and Bojko Borisov, although the long-term results are still to be seen.

With the treaty, which commits the two countries to overcoming mutual misunderstandings and building solid, friendly relations, the Bulgarian government scored points at the bilateral, regional, and European level.

At the bilateral level, Sofia managed to put in writing some delicate elements, such as the attention to the "common history" between the two countries and the reassurance that Skopje renounces every claim to "interfering in Bulgaria's internal affairs regarding non-Macedonian citizens", a formula that refers to the controversial claim of the existence of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. The political document is accompanied by two memoranda of understanding: one on the construction of the long-awaited Sofia-Skopje railway (part of the European VIII corridor) and the other on the construction of a pipeline between the two countries.

At the regional and European level, the bilateral treaty may have major implications for Sofia's attempt to join the EU's regional initiatives, which promise (also) economic opportunities, first of all through the Berlin-process.

Last but not least, the agreement strengthens the credibility of the Borisov government on the eve of the first Bulgarian presidency of the EU, scheduled for the first half of 2018, with the Western Balkans set by the Bulgarian government among the absolute priorities.

A new start, with some doubts

The Bulgarian prime minister did not conceal his satisfaction. "The agreement is important because it shows the EU that in the Balkans [...] two countries, without external intervention, have demonstrated that peace and good neighbour relations are the most important thing", said a glowing Borisov in Skopje.

Sofia's Foreign Ministry, responding to OBCT's questions, defined the agreement as "opening new horizons of cooperation between Bulgaria and Macedonia after a long stalemate", able to "give new opportunities to citizens of both countries, their connection, and the European future of Macedonia".

While confirming the "undeniable symbolic importance" of the treaty, Dimitar Bechev – currently Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the "Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Macedonia" (Scarecrow Press/Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), shows some skepticism. "It is important to understand what it will produce at a practical level, and this will take some time", Bechev told OBCT. "Knowing the history of past relations between the two countries, I cannot rule out that the agreement is a purely formal act, although I hope I am wrong".

Among the most delicate points of the agreement there is Article 8, devoted to the Bulgarian-Macedonian "common history", which provides for "the joint organisation of celebrations of common historical events and personalities" and the creation of a bilateral committee formed by historians, "engaged in an objective reading of past events [...] that concern common history".


The intention, says Sofia's Foreign Ministry, "is to separate history and politics to look ahead together [...] as France and Germany have done in the past". Also in this case, Bechev is wary of easy optimism. "I do not see how committees and celebrations can get real results compared to reading of historical events. Even in the past, Bulgarian and Macedonian politicians have sporadically celebrated "common" characters and events without this changing the general picture".

Even the prospects for the railway are all to be verified. In the memorandum, Macedonia committed to building its own stretch by 2025, Bulgaria by 2027. At the moment, however, Bulgaria only allocated ten million Euros for design costs. The money for the actual works still needs to be found; the same goes for the energy connection.

Everyone (almost) agrees, even nationalists

Despite the many doubts, Borisov can definitely count the agreement as a political and personal success. He took the risk of explicitly supporting Zaev during Macedonia's long political crisis and now collects the rewards, including Brussels' praise.

Once smoothed the divergences with Skopje, Sofia seems willing to firmly support Macedonia in its Euro-Atlantic integration path – an objective that falls within Bulgaria's strategic interests. In the past, Sofia had explicitly put forward the signing of the treaty as a necessary condition to give Skopje the green light.

"Bulgaria is ready to support Macedonia in the accession process thanks to its own experience", says the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry. "Bulgaria has always been and continues to be Macedonia's ally in its EU and NATO integration path".

The agreement was greeted (almost) unanimously within the Bulgarian political landscape. The nationalist parties now in government, especially VMRO, that have always been extremely attentive to the "Macedonian question" and often aggressive supporters of the substantial "Bulgarian-ness" of the Macedonian territory, nation, and language, have chosen to support Borisov without reservation.

"The treaty ends a period of silly quarrels between two countries that share a common history, language, and culture", commented Krasimir Karakachanov, VMRO's historic leader and now Minister of Defense. "I have never encouraged tensions between Sofia and Skopje", Karakachanov assured. "In fact, I have been a catalyst of the processes that led to this understanding".

"For nationalists, Macedonia is important, but obviously sharing power is even more important", sums up Bechev. "I never thought I would see Karakachanov smiling in an official photo at the headquarters of the Skopje government, but politics is full of surprises".


A story that divides and unites

In relations with neighbouring Macedonia, Bulgaria has strongly insisted on highlighting the aspects of "common history" between the two countries, but this has often been interpreted by Macedonia as part of an aggressive policy.

In the Bulgarian vision, a Macedonian national identity – separate from the Bulgarian one – was only born after World War II. The cultural, political, and revolutionary personalities and organisations of the past, such as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO), Gotse Delchev, and Yane Sandanski, are therefore part of Bulgaria's history and nation-building efforts. The same applies to personalities and events of the medieval period, such as Tsar Samuil (or Samoil).

In this context, despite being the first nation to recognise independent Macedonia, Bulgaria has never recognised the existence of a separate Macedonian language and nation.

Macedonia, however, traces the presence of an autonomous identity and struggle for national independence much further back in time (to Alexander the Great, now the icon of new downtown Skopje with a huge equestrian statue), often in open contrast to the Bulgarian and Greek ones.


The main points of the agreement

Bulgaria will use its experience to support Macedonia [...] towards European Union and NATO membership.

Both parties will promote the joint organisation of celebrations of common events and personalities. A bilateral committee will be set up (within three months of ratification) for the interpretation of the "common history" between the two countries.

Macedonia "confirms that nothing in its constitutional charter can be used as a cause for interfering in Bulgaria's internal affairs for non-Macedonian citizens". In practice, this ends the claims for the recognition of a Macedonian ethnic minority in Bulgaria.

The treaty is signed "in the official languages of the two countries according to their respective constitutions", Bulgarian and Macedonian. A note from the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry recalls that "international treaties do not recognise either languages or peoples". Any interpretation or comment of the parties involved on the topic is defined as "completely irrelevant".

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