Are Macedonians the same as Bulgarians

North Macedonia Deputy Prime Minister: "We don't negotiate who we are"

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The Bulgarian government is blocking the start of EU accession negotiations for the neighboring country North Macedonia, even though its government is considered to be an outstanding reform force in the Balkans. Sofia wants to force Skopje to stop using the adjective "Macedonian" for their own language, which North Macedonia rejects. If Bulgaria does not give in, it will Europeanize itself without the EU enlargement process, announced the deputy prime minister of North Macedonia Nikola Dimitrov in a STANDARD interview.

DEFAULT: What do you think of the Bulgarian veto on Tuesday against the start of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia?

Dimitrov: That was not a good day for Europe, not a good day for the European perspective of our region and definitely not a good day for us either. But we now want to prevent despair and nationalism and are therefore turning to friendly EU states so that we can achieve EU standards without the EU accession process, if Bulgaria does not withdraw its veto. Because if our accession process is reduced so much to a bilateral problem that discussions about history are more important than those about the fight against corruption, the independence of the judiciary, the functioning of democratic institutions, freedom of the media, the environment and energy, then this is not a process who Europeanizes, but someone who Balkanizes. We therefore need a reform agenda with a network of friends who are already there to help us, and we need to set clear goals and work on them - because we shouldn't waste time.

DEFAULT: Does that mean that you will not have discussions with the Bulgarian government on these historical issues and will just wait for the government in Sofia to change?

Dimitrov: We will continue to talk to Sofia, but we will not negotiate who we are and what language we speak. It is part of a historical process and not a political decision. We owe our people to protect their dignity and identity. And if Sofia doesn't move, then we have to find other ways of Europeanising our country.

DEFAULT: Do you think Bulgaria will stay tough?

Dimitrov: That is difficult to say. We have a few days left. But for our region that means a very bad signal, because we were the first state here to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. We had candidate status for 15 years. First we were blocked by Greece, then we solved this problem. Then France initiated a new enlargement methodology and now there is this new problem with Bulgaria. It is very difficult for us to see whether the EU is serious about us. In March of this year there was still the green light from the EU Council - Bulgaria was part of this consensus. Then we received a very positive report from the EU Commission in October. And as far as the political criteria are concerned, we are quite advanced, even comparable to those states that have been negotiating for a few years. In the past three and a half years we have solved problems with neighbors, taken great strides towards an open, democratic, multi-ethnic society and reformed the rule of law. So what kind of message is it to the region if it is not recognized by the EU?

DEFAULT: How did the Bulgarian veto actually come about? In 2017 Sofia and Skopje signed a friendship agreement.

Dimitrov: In October of last year, around the local elections, the Bulgarian parliament passed a political declaration that dealt with views of history. It wasn't really a surprise, but a very unfortunate development. Who we are, namely Macedonians, and what language we speak, namely Macedonian, is an internal matter. It's a question of self-determination. It is difficult to imagine that in Article 3 of the Lisbon Treaty the EU would admit to respect for cultural and linguistic diversity and at the same time that the Macedonian language should be an obstacle to the start of accession negotiations. This is not only a challenge for us, but also for the European Union as a community of values. We have a rich past here in the region, but we seem to be failing to create a sufficient future.

DEFAULT: As part of the friendship treaty, a commission of historians was created between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Would it be possible that all these questions would be debated there again and not in politics?

Dimitrov: Yes, the Commission was created to deal with historical issues, and the political issues should be discussed by politicians and governments. However, in the last few weeks and months the discussion of history has become dominant and now it is undermining the political process and mutual relations. The historians' commission will meet again in December - five times next year. But there are different views. Before our early elections, we proposed that the commission should continue to work online anyway. But in Sofia it was not so appreciated. The political declaration in the Bulgarian parliament also partially hindered the work of the commission - because the Bulgarian historians rejected those reports in which the adjective "Macedonian" occurs. But honestly, if perfect agreement on historical issues on all sides had been a prerequisite, then the European Union could never have been created. The concept of "historical truth" is therefore out of date in modern science. People are now talking about multiple perspectives.

DEFAULT: What kind of adjective should actually be used instead of "Macedonian" when it comes to the ideas of Bulgaria?

Dimitrov: In some Bulgarian documents there are claims which, frankly, are offensive. There is talk of the "so-called Macedonian nation", and there it is said that our language is a western Bulgarian dialect. There should be no place for such a debate in Europe in the 21st century! No other country has a legal basis to open up issues that are at the center of our sovereignty. Our language is our business. And questioning the language and identity of the neighbor is not good neighborly and, frankly, not decent in 2020 either.

DEFAULT: Do you have support from other EU countries?

Dimitrov: There is overwhelming support that the accession talks can begin. The German Council Presidency will continue to work to ensure that a first Intergovernmental Conference between the EU and North Macedonia can take place in December. We will continue to make sure that we don't give anyone a reason to block us. But that does not mean that something will be negotiated that is not negotiable. We will make North Macedonia European one way or another. If there is a dignified solution to this challenge then we will take full advantage of the accession process; if that is not possible then we will use our friends' networks and work to keep the country in good shape when the situation changes then changed.

DEFAULT: On a completely different question: the terrorist in Vienna also had a Macedonian citizenship. How do you assess the cooperation between the Austrian and Macedonian authorities in the case?

Dimitrov: Regardless of whether we are part of the EU or not, we European states should expand the cooperation of secret services, security forces and law enforcement agencies as much as possible in order to fight terrorism. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my deeply felt condolences for Austria and for your readers in Austria. We fully support Austria in this matter and for the fight against terrorism. When I heard about the attack, I immediately called the head of our security authorities and he told me that they were already in contact with the Austrian authorities. I was also in contact with Austrian ministers on this matter. All channels are open, and there is complete cooperation also at the expert level. But overall, Europe should focus more on this issue, such as certain people crossing borders and sharing information about them. Because that is a threat that no country can face alone. (Adelheid Wölfl, November 20, 2020)

Nikola Dimitrov (48) was one of the architects of the Prespa Agreement, which ended the name dispute with Greece in 2018. The non-party lawyer, who also studied in Cambridge, was Foreign Minister from 2017 to 2020. He has been Deputy Prime Minister of North Macedonia since 2020.


The Bulgarian government's veto against the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia can be traced back to Bulgaria's nationalist history policy, which is hardly reflected on. The current issue is, for example, that Bulgaria is claiming the national hero in both states, Goze Deltschev, who fought against the Ottomans.

"The Bulgarian historical policy in the so-called Macedonian question goes far back in history, more precisely to the peace treaty of San Stefano of 1878, when the borders of the newly founded Bulgarian principality were determined after the Russo-Ottoman war - including the Macedonian territories", explains the art historian Martina Baleva from the University of Innsbruck. "The Berlin Congress of the same year, however, revised the boundaries of Greater Bulgaria and restricted its territories to what is now northern Bulgaria. For nationalist circles this is still something of a trauma, combined with simulated phantom pain," said Baleva to the STANDARD.

It is no coincidence that this "trauma" is now being awakened again, because the Bulgarian Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov is the chairman of the right-wing party IMRO (Central Macedonian Revolutionary Organization), which sees itself as the successor to the historic IMRO. The latter was an irredentist and terrorist organization for the "liberation" of Macedonia and its incorporation into Bulgarian territory.

The instrumentalization of history was also a big topic under the previous nationalist government in North Macedonia until 2017. So there was a kind of monument race between Sofia and Skopje. When numerous historical figures were erected in the Macedonian capital a few years ago, a statue of Tsar Samuil was also erected in Sofia. "The Bulgarians consider Samuil to be a Bulgarian who had his capital in Ohrid, and so they also consider the areas he ruled to be Bulgarian," explains Baleva. However, Ohrid is in North Macedonia. But there are also non-nationalist Bulgarians who make fun of this politics of history. For example, the eyes of the statue of Tsar Samuil should light up at night - but due to a technical defect, they have now gone out. "But the monument shows how important it is for the current government in Bulgaria to formulate a claim to a historical figure from the Middle Ages," said Baleva. (awö)

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