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In January 2018, Bulgaria will assume the EU’s rotating presidency for the first time since it became a member state in 2007. Due to the UK’s vote on Brexit, Bulgaria’s presidency has been brought forward by six months, and the European future of the Western Balkans is set to be one of Sofia’s priorities.
With the signing of the Good Neighbourhood Agreement between Macedonia and Bulgaria on 1 August, it seems that Sofia has already started to put this policy into practice.
The agreement was welcomed in Europe, being described as ‘historic’, ‘forward looking’ and ‘ambitious’. In Skopje, only the biggest opposition party, the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE, which ran Macedonia for more than a decade, said it would reject the deal, because it felt the terms and conditions undermined the country’s identity. So if there were a change of government in Skopje, there would be a risk to the agreement’s implementation.
Macedonia, in 2001, was the first Western Balkan state to sign the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU. However, its pathway to EU and NATO membership has been impeded for years, due mainly to a row with Greece over its official name.
For Bulgaria, the ‘Macedonia question’ is less of a problem, but Sofia has on several occasions exerted its influence in similar fashion to Greece to block Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership.
Macedonia's pathway to EU and NATO membership has been impeded for years due mainly to a row with Greece over its official name
Over the past two decades, there has been a love-hate relationship between Sofia and Skopje. Although Bulgaria was the first country to recognise Macedonia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, it denied the existence of a Macedonian ethnic minority in Bulgaria, and it did not recognise a separate and distinct Macedonian language.
In addition, since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, tens of thousands of Macedonian citizens have applied to be, and then become, Bulgarian citizens, now enjoying the same rights as all other EU citizens.
The agreement suggests that both sides have made considerable compromises. The existence of the Macedonian language is now not seen as a problem for Bulgaria, as it is clearly recognised in Article 14.
Further, the Macedonian authorities have pledged not to interfere with Bulgaria’s internal issues, such as the rights of minority Macedonians across the border (Article 11/5).
While the agreement can be seen as the start of a healing process, it will not be a smooth ride. The envisaged establishment of a ‘Joint Multidisciplinary Commission of Experts on Historical and Educational Issues’ aimed at applying a ‘scientific approach’ to a presentation of contested historical events could be troublesome.
Although the Commission is supposed to submit an annual report of its work to the two governments, this could easily and quickly turn into yet another can of worms. The different reading of historical events, regardless of any ‘scientific approach’, could adversely affect the overall essence of the agreement and much-needed economic and transport projects, such as cross-border train links and highways.
Furthermore, the agreement could, in theory, enable Bulgaria to further delay Macedonia’s NATO and/or EU accession if it deems that some segments of the deal have not been sufficiently addressed.
Taking into account the power dynamics of this relationship – Bulgaria is a member of the clubs Macedonia wants to join – Skopje could be cornered and pressured into making more concessions when implementing parts of the agreement.
If history is anything to go by, it is worth remembering that Greece and Macedonia signed a similar normalisation agreement in 1995, stating that Athens would never block Macedonia’s accession to international organisations of which it is a member, such as the EU and NATO. The actual outcome, however, was different.
The Good Neighbour agreement suggests that both sides have made considerable compromises
Despite these caveats, the optimism the agreement has generated in the often-troubled Balkans should not be underestimated. If all goes to plann, it will be during Bulgaria’s EU presidency that Sofia can distinguish itself by implementing the agreement and by supporting Macedonia’s accession negotiations with the EU.
The European Commission is likely to recommend once again starting accession negotiations with Macedonia, and Bulgaria has both the basis and incentive to lobby the European Council and even pressure Greece to allow this to happen.
In fact, the agreement showed that the new government in Skopje, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, is willing to take tough decisions and make compromises. Allowing Macedonia to make progress on the path to EU accession would dramatically increase the chances of a solution to the long-standing name issue.
In short, not all news from the Balkans is depressing.
Andreja Bogdanovski has for many years worked as a Research Fellow at the Skopje-based think tank Analytica, focusing on security issues. He is currently enrolled in a PhD programme at the University of Buckingham, focusing on secession, sovereignty and de facto states.
Banner image: Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (right) and his Bulgarian counterpart, Boyko Borissov, at the official signing of the Good Neighbourhood Agreement in Skopje. Courtesy of PA Images/Ognen Teofilovski
The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.