All independent nations have their own ethnic origin stories and histories, parts of which they share across borders with neighbouring countries. This is often undeniable, considering that the modern borders and nations are a rather recent human construct, which did not exist before the 18th century.
Nowhere, perhaps, are national borders and origin stories so hotly disputed as along the Balkan Peninsula, an area of South-Eastern Europe approximately the size of France, which is made up of eleven independent nation-states — all with separate origin stories, many of which overlap.
North Macedonia, one of the smallest nations in the Balkan region, which was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire from the late 14th until the early 20th century, has its own origin story. It is marked by the centuries-long struggle of the Macedonian people for their autonomy and freedom, first from Ottoman control, then from the occupation of their territory by their more powerful neighbours.
When the Ottomans eventually withdrew from the Balkans after the first Balkan War, the Treaty of Bucharest (1913) was set up to partition the remaining zones of the liberated Peninsula between delegates of five countries: Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece.
With no Macedonian delegate present at the Treaty negotiations, the Macedonian people were rendered stateless, the Macedonian territory annexed, and their population divided by the land borders of the new nation-states.
As a minority spread across four autonomous countries — none their own — the Macedonian people and their identity continued to be subjugated and repressed through systematic means aimed at assimilating them. This included banning the Macedonian language from being spoken or taught at schools, changing Macedonian last names and banning the formation of Macedonian cultural groups and political organisations.
In the words of the Italian historian and writer Giorgio Nurigiani (1933): “Macedonia is a state without a state, without a government; however, it has its people, its laws, its culture and everything to belong to a true and special nation, but it has no autonomy.”
It wasn't until World War II, during the Partisan revolution against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian occupation of the region, that the then Yugoslav-controlled part of Macedonia was liberated in 1944 — after which it was declared an independent republic within the newly formed Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia.
Macedonians were officially recognised as distinct peoples with unique ethnicity, language, history and customs. Since gaining independence in 1991, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the small Balkan nation has been striving towards European Union (EU) membership.
This condensed account of the Macedonian struggle for nationhood is the history Macedonians understand to be their own. As a sovereign nation with its own constitution, and under international law, North Macedonia has a right to its own history and national identity, which is not to be interfered with by other states.
This, however, has not been the experience of the Balkan nation, which has had its identity continuously negated by its more powerful EU neighbours. They have systematically blocked its path towards EU membership ever since its independence from the Yugoslav Federation.
The first veto blocking Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations was imposed by Greece in 2008. Greece demanded that the country change its constitutional name, which, according to Greece, hid irredentist ambitions over its northern region, also called Macedonia. While many Macedonians considered the name deal with Greece to be a concession of their identity, and voted against it in a referendum, the Macedonian government changed the country’s name to North Macedonia on June 12, 2018, as outlined in the Prespa Agreement.
Just as the EU gave its official approval to begin accession talks with North Macedonia in March, the next round of political demands arrived. This time, they were imposed by Bulgaria, which enacted its own veto against North Macedonia on November 17 — again blocking its path towards EU membership.
In order to join the EU, the Bulgarian veto demands that North Macedonia acknowledge that the Macedonian nation and ethnicity are artificial constructs, that the Macedonian language is a Bulgarian dialect and that no Macedonian minority existed in Bulgaria when the region was partitioned in 1913 (a well-documented fact). Other demands are even more perplexing, for example, the requirement that North Macedonia declares that a number of its historical figures and revolutionaries are actually Bulgarian.
While there are conflicting historical narratives between the two countries, they were supposed to be resolved through a historians' commission set up as part of their 2017 bilateral friendship agreement. However, according to political scientist and historian Florian Bieber, who has written extensively on the Balkans, Bulgaria has shown negligible interest in solving any historical controversies fairly, and is, instead, using its EU veto power over North Macedonia as a way to enforce its own narratives.
As it currently stands, the acceptance of Bulgaria’s demands would require a total rewriting of North Macedonia’s own historical record, which is an unheard of and exorbitant price to pay for EU membership.
The current argument of the Bulgarian government is premised on the notion that the North Macedonian nation was artificially engineered by Josip Bros Tito, the historic leader of the former state of Yugoslavia, and therefore, that Macedonian identity and ethnicity do not exist outside the Yugoslav imagination.
In a letter refuting their own government’s claims as “simplistic” and “out-dated”, a group of thirty Bulgarian historians and social scientists are urging a paradigm shift in Bulgaria’s historical thinking. Another open letter signed by a group of ex-Yugoslav historians is even more condemnatory, accusing the Bulgarian government’s demands of being both revisionist and an abuse of history for political purposes.
Numerous European historians and political commentators have also highlighted the absurdity of Bulgaria’s demands. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, German historian Ulf Brunnbauer argues that Bulgaria’s demands on North Macedonia are unsubstantiated, and just as ridiculous as Germany “demanding” that the Austrians identify as Germans, or Denmark insisting that Norwegians are a Danish anomaly.
However, what has been somewhat overlooked in most commentary is the EU’s own responsibility in resolving the current dispute, which is likely to impact the region more broadly.
There are currently five Balkan nations, including North Macedonia, that aspire to EU membership. All of them share ethnic, historical and/or language commonalities, either with each other, or with EU member states.
As the EU accession process currently works, it requires unanimous approval from all members for accession negotiations to begin. This means that — just like Bulgaria — any EU member holds the power to block an aspiring country’s accession by unfurling a list of political demands, no matter how revisionist or oppressive.
Such vetos may become a recurring phenomenon, fuelling nationalistic sentiment and destabilising the entire region. Unless the EU takes a stand to override the Bulgarian veto, there may be little hope for stability in the Balkans, let alone progress.
For the citizens of all Balkan nations, who are well acquainted with the travesties of untethered rising ethno-nationalism, such tensions must be avoided at all costs and not, instead, inflamed by the EU’s enlargement process.
Ironically, perhaps, the greatest calamity of the Bulgarian veto on North Macedonia might have little to do with identity politics at all. Both Bulgarian and Macedonian citizens are suffering from low wages, high levels of unemployment, poverty, political corruption and lack health and social services, which have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many citizens, disillusioned with their current economic and political systems, cannot understand why their respective governments appear to be more concerned with revising historical origin stories — outdated concepts in the 21st century — than leading them through the worst health and economic crisis of the modern world.
In recent days, protests have erupted across North Macedonia demanding that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resign for making explosive statements on Bulgarian television contending that Macedonia was never occupied by Nazi-allied Bulgarian forces in WWII.
Meanwhile, North Macedonia, which has a population of 2 million people, has been recording more than 1000 COVID-19 cases a day for more than a month, leaving hospitals and citizens overwhelmed.
Bulgarian citizens are also at the end of their tether with their own government. Nightly anti-corruption protests have rocked the country since July, with hundreds of thousands of people also demanding the resignation of their PM, Boyko Borrisov, and his far-right party.
With the Bulgarian elections scheduled for March next year, it appears that Borrisov’s attacks on North Macedonia might be little more than a populist political tactic, aimed at diverting attention and securing votes.
For North Macedonian citizens, however, the Bulgarian veto feels like a dead end, with many believing that no matter how much of their rights and identity they are forced to give up, the EU will always remain out of reach.