Bulgaria-FYROM: The difficult love affair continues

Bulgaria has acted cautiously through the crisis that has rocked the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) since the spring, with its Parliament adopting a national declaration setting out the country’s policy regarding its western neighbor’s crisis. This is based on the respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the former Yugoslav republic, the inviolability of borders in the Balkans and support for the Skopje government in the fight against ethnic Albanian rebels as long as this is within the framework of action by the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. The new Bulgarian prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, declared his commitment to continuing the policy on which these principles are based and he made this clear with statements during a two-day visit to Sofia by FYROM Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski. Relations between the two neighbors, however, still need a lot of smoothing out and recent decades have illustrated that, too often, the worst fights are between relatives. Former Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov, to Moscow’s great consternation, often rocked the foundations of the so-called communist internationalism with public accusations against the comrades in Skopje to the effect that they had plundered Bulgaria’s historical and cultural heritage. What was not so strange was Sofia’s disobedience to Moscow’s official line (rare for those years) in the light of astounding revelations that Skopje historians tried to fabricate history in their attempt to consolidate the national consciousness of the new-born Macedonian nation. Only one of the many strange historical inventions, as concocted on the shores of the Upper Vardar, is that the 11th-century Byzantine Emperor Basil II should not be known as the Bulgar-Slayer but the Macedonian-Slayer. According to Skopje’s historians, King Sammouil, who was once defeated by the Byzantine emperor, was not a Bulgarian but one of the first Macedonian kings. Bulgarian observers believe that these idiosyncratic interpretations perhaps favored the dynamic development of relations between Bulgaria and Greece during the 1980s. What’s past is past, however, and hopes of a new beginning in bilateral relations came with the democratic reforms in both countries. Bulgaria was first to recognize the new independent state on its southwestern border, in the hope of developing a completely new relationship with its neighboring blood brothers. As the initial euphoria evaporated, the rulers in both capitals discovered to their amazement that they were not even capable of signing a single bilateral accord. One of the innumerable Balkan paradoxes was the language difference based on Skopje’s understandable insistence that bilateral agreements be written in Macedonian as well as Bulgarian. Sofia was not at all prepared to agree to this since for Bulgarians, the Macedonian language is a Bulgarian dialect. Therefore there are no Bulgarian interpreters at any of the official meetings between officials from the two states. The other side, however, always has its interpreters on hand. And so it continued until February 1998 when prime ministers Ivan Kostov and Ljubco Georgievski signed a declaration of friendship in the official languages of both countries as set out in their respective constitutions, according to the official document. Only a few years earlier, Kostov had said that asking him to recognize the existence of the Macedonian language was like asking the German chancellor to recognize the existence of the Austrian language. Along with this symbolic gesture, the new beginning in bilateral relations was marked by something more substantial – the 100 tanks and 150 units of heavy artillery which Bulgaria gave to FYROM, following a request by Georgievski. Apart from rare exceptions, such as a statement by Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov in Strasbourg that Macedonia is just a romantic period in Bulgarian history, leading the Skopje press to rehash the accusations of Great Ideas and Greater Bulgaria that had characterized their reports for decades, relations had definitely improved. That is, until the dramatic events of this last spring, when Stojanov once again opened Pandora’s box, offering his counterpart Boris Trajkovski the services of Bulgarian troops if the FYROM leadership needed their help in fighting ethnic Albanian rebels. Nevertheless the immediate strong reaction by the main political forces, including the Union of Democratic Forces that had supported the election of Stojanov, showed how much water had run under the Vardar’s bridges since the romantic years of the Macedonian warriors at the beginning of the 20th century. The anything but romantic results were characterized by Bulgarian historians as national disasters. Consequently, in March 2001 the Bulgarian Parliament unanimously passed a national declaration setting out the country’s basic policy regarding the crisis – respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of FYROM and the inviolability of the borders in the Balkans, support for the legitimate government in Skopje in its fight against terrorists but only in close alignment with the actions of Bulgaria with the UN, the European Union and NATO. The first official visit by a FYROM prime minister after the changing of the guard in Sofia in June 2001 led to some misunderstandings, since Georgievski’s talks with Bulgaria’s political leadership indicated several differences of opinion on major regional political issues, above all on the situation in FYROM today and in the near future. Georgievski was particularly harsh on NATO and the West which, as he said after a meeting with Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in many cases cooperated more with the Albanian terrorists than with the legal government of Macedonia. To a point, this stance is understandable, particularly in light of the results of a poll that did not augur well for the political future of Georgievski’s VMRO-DPMNE party just a few months before FYROM’s premature elections. Nevertheless, apart from the usual exhortations for stronger efforts by the international community to achieve peace and stability in FYROM, the host country kept away from polemical rhetoric. Sofia’s official position on Georgievski’s idea for a Balkan Counterterrorism Pact, following the terrorist strikes against the USA, has ranged from the extremely reserved to very cool. The most typical example was Stojanov’s balanced statement admitting the need for Balkan nations to participate more strongly in the international campaign against terrorism, yet stressing that the Balkans should avoid any initiative that involved the risk of isolating them from the European Union and NATO. They really had no choice, since Georgievski arrived in Bulgaria with the sudden idea just a few days after the Bulgarian Parliament’s decision to cooperate in every way with the USA and NATO. The activation of Article 5 of NATO would also commit Bulgaria, even though it is not yet a member of the North Atlantic alliance, as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha assured US President George Bush in a letter. Therefore, probably the only real result of Georgievski’s visit was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s confirmation of Sofia’s policy of support and close cooperation with Skopje, although there was no discussion of new military aid from Bulgaria, as both prime ministers hastened to emphasize. The new Bulgarian prime minister probably does not have very pleasant memories of his first contact with his FYROM counterpart. Having been caught unawares by a journalist’s question, he made a public commitment that his government was ready to contribute to resolving the language difference between the two countries. Despite Georgievski’s admirable effort to cover up his counterpart’s confusion in the joint press conference after their talks, there was nothing for him to do but to remind his counterpart that their differences had been resolved three years previously. Naturally the opposition press did not miss the opportunity to blast the major gaffe across their front pages. Opposition party leader Ekaterini Mihailova said the slip showed a scandalous lack of preparation on the part of the prime minister. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians have obviously abandoned what Saxe-Coburg-Gotha called their paternalistic behavior toward FYROM. But Georgievski had to listen to his hosts’ complaints about his country’s delay in restoring the property of Bulgarian citizens and to promise that the FYROM Parliament would soon ratify 11 intergovernmental agreements that have been pending for some years. At the same time, we will make every effort to rehabilitate the chronically ill, transferring them gradually to smaller units within the community. A basic prerequisite is the development of primary mental healthcare units so that cases can be diagnosed and dealt with early on. Each psychiatric unit should have responsibility for a specific geographical area, she said.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.