Bulgarian-North Macedonia’s history-dispute: Whose “shared history” in the name of which “European values”?

Much has been said and written on the vociferous Bulgarian-North Macedonia’s historical dispute in the last months. This bulk of opinions is, undoubtedly, just a tiny portion of what is to be expected in the upcoming period.

Before the highly anticipated opening of North Macedonia's EU accession negotiations, Bujar Osmani, North Macedonia's Foreign Affairs Minister, paid an official visit to Sofia on 9 October, as a first foreign visit in his new governmental capacity, while joint Bulgarian-North Macedonia's commission on historical and educational issues (Joint Commission) held a two-day meeting in Skopje on 15-16 October, after an almost one-year halt caused by the summer electoral cycle (and its protraction) in North Macedonia and the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The two events were just a portion of triggers for heated public debates in the neighbouring states. In reverse chronological order: on 6 November, the Bulgarian MFA informed the EU that “Sofia will block the so-called negotiating framework for North Macedonia, which is due to be the basis for the formal launch of EU accession talks” – even so a Bulgarian greenlight was expected after the Berlin meeting of the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, and her North Macedonia’s and German counterparts, among others.

Prior to that, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, initially hinted at 10 November 2020 – the date of the Berlin Process’s Summit which was co-chaired by Bulgaria and North Macedonia – as a deadline for settling the quarrel over Gotse Delchev/Goce Delčev – “whose memory is revered in both countries” and the most recent bone of contention within the Joint Commission – thus imposing an almost untenable pace in the work of the Commission.

On 11 October, North Macedonia celebrated its annual “Day of the People’s Uprising in Macedonia in 1941” – commemorating the Partisan insurgence against fascism and serving as one of the most pertinent post-WWII national holidays – which was interpreted as an “anti-Bulgarian provocation” by Andrey Kovatchev, a Bulgarian MEP from the ruling party GERB. On 1 October 2020, the Bulgarian parliament voted on changing the official name of the national holiday of 24 May to “Day of Bulgarian Letters, Education and Culture” instead of “Day of Bulgarian Education and Culture and the Slavic Letters” which, in turn, provoked a reaction in the Macedonian public discourse.

However, it would be the so-called “Explanatory Memorandum on the Relationship of the Republic of Bulgaria with the Republic of North Macedonia in the Context of the EU Enlargement and Association and Stabilization Process” (Memorandum) from mid-September 2020 which shook the most the recent bilateral relations. The six-page position paper, supported by all the political parties represented in the Bulgarian National Assembly, was circulated at the Council of the European Union and caused a divergent set of reactions which, I would argue, even so diachronically repetitive, neatly illustrate the major trajectories, mobilizations and (re)positionings over history- and memory-related issues in both countries.

Wider context

The aforementioned neighbourly developments should be read in the key of the recent (regional) Euro-Atlantic integrations.

After the call for a “new narrative for Europe” and the emergence of the so-called “EU memory framework” in the mid-2010s – as a set of soft law and decisions produced by the European Parliament – Western Balkans’ EU integrations are widely understood as a mean for settling not only territorial, human- and minority rights issues between the nation-states, but also as a platform for accommodating the historical inter-state disputes – even if formally not articulated as such.

This framework dwells, among other things, upon EU’s redefinition of the memory of the Holocaust as a “soft EU-membership criterion” – urged upon the aspiring EU member-states in the 2000s – and the recent EU-backed strategies of promoting “Europe as a cultural identity”. All these initiatives help us understand the rationale of the recent EU memory politics – rejection of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism, respect for human rights, freedoms, and minority protection – as they “convey broadly defined European values and undergird the idea of a common future through the fostering of a European identity”.

This set of values translates into a different set of memory politics, however. Valérie Rosoux, a senior research fellow at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research, identifies two prevailing, ideal-type approaches to EU’s “historical reconciliatory project”: a “minimalist” one, which refers to the mutually conciliatory accommodation of historical narratives, and a “maximalist” vision which “highlights the transcendent nature of a far more demanding process requiring truth, justice and forgiveness”.

Where does Bulgarian-North Macedonia's case stand in this coordinate system? Without a single doubt, the key reference here is the “Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness, and Cooperation between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Bulgaria” (Friendship Treaty), signed on 2 August 2017 and ratified in January 2018 by both the Bulgarian and North Macedonia’s parliaments. The Friendship Treaty came after the 2012 Bulgarian veto to North Macedonia’s start of the EU accession talks, despite the fourth consecutive recommendation by the European Commission, and after the governmental change in North Macedonia from 2016 and 2017.

In brief, North Macedonia's parliamentary elections from December 2016 and the post-electoral negotiation, as well as the landslide victory on the 2017 local elections, established the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia as the main political factor in the Macedonian political camp. The party set the Euro-Atlantic integration high on its political agenda and, arguably enough, employed a perspectivist strategy during the long episodes of campaigning in 2016 and 2017 – with the finalization of North Macedonia's NATO and EU integrations as a guiding principle for settling the state's long-lasting bilateral disputes.

These politics were widely recognized as contrapuntal to the last phase of the second VMRO-DPMNU’s rule in North Macedonia (2006-2016) – declaratively pro-European, while de facto amplifying North Macedonia’s bilateral disputes. The “Skopje 2014 project” – an umbrella term depicting more than 130 monuments and memorials erected in North Macedonia’s capital city over the last decade – was vastly discussed as the epitome of this memory politics.   

The Friendship Treaty was also followed by the so-called Prespa Agreement from June 2018 (ratified in January 2019; in force as of February 2019), which settled the two-decades-long name-dispute between Greece and North Macedonia, facilitated North Macedonia's full-NATO-membership and revived the state’s EU integrations.  

Between the “minimalist” and “maximalist” approaches

Both the accords, amidst their focus on the economic partnership between the signing parties, aim at enhancing good-neighbourly relations by introducing new paradigms in history education (both the Friendship Treaty and the Prespa Agreement), public memorialization (both the accords), and joint state-commemorations of shared historical figures and events (the Friendship Treaty).   

Back to Rosoux – one can argue that the two accords are authentic in their hybridity: with the latter one, or the Prespa Agreement, targeting “Skopje 2014” from a rather “maximalist” perspective (by introducing conventional descriptive plaques to the monuments depicting historical figures and events from the Hellenistic period), and delineating, in a “minimalist” key, the symbolic domain of the signifier “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” within both the Greek and North Macedonia’s “realms”.

Heretofore, it took a year to change the descriptive plaques in North Macedonia – a process met with resentment and counter-mobilization across the statewhile the Greco-North Macedonia’s “Joint Interdisciplinary Committee of Experts on Historical, Archaeological and Educational Issues” – envisioned with the Prespa Agreement – announced a tentative agreement over the Ancient history representations in the history textbooks before the 2019 Greek legislative elections.

The Bulgarian-North Macedonia’s Treaty, on a different note, had the “maximalist” approach towards the public state-commemorations (see, for instance, the first-ever, and up until nowadays, the only official visit of a high-ranking Bulgarian politician to a state-commemoration of the deportation and the mass murder of the 7,144 Macedonian Jews in 1943, which took place in Skopje in March 2018, even though without delivering “a hoped-for apology for the role of the then Kingdom of Bulgaria in the tragedy”), which was followed by the Joint commission’s breakthrough in the work on the history textbooks’ depictions of shared historical figures in both the states (concerning, predominantly, Medieval history).

The initially agreed “minimalist” asset, in these regards, was the Treaty’s very treatment of self-determination, nation- and state-building processes, with the ethnic-Macedonian identity and the Macedonian language at a high-stake: contested by the Bulgarian side as of 1948, or the year of the Tito-Stalin split and the consequent political realignment, but, arguably enough, recognized with the accord. Herein, Zoran Zaev, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, claimed that the Treaty would “not harm or undermine Macedonia in any way”, but make Bulgaria “more dedicated to friendship”.

The Bulgarian Memorandum…

What unfolded in the meantime is critical for understanding the most recent bilateral developments noted in the introductory part.

Namely, one can clearly state that the Bulgarian side is pushing for a conceptual reframing of the very “minimalist” aspects deriving from the Friendship Treaty – seeking to redefine the “Macedonian” standpoint on the Macedonian ethnic identity, language, nation- and state-building; and conditioning this process with North Macedonia’s further EU integrations.

Drawing upon the “European values and principles”, the Memorandum calls North Macedonia’s leadership to “break with the ideological legacy and practices of communist Yugoslavia” and accuses the state of “ethnic and linguistic engineering” after 1944. Besides the language- and history-related issues, the paper also depicts minority-related issues as a non-topic: bashing, again, the Macedonian authorities for their policy towards social agents that urge for recognition of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.  

The Bulgarian Memorandum is, however, one in the series of events reaffirming these positions. In October 2019, the Bulgarian parliament passed a Declaration in regards to the EU’s negotiations with North Macedonia, which held almost all the points stressed with the Memorandum. In May 2020, a consortium consisting of affiliates of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and three Bulgarian universities issued a brochure entitled “On the Official Language of the Republic of North Macedonia”. The text restates the standpoints on the Macedonian language as a “southwestern written-regional norm of the Bulgarian language”. 

The crucial novelty of the Memorandum is its clear distinction of the Joint Commission’s working concepts: it reads that the Macedonian side refuses to accept the concept of "common history" – using "shared history" instead – which in turn undermines the bilateral trust between the two states. This statement can be read as an attempt to reframe the discourse delineating the cross-national and national history-domains, and even push the already settled agenda of the Joint Commission. A recent policy brief by the Skopje-based European Policy Institute is neatly mapping these differences in the newest Bulgarian conditions and the Friendship Treaty.

And its immediate aftermath

One of the loudest reactions to the Memorandum was a letter signed by a group of prominent Bulgarian historians and social scientists – highlighting that the Memorandum “does not reflect the principles and the values” of the European Union, and it does not speak the language of the modern historiography, humanities and social sciences.

Among the initiators, Stefan Dechev, a Bulgarian scholar, was frequently challenging the antagonistic tones by the Bulgarian side and opted for a mutual understanding. Dechev is also one of the founders of a Facebook group, entitled “Historians and experts against the Bulgarian explanatory memorandum for Macedonia”, which already has more than 140 members who timely share the news on the bilateral developments.  

The Memorandum also provoked heated reactions in the Macedonian public. The president of the Macedonian team within the Joint Commission, Dragan Gjorgjiev, hinted at this exclusivist interpretation of the notion of "common history" – an undebatable, nation-centred "historical truth" which is to be accepted in the negotiations (with North Macedonia as the only side required to change its historical paradigm) – as a clear obstacle in the work of the Joint Commission.

This tone was adopted, in general, by high-profiled Macedonian politicians: Nikola Dimitrov, North Macedonia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs – in office when the Friendship Treaty was signed – and nowadays a Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, suggested that the Memorandum (and the framework position it supposedly entails) is undermining not only the good-neighbourly, but also the basic values the EU is built upon, while North Macedonia’s President, Stevo Pendarovski, and PM Zaev restated that the national identity and the Macedonian language are not subjected to negotiations and rejected any possibility of signing an annex to the Friendship Treaty. 

The aftershocks can be felt even further in both the Macedonian and Bulgarian societies. A public survey from October 2020 also showcased the link between the Memorandum and the public perceptions in North Macedonia on the neighbourly relations: only 1 per cent of the respondents saw the Republic of Bulgaria as "friendly” to North Macedonia, while only 23 per cent positively evaluated the Friendship Treaty (and 42 percent held a negative opinion). Another recent survey – conducted by the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation and M-prospect – showcased that the majority of the Macedonian citizens expect that North Macedonia’s government will not comply to the newest Bulgarian demands. The Bulgarian Alpha Research came to a number of 83.8% of the Bulgarian citizens who agree with the government’s decision to halt North Macedonia’s EU accession until reaching a “settlement regarding the historical facts from the Bulgarian past”.

Memory actors and memory agendas

The Bulgarian Memorandum and the debate it provoked over the notions of "common” and “shared” histories, as well as the referent "European values", should also be treated in a historical perspective. The contextual argument, here, reveals that the "memory work" on the ground is closer than commonly perceived. At the same time, the fallacies oftentimes resulted from the inability to define a framework for discussing the history- and memory-related issues, as well as the normative referent of these negotiations. A side note: the state-sponsored stakeholders should not be automatically perceived as the most rational agents in these regards.

Much has been written in both Bulgaria and North Macedonia on the history of failed attempts to settle a “historical reconciliation”: the excellent take on the “Macedonian question” by the Bulgarian historian Tchavdar Marinov is to be re-published in Macedonian this year, while Pendarovski recently touched upon the memories of Krste Crvenkovski, a leader of the Macedonian CP in the 1960s and a direct witness of the erstwhile bilateral negotiations, to point out the repeating tendencies in the neighbouring relations.

It will certainly be an invocation of the much-referenced European values if the negotiating parties build upon this “shared” history as a critical stepping stone for the future. Herein, one can also mention Boris Trajkovski’s attempt to establish Ilinden’s commemorations in Kruševo as a platform for a univocal articulation of the regional EU-aspirations in 2003 – the year when a Bulgarian state delegation attended, for a first time, a celebration of Ilinden, or the Republic Day, in North Macedonia. Moreover, a careful reader would find evidence of a provisionary, short-lived “settlement” among the Bulgarian and Macedonian Wikipedia administrators in the mid-2000s, which resulted in a mutually-agreed-upon depictions of the now-contested historical figures.

The non-governmental sector, as well as certain academic institutions are also contributing to this discourse. A recent project by the Forum Ziviler Friedensdienst – Macedonia Program, the Institute for National History – Skopje, and the Institute for Ethnology and Anthropology – Skopje, entitled “Cultures of remembrance in Southeastern Europe: Nationalism, transnationalism and cooperation”, aims at providing a platform for revisiting the regional history- and memory-related quarrels by bringing eminent scholars to the table. The initial results show that a vast number of experts hold similar opinions on the recent “weaponizations” of national histories and even speak about a “nationalistic turn” in the history-production.  

Yet, it appears that another set of actors is also informing the ongoing bilateral negotiations, as these harsh, identity-related processes are not unfolding in a sociopolitical vacuum. Herein, public commemorations appeared to be a highly valent process – involving not only state-actors but also a divergent set of memory stakeholders across the state-borders. These, in turn, are frequently pushing different agendas in the realm of “shared” and “common” histories.

The brief, two-decades-long history of Mara Buneva's commemorations in Skopje is more than illustrative as it reveals one immensely interesting aspect of the recent bilateral dispute: а good portion of memory agents across the state-borders perceive the historical reconciliation in different keys, tilt historiographic agendas and even load the EU integration discourse with particularistic demands.

As of 2001, almost every year, on 13 January, a commemorative plaque dedicated to Buneva was mounted and, on several occasions, demolished in the very centre of Skopje. Buneva (1902-1928), affiliated with the rightist interwar Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), is famous for her assassination of Velimir Prelić (1883-1928), a high-ranking representative of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on the territory of today's North Macedonia, as well as her immediate suicide at the very crime-scene.

Buneva was initially endorsed by the interwar IMRO, active until the official ban of the Organization following the Bulgarian coup d’état in 1934. The Bulgarian authorities erected a monument of Buneva on the very assassination spot during the WWII, which was demolished in the immediate post-war years, thus sentencing the memory of Buneva “to oblivion”. Likewise, socialist Macedonian historiography entirely ignored the 1928 Skopje assassination and treated Buneva as – what Brown defines as – a "symbolic pollution” in the national-historical canon.

It would be a Bulgarian political party claiming legacy over the interwar IMRO which reenacted Buneva’s memory in the 1990s – naming its women’s association “Mara Buneva” and advocating a commemorative service in Skopje (correlating with Ivan Vančo Mihajlov’s – on of the IMRO’s interwar leaders and a dramatis persona in the assassination – a plea from his post-war memoirs: Buneva should be annually commemorated in Skopje by the Bulgarian patriotic youth). 

Even so, the annual commemorations, organized by both Bulgarian and North Macedonia’s actors, were met with resentment during the early 2000s, an interesting twist occurred in the late 2000s and the early 2010s: Buneva got recognized within the Macedonian national canon, as a wax figure depicting her was mounted in the newly formed Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in 2010, and a set of “Macedonian patriotic organization” started celebrating her revolutionary deed – parallelly to the “former” group of admirers. Only recently, after the Friendship Treaty, the Bulgarian Cultural Club in Skopje called the locals for a massive attendance of Buneva’s commemoration in the name of good-neighbourly relations and Euro-Atlantic integrations.

Buneva’s case is the most telling for the multidirectionality of public discourses over mnemonic and historical issues: not always are state-sponsored initiatives successful, rather, it is the bottom-up memory work (and its persistence) which determines their relative success. In these regards, Bulgaria and North Macedonia are much closer than depicted in the public discourse: Buneva’s commemorations showcase the way a partisan memory is being integrated into the official one, while it also pinpoints the divergent usages of the EU and the European values in the process of achieving these mnemonic goals. Only a clearer depiction of those values might trace the escape routes out of this bilateral quarrel.