Unlike the influence of Russia and China in North Macedonia that – to a large extent – is disseminated on the basis of positive identification and desired and/or shared values, we might say that the influence realized by Bulgaria is based on narratives overflowing with rejection, denial, and even animosity
Author: Prof. PhD Mirjana Najchevska, legal state and human rights expert
However absurd this might sound (bearing in mind the fact that Bulgaria is a EU member-state and a neighboring country of North Macedonia with which common history is shared, but also common problems and present challenges), rejection is a way of discouraging North Macedonia from its EU path and in the course of adopting European values applied by Bulgaria thereby pushing the country into, seemingly, alternative solutions offered by Russia and China.
What should be expected (which can be seen from a large number of examples of rejected accession processes of latest EU Member-States) is for a neighboring country, that is already a Member-State of the EU, to have a positive influence in North Macedonia, to serve as an example, to support all activities directed towards rapprochement of the country closer to EU standards and values by sharing its accession experience.
Opposed to this actual expectation, with a series of actions Bulgaria became (especially in the last few years) such a negative factor in the accession process of North Macedonia that it has a reverse impact and obscene influence, thereby stimulating and enabling all those who are not inclined towards this development path.
The negative influence of Bulgaria on the EU orientation of North Macedonia and the indirect enhancement of Russian influence is based on elements that can be divided into a number of groups.
Bulgaria’s EU accession mode
Bulgaria is considered a country that did not fulfill the basic conditions for becoming an equal EU member-state and to which the EU turned a blind eye to its accession process.
Bulgaria’s failure to fulfill all EU standards required by the accession documents in its way to join the EU has been stressed on many occasions and by various media.
This is not motivational for the citizens of North Macedonia to embark upon real changes to reach these standards and it creates frustration in relations to the requirements imposed by the accession process that were not demanded from Bulgaria when the country was in a similar position, i.e., when Bulgaria was an EU acceding-country.
For example, the Denar news site published an article titled “Bulgaria and Romania were not ready for EU membership” back in 2016 (much before Bulgaria conditioned the entry of North Macedonia with special requirements within the EU) pointing out the differences in the conditions applied for Bulgaria and those defined for North Macedonia.
Istvan Szabolcs Fazakas, as chairman, consulted the Enlargement Commissioner at the time, Olli Rehn, who responded by saying:
Sorry, too late. My hands are tied. The political decision for Bulgaria and Romania to enter the EU on 1st January 2007 was adopted by the Member-States upon the recommendation of the European Commission.
Justifications for the different approach have been mentioned, but the impressions of double standards, that are are being increasingly mentioned, still lingers.
Similar is the article in the newspaper Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia) under the headline “How did Bulgaria enter the EU by denying minorities?“, questioning Bulgaria’s EU membership with a Constitution and laws not adjusted to EU standards (especially regarding the protection of national minority rights):
When Bulgaria enteried the EU, the Venice Commission had reservations about the Bulgarian Constitution, in terms of absence of the term “minorities”. The explanation at the time was that the minority rights (ethnic) were regulated on the basis of the political concept of individual rights for the unity of the nation in a political sense, and with the argument of comparison with the French Constitution.
The portal “Republika” (Republic) promotes explicitly the idea that “Bulgaria demands from Macedonia to respect the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, although the country does not comply with it“, while the party Levica, through its official newsletter is directly accusing the EU for the existence of double standards in the treatment of North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
The response to the differences pointed out in regards to the requirements imposed on Bulgaria in the accession talks and those imposed on North Macedonia are summarized in an article published by “Expres.mk” under the title “If EU does not want us – we will survive without it“.
We are not worse than Bulgaria and Romania at the time when they became EU Member-States. For a very long time they were convincing us that we should resolve the name issue with Greece, above all, states the portal.
(All additional conditions for accession talks, according to me, does not depend any longer on what we will do, nor much on what Bulgaria wants to do”, said Spasov and adds:
“The question is whether EU Member-States are honestly willing to enlarge further or they have some other ideas in their heads regarding the rest of the Western Balkan countries. Hence, one should have the courage to say that EU is the best option for us, but also that if they do not want us for some egotistical reason, then we shall survive without them, and without blackmail.)
The comparison between the requirements demanded from North Macedonia with those required from Bulgaria as part of the EU accession process serves – to a large extent – as a disincentive for the population in the efforts to proceed with the necessary changes.
State of affairs in Bulgaria
The second element of the reverse impact on EU aspirations of North Macedonia is the current economic, but especially the political and legal state of affairs in Bulgaria.
Stories and analyses related to the current political/economic/societal state of affairs in Bulgaria as a EU Member-State are published in a significant number of media. Many of these stories/ analyses are intentionally or unintentionally directed towards discouraging EU integration of North Macedonia.
For example, the story titled “A few sad lessons that can be learned from the Bulgarian experience in the EU” in the MKD.mk media outlet is directly promoting an idea that the EU was, and still is, the downfall of Bulgaria and a big fat lie:
Towards the end of the 90s and the beginning of the first decade of this century, the Bulgarians were seduced by the dream that is currently seductive for the Western Balkans – the “European perspective”. In the generally accepted mythology of EU institutions and global leaders, this European dream stands for democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, economic prosperity, bright future for young people and generally speaking – happiness.
The message about “bad Europe” can hardly be balanced with the last sentence of this article:
Nevertheless, regardless of how many problems prevail, there is no better option than the EU. The good news is that many people already want to make it a better place because they too believe in the “European idea”.
Many articles are also claiming that the insufficient and inappropriate development of Bulgaria results with its postponed integration within the Schengen Zone:
Bulgaria received a veto for entering EU Schengen Zone (Deutsche Welle)
Bulgaria will have to sweat to introduce the Euro in 2024 (Bloomberg Adria)
Should Bulgaria be allowed to join the Euro? (off.net.mk)
High corruption rates and the weaknesses of the judiciary (two areas where Bulgaria has better assessments than us) are always taken into consideration due to the fact that they “could be a liability for the rest of the bloc”.
The “Bankarstvo” (Banking) online media outlet published an article titled “Bulgaria has been a EU Member-State for several years, but is it ready to introduce the Euro currency!? taking over parts from the German newspaper “Der Spiegel” and stating:
The German newspaper is posing the question: ”Does it make sense to accept in the Eurozone a country that constantly has problems with corruption, money-laundering and financial supervision?”
Additional problem: Borisov was linked to stories about his contacts with the Bulgarian, Russian and Albanian mafia; his Cabinet was involved in several serious corruption scandals, while his State governance model is becoming similar to Orban’s model more and more.
The negative trends in Bulgaria are not only connected with the entry into the Eurozone, corruption and the judicial system. Quite frequently, articles are published about the fact that life, in general, in Bulgaria is not in compliance with EU standards.
For example, the article with the headline “Bulgaria still with the biggest mortality rate in the EU” on the “Spektra” online media outlet has published data taken over from Eurostat, pointing out a very low level of healthcare in Bulgaria.
This kind of analyses are offered by some former politicians, presenting publicly a negative outlook of the state of affairs in Bulgaria.
For example, the article titled “Bulgaria still not ready for the European Union” in Deutsche Welle, expresses the opinion of the former minister, Nikola Todorov, that, in fact, North Macedonia, and not Bulgaria has been ready for EU membership for quite some time.
Inevitably, the negative trends in Bulgaria and the comparisons made with what was – and still is – the situation in North Macedonia cause a wave of dissatisfaction among the citizens of North Macedonia regarding the relations with the Union and consequently opening room for positions such as those presented in the online media outlet “Faktor” under the headline: “Is it becoming transparent that the EU does not want us in its embrace”?
At least one thing is quite clear. The USA continues to be our key strategic partner. With their engagement and fully managed Prespa process we became a NATO-member. That story is over – maybe not that fortunate for our domestic dignity – read: Constitutional amendments and the internal use of the name Macedonia – but clearly, we are part of the bigger picture.
For the time being, the European “partners” do not have such determination – if they can be called “partners” at all. Once Germany was the our biggest ally, but in the last years of its EU term Germany did not put its neck on the guilotine for the sake of “Balkan mercy”. Merkel’s legacy – small as it is – is Unified Europe with key agreements in the field of Energy, Environment, Climate change, Financial stability, Common market, Agricultural policy and the latest contingency fond worth 750 billion EUR to be spent on the recovery of EU Member-States from the COVID-19 pandemic consequences.
Unlike the large number of negative articles and the negative influence coming from Bulgaria, the number of positive articles regarding the development of Bulgaria and its achievements that could serve as an incentive for North Macedonia’s EU aspiration are rare or not at all. One can hardly find information on the Bulgarian progress made as an EU Member-State in the media, unlike the period when the country was part of the Eastern bloc under the direct leadership of the Soviet Union at the time.
One of the rare positive articles is that on the portal Makfax sharing an information from a joint meeting:
The Director of the Agency for Financial Support of Agriculture and Rural Development, Nikolche Babovski, met his Bulgarian counterpart in Sofia, Vasil Grudev.
For us it is extremely important to further the cooperation with the paying agencies of other EU Member-States. This is an extension of the already established cooperation with the paying agencies of Croatia and Slovenia. This way we are doing our best to acquire the best practices of all paying agencies that are already part of the EU, stressed the Director of the Macedonian paying agency.
Much more frequent is the information on accomplished cooperation and shared positive experience of individual ministries. When such positions are published, however, they are often provisional and insufficiently elaborated.
For example, the statement of the Deputy Prime-minister in charge of European Issues, Bojan Marichikj, given to the portal A1on.mk claims:
The Chief Negotiator with the EU claims that North Macedonia does not have another real option than the EU and compared the country with Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and other EU Member-States, their state of affairs before and after EU membership.
None of them lagged behind in any area. All of them have accomplished significant economic development, and all have their own problems. Indeed, our problems will not disappear overnight when we become EU-members. However, they all have a development framework that takes them forward and enables progress, both institutional and economic, stressed Marichikj.
Frequently, such statements are related to the aid that Bulgaria is receiving from the EU (on AA portal):
The European Commission gave a green light for the Sustainable Development Plan of Bulgaria, submitted for receiving financial aid from the European Union (EU), reported the Anadolu Agency.
Our main priorities will be the “Green Deal”, Digitalization and Investments in the area of Clean Energy. The Sustainable Development Plan drafted and presented by Bulgaria is very successful, said von der Leyen.
Much more articles are available about the exchange of experience with Bulgaria, mainly before placing the veto (Kanal 5 TV):
Today a Delegation of the Employment Agency of the Republic of Macedonia led by the Director Biljana Jovanovska had a meeting with a delegation of the Employment Agency of the Republic of Bulgaria.
New information on such kind of communication are presented, above all, by government officials ( Lokalno.mk).
According to Marichikj, the exchange of experience and good practice in these three key areas by means of discussion is a step closer to new projects and specific initiatives for cooperation and further rapprochement of both countries and societies.
We are sharing positive experience in the fight against corruption with our counterparts from Bulgaria (Nova Makedonija newspaper):
Minister Yordanova stressed that the Bulgarian government is currently developing a new legal regulation to strengthen the fight against corruption, because the institutional setup at the moment does not produce concrete results.
The announcement points out that within the framework of the discussions, the teams from both countries exchanged opinions about the property origin and confiscation regulation, integrity checking i.e., vetting, property control as well as other issues strengthening anti-corruption policies and practices.
The fact is that ever since Bulgaria became a EU member-state, the citizens of North Macedonia have been applying for Bulgarian citizenship. According to Deutsche Welle (December 2020)
This massive occurrence is still ongoing, according to the data published recently by Bulgaria. Up to 22nd October, almost 78 thousand Macedonian citizens applied for a Bulgaria passport on the basis of their Bulgarian origin, as can be seen from official data presented in the Bulgarian Parliament.
It is not a secret that the citizens from North Macedonia who apply for Bulgarian passports very rarely do so to live and work in Bulgaria (BGNES: Tens of thousands of Macedonians with Bulgarian passports have the same “residence” address in Sofia, Nova TV).
Usually the citizens of North Macedonia acquire a Bulgarian passport to facilitate their access to other EU member-states (work, education…) or easier cooperation with the Bulgarian underground. As an example, the artice in “360” states:
I acquired a Bulgarian passport and managed to go to Italy in 2015. Today, in Switzerland, Italy and other destinations where our population immigrates is possible only with a Bulgarian passport. I acquired a Bulgarian passport thanks to Delcho Goshev, Vancho said.
The medium “Faktor” has published even a message/call:
From today, the citizens of Romania and Bulgaria can freely enter, work and open a business in Switzerland.‘
This will apply to Macedonians with Bulgarian passports as well.
In a situation when a large number of citizens from North Macedonia are applying and receiving Bulgarian citizenship (by claiming that some of their predecessors had a link with Bulgaria and have an appropriate ethnic background), one would expect the creation of new bridges with Bulgaria, bringing the people of both countries closer and increasing the affinity towards Bulgaria. However, completely the opposite is happening! According to the story published in “Faktor”, the livelihood is the main reason behind such an action:
We are forced to acquire Bulgarian passports because there are not enough jobs here and party-affilation is important. If you are not a member of a given party, you will not be able to find a job – even if you are a member, you cannot be sure that the party will employ you, state citizens from Delcevo area who did not want to identify themselves.
First of all, people hide and are ashamed of their Bulgarian passports. Nobody announces proudly that they are Bulgarian subjects, like they would if they had, for example, American, or Swedish or British citizenship…
The portal “Lider” republished an article taken over from the Bulgarian magazine “Trud”:
On the official mail of the Bulgarian “Trud”, a copy of a document arrived according to which Elena Kovachevska, the spouse of the current Macedonian Prime-minister, Dimitar Kovachevski, is Bulgarian.
And if Elena Kovachevska herself stated that she identifies herself as a Bulgarian – but this fact is kept a secret from the public – then what can be expected from the ordinary citizens of Macedonia!
This information was not well received by the citizens of North Macedonia and mainly covered up.
Or even the case with the Mayor of Skopje (Lider online media outlet):
Arsovska about the alleged Bulgarian citizenship: Shameful falsehoods
The frustration from the unpleasant situation of owning Bulgarian citizenship and the wish to protect one’s own Macedonian identity is growing.
That is how the statement of the Bulgarian historian, Svetlozar Elderov for Deutsche Welle can be understood.
She is not the only one. All Macedonian leaders, politicians, journalists who are active in the public sphere in North Macedonia who have a Bulgarian Identity Card should declare that personally, or the Bulgarian MFA should do that for them, so that the Bulgarian citizenship will not be used in the political struggle in North Macedonia as something illegal, something despicable, something terrible, something similar to national treason. That is my proposal, Elderov says.
Maybe the most explicit statement is available in the FB post of Tribuna:
It is not good if you own or have applied for Bulgarian citizenship to be public knowledge in the Republic of North Macedonia. Such an act is seen as treason, something that could discredit you and destroy your reputation and career. Exactly because of that my peer Mihajloski explained that when he was young and hardly surviving he applied for a Bulgarian passport in order to leave the RN Macedonia. However, when the miserable Bulgarians demanded documents proving his Bulgarian origin, he did not manage to find such documents because for the last 300 years his family was nothing but Macedonian.
EU does not want us
Closely related to the indirect influence of Bulgaria on the EU-integration process of North Macedonia is the conclusion that EU does not want North Macedonia as a member and that Bulgaria’s veto is just a tool for EU to put into action the blockade.
Most vocal in this direction is the political party Levica:
The double standards of the EU can be seen from the fact that last year’s report was adopted without the amendments condemning the provocative rhetoric of official Sofia towards the Republic of Macedonia.
Like never before, the behaviour of the European Union is reprehensible – as a federal entity, including the political structures within the European Parliament that allow and encourage schovinist rhetoric, diplomacy and blocking policy aimed at oppressing the Macedonian state constitutent elements.
Similar are dozens of articles published by the media. For example in Faktor:
Is it becoming transparent that EU does not want us in its embrace?
Indeed, the low support for EU enlargement by the Member-States creates fertile soil for planting obstacles in the process such as Belgaria’s veto. Obviously, the overall enlargement policy is in crisis and that will, undoubtedly, reduce the confidence in the region that the Union is a true and sincere partner, stresses Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute.
More explicitly, the article titled “EU neither wants us, nor does it allow others to get us!” published in the medium “Vecher” (Evening) states:
Brussels is skeptical about the Open Balkan initiative, but also closed for the Western Balkan countries. The European Parliament recommended to higher European Union bodies to be reserved towards the initiative Open Balkan, commenced by the political leaders of Serbia, Albania and Macedonia.
A direct accusation for the EU’s stance towards the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria is expressed in an article published in the portal Lider under the headline “Hypocrisy: EU apparently does not deal with history and will not comment the establishment of Bulgarian clubs” stating:
We know that when the first club was opened it stirred up reactions in the country. We know that Bulgaria and Macedonia are discussing history with each other. EU does not deal with history. We put history behind us and move forward. In the EU, we want to look ahead, not stare at the past”, said Vasalo briefing the press on the issue of how the EU sees the establishment of the Bulgarian cultural centres and their names.
Direct indicators of Russian infuence in Bulgaria
According to numerous articles published by the media, Bulgaria can hardly be accepted as a model EU member-state. On the other hand, Bulgaria can easily be recognised as a country that does not suffer any consequences despite the open support extended to Russia.
Macedonian media have published numerous articles about Bulgaria’s readiness to oppose the EU when Russia is concerned.
For example, the portal “Nova”, under the headline “Radev: Bulgaria will not support sanctions against Russian nuclear fuel and will offer border security funded by the EU“.
Bulgaria cannot accept sanctions against the Russian nuclear fuel, because that will directly influence the energy supply of our country, stated the President of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, in Brussels where he arrived to take part in the extraordinary meeting of the European Council, reported BTA.
The indirect support of Russia is apparent from the statement reported by MIA:
On the occasion of providing aid for Ukraine, the President of Bulgaria stated that the transitional government fulfilled the obligation imposed by the National Assembly, to secure arms from Bulgarian Army reserves.
Hopefully, the government will be reasonable not to allow that to happen in the future. That is a bloody war – calls for peace are less and less. We are hearing calls for victory without anyone being able to define the meaning of “victory”.
The negative influence that Bulgaria can impose with such positions and statements of its representatives, including the impact on North Macedonia, can be derived from the series of articles of Aleksandar Andreev, Chief Editor of the Bulgarian Language Unit of Deutsche Welle.
Russian influence in the current military and quite dramatic times in Bulgaria cause political, economic and mental dependence. Bulgaria is the EU Member-State that strongly depends on energy supply, not only gas, but also oil and fuel for the nuclear power plant Kozloduy. Another important economic factor is the 500 thousand Russian tourists per year and approximately 50 thousand Russians who have purchased property in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian Army – which is part of NATO – is mostly equipped with arms and equipment from Soviet times, while the Soviet military planes MIG are repaired in Russia. Some of the current highly ranking officials in the Army were trained in the former Soviet Union – and still friendly towards Russia. There are even examples – such as the Association of Reserve Officers – that are aggressively spreading Moscow’s military rhetoric. The old dependencies of the secret services from the times prior to 1989 should not be undermined either. The former collaborators of the Communist Bulgarian State Security are still active in politics and in the economy. Also, the numerous spy scandals – that brought to the surface Russian networks in Bulgaria and caused the banishment of Russian diplomats – speak for themselves.
Some of the media reported on a survey conducted in Bulgaria, according to which the Russian influence in Bulgaria cannot be undermined. The existence of such influence in a EU member-state is greatly shaking the confidence of the citizens of North Macedonia in EU standards, thereby returning on the agenda the issue of whether EU is the right option.
Moreover, some previous and current politicians link the veto placed by Bulgaria for North Macedonia’s EU membership with the Russian influence:
There is a strong Russian influence in Bulgaria; maybe that is the reasons why they are acting in such a manner towards Macedonia, says Todorov (21TV).
On Truthmeter one can read that:
Only in the last few days, several relevant sources from North Macedonia and Bulgaria have given statements with which they, directly or indirectly, claim that behind the last tension of relations between Sofia and Skopje stands a third party or third parties thereby stressing the “Russian Intelligence Service” and the “Russian Federation”, with some nuances of the so-called “Russian grip”. Most of the sources mentioned claim that such a grip works on both sides of the border, while part of the sources agree that activities are undertaken in the political and societal circles in Bulgaria more than in North Macedonia.
According to the article published by Press 24, the former defence minister, Radmila Shekjerinska, is thinking in that direction:
Shekjerinska believes that the Bulgarian veto was encouraged by the strong Russian influence in Bulgaria. According to her, no Bulgarian who regards him/herself as a public figure has ever come out publicly saying that Macedonia should be vetoed.
This is entirely opposed to the position of Macedonian politicians who claim that not accepting the Constitutional amendments that would open the EU-path would be а result of the strengthened Russian influence in North Macedonia.
For example, the statement of the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bujar Osmani, published on the portal MKD.
If the Consitution is not amended, that will be because of the Russian influence, says Osmani.
In any case, the message sent to the citizens is that Russian influence is involved in the relations Bulgaria-North Macedonia and that Bulgaria is perceived as a country with strong Russian influence while the EU is not responding appropriately with any kind of sanctions for Bulgaria.
Possible results of the influence
The ramifications of this and such an influence of Bulgaria in North Macedonia can be identified in the growing Euro-skepticism among the citizens of North Macedonia, hostile relations towards Bulgaria as a neighbouring country, but also as a EU Member-State, retrograde processes related to the fight against corruption and rule of law, and the growing nationalism.
Bulgaria’s influence has the strongest effect on growing nationalism. Namely, every act of denial of Macedonian identity, its history, independent development, its separate culture and tradition spreading on the area of North Macedonia usually results with an increase of nationalistic rhetoric, closing of the community and building walls towards changes that are perceived as a threat to identity-related values.
The second blow goes to the fight against corruption and the rule of law. The negative Bulgarian experience in its development as a EU Member-State, to a large extent, serves as a disincentive. Namely, citizens are losing faith in the EU accession process and that membership itself will guarantee and enable effective fight against corruption (especially in the case of high-level corruption) and rule of law.
The third blow is directed towards the support of the citizens for EU membership. Prolonging the accession process due to the bilateral demands of Bulgaria (often related to history and the past), the openly executed attack on self-determination of the Macedonian people, especially its statehood and independent development, as well as embedding the history component within the EU Negotiations Framework, has direct influence on the growing Euroskepticism and even the pull towards alternative solutions beyond EU-membership.
The pro-Russian orientation of the Bulgarian leadership in recent times is a separate aspect of influence. This aspect is particular, from the viewpoint of the influence that Bulgaria has in North Macedonia. On the one hand, this is distancing North Macedonia from Russia, which in this case is perceived as Bulgaria’s ally and someone pulling the strings. On the other hand, however, it could mean an open door for greater Russian influence (especially through individuals and groups supported by Bulgaria that are, allegedly, fighting for the rights of the Bulgarian ethnic community in North Macedonia).
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