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Quick-fixes are not a solution to the century-long Balkan problems

A year ago, Just Access published an analysis1 pointing to the abuse of EU’s accession procedural rules committed by Bulgaria’s blocking of the opening of the negotiations for North Macedonia’s EU membership. It argued that: 1) by de facto and arbitrarily vetoing North Macedonia’s bid to access the EU, Bulgaria violated the bilateral “Treaty of Friendship”2 in force with its neighbor; 2) that Bulgaria’s attitude towards North Macedonia constitutes unreasonable and harmful bad faith violating international law; 3) that Bulgaria’s instrumentalization of EU accession rules for its mere internal political gains is abusive under international law; 4) that the veto constituted an abuse of rights and process in international law as applicable to the EU accession framework in light of the adherence to the Copenhagen criteria; and 5) that Bulgaria’s abusive behavior is also harming the rights of the Macedonian minority living in Bulgaria as well as the authority of the Strasbourg Court. By highlighting that Bulgaria’s blackmailing of North Macedonia is abusive under international law, especially in the wider institutional and legal context which concerns the entire Union and its neighborhood, Just Access recommended that in the negotiations between both countries one should not allow the aggressive and unfair stance of Bulgaria towards its “smaller” neighbor to go unnoticed, as its instrumentalization of EU procedures and cultural-identarian arguments could negatively impact the rule of law in Europe.

In this article Just Access gives a brief consolidated update on the issue and offers additional key recommendations on ways forward, arguing that the guardians of the international system must get involved in negotiating solutions to issues between EU Members States and candidate countries in order to prevent Member States abusing their situational power and membership privileges. Even more importantly, to prevent their attempts to deny neighbors’ identity and language as well as appropriate and revise history, thereby undermining the international principles and standards that have been built by the community of states – a structure which is already under serious threat in light of the recent attack on Ukraine by Russia.3 The proposed recommendations build upon previously published analyses, reports and interviews by Just Access team members, especially our Senior Advisor on Negotiations and Conflict Resolution, Ida Manton4 and in order to further inform various audiences regarding the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia from both legal and international relations angles, we provide an overview of relevant articles the links to which can be found at the bottom of the text.

The Bulgarian veto on North Macedonia’s EU membership negotiations in November 2020 brought to the surface what lies at the core of the dispute between the two countries, and that is Bulgaria’s non-recognition of its neighbor’s separate national identity, i.e., denial of its right to self-identification and self-determination. By extension, the non-recognition of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria has also resurfaced, intertwined with the EU enlargement agenda, following Bulgaria’s request that North Macedonia refrains from any action supporting the claims for its minority protection5, while at the same time requesting constitutional guarantees for the observance of the rights of the Macedonian Bulgarians before the start of negotiations for EU membership.6 Bulgaria maintains a hard-line toward any formal recognition of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, despite the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) to engage in dialogue with persons who identify as Macedonians7 and despite the 14 findings of the European Court of Human Rights that Bulgaria violated the freedom of association of the Bulgarian Macedonians which remain unimplemented8, and insists that there are no objective identity traits that would justify minority protection for Macedonians.9

Just Access concurs with analysts who rightly point out that using the EU accession process and the imbalance of powers stemming from asymmetric relationship is not in line with the European standards of good neighbourliness.10 Just Access also concurs that the EU should offer solutions to the “Macedonian question” and other minority issues that correspond to the 21st century need for more nuanced diversity management, and that by doing so, it will avoid contributing, at least tacitly, to the perpetuation of paradigms from the time of the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century.11

Hence, the problem posed by Bulgaria cannot and should not be resolved through bilateral negotiation because it was already raised as a topic in the EU Council.12 The dispute has not yielded any significant breakthroughs or resolutions using this current negotiating format. The process itself is a hostage to the asymmetric power relationship between the two parties in which the more powerful side, Bulgaria as an EU Member State, is simply blocking the EU accession aspirations of North Macedonia and abusing the unanimous decision-making procedure in spite of the consecutive recommendations by the European Commission13 for starting the accession negotiations as well as the diplomatic efforts of many other Member States to prevent a veto. Instead of using the normative framework of the international (soft as well as legally binding hard) law, the process has so far been handled without genuine international participation and supervision, which leaves Bulgaria with the power to decide what price the candidate country should pay. That much power should be handled with utmost care and responsibility. Hence our key recommendations envisage an increased role for the EU and its multilateral partners who have been creating and are responsible for maintaining the security and cooperation structures that regulate the relations of the European nations.

This situation cannot be properly overcome without a stronger involvement and a more active and meaningful role of the European Union, as this dispute has resurfaced in the context of the EU accession process. The dispute has been warping EU values and has allowed a Member State to question whether the Union itself will stand up to defend its own standards, integrity, and most of all its purpose of being. Instead of encouraging the candidate and the Member State to reach a compromise on their own, unavoidably asymmetrical, it would be much more appropriate and responsible for the EU and its Member States to develop a process and an action plan with concrete measures to resolve this impasse, including others of its type. We therefore suggest the following key recommendations: 1) the two processes (EU accession negotiations and bilateral issues settlement) must be divided; 2) the reconciliation or confidence-building process should take place according to the currently accepted international normative framework; 3) the guardians of the international system must get involved; 4) fundamental long-term grievances should not be resolved by quick-fixes; and 5) the war in Ukraine should stimulate actions based on principles and an agile diplomacy that will reject imperialist claims and revisions of history.

  1. The two processes (EU accession negotiations and bilateral issues settlement) must be divided

If Bulgaria remains firm on its demands for concessions by North Macedonia in order to lift the veto, the EU could offer to separate the negotiations in two parallel and independent processes – one would be the EU negotiation framework and the other an internationally facilitated dialogue to overcome the misunderstandings and disagreements regarding history, language, minorities and identity in both Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The EU accession negotiations assess the harmonization and implementation of the EU acquis and should therefore not be burdened with the interpretation of history and the origins of the Slavic languages. The latter process could be avoided should Bulgaria decide to lift the veto and drop their claims, however that would be a very unlikely turn of events given the internal political dynamics of Bulgaria, as well as the extensive list of demands which were included in the 2019 Parliamentary Declaration (approved by 129 votes in favour, 4 against and 1 abstention), followed by the 2020 Explanatory Memorandum sent to the EU capitals, which are in the way even if the Bulgarian PM Petkov is willing to chart a new direction. This means he is left with two options: to try to squeeze in the same demands in a new, upcoming, reframed and reworded proposal by the current French Presidency and pressure for concessions from the Macedonian side or to turn his words into action by lifting the veto while accepting a separate, internationally facilitated dialogue where experts will discuss and elaborate on the points of contention.

  1. The reconciliation or confidence-building process should take place according to the currently accepted international normative framework

This process should not be a process through which Bulgaria can continue to condition its neighbour to accept their own reading of the common history. Instead, it should be a process that will promote the mutual understanding and validation of the different interpretations of history, international standards regarding minority rights, culture and linguistics and pave the way towards a joint European future. Both sides can benefit from in-kind contributions of expertise by EU and its Member States, as well as the OSCE, Council of Europe and the UN. Both Prime Ministers and their MFAs can choose to be informed by a process in which international experts will advise the parties: what can be a subject of the negotiations; which documents regulate the topics; which agreements are legally binding and which are legally non-binding recommendations but still have political relevance and disrespecting them might have other consequences; how can both countries harmonize their respective legislation with the international principles and commitments; thus avoid the option of finding excuses in their respective model of governance or constitutional arrangements for not adhering to international standards.

  1. The guardians of the international system must get involved

The next step should be negotiating a new process design/roadmap with the EU at the table, not as an adjudicator, but within a supranational structure that will help the two delegations identify what can and should be negotiated, and what is already part of the EU acquis and has simply to be implemented by both states. This process design needs to be negotiated with the guarantors of the international standards framework – the International Community. Hence, the main urgent matter that should be achieved by the end of the French Presidency (June 2022) is to consult Member States and define the modalities for the creation of a dialogue-facilitation team of experts, who soon after being established can provide the knowledge on what has already been enshrined in the EU, OSCE, CoE and UN documents, commitments, covenants, conventions and guiding principles, thereby defining what remains to be discussed between these two countries.14

International experts on various topics would facilitate and bring clarity to the debates between the parties and set the process within a normative framework which will not risk violating already agreed-upon international standards. Their main job would be to enable constructive discussions within the realm of international principles and commitments that both sides have signed and aspire towards fulfilling. While this dispute poses the moral dilemma of whether these identity topics should be negotiated at all, in lack of decisive multilateral actions (that would sideline the Bulgarian conditioning of the EU accession with identity issues of a sovereign state), the best alternative would be to have a constructive dialogue under the EU auspices, but outside of the accession negotiations framework. In other words, to construct a process that will heal the old wounds and will focus on current and future possibilities for fruitful cooperation.

EU has to recognize and discourage politicizing of historiography, as Europe cannot afford one-sided judgments on historical ‘truths’ and should promote the recipe that holds the nations of the Union together, i.e., mutual respect for different historical ‘perspectives’. At the same time, the member states should collectively remind Bulgaria that this is a time for renewing the vows for updated solidarity and generosity. If the maximalist Bulgarian demands are accepted and legitimized by the EU, as was the case with the Prespa Agreement between North Macedonia and Greece, it is possible that such demands will easily migrate, even mutate, into a dangerous negotiating card in future enlargement negotiations, but also in internal negotiations between current EU Member States. This is why Central European countries expressed serious concern in December 2020, when the Commission submitted a draft document that was not adopted, because the Czech Republic and Slovakia recognized in it elements of “falsification of history that would be harmful to the enlargement process and would bring additional complications in the future”.15

  1. Quick fixes are just kicking the can down the road

Rushing to get any kind of general declaration signed, without a proper dialogue and without including experts who will facilitate a process towards mutually enticing opportunities, should not be encouraged because the Bulgarian claims will not evaporate and they deserve to be addressed, albeit outside of the accession process in order not to set a precedent and be misused by other Members States later on within the EU. Those advocating for short fixes are most likely motivated by one of these reasons: they come from countries with authoritarian leaders who nurture imperialist dreams about their nation, they want to be finally done with this dispute, they do not understand the intricacies and implications of this dispute for the two countries directly involved, or they do not see the implications and the danger such claims pose to European security and unity.

The major point to be taken into consideration is that the pressure for reaching a deal is rising and the concessions that need to be made raise serious political, legal, but also moral dilemmas for all involved. The main question is who will be forced to change its position: will it be Bulgaria, who can make a moral choice to abandon its realist nationalistic narrative and accept a plurality of views of the common history, or North Macedonia, who would have to accept the Bulgarian version of its own history, linguistics and culture in order to start the accession negotiations. There is no room for enthusiasm on the North Macedonian side, despite the ardent statements by its Foreign Minister Osmani, who is eager to claim personal achievement and is therefore likely to make generous concessions at the expense of the interests of North Macedonia. Instead of creating false pre-election enthusiasm in North Macedonia that a deal is just around the corner and labelling those who are not accepting his deal as working for Russia 16 it would be much more constructive to seize the moment and start building up teams, designing strategies and tactics and identifying experts to prepare the ground for genuine problem-solving and principled process based on the existing normative framework.

A holistic approach can avoid quick-fixes for long-term problems and instead provide healthy, long-term solutions, facilitated by objective, knowledgeable experts. As this is not an easy process to set, nor are there standard operating procedures on international mediation and/or dialogue facilitation, in this case additionally complicated as one of the parties is a member state of the EU and the other is not, the most that can be done within this current French Presidency is to explore the possibilities for the creation of such a team, get the confirmations and tentative names for internal and external experts and provide the finances, auspices and overall logistics for the work of such a team. Any other approach, any additional ad-hoc meetings of politicians and badly communicated bilateral roadmaps, annexes or unilateral declarations will be insufficient, rushed and do more harm than good. Additionally, they raise false expectations that they can offer long-term solutions to century-long grievances.

  1. The war in Ukraine is a game changer and Europe needs to adapt faster

Although similar approaches to that of Bulgaria of denying others’ a separate national identity can be found elsewhere in Europe, it contradicts the principle established in international law that existence of a minority is a question of facts and not official recognition.17 Since the war in Ukraine started, several analysts, including our Senior Adviser Ida Manton18 and the American political scientist and philosopher Francis Fukuyama19, have made comparisons between Russia’s narrative regarding Ukraine and Bulgaria’s narrative regarding North Macedonia. On the other hand, the EU’s position, as expressed by the Head of the EU Delegation in Skopje, David Geer, was to “completely reject drawing of a parallel”. The war in Ukraine illustrated what imperialist narratives can lead to. The invasion has changed the geopolitics of Europe and showed us that security in all of Europe is fragile and that imperialist narratives are still vibrant and need to be countered. The EU, through the words of its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, is now saying that Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last month was a moment to “reinvigorate the enlargement process” of the EU.20

The shift in EU’s foreign policy towards “starting formal accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible to enhance the security and defence of the Balkans” is a result of the “concerns that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will create volatility throughout the region”.21 However, this newly energized engagement will not happen by itself. There is a need for genuine paradigm shift, from not just sharing words of intent to actually achieving that change. The Bulgarian veto has been an obstacle on the path of such a change, and therefore the time has come to remove these obstacles. Maybe after all, despite the political hurdles Petkov will have to overcome at home, in light of the violence in Ukraine, Bulgaria will change its position, which is unlikely as the last MFA statement on the topic noted that the tragedy in Ukraine is being used for a malicious campaign by politicians and members of the Macedonian public in North Macedonia aiming at inciting anti-Bulgarian sentiment.22

In conclusion, it is useful to reiterate that the obligations arising from the international commitments are not à la carte for countries to choose from in terms of what to implement and what not. And while the international system is not flawless (with its own dichotomies, ambiguities and shortcomings), those who built it and are responsible for guarding it must not allow bilateral agreements to undermine it, especially not as a price to join their club. If the approach towards reaching a solution for this dispute changes and becomes systematic, organized and more predictable, all three involved actors, namely North Macedonia, Bulgaria and the European Union, can come out of this process better off than they are right now. In order for that to happen, the following stages have to address and correct the current deficiencies that have exacerbated the problem. These largely stem from allowing the process to be handled by national politicians and local historians without international facilitation/mediation that would offer plausible directions within the normative EU framework. Without this intricate preparation, it would be detrimental to kick the can down the road again prior to the next Council meeting in June, claim success by agreeing to a very general recycled version of similar documents we have seen in the last few decades just because individual diplomats and politicians are desperate to show results to their forlorn electorate.

More on the topic by Ida Manton, Just Access Senior Adviser, Negotiations and Conflict Resolution in English:

In Macedonian:

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2 https://mfa.gov.mk/en/document/1712

3 Manton, Ida, Above all, Gentlemen, no excessive enthusiasm, Fazan.mk, 22 February 2022.

4 https://just-access.de/ida-manton-senior-adviser-negotiations-and-conflict-resolution/

5 https://www.txtreport.com/news/2022-01-16-petkov–there-is-no-macedonian-minority-in-bulgaria.Sk8jE1faF.html

6https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/north-macedonia-must-change-its-constitution-ahead-of-membership-talks-bulgaria-tells-eu/

7 https://www.coe.int/en/web/minorities/bulgaria

8 https://www.coe.int/en/web/execution/-/committee-of-ministers-urges-bulgaria-to-give-high-level-message-on-freedom-of-association-of-the-united-macedonian-organisation-ilinden-and-similar-a

9 Marika Djolai and Ljubica Djordjević, Identity Disputes and the EU Enlargement: The Case of North Macedonia, European Centre for Minority Issues, 19.07.2021

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectID=0900001680a5c334

14 Ida Manton, statement in: Organized and Strategic Action on several trajectories, by Jasminka Pavlovska, Nova Makedonija, 21.02.2022.

16 Telma TV, Officials working for Macedonian institutions lobbying against a deal with Bulgaria, 03/04.2022, https://telma.com.mk/2022/04/03

17 Marika Djolai and Ljubica Djordjević, Identity Disputes and the EU Enlargement: The Case of North Macedonia, European Centre for Minority Issues, 19.07.2021

21 Ibid.

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