Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonia: Bulgaria's Warm Embrace

Are Bulgarian policies towards Macedonians an indication that old territorial claims persist, or just friendly intentions?
By Albena Shkodrova

On the face of it, Macedonia enjoys a relatively untroubled relationship with Bulgaria. There is neither the recent legacy of living alongside other, war-torn former Yugoslav nations, nor the unpleasantness over the legal deeds to the word “Macedonia” that has marred relations with Greece for more than a decade.

Yet it is the relationship with Sofia that raises some of the hardest questions about Macedonia’s demand to be treated as a sovereign state, whose Slavic population has its own identity and language.

If one digs a little below the surface, some aspects of official policy in Bulgaria seem to work from the assumption that modern Macedonia is no more than an accidentally detached part of the mother country. Macedonian students are flocking to study at Bulgarian universities – but find they are encouraged to declare an ethnic Bulgarian identity. And the Bulgarians are reluctant to recognise Macedonian as a legitimate language distinct from their own.

These anomalies may annoy the Macedonians, but do they amount to a covertly expansionist agenda, or merely bureaucratic inertia that has failed to change old ways?


Since a September 1991 referendum brought independence from what used to be the socialist federation of Yugoslavia, Macedonian identity has had an uncertain time of it. The Greeks refused to allow the state to be called Macedonia (because of its historical associations), and ethnic divisions within the country were highlighted by a brief conflict between the Albanian and Macedonian communities in 2001.

If no one now publicly questions the legitimacy of the Macedonian state, there are still some who do not really believe that Macedonians, as a people, make the grade as a separate Slavic nation.

That view is especially strong in Bulgaria, where many genuinely think their neighbours are Bulgarians, deep down. That conviction is rooted in the tortuous history of the Balkans, both medieval and modern, which has led to varying interpretations.

A grasp of the history is important, since it explains some of the contours and resonances of current Bulgarian-Macedonian relations.

The roots of what by the end of the nineteenth century was termed the “Macedonian Question” lie deep in history.

Geographically, the name Macedonia refers to a region now divided between Greece, Bulgaria and the Macedonian state. Under Ottoman rule, it was divided into three provinces and was one of the most cosmopolitan regions of the empire, with a complicated ethnic and religious map.

The modern fight over Macedonia started after the Russo-Turkish War in 1878, when the victorious Russians dictated the treaty of San Stefano that forced the Turks to cede most of Macedonia to a newly-established Bulgarian state, under Russian protection.

While Bulgarians were delighted, the other Great Powers were not. Determined to thwart a Russian-controlled “Greater Bulgaria”, they forced major border changes at the subsequent Berlin Congress, returning Macedonia to Ottoman rule.

Bulgaria did not give up its claim, however, embarking on two further wars with its neighbours in 1912 and 1913 - with disastrous results, since most of Macedonia went to Serbia and Greece as a result.

After this reverse, Bulgaria kept a low profile over Macedonia in the Twenties and Thirties. Sofia made another attempt to incorporate the territory during the Second World War, when it received the territory in return for supporting the Axis powers.

The Macedonians initially greeted Bulgarian martial rule with some relief, following two decades of government by the Serbs, but they rapidly became disillusioned, spawning a resistance movement that allied itself with the Yugoslav communist partisans of Josip Tito.

After Tito won in Yugoslavia, the new communist regime in Bulgaria initially cooperated with moves to create a Macedonian republic within a federal Yugoslavia, and even helped to supply the historical justification for its existence. This was the start of a long process of writing and rewriting history anew, which now leaves dramatic differences between the two countries’ history books.

The Bulgarians stopped playing ball in 1948, after Tito fell out with Stalin, and by the Sixties, Bulgarian officials had gone back to the position that the two nations are ethnically homogeneous.


A new era began with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Macedonian independence in 1991, and the emergence of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which some viewed as having a pro-Bulgarian agenda.

While the new state's decision to use the name Macedonia itself and ancient Hellenic symbols - for example the rising sun banner associated with Alexander the Great - antagonised Greece, Bulgaria had no such qualms and recognising the republic immediately it declared independence.

Most Bulgarians appear to accept that a century of separate development has led to a different national spirit in their neighbour.

No serious political group in Bulgaria now has the “Macedonian Question” on its agenda. Even the Bulgarian VMRO party, historically founded to fight for the unification of the two states, now sees the long-term answer as lying in greater integration into a broader Europe.

But while Sofia has been happy to accept the existence of a Macedonian state, that does not mean there has been a sea-change towards accepting the existence of a separate nation with its own language. Apart from the baggage of the past, Bulgaria does not want to unsettle its own western Pirin region, which some versions of history say is historically Macedonian land, with a population ethnically different from other Bulgarians.


One of the key areas where all this history is still playing a role is higher education. Macedonians find the doors to Bulgarian universities are open to them – but at a price.

Lenche, a student from Skopje, is in her fourth year at university. But like a growing number of her compatriots, she is not studying at home. Instead, she is attending Bulgaria’s National Academy of Fine Arts.

Lenche is just one of a wave of young people taking advantage of the Bulgarian government’s special concessions for Macedonian nationals. Between 700 and 800 Macedonians now come to study in Bulgaria each year, benefiting from a range of bursaries offered by Bulgaria. In all, there are around 3,500 Macedonian students in Bulgaria - equivalent to more than a tenth of the 31,000 people studying at home in Macedonia.

These numbers represent a steep rise. Ten years ago, there were no more than 30 Macedonians studying in Bulgaria. Belgrade universities were still the most popular and prestigious destination. But after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Serbia lost its attraction and its place was increasingly taken by Bulgarian universities.

Alexander Popov, the official responsible for Macedonian students at the Bulgarian education ministry, has monitored the change in fashion with a certain satisfaction. “A decade ago, our universities only attracted Macedonians who were unable to qualify for higher education at home,” he said. “Now they consider it prestigious to study in Sofia.”

But an important detail of this generous policy is that most of the grants are intended for Macedonians who declare themselves ethnic Bulgarians, and all students must display a grasp of the version of history presented in Bulgarian textbooks.

Students classed as ethnic Bulgarians from abroad are entitled to a range of concessions to encourage them to study in Bulgaria. Macedonians can compete for some 300 state-funded places, and those who are explicitly designated ethnic Bulgarians get the best treatment of all, with 50 per cent of the quota places earmarked for them. And this category can also study without being part of the quota and still pay only 30 per cent of the normal rate charged to foreign students.

Procedures for establishing that a foreign student is of Bulgarian origin are fairly liberal. From 1993, when Macedonian students begun coming to Bulgaria, until September 2004, they were not even required to present documentary evidence. Bulgaria’s education ministry took the view that it would be hard for ex-Yugoslav students to provide such documentation, and did not press them to produce written proof of ethnicity.

This policy changed in 2004, partly as a result of press reports that non-Slav students were taking advantage of subsidies intended for ethnic Bulgarians. Applicants are now required to submit documents, but the requirements remain quite lax, since a sworn declaration of origin or a letter from an organisation representing Bulgarians abroad counts as acceptable.


A key part of the application process for studying in Bulgaria involves passing tests in literature and history. Since historical truth is a traditional battleground, the test is a challenge for Macedonians, who have to brush up on Bulgarian history books, which tell a different story from the received version at home.

Since the official view in Bulgaria is that the Macedonian people were actually Bulgarian at least until they became part of the Yugoslav federation, this requirement can be seen as encouragement to buy into Bulgarian origin.

Popov denies the education ministry’s policy is confrontational. “They are granted an opportunity to learn Bulgarian history, and this applies to applicants from all countries,” he said. “No one can force those students to believe what they write in the test.”

Most of the Macedonian students interviewed by IWPR said they did not feel under pressure to assimilate or change their ethnic identity. “No one has ever even discussed my nationality with me here,” said Alexandur Nanchev from Strumica in eastern Macedonia, now doing teacher training in Sofia’s St Kliment Ohridski university.

At the same time, some students are less than comfortable with procedures that require an admission of “Bulgarian-ness”.

"I don't think modern Bulgarian society desires or attempts to assimilate Macedonians. But certain state procedures and practices seem intended to have such consequences," said Lenche, adding that everyone who admitted to being ethnic Bulgarian did so voluntarily.


Bulgarian officials insist there is no evil intent behind their desire to provide study opportunities.

The education ministry’s Popov insisted that at a political level, the official stance is no different to the welcome that Greece and Hungary extend to foreign students of their respective ethnicities.

His colleague at the ministry, Venko Bozhanov of the graduate and postgraduates department, agreed, saying, “The European Union tolerates these attitudes. Ethnic communities should undoubtedly remain loyal citizens to their states, but they can also serve as bridges between countries.”

But in Macedonia, suspicions remain. Some politicians and media have suggested more than once that the Bulgarian state has a hidden agenda of “Bulgarianisation” and ultimately “reunification”.

Aneta Serafimova, a professor of medieval studies at Skopje university, says Bulgaria is misusing history to justify its policy, adding, “The aim of that policy is assimilation of the Macedonian nation. There is no history which gives the right to one country to manipulate the population of a neighbouring country.”

Serafimova accuses Bulgaria of abusing the advantages it enjoys as a prospective gateway to the European Union, offering the benefits of a growing economy and access to European labour markets which she thinks younger Macedonians will find it hard to resist. “Sofia is thus putting into practice a well-known method of assimilation, and is acting in a very dishonest manner,” she concluded.

Macedonian police sources told IWPR that it would be wrong to turn a blind eye to current Bulgarian policies. “We cannot prevent these people from studying in Bulgaria but we have to know what we are dealing with and remain on the alert,” said a police source.

Study in Bulgaria remains so sensitive a subject that many of those studying in Sofia are afraid to give their names to journalists in case it causes them problems when they go back to Macedonia.

“We feel a bit nervous because the [Macedonian] police make trouble for people studying in Bulgaria and for their families,” one such female student told IWPR.

She said she was summoned to the police station at her home town last summer to explain why she had gone to study in Bulgaria. “I answered that I didn’t have the money for Oxford,” she told IWPR. “I wonder whether the police ask the same questions of people studying in Vienna.”

Staff at the Bulgarian education ministry report that students are routinely questioned by police in Macedonia. But Goran Pavlovski, a spokesman for the Macedonian interior ministry, told IWPR that police “do not summon people studying in Bulgaria for interview”. However, “the ministry summons all those whose activities require a security check”, he said.

In an effort to avoid such problems, the Bulgarians introduced a new quota system for Macedonian citizens regardless of ethnic origin in 1996. “The aim was to spare ethnic Macedonians studying in Bulgaria any trouble at home,” said Bozhanov.

Those Macedonian students who want to go to Sofia are unlikely to be deterred either by the Bulgarian requirements of ethnic identity or by hostility at home. “It’s ridiculous to think they could stop the process,” one student told IWPR, referring to the Macedonian authorities. “There are so many of us coming here, and some have now graduated and returned as doctors or lawyers.”

Others, however, have taken a conscious decision not to take up the offer. “I don’t like their education policy,” said Goce Naumov, a postgraduate student at Skopje university who turned down a chance to study in Bulgaria. “As I understand it, they are asking students to take a national history exam that involves a quite different interpretation of the Macedonian nation. That is something I find unacceptable.”.

Gorjan Lazarov chose to study in Prague for the same reasons. “I could never study in a country that does not recognise my language and my nation,” he said. “Bulgaria, as a European country, should once and for all recognise the Macedonian nation. Otherwise all these privileges… continue to fuel doubts that it’s all being done with the sole purpose of increasing the number of people in Macedonia who declare themselves Bulgarian.”


Another area where Macedonians get preferential treatment as a vestige of past Bulgarian policies is the exceptional ease with which they can acquire citizenship.

Virtually every Macedonian of Slavic origin is eligible to claim a Bulgarian passport. To prove Bulgarian origin, it is enough merely to declare it. There is no need to establish prior residence in Bulgaria.

The law says someone applying for citizenship should submit a birth certificate of one parent showing that they were ethnically Bulgarian. But there’s a let-out: if no documentation is available, the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad can issue a certificate of nationality based on the presumption that “ethnic Macedonian” means “ethnic Bulgarian".

That premise might seem like a leap of faith, or at least somewhat controversial. But the agency’s chairwoman, Denitsa Hristova, insisted to IWPR that “this is an indisputable, internationally-recognised, scientific and socio-cultural fact".

In the past four years alone, 15,500 Macedonians have applied for Bulgarian citizenship. The number of candidates is doubling every year, so that the 2004 total was around 7,500. There are reports of entire villages sending one person to apply on everyone’s behalf.

Nationalists might see the trend as a surge in Bulgarian consciousness, but the real motives are somewhat more pragmatic.

Bulgaria is increasingly attractive for Macedonians because its economy is in much better shape, and because it is well on the way to early EU membership.

Tellingly, many of the students now studying in Sofia do not plan to go back to Macedonia after graduating. “I think about 90 per cent of the Macedonians I know here don’t intend to return home, but will stay here or leave for another foreign country,” a student in Sofia told IWPR anonymously.

Acquiring a Bulgarian passport allows the holder to travel to much of Europe without a visa, and since Bulgarian laws allow dual citizenship, there is no need to renounce one’s Macedonian documents.

It is almost ridiculously easy to obtain a passport. Fees are low at three leva, around 1.5 euro, and applicants do not have to be in Bulgaria, but can go to a Bulgarian embassy or apply through a third party. As a result, a new business has grown up in parts of rural Macedonia, with middlemen collecting between 200 and 500 euro per person for preparing and submitting applications.

Bulgarian deputy justice minister Meglena Tacheva accepts that current passport regulations could be uncharitably interpreted as a deliberate attempt to encourage Macedonians to become Bulgarian nationals.

But she said the rules are getting tougher – for example she is pressing for all applicants to be interviewed personally. In any case, she added, the huge number of applicants has meant that only a third of the 15,500 applications received since 2001 have actually been processed.

Tacheva said the whole system was in need of a thorough review because it was now obvious that people were mostly applying for a Bulgarian passport so as to travel abroad, a fact that she fears may complicate matters with the EU.


Another spectre from the past is the subject of language. Depending on your point of view, Bulgarian and Macedonian are two closely-related but distinct languages, or they are the same.

From a legal perspective, standard literary Macedonian is the official language of that state. But when the Bulgarians recognised the new state, they did not accept its claim to linguistic independence at the same time.

For the next seven years, the two governments - while on good terms - found themselves unable to sign a single bilateral document. The sole stumbling-block was the standard diplomatic formulation: "This document was signed in the Bulgarian and Macedonian languages".

The Bulgarian parliament eventually came up with a solution in 1999, rewording the text to read that the treaty language was “Macedonian… as per the Macedonian constitution". This exercise in verbal acrobatics worked, and the two countries have now signed at least 50 agreements.

But every time a bilateral document is signed, the compromise wording is a constant reminder that Bulgaria rejects the use of “Macedonian” as a legitimate linguistic term.


All these issues may lose some of their relevance and their potential to create friction as both countries face up to a future in Europe.

According to Bulgaria’s ambassador in Skopje, Alexandur Yordanov, his country is now Macedonia’s most reliable partner. Macedonia is the third biggest export market for its neighbour, and a new agreement abolishing customs duties on industrial goods, which came into effect this month, is expected to boost trade and investment further.

At a political level, Bulgaria has set out formal plans to help its neighbour work towards EU accession. During its own membership negotiations, Sofia held out for a delay in the imposition of visa requirements for Macedonian nationals. During an October 2004 visit to Skopje, Bulgarian foreign minister Solomon Passy was quoted as saying his country wanted non-visa access for Macedonians even after it became an EU member.

In this new environment, Bulgarians’ view of Macedonia seems founded on civilised and liberal values. Ambassador Yordanov stresses the importance of EU issues and downplays matters such as the Macedonian/Bulgarian language dispute, saying it represents "politicians taking account of historical realities".

At grassroots level, Alexandur Nanchev spoke for many of the Macedonian students in Bulgaria when he said history and nationality issues were becoming less of an issue.

"Macedonians, Bulgarians - soon all that will be history,” he said. “People don't care about this any more and it is not an issue in our lives. My friends are concentrating on the future, not the past.”

Hristo Matanov, a history professor at St Kliment Ohridski university, believes it is perfectly acceptable to foster close ties with Macedonia by means of scholarships and fast-track citizenship. “Bulgaria seems to want to establish a relationship with Macedonia like that which exists between Germany and Austria,” he said.

In addition, he added, “Educating students means creating a lobby amongst future Macedonian intellectuals.”

Matanov sees it as an uplifting process for Bulgaria, which is adjusting to being a country – for the first time in a century – where people from abroad actually want to study and live.

The trick will be to ensure that acts of positive discrimination are seen as just that, and not as assimilation by other means.

Albena Shkodrova is IWPR project manager in Bulgaria. Tamara Causidas, IWPR assistant editor in Macedonia, contributed to this article.

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