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Macedonians Nervous Over Bulgarian Rapprochement

Some Macedonians are suspicious of their government's attempts to build bridges with neighbouring Bulgaria.
By Zeljko Bajic

The Macedonian government is facing severe opposition criticism over its move to improve relations with Bulgaria.


A recent diplomtic thaw has reinforced opposition Social Democrat claims that the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party is intent on "handing Macedonia over to Bulgaria."


A number of confidence-building measures between the two countries culminated in May with arrival in Skopje of President Petar Stojanov, the first Bulgarian head of state to visit the country since it secured its independence from Yugosalavia eight years ago.


Although Bulgaria was the first country to recognise Macedonian independence, there's been little attempt by either party in subsequent years to end their mutual antagonism.


For much of the twentieth century, Bulgaria has disputed the authenticity of the Macedonian nation and language. Macedonians, meanwhile, have accused Bulgaria of trying to deny them their identity.


But since the VMRO-DPMNE came to power in Skopje two years ago, attempts have been made by both countries to improve relations.


Forbidden for years, Bulgarian papers are now being sold in Macedonia - for less than Macedonian titles. Bulgarian artists have been invited to Macedonian cultural events. And the number of Macedonians studying and holidaying in Bulgaria has increased.


"For the last 50 years the socialist regime in Yugoslavia insisted on the authenticity of the Macedonian people, language and culture," said a young Macedonian history professor. "They covered up our linguistic similarities, spiritual links and that many Macedonian freedom fighters had been educated in Sofia."


Stojanov's visit to Macedonia was described as "historic" by the press in Skopje and Sofia. Addressing journalists in the Skopje parliament, he declared in Macedonian "Long live free and independent Macedonia." - a momentous move given that Bulgarian politicians who've visited the country in the past have always insisted on making speeches in their own language, without translators.


But the fragility of relations between the two countries was underlined just a few days later when, during a visit to Albania, Stojanov referred to his country's Macedonian minority as Bulgarians - provoking a furious reaction from the Skopje press.


And there have been other examples of what some Macedonians regard as Bulgarian duplicity. For instance, universities in Bulgaria have offered scholarships to Macedonian students but only on condition that they become Bulgarian citizens.


For Macedonians suspicious of Sofia, such incidents strengthen their conviction that Bulgaria continues to have designs on their country. The Social Democrats, for instance, have seized on the stuttering rapprochement to support their claim that VMRO-DPMNE is conspiring to "hand" Macedonia over to Sofia.


The former communists have been accusing the VMRO-DPMNE of pro-Bulgarian tendencies ever since the party was formed in the early nineties. In the 1998 parliamentary elections, the Social Democrats charged the nationalists of sailing towards power with the eastern wind in their sails - that is, with considerable support from Bulgaria.


The mud slinging has proved effective. Premier and VMRO-DPMNE leader, Ljubco Georgijevski, has struggled over the years to counter claims that his party is funded by Sofia or that its activists are trained in summer camps throughout Bulgaria. The nationalists' problem is that their history betrays clear Bulgarian sympathies.


Early last century, some VMRO members allied themselves to the ruling regimes in Sofia and mounted terrorist campaigns against the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During the Second World War, the organisation collaborated with the occupying Bulgarian and Italian authorities.


Inspite of its history, the VMRO has succeeded in winning over the electorate. But some analysts have suggested that this had had less to do with its policies than public disillusionment with Social Democrat corruption.


Zeljko Bajic is a regular IWPR contributor