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

Skojpe's Bulgarian Question

Macedonia and Bulgaria have achieved a substantive breakthrough, on language, minority and other issues. But not without fierce debate at home.
By Iso Rusi

Macedonia is falling into the arms of Bulgaria and risks losing its sovereignty to the dictates of its new governing authority in Sofia.


Such nationalist speculation, it would seem, could only be meaningful stuff of politics for the purposes of fuelling internal political dispute within Macedonia. It is would seem even harder to argue after the recent breakthrough in Macedonian-Bulgarian relations. Still further buttressing Macedonia's security are the thousands of international troops arriving in the country in anticipation of a Kosovo deployment.


Yet in dramatic exchanges, such claims of a government sell-out have been made. Political life in Macedonian has been unusually intense. Each day it seems a new issue emerges to top the big event of the previous day. The Taiwan scandal - the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Republic of China - provoked the veto of the prolongation of the mandate of the UN Preventive Deployment (UNPREDEP) by the People's Republic of China. [See Iso Rusi, "External Excuses for an Internal War", Balkan Crisis Report, No. 3.] Pessimists argue that this directly endangers Macedonian's peace and stability. This major dispute was far from settled when the Bulgarian issue erupted.


The key event was the visit by a government delegation of 15 ministers and officials, led by the Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, to sign a joint declaration and seven international agreements. The visit was preceded by a dramatic session of the State Security Council, and followed immediately by an even more fierce debate in Parliament between old President Kiro Gligorov and new Prime Minister Georgievski.


The Sofia signatures mark a breakthrough: a long-running linguistic dispute has kept the two countries from sealing many accords because they could not agree how to refer to the language(s) in which they are written. Bulgarians essentially believe that Macedonians speak a variant of Bulgarian, while Macedonians are adamant that they speak a distinct language. The position of the Macedonian minority within Bulgaria has also been a source of discord.


The new declaration, signed by Georgievski and Bulgarian Prime Minster Ivan Kostov, states that it is signed in "two original copies, each of them in the official languages of both the countries; the Macedonian language, according to the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia, and the Bulgarian language, according to the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria. Both texts are equally valid."


The most contentious point, Article 11, covers the Macedonian minority. It states that "the Republic of Macedonia declares that nothing in its Constitution can or should be interpreted that it is or will ever become basis of interference of Republic of Macedonia in the internal affairs of Republic of Bulgaria in order to protect the status and rights of people/individuals who are not citizens of Republic of Macedonian."


As part of the agreements, Bulgaria has granted Macedonian 150 tanks and 150 artillery weapons. It is a serious gift. Previously Macedonian had no tanks; military experts have suggested that the artillery weapons are of a higher quality than those received in aid from the United States.


The president launched a severe attack on these provisions. In response to the Taiwan affair, Gligorov made his first extraordinary address to Parliament in his eight years in office. Upon the delegations return from Sofia, he opened a fresh area of dispute with the government, extending his remarks to cover the new accords, too.


He practically accused the Georgievski administration of relinquishing the right of Macedonia to aid the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. He argued that the understanding over language offered no solution tot he five-year linguistic/political dispute between the two countries. And he restated his faith that UN troops are essential for Macedonia's security, regardless of the question of a potential new NATO deployment.


The Prime Minister replied strongly. He claimed that the formulation of the language issue in the Macedonian-Bulgarian agreements is one of the five suggestions made by Gligorov's own Social Democrats in 1996, when they were in government. He argued that the articles on the Macedonian minority - dubbed a capitulation by Gligorov - contain language at least twice as strong as that in Article 6 of the temporary agreement with Greece, signed in September 1995, an international agreement under strong international monitoring.


The press reported that fierceness of the dispute between the president and the premier had reached new heights. Nova Makedonija daily estimated that "each move made by the Government and each counter-reaction by the opposition is being dramatised and presented as a danger to the state and the nation or as a mini-coup d'etat." The independent daily Dnevnik commented that "it is a matter of time before Gligorov will begin, like the Roman senator Cato, to end every speech with the same words: 'However it happens, Carthage must be destroyed.' Of course, the role of Carthage here and now, will be played by the government of VMRO-DPMNE," the Macedonian Internal Revolutionary Organisation-Movement for Macedonian National Unity of Giorgievski.


In fact, however, the intensity of this domestic political dispute pales in comparison with the scale of the substantive political issues between two countries with a very complex relationship. Bulgaria was the first country to extend formal recognition to the independent Republic of Macedonia (in January 1992), accepting the name Macedonia had chosen for itself less than three months earlier.


This was a time when international recognition appeared unobtainable. Then Bulgarian President Zeliu Zelev, who pushed through Sofia's recognition, went further, lobbying Russian President Boris Yeltsin to follow suit. Indeed, Yeltsin signed the decree extending recognition on behalf of Russia in the plane on his way back from the official visit to Bulgaria, without even consulting his foreign ministry.


The economic position was as bad as the diplomatic one. Greece had arbitrarily closed the border to Macedonia (February 1992-October 1995), and Yugoslavia was under international sanctions. But Bulgaria, together with Albania, opened an east-west trade corridor, which served not only as the only export route to Europe and the rest of the world but also the key means to import oil, food, and other essentials for the country's survival.


Relations cooled with the promulgation of a policy of "equidistance" from the neighbours. Greece still refused to recognise Macedonia, Albania recognised it under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia recognised it only under international pressure after Dayton. President Gligorov, at the peak of his power domestically and internationally, sought to chart an event path among so many competing regional interests. During an official visit to Bulgaria in 1994, he refused to sign international agreements that stated that they had been produced in the "official languages of both the countries." This, from Skopje's point of view, appeared to be yet another example of Macedonian's non-recognition. Thus the "language dispute" was created, and many agreements between the two countries would go unsigned.


The recent signatures in Sofia have thus marked an important warming in Skopje-Sofia relations. The new declaration confirms that neither country have or will have territorial claims on the other. Neither will "take, provoke nor support acts and activities with hostile character against each other . . . [or] allow their territory to be used against the other by organisations or groups whose goal is to endanger the peace and security of the other country."


Such language has been hailed internationally. The European Union congratulated the parties on "resolving the long language dispute between the two countries". Bonn announced that both countries have "given an example of how difficult problems can be resolved by means of agreement in the spirit of good neighbourly relations." UK Foreign Minister Robin Cook sent a letter of support to the Macedonian Foreign Minister Alexander Dimitrov, expressing his faith that countries from this region can indeed work together constructively to resolve disputes and build a positive common future. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent a letter to Georgievski congratulating him on his statement that "your Government and the Government of Bulgaria will cooperate in the creation of deeper more cooperative bilateral relations based on mutual respect, trust and understanding."


Meantime, while diplomatic language has attracted so much attention, fundamental changes in Macedonian's military posture are attracting almost no comment. Few since Gligorov's parliamentary showdown now remark on the apparent end of UNPREDEP’s role in monitoring the border with Albania, and indeed packing up altogether. In recent weeks, nearly 6,000 Western troops, and appropriate weapons, have arrived through the port at Thessaloniki. [See Iso Rusi, 'Macedonia's Three Armies', Balkan Crisis Report 2.] The military camps of the Macedonian Army are being emptied to make way for NATO. And the Macedonian Army continues to receive more gifts, including a fresh promise of 300 jeeps, 115 transporters and light weapons from Germany. The "oasis of peace" is truly becoming a military base - whatever the language.


Iso Rusi is a journalist with Fokus.