By Dilyana Teoharova, Marija Tumanovska, Andy Heil May 18, 2023
SOFIA/SKOPJE — A cold shoulder for a Bulgarian member of the European Parliament (MEP) traveling to North Macedonia is just the tip of the iceberg.
On May 6, which is St. George’s Day and Armed Forces Day in Bulgaria, North Macedonia’s border guards turned back five Bulgarians, including a conservative MEP who has repeatedly waded into the nationalist debate between the two countries.
MEP Andrey Kovachev called the snub “quite sad,” and it elicited condemnations from Sofia and from the EU’s commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi.
It was the latest affront in what Bulgaria alleges is an erratic, monthslong effort by Skopje to suppress pro-Bulgarian sentiment on both sides of the border, including through a “blacklist” whose existence the Macedonian side refuses to acknowledge.
But it’s also part of a lingering dispute that has put relations on ice along the EU’s southern border, reminded 2 million Macedonians of their second-tier status in Europe, and even erupted into occasional violence.
And veteran political observers warn that the tensions are unlikely to ease anytime soon, with posturing and symbolism amplified ahead of elections and historical rivalries still bedeviling bilateral relations and, by extension, Skopje’s recently reinvigorated EU integration.
“Politicians on both sides of the border seem more interested in raising their ratings than de-escalating the situation,” Petar Arsovski, a Macedonian political analyst, told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service.
He and other analysts in the region used words like “predatory” and “reckless” to describe the Kovachev incident.
Both countries are members of NATO and of the Council of Europe, and while a politically sensitive deal struck last year ended Bulgaria’s two-year veto on the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations, a key pledge by Skopje to add “Bulgarians” to the preamble of the constitution remains unmet.
Bulgaria and North Macedonia have closely intertwined cultures and overlapping histories that continue to fuel accusations of dangerous Bulgarian irredentism and counterclaims of disregard for Bulgarian national identity by the Macedonian authorities.
Kovachev was planning to attend a ceremony at Novo Selo, in eastern North Macedonia, on St. George’s Day to honor Bulgarians who died in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. It’s an event he said he’s attended regularly for more than a decade.
Stefan Tafrov, a veteran Bulgarian diplomat and permanent representative to the United Nations in 2001-06 and again in 2012-16, called the Kovachev rebuff a “reckless act” that doesn’t contribute to North Macedonia’s EU candidacy or to bilateral relations with Sofia.
“They may be dissatisfied with the positions of Mr. Kovachev and the others,” he said, and the Macedonians “do not even claim” that they are guilty of criminal wrongdoing. Instead, he said, “They are concerned about some symbolic actions that Mr. Kovachev and the others, whom they don’t like, might perform.”
The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry immediately called it a “provocation” and vowed to take the matter up with the Macedonian government.
Two days later, EU Commissioner Varhelyi tweeted a condemnation of the Macedonian authorities’ denial of entry to Kovachev, adding that it was “a very serious decision.”
Another two days later, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivan Kondov delivered an unmistakable warning by repeating Sofia’s grievances at the center of its long-running veto on North Macedonia’s EU negotiations, which was ostensibly lifted based on a French proposal from July 2022.
Kondov cited Skopje’s alleged failure to implement a 2017 Good Neighbor Agreement and “the problems of people with Bulgarian self-awareness” in North Macedonia, an allusion to the Macedonian government’s promise last year to recognize a Bulgarian minority in its constitution.
“We expect a country that is a candidate for membership in the European Union to effectively protect all its citizens,” Kondov said. “Instead, we’re witnessing attempts to silence the voice of the Macedonian Bulgarians by raising unfounded accusations against them, by pressuring them with lawsuits, by demonizing them in the media and especially on social networks.”
Rumors Of A Blacklist
The Macedonian government has repeatedly dismissed accusations that it has abandoned its commitment to protect all its citizens, including those who identify as Bulgarian.
Kovachev reportedly had been threatened with refusal if he tried to travel to North Macedonia with a European Parliamentary delegation ahead of an annual event in February to mark the death of a Balkan revolutionary claimed by Bulgarians and Macedonians named Gotse Delchev.
That warning followed months of tensions that included intimidation, vandalism, and violence following the launch last year in both countries of “cultural clubs” asserting nationalist narratives and myths.
After the Kovachev incident this month, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said it had “only partial information” on the cases but that instances had become more frequent this year and 50 of its citizens have now been similarly rejected. It said that “until last year, these were episodic cases and the information about them was not systematized.”
Sofia acknowledged that Macedonian border authorities are under no obligation to inform it when they turn back visitors, but it also said that “however well-founded these arguments are,” some of those Bulgarian nationals “literally the next day crossed the border without any problems.”
Backtracking by the Macedonian government and conflicting reports of a purported blacklist have complicated matters.
The Macedonian Interior Ministry initially said Kovachev and his companions were denied entry because they were “potential violators of public order.” Three days later, however, the Foreign Ministry said the group included individuals who posed a risk to peace and security, but Kovachev was not among them.
The party, in two vehicles, included the chairman of the Bulgarian Memory Foundation, Milen Vrabevski, a physician and wealthy entrepreneur who is said to be among the supporters of the controversial Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia.
Kondov told journalists that Kovachev and the others who’d been turned away had received “notices…[that] explicitly stated that they are on a prohibited list in the border system of our neighboring country.”
Kovachev said that Varhelyi told him that he was blocked entry because others in his group are on a list of individuals who recognize neither Macedonian identity nor the Macedonian language.
Neither the Macedonian Interior Ministry nor the Foreign Ministry responded specifically to inquiries by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, other than to say the decision was the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, which repeated a broad citation of the country’s law on foreigners.
Nationalism has surged in Bulgarian politics amid governmental and institutional instability that has already resulted in five elections in a span of two years. Current coalition talks could easily give way to another election in the coming months, according to experts.
Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski’s government took a significant risk of nationalist backlash in agreeing last year to the compromise with Bulgaria to unstick Skopje’s accession framework. The passage of the amendment to identify “Bulgarians” as a constitutive people in the preamble of the Macedonian Constitution has so far been blocked and some observers warn that such a move could spark a vote of no confidence in the government well before scheduled elections in 2024.
Arsovski drew a line between electoral considerations that include opposition attacks based on the defense of Macedonian identity and Skopje’s decision to refuse entry to Kovachev to attend an event that stirs nationalist sentiment in both countries.
He accused politicians of a “short-sighted and unnecessary” strategy in which they are “behaving in a predatory way and using every excuse to be a little populist.”
Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Dilyana Teoharova of RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service in Sofia and Marija Tumanovska of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service in Skopje
Copyright (c) 2023. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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