On 1 August 2017 in Skopje—under an increased police presence on the streets—the governments of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) signed a Treaty for Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. While the name itself does not suggest a ground-breaking accomplishment, this Treaty has been in the making since 1999. What has changed for both countries to finally agree on a binding common text?

Bulgaria was the first to recognise Republic of Macedonia as an independent nation- state in 1992. As often in the Balkans history, traditions, culture and language are intertwined and complicated matters. Relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia has been deteriorating based on disagreements about historical events and personalities, recognition of the Macedonian language and, further, the recognition of Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and Bulgarian minority in Macedonia.

In 1999 the two governments signed a Joint Declaration of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. Note that this was not a binding document—necessary to be ratified in the respective parliaments. Such agreement would not have passed through at the time. Still, the language was bold with two important concessions.  First, the Joint Declaration was signed in two original copies, one in Bulgarian language, as defined by the Constitution of Bulgaria and one in Macedonian language, as defined by the Constitution of Macedonia. In practice, the Bulgarian government did not recognise the Macedonian language, but it recognised its defined use within Macedonia. Second, in the Declaration was included the assurance that Macedonia, through its Constitution, does not seek to interfere in the internal politics of Bulgaria as it pertains to people living in Bulgaria that are not Macedonian citizens. Why was this inclusion sought after? Article 49 of the Macedonian Constitution refers to the protection of Macedonians living in Greece and Bulgaria—proclaiming the existence of Macedonian minorities. The non-binding Joint Declaration, as predicted, did not ease the tensions. Different political entities, intellectual circles, social movements and the governments themselves continued to fume over unresolved issues.

Fast forward to 2017. The current government in Macedonia is attempting to distance itself from the past politics and policies. It seeks to re-start the bids for NATO and EU membership and to strengthen (grow) its economy and increase financial flows. It also appears to work towards regaining the trust of Western institutions and investors. Macedonia was blocked in the past by Greece in their attempt to join NATO (as part of their conflict over the official name of Republic of Macedonia) and the outlook to EU accession has also been rather grim. In 2017 the government in Macedonia has changed after more than ten years (2006- 2016) in the hands of Nikola Gruevski (VMRO- DPMNE) and a year of political crisis. The new prime minister Zoran Zaev (Social Democratic Party) was chosen amid an attack on the Parliament by an angry mob (suspected to be encouraged by different domestic and foreign influences). The country found itself in the world news but for the wrong reasons, revealing a polarised society with high tensions between the ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, lagging economy and infrastructure, and political crisis.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria did become a member of NATO and the EU (even if among the poorest). Without suggesting that Bulgaria has done an excellent job—certainly it is lagging in many areas to the other EU members—the country has stayed internally stable and away from serious ethnic tensions (with 8% ethnic Turkish and 4.5% Roma population). More importantly, the Bulgarian government is preparing for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2018. One of its main priorities is to deliver “tangible European perspective for all Western Balkan countries.” The government is eager to show its ability to resolve issues, without outside mediation, and the ability to be a leader. Additionally, the Bulgarian government will be pursuing during the Presidency its own national interests, including entry into the Schengen zone, entry into ERM II and favourable allocation of European funds in the new post- 2020 period. Already in July 2017, the prime minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov met with his counterpart Zoran Zaev in Sofia to negotiate the Treaty. Days later he was in Athens meeting with the prime ministers of Greece and Serbia to discuss closer relations on the Balkans and perhaps mediating support for Republic of Macedonia.

What is in the new Treaty? It is heavily based on the Joint Declaration from 1999. Yet, there are several important points to be noted. First, there is an attempt to address long-standing issues with the interpretation of history by both countries. The history of Bulgaria and Macedonia has been referred as “common” and joined celebrations are planned. A joint committee will be created to tackle historical questions (certain pessimism is present about the vitality of such committee). Second, the question about the official recognition of respective minorities is left unresolved. The Treaty states that each country can protect the rights of its citizens (not minorities) in accordance to the international law. Third, the Bulgarian government will officially and openly lobby for Macedonia to become a member of NATO and the EU. Fourth, several statements commit the governments to work on regional projects and toward more liberalised market. These commitments are perhaps among the most substantive in the Treaty. Both, Bulgaria and Macedonia seek improvements of their infrastructure (opportunity to receive European funds and corporate investments) and to grow their economies (freer movement of goods, services, capital and people). It is not surprising that two additional Memorandums were signed at the ceremony on 1 August. One Memorandum concerns the building of Corridor 8—an intermodal Pan-European transportation infrastructure that connects Italy, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. The other Memorandum deals with possibilities in building gas connection.

So, what is next? The signing of the Treaty was not an international sensation with no mentioning on BBC or CNN, for example. Yet, Federica Mogherini’s office (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security) was delighted to hear the news, so were the US State Department and the government of Germany. Logically, Western governments and institutions feel as Macedonia, at least for now, will not slip away under Russian and/or nationalistic influences. Some questions remain, however. Within Macedonia, the Treaty has been accepted with mixed feelings. The main disagreements regarding language and minority protections have not been resolved. Greece is also uneasy about the change of balance in relations on the Balkans, as Bulgaria is attempting to rise as a regional leader. Russia has been relatively quiet but they do not favour any further enlargements of NATO and the EU. In the end, the next year will show us if the Treaty will have a practical effect and the good intentions will not stay only on paper. If Bulgaria manages to use its Presidency wisely, regarding its commitment to the Western Balkans, then we might see indeed a renewed European interest of the region and a new regional leader. Then again, the never ending and complicated historical, cultural and linguistic disagreements on the Balkans have been time and time again serving as significant barriers to its successful development…

Vladislava Gubalova

Future of Europe Programme

GLOBSEC Policy Institute