Bulgaria’s Veto on North Macedonia’s EU Talks: Legacy of Ethnic Cleansing of the 1990s Former Yugoslavia Type
The 1990s were a happy time for international peace due to the end of the Cold War between the US-led West and the Soviet Union with the miserable cohort of satellites that it dominated in Eastern Europe.
The happy 1990s rule had its exceptions, though, the most notable being the Balkans, or Southeast Europe, and more specifically what is today known as the “Western Balkans” but back then was the former Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia was an artificially created communist federation held together by a personality cult for Josip Broz Tito, a dictator whose brutality was internationally mitigated by being friendly with the West. As it began to break up, nationalists of Serbia, the nation which dominated the federation, under their leader Slobodan Milosevic, tried to save it or at least to reshape it, with wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. So much so that the West had to intervene not once but twice within the course of several years by military force in order to prevent large-scale genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Instead of learning something on how to tackle and expose genocide and ethnic cleansing throughout history, though, many in the West got the wrong lesson from the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia: that the Balkans are a dark, creepy place full of squabbles among equally evil nations and individuals. A place whose issues could not be resolved so it was no use seeking out a culprit, and which should be kept under a lid, by force if needed, just in order to prevent the locals’ primordial instincts from supplying fresh horrifying live footage for real-time global news coverage.
Wrong as that perception has been, it isn’t hard to understand it. After all, the “spark” that led the West to destroy itself from within with the Great War (today called World War I) of 1914 also came from the [Western] Balkans, as preeminent German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had predicted in the late 19th century. Of course, there were specifics such as the fact that it was caused by a terrorist attack by a Bosnian Serb nationalist who assassinated the heir to the throne of one of the great powers at the time, Austria-Hungary. Interestingly, though, the particular brand of nationalism that assassin represented was lavishly rewarded after the Great War with the creating of “Yugoslavia”, first as a kingdom led by the Serbian monarchy, and then as a communist federation, in the aftermath of the follow-up mess of World War II.
With quite a few complexities in terms of history and identity packed into a relatively small piece of real estate such as the Balkan Peninsula and especially its Western / former Yugoslavia part (the Balkans produce more history than they can consume, as goes the quote by Winston Churchill, another great source of quotes for historical essays not unlike Bismarck), it has been both easy for the West to dismiss the “petty” quarrels of the Balkan people(s), and to feel compel to do something to quash them.
So when the Republic of Bulgaria, an EU member state since 2007, a former communist Eastern European and Balkan country, the staunchest former satellite of the Soviet Union due to the tenacity of Moscow’s Bulgarian communist lackeys and the national myths they skillfully created, vetoed the start of accession talks for European Union membership for the Republic of North Macedonia, a fragile former Yugoslav republic which has so far evaded an Yugoslav succession war (save for an ethnic Albanian uprising in 2001) – the standard Western reactions kicked in.
“What the .. heck?” officials and diplomats in Brussels, Berlin, also Paris, and also Washington, DC, exclaimed. So did a whole bunch of pundits, experts, and media commentators from global media.
With all the messes the EU and the wider West is presently dealing with, here is one small Balkan (albeit technically “Eastern Balkan”) country vetoing the EU future of another even smaller Balkan (this time proper Western Balkan) country over… whatever.
From the Western internationalist point of view, that development has been surprising because Bulgaria has been usually docile and not assertive at all in international politics (its corrupt governments have been happy to comply with Western demands as long as the ruling post-communist oligarchy is left alone to embezzle at will – I dedicated a book to that subject).
The Bulgarian veto has been even more deplorable considering that North Macedonia had just changed its actual country name from Macedonia (or from the Republic of Macedonia) to North Macedonia (or the Republic of North Macedonia) back in 2018, after 27-year-long dispute with another of its neighbors, Greece (aha, a better established though still a Balkan and relatively problematic member of the West). Because of the name dispute with Greece, the country of (North) Macedonia had been officially known internationally under the unenviable name of “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM).
(By this point in this modest text, things probably seem too convoluted and I might have lost any unbiased reader who is not a student of history or international relations or a career diplomat but those are the niceties of Balkan matters.)
The Macedonian name dispute in a nutshell: the Republic of (North) Macedonia – practically created in 1944 when the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia, itself already an artificial, imperial-type construct, was turned into the communist Federation of Yugoslavia under Tito – had appropriated the history of the Ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedon, you know, the one of Philip II and Alexander the Great who had conquered the ancient world.
Not only that, but Greece has been concerned that the Republic of (North) Macedonia has territorial claims to parts of Northern Greece for no reason whatsoever – simply because – up until 1944, the name “Macedonia”, the name of a province in the Roman Empire in the area of the former Ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedon, had been just a geographic region.
Not so much after 1944. Because communists, not unlike Nazis and fascists, tend to invent and engineer things such as states, nations, histories, identities, ethnicities, languages, and the like in order to suit their distorted political agenda and borderline insane ideological delusions
(For example, about world peace based on the vision of some bearded self-styled philosopher, who observed the conditions in 1840s German city-states, through a global proletariat revolution presided over by a benevolent butcher Stalin- or Tito-type General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Great Union of Socialist Federated Soviet Party Republics, Autonomous Grand Oblasts, and Quasi-Independent Districts.)
Sorry, they can’t help it, those Commies and those dictators. To have all the power in the world, and not to toy with people(s) – that would be out of the question for them.
There was a lot of purely artificial societal engineering in the former Yugoslavia but there was even much more of that in the former Soviet Union. Ever wonder why the former Soviet space, including Russia proper, is shaking with all kinds of sectarian strife (escalating to conventional wars such as the ones going on between Russia and Ukraine, or Armenia and Azerbaijan), and will continue to do so for many decades to come? Wonder no more. It’s very often because of all the artificial stuff the Commies engineered. And the former Yugoslavia was a small-scale Soviet Union. Its own commie tyrant in Belgrade, however, fell out with the bigger commie tyrant in Moscow, and ended up being best buds with the West.
You may see comments in “mainstream media” that there is no such thing as an “artificial” construct when it comes to groups of people. That is, of course, wrong. When a group of people or a political entity is created by the order of a dictator, or a decree of a communist party, there is hardly anything more artificial than that. And since such an act usually involved unimaginable violence, such a stance conveys a lack of morals, not to mention that it is a recipe for further disasters.
How is all of this relevant to Bulgaria’s veto of the start of EU accession talks for North Macedonia?
I am not going to bore the reader with countless details about evidence how the geographic region of Macedonia used to be part of the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages, how the region had an ethnic Bulgarian majority during the Ottoman period, or how the newly formed Balkan nation states – Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Romania – newly freed from Ottoman domination – fought against Ottoman Turkey and then among themselves over territories, in essence both copying and foreboding the wars among the Great European and world Powers of the time.
Nor am I going to go into detail as to how the modern-day Macedonian nation, having been begotten first by Serbian nationalism at the end of the 19th century, and then successfully implemented at the end of World War II by Joseph Stalin, Josip Broz Tito, and the Comintern (the Communist International), with a language based on the Bulgarian dialects spoken in respective region, or how the Stalin’s Bulgarian lackeys, who took over after the Red Army occupied the country, collaborated with them; or how Stalin and Tito fell out, and their project for a Balkan Yugoslav federation including Bulgaria fell through…
Nor is my intention to use this article to defend any sort of a Bulgarian “nationalist” cause with respect to the Republic of North Macedonia. It would be great to see the Republic of North Macedonia – as would be the case with any other country on the European continent – become a full-fledged part of the EU, live up to the Union’s standards, and see its own people and its neighbors benefit from all of that.
However, it is important that in this particular case, today’s government of the Republic of Bulgaria is right to impose a veto on the start of the EU accession talks for the Republic of North Macedonia. That comes from an author who hardly ever agrees on anything with the Bulgarian government (which I see as utterly dominated by an inherently corrupt post-communist oligarchy).
In all fairness and honesty, however, the Bulgarian government is completely right in its demands for the government of the Republic of North Macedonia: namely, that the North Macedonian authorities terminate the actual theft of Bulgarian history, and that they end the hate speech widely utilized against everything that is Bulgarian.
Today’s Bulgaria has no territorial claims for the Republic of Macedonia, it does recognize the existence of a Macedonian nation – regardless of how it was created – and it has even recognized the right of North Macedonia to call its literary language “Macedonian”.
Back in 1991, the Republic of Bulgaria, fresh out of communism, became the first country in the world to recognize the Republic of Macedonia as a sovereign independent nation-state.
The fact that Bulgaria’s government would even dare make such a bold move as to block another country’s EU accession bid should be telling enough. That is certainly not due to “Bulgarian nationalism”. Bulgaria’s nationalism was crushed too many times – from the loss of the Balkan Wars in 1913, the losses of both World War I and World War II, and then the utter subjugation by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Any self-respecting European diplomat can testify that the Bulgarian government hardly ever takes any assertive stances on international issues. Bulgaria’s highly discredited Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, now in his third term, has himself made it clear that his international behavior usually boils down to parroting the positions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The fact of the matter has been that the Republic of North Macedonia has been teaching a largely made-up version of history presented as history of the Macedonian nation. The problem is that the Macedonian nation popped up on the map as one of the republics of the former communist Yugoslavia only in 1944. In order to create a history for the Macedonian nation, the Yugoslavian communist propaganda “borrowed” heavy from Greek history for the Antiquity period and from Bulgarian history for the Middle Ages and the Ottoman period. There are no historical sources or documents speaking of a Macedonian nation or a Macedonian identity from the Middle Ages. The Kingdom of Macedon from the Antiquity was Ancient Greek, or Hellenic, it even gave the start of the “Hellenistic Age”, and in the late Ottoman period, in the 19th century, when the name “Macedonia” started to appear again in public discourse, it was used as a geographical name. How can it be wrong on part of any nation, in that case, the Bulgarian nation, to protest the fact that another country is declaring a part of its rulers, national heroes, and overall history to be its own?
Then there is the overwhelming hate language employed against Bulgaria and the Bulgarians in all possible form in North Macedonia – another remnant from the staunchly anti-Bulgarian Serbian nationalist propaganda going back to the 19th century but risen to new heights in the former communist Yugoslavia after 1944 with the creation of the Macedonian nation in a formerly Bulgarian region. (Bulgarian nationalists here, to the extent that there are any left, like to quote an old Serbian joke stating that “when you wash a Macedonian, you get dirty water and a clean (as in “pure”) Bulgarian.)
The anti-Bulgarian hate speech in today’s North Macedonia oftentimes reaches hysterical levels. It is utterly xenophobic, could even be considered racist, albeit under a wrongful pretext: Macedonians are taught that today’s Bulgarians are Tatars (Mongols) – using an already discredited theory put forth by Soviet historians about the Turkic origin of the Ancient Bulgars. Not that it matters in this case, but the Ancient Bulgars are now believed to have been of Persian (Iranian) origin, not Turkic, but what is truly perplexing is the outspokenly racist attitude on part of such a small nation as the Macedonian one against the Tatars (Mongols).
Especially considering that the Mongols, or Tatars are a far older people – historical sources spoke of them already in the 12th – 13th century, not to mention that the Mongols, or Tatars, created the largest contiguous land empire in world history (under Genghis Khan and his successors, larger even than the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union at their heights, and in more populous and fertile areas compared with the Far North’s tundra).
Why would today’s North Macedonian educators, politicians, and nationalists day and night make fun of today’s Bulgarians for being descendants of the Mongols – which they are not, thus making fun of the Mongols (Tatars), is beyond any reasonable comprehension.
If there is any “nationalist” hysteria in the dispute at hand, it is on part of the ruling elites in North Macedonia, and it goes back to communist Yugoslavia’s propaganda.
The fact of the matter is that a mere 75 years ago, when the Macedonian nation was being created in the former communist Yugoslavia, its creation was achieved through a massive ethnic cleansing campaign – very reminiscent of the attempted ethnic cleansing wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s where the international community led by the West stepped in and prevented large-scale genocide.
In the 1940s, however, the victims were the Bulgarians in Yugoslavia’s part of Macedonia, all was done with the blessing of Uncle Joe Stalin, at least at first, and with the collaboration of Stalin’s lackey’s who had just committed a coup in Sofia. And there was no victorious post-Cold War United States and a West, and a NATO, and an international community to intervene. The Bulgarians in Macedonia in the 1940s had much, much worse luck than the Croats and Bosniaks in Bosnia in 1995 or the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999.
Very few people around the world have heard about the “Bloody Macedonian Christmas” of 1944 – 1945. That was a large-scale Crystal Night (Krystalnacht)-type pogrom against the leaders of the Bulgarian population of the region that is today the Republic of North Macedonia carried out by former Serbian chetniks (paramilitary fighters) and pro-Serbian / pro-Yugoslav communist locals.
On Christmas 1944, the pogrom saw the murder overnight of some 1,200 Bulgarian teachers, priests, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, former servicemen of the Bulgarian army – all of them locals. Bulgarian priests were dragged by their beards in town and village squares before they got tortured and/or executed. An actual medieval dungeon in the Skopje fortress was used for the torture and murder of hundreds of Bulgarians.
Historical research works published in Bulgaria after 2000 estimated that claimed the lives of a total of 23,000 Bulgarians from today’s North Macedonia between 1943 and 1946, while the total of number of those who were tortured, imprisoned, exiled, or displaced was about 130,000. These people’s sole crime was that they wanted to keep their Bulgarian identity, and refused to declare themselves Macedonian, Yugoslav, or Serbian.
Of course, at the time, and for many decades after that, Bulgaria itself was turned by the staunchest satellite of the Soviet Union – so why would the West care about the rights of the Bulgarians in Yugoslavia, about any ethnic cleansing, especially since after 1948 Yugoslavia was a friend of NATO? Not to mention that in one of the most ridiculously absurd episodes of world history, the early government of communist Bulgaria forced part of the Bulgarian population to declare itself “Macedonian” in preparation for entering in the future greater Yugoslavia confederation in which the section of the Macedonian region in Bulgaria would have been ceded to the new “Macedonian” republic. Only after the two almighty tyrants, Stalin and Tito, fell out and started sending assassins after each other, the supposedly “Bulgarian” government stopped forcing part of its population to be “Macedonian”.
The 1940s ethnic cleansing of the Bulgarians in today’s Republic of North Macedonia was a repugnant crime, and there was nobody to come to the rescue. By the way, it was a similar situation in the late 1980s when the government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the same communist lackeys of the Soviet Union, undertook, albeit a less savage (because it didn’t involve mass murder) but still brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the country’s ethnic Turks. At the time, the West also didn’t react because communist Bulgaria had been protected by the potential nuclear avalanche that could come from the Soviet Union in any actual NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict.
The difference is that today’s Republic of Bulgaria, the misguided post-communist oligarchy that it is, has still denounced the ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Turks, and has tried to make amends and compensate the affected people. Back in 2000, the Bulgarian Parliament declared the communist rule of the country “a criminal regime”. (As you can see, it didn’t only target different ethnicities, it widely targeted ethnic Bulgarians as well, which is what Commie and Nazi-type regimes always do – they actually slaughter people indiscriminately, even from the supposed dominant class or race; they just use shifting pretexts.)
In the Republic of North Macedonia, however, there has been no remorse, no apology, not even a recognition of crimes of the former Yugoslavia on North Macedonian territory, of the savage ethnic cleansing, not to mention the wild propaganda and brainwashing targeting Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. There has been a lot of brainwashing so as to craft an entire new nation.
It is important to note, however, that today’s Bulgarian government is still very timid in its demands for the Republic of North Macedonia – it is not asking for a recognition of the ethnic cleansing crimes, it is not demanding compensations, or retribution, or anything of the sort. It is only asking that pre-1944 Bulgarian history isn’t “stolen”, i.e. presented as “Macedonian history”, and that the widespread hate speech against Bulgaria and the Bulgarians – which is the foundation upon which the Macedonian national identity has been built by the communist Yugoslav propagandists since the 1940s – is put an end to.
By the way, these are demands that the government of North Macedonia has agreed to in principle in a 2017 bilateral treaty on good-neighborliness, which, however, does not seem to have been implemented at all by the North Macedonian side.
In the 1940s, as in the 1990s, the rulers of Yugoslavia employed brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns. In the latter case they were stopped by the West with NATO bombing. In the former case, well, the world doesn’t even know about it.
How is that conducive to the democracy and rule of law and the good neighborly relations requirements of the European Union? How about any basic justice, any awareness of actual world history? Is that why the European Union is repeatedly failing to stand up to today’s bullies and tyrants and bloody dictators? Because it isn’t just ignoring of the lessons of the recent past – it doesn’t even care for hearing them?
Since the ruling elite of the Republic of North Macedonia owes its status to the heritage from the former Yugoslavia, and the entire national identity of the country is based on hatred of Bulgaria and “not being Bulgarian”, apparently in order to post-date reverse the past, there isn’t much reason for optimism that the political elite of North Macedonia would rectify the excesses that Bulgaria is concerned over. Nonetheless, it remains unfair to vilify the Bulgarian side simply because it has demands which are actually in line with the EU’s requirements for good-neighborly relations and the resolution of disputes for prospective members.
The West, the EU and even the United States, don’t even live up to the lessons learned from the ethnic cleansing, genocide, and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, with which they dealt first hand. So it is not surprising that another similar ethnic cleansing campaign over there from a much earlier period would pique their interest. Yet, it would be great if the Bulgarian veto the start of North Macedonia’s EU talks somehow helps inform a more justice-oriented approach to international matters, and, of course, if the dispute somehow (right now it’s hard to say how) gets resolved shortly so that another country can make its way to joining the European Union.
(Banner image: The Prime Ministers of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev (L), and Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov (R), are seen here in Sofia on November 10, 2020, in a last-ditch effort to avoid the veto. Photo: Bulgaria’s Council of Ministers)