Nikolay Krastev is one of Bulgaria’s leading experts on the Western Balkans. He was the correspondent for Bulgarian National Radio in Belgrade and Moscow.
“The Bridge of Friendship” spoke to him about the recent escalation of tensions in Bulgarian-Macedonian relations, the need for common means of communication between Bulgarians and Macedonians, the role of the “Open Balkans” initiative and North Macedonia’s accession to NATO for relations in the Western Balkans. Krastev also commented on the shared history of the two nations and why Bulgaria should not give up this understanding.
The interview was conducted in late February 2023.
Mr. Krastev, after the incidents with the Bulgarian clubs in Macedonia and the tense day of 4 February 2023, when dozens of Bulgarian citizens failed to honour the memory of Gote Delcev in Skopje because of problems on the Bulgarian-Macedonian border, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev called for European monitoring of the rights of Bulgarians in North Macedonia. To what extent is this strategy of redefining Bulgarian-Macedonian issues as European the right one from the point of view of the Macedonian Bulgarians and the European development of North Macedonia?
Human rights are fundamental. They must be preserved and developed, not only in this case, but in general, as we are talking about the EU accession of our south-western neighbour. This is a very important issue. Already with the adoption of the so-called French proposal of the European Union at the end of June 2022, it has become clear that part of the theses of the talks between Sofia and Skopje have become part of the negotiations between the European Union and the neighbouring Republic of North Macedonia. This is good, because relations between us clearly need some kind of mediator at this point. However, for me, this is not the best time for this. I think we should be working towards rapprochement rather than seeking mediation between Bulgaria and Macedonia. Bulgaria and Macedonia do not need a mediator. Otherwise, yes, solutions should be sought in European formats to redefine the strategy in the negotiations so that more effective methods of influence can be sought. Each side is looking for an opportunity to show what it can do.
The Bulgarian media often gives the impression that there is a deep hatred towards the Bulgarians in North Macedonia, but there are other voices, and they are usually either businessmen or intellectuals – people who have their own contacts and interactions with the Macedonians, who say that, in fact, there is no problem between the Bulgarians and the Macedonians. Where does this difference in experience and impressions come from? And what is the approach that can create a change in the relationship, a positive change, so that this blockage that seems to occur can be overcome?
When things develop in a peaceful and normal way, no problems arise. The truth is that there are no such problems everywhere. They only arise in certain environments where tensions tend to rise.
In the second half of October, when I was in North Macedonia, I was in taxis, on city and intercity buses, in Skopje and in Tetovo. I talked to my friends in Bulgarian. Nobody attacked me, nobody said to me, “You are a bad Bulgarian. Why do you do these things?”. This is my personal example, which shows that relationships can be put on a normal course of development.
However, when media attacks and provocations are sought, consciously or not so consciously, then things do not look very good. Unfortunately, the Pendikov case is illustrative. Yes, this man was put in a very dangerous situation. He was beaten. But – notice, he was beaten by people with Bulgarian passports. I wonder why Bulgaria did not revoke the documents of those who attacked the Macedonian citizen Pendikov.
This was a consular case. Let’s be clear about the exact name of the thing. It was not necessary for Bulgaria to send planes (to get the wounded Pendikov in Sofia – note of the translator) – the first plane, the second plane, to look for an opportunity to demonstrate. It could have resolved all this in communication with the Macedonian authorities. That’s why you have an ambassador, that’s why you have a consul general in Bitola and people on the ground who can put pressure on the Macedonian state. I also have many friends in Macedonia who have no problem with the fact that they are Bulgarian Macedonians, and therefore it is always good to look at it that way and not to look at it through a certain media prism, which I think distorts the situation of our south-western neighbour to a great extent.
Why has the Bulgarian state stepped up its reaction after this particular incident?
For me, there is only one explanation. That is that since the beginning of February it has become clear that new early parliamentary elections will take place in Bulgaria. And the subject of ‘Macedonia’ always comes up in the public arena when Bulgaria smells of elections. That is exactly what happened. At the beginning of February, things went in this direction and all the parties, or a large part of them, began to point to the relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia.
Having recognised this country on 15 January 1992 – then the Republic of Macedonia, now the Republic of North Macedonia – we have to accept this. The Bulgarian factor is a factor and that is a fact. Nobody denies that. But we have to accept that this country has its own point of view on the processes. Whether we like it or not is another matter. I don’t like some of their perceptions and visions of exactly how they should be implemented either. I don’t like the way Bulgarians are portrayed as Tartars and fascists. But they got all this from our disputes and from Bulgarian history books.
We have not yet decided what happened in Bulgaria between 1941 and 1944. What was the Bulgarian regime then – monarcho-fascism, fascism? You have a parliamentary party in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Socialists, who to this day say that there was fascism in Bulgaria in that period between 1941 and 1944. When we clarify these things in our textbooks, in our historiography, then things will look different.
The thesis that the Bulgarians were Tatars, they take it again from our history books. They cleverly turn it to their advantage and use it against us. We ourselves have been saying since the 1980s where do we come from, where did our ancestors, the proto-Bulgarians, come from? We also need to clarify our vision of our national origins and be somewhat clearer and more definitive in our behaviour.
You mentioned the media prism through which North Macedonia is seen in Bulgaria. Perhaps the Macedonian media looks at us from the other direction. Have there been lately or are there now media outlets that emphasize reciprocity, not just accusations or the search for some kind of national justice, but media outlets that promote mutual understanding between Bulgarians and Macedonians? To the extent that perhaps not all Bulgarians or few Bulgarians know Macedonian intellectuals, playwrights etc.?
Before answering this question, we can say that the media is a very important segment for those who want to hinder Bulgarian-Macedonian relations. In Skopje, you have the media that are part of the so-called Nikola Gruevski package, which pursues its anti-European policy towards Bulgaria. They create tensions and use every opportunity, every thing said somewhere in the Bulgarian political space. They multiply it as much as possible in Macedonia. This is a problem for Bulgaria. Someone says something that doesn’t have much meaning, but in Macedonia, through the snowball effect, it spreads and they say, “Look – the Bulgarians are creating tension again, they are going against us again and they are creating discomfort in Bulgarian-Macedonian relations.”
In Bulgaria, on the other hand, some media take content from similar Macedonian media, which are too nationalistic and pro-Belgrade, and expand that statement of a politician. There are politicians there, as in Bulgaria, whose sole aim is to create tension and destabilise relations between Sofia and Skopje. Here, too, the essential thing is, on the one hand, that the mechanism for combating hate speech is fully respected and, on the other, that guarantees are given on both sides that things will be brought under control. You can’t have one Bulgarian politician and then another extremist nationalist saying “Macedonia is Bulgarian” in the centre of Skopje. In the opinion of you, your viewers and listeners, is Macedonia becoming Bulgarian by talking like this? On the contrary, Macedonian society is encapsulating itself even more, it is closing in on itself. Other defence mechanisms are set in motion, working to create intolerance in relations between Bulgarians and Macedonians. Some people just want there to be instability, they want this to be a conflict frozen in time, which can evolve according to other scenarios, not the ones that should be followed. This is already the core of your question, if we know each other so well.
Apart from one or two intellectuals, we do not know the intellectual life in modern Macedonia. We do not know their writers fully and we do not know their musicians well. We don’t know their jazz performers and their folk music performers. If you ask a person from Dobrich, from Varna, if he knows these kind of performers from North Macedonia, it is logical that he will tell you that he does not know them. And this is not an exaggeration. It’s just that the lack of media presence, both Bulgarian in Macedonia and Macedonian in Bulgaria, will create more and more problems. And the bridges between Bulgaria and North Macedonia will be on an increasingly weak basis. We will not be able to know each other. As long as, when you sit in your office, you cannot turn on a Macedonian TV and inform yourself about what happened today, but instead, through a certain news agency in Bulgaria, you will get distorted information, until then that is the way it will be. The truth is that as long as there is no real media partnership, no real exchange of information, as long as there are no joint media projects, as long as things look like this, they will not only stir up tension, but also distrust, which is the biggest minus in the 21st century. Given that you can create regional media, given that you can have a strategy for the development of the information space, it is an unforgivable mistake not to do so and not to be able to present your point of view in the information space of your neighbours.
For example, there are Albanian media institutions which, in addition to working on the territory of the Republic of Albania, also work in Macedonia, also work in Kosovo. There are Kosovan media working on the territory of Macedonia and Albania. This creates an Albanian information space in the Balkans. But it is not purely Albanian. There are also broadcasts in Macedonian. If there are no broadcasts, at least there are translations with subtitles. And people are aware of the benefits of the conversations that are going on.
We need to get to know each other. We need to go to each other. We’re in this situation where, even thirty-two years after the independence of neighboring Macedonia, we expect Macedonia to take more steps towards us in a relationship. You know it takes two to dance.
We are two brothers who have lived apart for some time. And when they meet after a while, let not the one who has lived better tell the one who has not lived so well that it is worse at home, that he is barely living in worse conditions. That is why I say that one of the brothers, the older and more successful one, should help the less successful one to develop and move forward. Anything else – teasing, arguing one way or another – does not create the necessary fund of trust between our two brotherly peoples.
There is a lot of fake news. About a year, a year and two or three months ago, near Bitola, if my memory serves me correctly, there was a report that a monument had been destroyed by the Macedonian authorities because a road was being built through a place where there was a monument. It turned out over time that this monument was destroyed 80 years ago by the then Yugoslav authorities. But Bulgaria and certain politicians in Bulgaria were quick to attack Macedonia for this. That is what I mean, that there must eventually be trust between our nations.
North Macedonia has become a member of NATO. What does this change in Bulgarian-Macedonian relations? Also, as Macedonia moves closer to joining the European Union, to what extent will the power-based approach continue to have validity in these relations?
The accession of Northern Macedonia to the EU, NATO and hopefully in time to the European Union, is very important because Bulgaria needs a predictable neighbour on its south-western border. This brings more stability to the Western Balkans. This will reduce tensions in our region.
Macedonia, although small geographically, has its strategic dimension. It is in the Southern Balkans, where there are crises at the moment, such as the Kosovo-Serbia dispute. On the other hand, it is not so far from Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where you know that political and ethnic tensions are very serious. The entry of Northern Macedonia itself helps to make our region more predictable and stable, especially at a time of war in Ukraine.
It is clear that someone here in the Balkans is trying to create tensions and develop tensions in the southern wing of the Sofia-Skopje alliance and create instability in our Balkan area. There are countries, there are politicians who do not want the region to be stable here. Apart from Bulgaria and neighbouring Macedonia, you have seen that last year, and the year before, and in the last 24 months, there were tensions in Bulgarian-Albanian relations because Bulgaria’s policy towards neighbouring Macedonia was so vague. Through this policy, we have ensured that we are losing our Albanian partners. That is why I am telling you that someone’s desire to create tensions between Bulgaria and Macedonia has repercussions on other areas here in the Balkans.
North Macedonia has the challenge of asserting its statehood, which all countries in the Western Balkans have. And when the road to the EU was temporarily closed, the Open Balkans initiative emerged, which Macedonia joined. This is a form of mini-Schengen area. In conclusion, what is the way forward for Macedonia in terms of international relations? What do you expect to happen in the next few years, including in terms of EU accession requirements concerning Bulgaria in some form and recognition of Bulgarians in its constitution?
I don’t know if this is what we should be working towards all the way – recognition of Bulgarians in the Macedonian constitution. But obviously this is part of the terms of official Bulgarian foreign policy. I believe that by including the Bulgarians in the Macedonian constitution, we will clarify that there are two political entities in our south-western neighbourhood – the Bulgarians and the Macedonians. We are going far beyond what we have been taught in history, that it is one people in two countries. And now it will become clear, and Bulgaria is doing its best to show that the Macedonians are a separate people. This is one thing that, frankly, I do not understand: to what extent Bulgaria is aware of this, in my opinion, strategic ambiguity in its policy. I do not know exactly which architect is guarding this policy at the moment, but it is going nowhere.
Look at neighbouring Romania, which has a very clear and precise policy towards the Republic of Moldova, towards Ukraine, where groups of Romanians also live. While Bulgaria does not do this in relation to its south-western neighbour. This is something that Bulgaria could learn from Bucharest and its policy towards Moldova, Ukraine and the post-Soviet area. Open wide your doors, move towards economic integration, move towards strengthening cultural ties, because the Open Balkans project is a Serbian project, behind which lie Russian interests in separating the Balkans from the West, in replacing the European integration of our region and, in particular, of the Western Balkans, in slowing down this process if possible. It is clear that Serbia is seeking a solution to the Kosovo problem by economising on the Kosovo problem together with Albania and North Macedonia.
Will this be a stable political project? Because behind the economic problems that are increasingly evident in the Open Balkans there is also a very big politics. This is a “successful” project of Belgrade, which has been very successful in its economy in turning or negotiating new economic spaces in the Western Balkans region. But this project is not complete until Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina join it. Then perhaps this former Yugoslav economic space could be filled. And Kosovo could remain as an isolated point and be forced to join somehow. That is why I say that we should look and help North Macedonia to move forward, and not remain in the former Yugoslavia’s pillbox. Let us not depend on the resolution of relations between Kosovo and Serbia and therefore on the processes in the Western Balkans. Bulgaria and Greece should have been active advocates for Northern Macedonia’s path towards the European Union.
What is the problem with looking at Bulgarian-Macedonian relations through the prism of the idea of a shared history? You mentioned that there is a certain effort to divide, as if history says that one is one identity, one history, and another is another identity, another history.
Well, I don’t see that there is a problem. After the signing of the friendship treaty between Bulgaria and Macedonia on August 1, 2017, an agreement on a common history was reached. If only Bulgaria had gone to the centre of Skopje with this document and said that it also has a common history with neighbouring Macedonia, it would have made historical progress. We just want to make progress in North Macedonia with history. History is important. Nobody is challenging that. Facts are also important, but today it is important to build bridges, highways, roads, to open banking institutions, for the media to reach there, for your culture to be more and more popular, more readable, more visible. Because as little as we know about North Macedonia and common perceptions, they know about us.
We are two estranged brothers who have lived in different spaces, in different sizes. One lived in a place where things clearly didn’t work out in the best way for him and his family. The other lived in better circumstances, with better economic opportunities. And now we need to help the one who didn’t live in better economic circumstances to begin to recover his ancestral memory. And to start moving towards it.
Bulgaria had to be more active, to work in the direction of seeking discussions between young people, pupils and students. To talk in Skopje, in Sofia, in the Ohrid-Plovdiv or Ohrid-Varna formats, to discuss these historical and cultural issues that divide us. But it was not necessary to plunge into the depths, because neither society is yet ready to go all the way and read history in its entirety. History can surprise you all the time.
Photo: Nikolay Krastev (source: Nikolay Krastev)