Vladimir Vladimirov: The future of Bulgarian-Macedonian ties is in the relations between people [VIDEO]

From the very beginning the new political forces in the Macedonian government are in an international isolation

The Bulgarian political analyst Vladimir Vladimirov, deputy head of the Bulgarian-Macedonian business forum, spoke to Cross-border Talks about the internal and international situation around North Macedonia after the parliamentary and presidential elections of April/May 2024. He commented that North Macedonia’s only real geopolitical option is further Europeanization. In his view what Skopje tries to do now is to base itself on Serbia as a regional ally, which means ties to non-Western countries. 

Vladimirov also commented on Bulgarian-Macedonian relations. In his view the previous government of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia and its Albanian partner of the Union for Democratic Integration started developing the infrastructural connections with Bulgaria and once that they are completed in a few years’ time, real boost of people-to-people relations, of business ties and cultural projects between Bulgarians and Macedonia can be expected.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another cross-border talk, which now moves to Southeastern Europe and Western Balkans, where Macedonia just got a new president and just had parliamentary elections. They gave a dominant position, but still not a completely hegemony to the ٰVMRO-DPMNE party, which has been historically right-wing party or conservative populist party, and it was associated with the previous regime of stabilocracy of Nikola Gruevski.

However, the change which was attempted for the last seven years to this stabilocracy maybe has not convinced, given the results, and we are now joined by a Bulgarian political analyzer, who is also deputy head of the Bulgarian-Macedonian Business Forum, Vladimir Vladimirov, to have a Bulgarian reflection on the developments in Macedonia and Bulgarian-Macedonian relations. The first question will be put by my colleague Malgorzata Kulbaczewska.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello everybody listening or watching cross-border talks, and thank you very much, Vladimir, for accepting our invitation. We meet a few days after an election in Northern Macedonia that was described by some of my colleagues in Polish media as an earthquake. The SDSM party, the Social Democratic Party of Northern Macedonia was abruptly removed from power by the right-wing opposition. So, if you could give us some background about what happened, why there is such a massive outflow of the voters from the Social Democratic Party, and what are the hopes of those who voted for the winning VMRO coalition?

Hello to you and to your viewers. I would like to split your question into two parts. First, those previous six-seven years of rule of the Social Democratic Party of Northern Macedonia weren’t very successful from a few perspectives. There was the COVID crisis, an energy crisis. Many internal and foreign factors that influenced the policy and the feeling of the Macedonian citizens, how they feel and how they see the rule of Social Democrats.

Second, before the elections, the speeches of the VMRO-DPMNE leadership were not close to the normal political discussions, but much more like a propaganda machine. So, they said to the voters that they were going to change the name of the country, which was previously set in an international contract with Greece. And also, VMRO-DPMNE’s ambitions are related to Bulgaria and the international contract between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. So, they promised, actually, the things that are not possible.

Due to this fact and due to the populism in their campaign, they got most of the votes in the country. This way, they won the presidential elections and also almost the full majority in the North Macedonian parliament. So, I can see international reasons and internal populist reasons resulting from the behaviour of VMRO-DPMNE party.

Northern Macedonia was often described as a corrupt state, as a state without perspectives, in the sense that people who wanted to find better jobs, better business perspectives migrated from that country. And that this was also the reason of disappointment with SDSM, as this party promised a few years ago that they would actually repair many things in political and social lives, which apparently did not happen.

So, therefore, my question is, if VMRO-DPMNE is coming to power in such unfavorable social conditions, also from the point of view of the business, how are they going to rule if everything you suggested that they offer are those promises concerning the name of the country and the international relations? And also, you add that these promises can’t even be kept…

My answer is: I don’t know. The international situation, as we know, due to the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Israel and Gaza Strip, and the whole international environment, is not very positive. And the only option for such a small country, a poor country, which is not very well economically developed, is the European Union.

After she won the presidential election,  the newly elected president did not mention North Macedonia, but referred only to Macedona in her first official speech. This is not a good sign of what is going to happen in the next months and what will be the policy of the new elected president. If the future government continues with this kind of messages and these kinds of policies, my forecast for North Macedonia in midterm, we say five, six, seven years, is not good, due to the fact that a significant part of the population of North Macedonia are ethnic Albanians.

They are something like one quarter of the population of North Macedonia. Now North Macedonia and Albania are packed together in the process of accession to the European Union. If Albania and North Macedonia will be separated in near future and Albania starts real negotiations with the EU and in a few years Albania becomes a member of the European Union, I’m not sure that Macedonia will survive as a state.

So, you even expect a possible collapse of the whole state. That is, I would say, a catastrophic prediction for any country in Europe or in fact anywhere else. And I would like to ask you then about regional contacts of North Macedonia with the neighbors.

If Bulgaria and Greece can soon become in a kind of conflict with North Macedonia, then who will be the partners of the new Macedonian government? Who are the states with whom North Macedonia can build more constructive relations?

North Macedonia has historically always been, as a territory and as a country, a place where different geopolitical vectors are crossed. So, from one side is Bulgaria, from the other side is Greece, from the third side is Albania and Kosovo, and fourth side is Serbia. Today, the newly-elected party considers Serbia as an ally, as something like a model for the future. They said: we are going to develop relations also with Russia, with China, with BRICS, with other options. So, they are publicly saying that there are other options. But in reality, there is no other option for North Macedonia.

This is obvious. Plus, North Macedonia is a member of NATO. But the future is not very positive if they start and turn to this policy to develop relationships with Russia and China and other countries, because if we check what was the situation in Serbia, which is the biggest ally of Russia and China, you know, a week ago the Chinese president was in Serbia. A huge percentage of the Serbian GDP is actually supported by loans from China on a very high interest rate. It happened also in Montenegro. It happened in other countries where the Chinese are strong. The relationship with China is something that should be considered very seriously, because the Chinese loans are coming very easily, but the Chinese are not going out very easily. So, in this regard, Bulgaria and Greece will continue their efforts to help North Macedonia with all the diplomatic activities to continue its path, its journey to the European Union, because they are our ally in NATO. Albania also has its influence in North Macedonia.

One of the biggest parties there is the ethnic Albanian party – Democratic Union for Integration, which is really very much pro-Albanian. The other Albanian party – VLEN, was a new force in the latest parliamentary elections. It was established a few months ago. It is supported by the premier and government of Kosovo.

So, we have a situation, in which all the neighbors are participating in North Macedonian politics in one or another way.

You are an expert who is knowledgeable on Bulgarian-Macedonian relations, and I have a question about that. Just a few years ago, in 2017, when there were very good signs that Bulgarian-Macedonian relations were advancing, there was this idea that they even have what they both referred to as “a common history”. This was, if I’m not mistaken, even written down and signed in a common document between two countries.

It is a part of the agreement on good neighbourliness between the countries.

Yes. Later, some contestation started about what exactly this common history means. As far as I remember, there was only agreement on the allegiance of King Samuil, who is a medieval Bulgarian king. But on many other issues, the formulation of what this common history means didn’t advance. And now I hear a very different, even maybe an opposite theory about Bulgarian-Macedonian relations.

More and more people in Bulgaria claim that the two nations may have nothing in common. So, I want to ask you about that. First, what are the reasons for this transformation? It looks like it is mutual. It’s not happening only in one of the two countries, but in both ones. And on the other hand, which is the better formula for the Bulgarian-Macedonian relations regarding identity  if we also look at the international context and maybe what the development for the two countries means?

Well, first, we have to say that in the conversation between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, there are third parties. There are not only these two countries. One participant is Serbia. Another is Russia. So there are many more people around the table and many more countries around the table. And as I said, there are many kinds of influence in this conversation. Plus, you know, in Europe, we have too much history. At the moment, actually, we don’t have a real relationship between the two countries. They are absolutely on the level of zero. They are frozen. 

The best way to get out of the impasse is to put out a little bit aside the history conversation. There is a Bulgarian-North Macedonian Historical Commission that is considering and looking for consensus over the historical events. We have to leave it alone without so much political influence on it, because, you know, we have a lot of similar examples in Europe.

There was a Polish-German Commission. There was a French-German Commission. And it took years and years before we stick to the point where we have a mutual understanding and mutual agreement about what happened in our closest history. So, I think the best way is to put this commission aside, to leave it to work in a really relaxed environment, and to focus on the things that made the European Union: infrastructure, economy, cultural context. I consider as a main problem at the moment the very low level of infrastructure between the countries. There are 220 kilometers between Sofia and Skopje, but we are traveling three-four hours to pass this distance, which is not acceptable according to the European standards.

So, this is the first thing. The second thing is that at the moment the position of Bulgaria to historical issues, is actually the position of the European Union. So, the European Union and the Brussels said to North Macedonia: you should first establish the new chapter in your constitution and to put the Bulgarians also there. In the North Macedonian constitution, there are ethnic rights guaranteed, and there are mentioned different people and populations like North Macedonians, Albanians, Serbians, Bosniaks, Gypsies, etc. And one of the topics in the conversation between Brussels and Skopje, is that Bulgarians have to be mentioned in the North Macedonian constitution as ethnicity.

It means the constitutional modifications should be voted on in the North Macedonian parliament. So, now, we are waiting to see what is going to happen when the new government will be established, because from one side, it will be VMRO-DPMNE, the future ruling populist party, but from the other side, their possible partner is a party called VLEN, that is really influenced by the Kosovo policy and the Kosovo prime minister. All the Albanians are pro-NATO, pro-European Union, absolutely Euro-Atlantic.

So, the coalition partner may influence the coalition so that the Bulgarians in the constitution and to start real negotiations with the European Union.

You mentioned that ties between people, businesses, cultural organizations are the way forward for the relations, not so much the identity discussions. What was done for the advancement of these ties in the last seven years, which I presume from media that were maybe supposedly to be better for the Bulgarian-Macedonian ties, given that now there is a huge reaction in Bulgarian media that a lot of anti-Bulgarian propaganda took place in the election campaign. So, presumably, maybe the SDSM governments were better for Bulgaria. But what, in fact, changed and what is the current state of these relations on human and business and cultural level?

First, they signed the treaty on good neighborliness with Bulgaria, which is a very big step ahead. This contract is related to many issues that were issues in the past. Now, we have this contract that is somehow resolving those problems.

Second, during the last seven years, it was a significant development in regard to infrastructure. Bulgaria and North Macedonia are not connected by train. So, at the moment, there are construction works from North Macedonia side, and in a few years, we will be connected also by railways.

So, it is a big and significant development because once it happens from the Black Sea to the Adriatic Sea, we will have connections also by train. In the Bulgarian part, most of the infrastructure is built. What’s left is a 60 kilometers long railroad to be built – from the existing highway to Greece to be connected to the Bulgarian border with North Macedonia. From the North Macedonia side, there are also developments of high-speed roads, and by the end of this year, they will be done. 

So, there are significant infrastructural developments that I believe will help for more traffic, more people coming in both countries, more tourists, and what we need is a relaxation of the political dispute, as it happened in the whole Europe. A few years after the Second World War between France and Germany, there were more than 200 cross-border points. This is the future: no borders, connectivity, exchange of people, ideas, and of course, business.

Okay, so, for the final question, I’d like to ask you about the immediate challenges for the new government of North Macedonia once it’s formed. Assuming that the members of this government will understand just as you persuade us that there is no other way forward than the European Union with all the cultural baggage of the European Union and not some dreams of working with Chinese or Russians or whoever, what are the most immediate challenges they need to overcome on the way to negotiating the European future?

There are two main challenges. First, it’s political, because before they started, they were already in some kind of isolation. So, there are statements from Greece, from Bulgaria, from Ursula von der Leyen in this regard, from Charles Michel.

So, let’s say that way, the non-existing future government of North Macedonia already has a yellow card on the political field. And the second is, of course, the economy. Macedonian economical situation is not a bright one. They have to face the consequences of the COVID crisis, energy crisis. The surroundings of North Macedonia also are not very developed, like Kosovo.

Kosovo has a problem with Serbia. Macedonian relations with Albania are not at a very good level. So, they have to start real conversation for the future with themselves internally in the North Macedonian society.

And also, they should start a real and honest conversation with their neighbors, mainly those that are NATO members, because we are allies at the end of the day. Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania are members of NATO. So, we have to find a way, on both sides, to start the real conversation for infrastructure, for economy, and for European accession.

Everything else is going to be a very bad scenario for North Macedonia and its citizens, and they will continue leaving the country, searching for a better life in the European Union.

I think this is the time to close our conversation, to close the interview. I think that the most important message we heard today is that history is history, and should be studied by historians. But what matters the most for people living here and now is the future, and we need to work together, work in a dialogue on the future, which is related to connectivity, economy, exchange of ideas. And when we reach this, perhaps we can also have a look at our common past from a different angle.

I offered to the Bulgarian government and the North Macedonian government in the past, when we had these talks, to start a conversation for history when the average salary in both countries is on the average level of the European Union. Then, relaxed, people are going to speak easily about history. Now, at the end of the day, everyone is opening its refrigerator, and the situation is not a bright one.

Yeah, a very important remark as well. Yes, let’s discuss history when the most important issues of today are resolved. And with this, I’d like to thank you, Vladimir, for being our guest in Cross-Border Talks, and I’d like to remind everybody listening or watching that we are present on all the biggest social platforms.

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Cover photo: Northern Macedonian parliament (Sobranie) building in Skopje. Photo by Juan Antonio Segal, CC-BY-SA.

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