Bulgaria and North Macedonia launched new talks this week, aimed at clearing a path to North Macedonian membership of the European Union.
Tuesday marked North Macedonian premier Dimitar Kovachevski’s first meeting with a foreign leader since receiving a vote of confidence in parliament on Sunday.
His predecessor, Zoran Zaev, stepped down partly as a result of failing to lift a Bulgarian veto to his country’s starting membership talks with the EU.
Kovachevski has pledged to intensify talks with Bulgaria, but on Tuesday he dampened expectations.
“We’re only going to pay attention to the things that are making us closer, not the things that are keeping us apart,” he said. “We will give those matters an additional deadline.”
Saska Cvetkovska, executive director at the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and a veteran observer of local politics, told Al Jazeera: “Both sides discussed some more pragmatic parts of the cross border cooperation – economic and diplomatic education, chambers of commerce. These are mostly run by the EU so they don’t count.
“Everybody was avoiding the core issue, which is the recognition of the Macedonian language and identity.”
The two countries have been ensnared in historic and cultural disagreements for four and a half years. Bulgaria objects to the linguistic and ethnic designation “Macedonian”, saying Slav Macedonians speak Bulgarian and are essentially Bulgarians.
“All these years the focus was on the Greek issues,” said Cvetkovska, referring to separate historic disagreements with North Macedonia’s neighbour to the south.
“Macedonian politics were relying on the international community to fix the Bulgarian problem.”
Under premier Nikola Gruevski, the grandson of Greek communist exiles, North Macedonia claimed descent from ancient Macedonian kings Philip II and Alexander the Great, whose palaces are in the northern Greek region of Macedonia.
In 2018, North Macedonia agreed to change its name from Republic of Macedonia, which Greece said implied a claim on its northern territory.
The so-called Prespes Agreement paved the way for North Macedonia’s entry into NATO. It also demarcated the two countries historically. North Macedonia relinquished claims to “ancient Hellenic civilisation, history, culture and heritage” in article 7. It states that, “the Macedonian language is within the group of south Slavic languages,” unrelated to Greek.
It is much more difficult for Slav Macedonians to make such an ethnic and cultural distinction with Bulgarians, who also speak a Slavonic language.
“The history of Bulgaria and Slav Macedonia until World War Two are one and the same,” says Iakovos Michailidis, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki.
“Where they differ is after 1940, when Bulgaria becomes a Nazi ally, and [what is now] North Macedonia was part of Tito’s resistance to the Nazis. That’s where the history diverges. So the history up to World War Two is an apple of discord.”
“Historical continuity and roots in the Balkans have become huge issues,” says Michailidis. “The Slav Macedonians cannot accept that their beginnings as a nation go back only as far back as the 1940s.”
The two countries’ common history stretches at least to the early Middle Ages. In the late 9th century, Tsar Samuel expanded the Bulgarian state west to the borders of Albania, holding court in Skopje and Ochrid, today part of North Macedonia. Both countries claim him a national hero.
A joint committee of historians set up in 2017 to agree separate national narratives has made little progress. Last October, North Macedonian historian Vancho Gjorgjiev resigned from the committee citing “open attempts at political influence”.
This was confirmed by the chair of the Bulgarian team, Angel Dimitrov. “Unfortunately, all our attempts to take a step forward have stopped,” he said.
A suggestion by the European Parliament to include historians on the committee who have no ties to the region was met with derision.
“This shows that the very idea of forming a commission for history and cleaning the textbooks of content that does not suit the neighbours was a mistake,” said Todor Cepreganov, a Slav Macedonian committee member. “We will be put in a situation where history is made by foreigners.”
Issues with the Greeks
Under the Prespes Agreement, a similar joint committee was set up to resolve clashing historical claims with the Greeks. It was to have concluded in 2019. An election that year replaced the left-wing Syriza government with the conservative New Democracy, and the process stalled.
“Unfortunately the government is treating the implementation of the  agreement using party political criteria,” said George Katrougalos, foreign minister under Syriza. “It’s mostly interested in not having reactions from its own nationalists, so it won’t implement even those elements of the agreement that are indisputably in the Greek interest.”
Greek government sources have recently said aspects of the Prespes Agreement, which entered into force three years ago this month, are not being honoured. The name change to North Macedonia is not fully processed online and in signage, the Greek descent of the ancient Macedonians is not indicated in archaeological sites, and irredentist maps of a greater Macedonia have not all been removed.
Despite the delays in implementation of the 2018 agreement, it has at least allowed Greece to push for North Macedonia to begin membership talks with the EU.
“Right now the peoples of the Western Balkans feel a great disappointment,” said Katrougalos.
“They feel that the dream of membership in the European Union is distant, and that creates problems … with the functioning of democracy itself in those countries. It takes hope for democratic institutions to function.”