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Bones Of Contention With Bulgaria Threaten North Macedonia's EU Hopes

Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov (left) and North Macedonia's Zoran Zaev shake hands in Skopje in August. But can they see eye to eye?
Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov (left) and North Macedonia's Zoran Zaev shake hands in Skopje in August. But can they see eye to eye?

After 14 long years as a candidate to join the European Union, North Macedonia appears to be on the threshold of opening membership talks.

But if the lengthy negotiation process begins, North Macedonia's EU aspirations could still be undermined by bones of contention with neighboring Bulgaria.

Documents from Brussels suggest the European Council will extend an invitation to North Macedonia to begin talks at its October 17-18 meeting -- a development made possible only after Skopje last year resolved its decades-long name dispute with Greece.

Sofia and Skopje settled their language dispute in 1999 and signed a friendship agreement in 2017 recognizing they have a "common history."

But differences remain about key historical personalities who are considered national heroes in both countries and, thus, significant figures in the national identities of Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

A key lingering dispute is over the national identity of Gotse Delchev, a Balkan revolutionary figure from the 19th and early 20th century considered a great patriot by both sides.

Conditional Support

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev made it clear on September 30 that Sofia will support outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk's recent call for entry talks to begin with both North Macedonia and Albania.

But Radev and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, backed by members of Bulgaria's parliament, said their support is conditional.

They want the negotiating framework to include guarantees that Sofia's lingering differences with Skopje about history -- seen by some as a potential threat to Bulgaria's national identity -- will be resolved.

Radev said Sofia is committed "to formulate clear end goals to be achieved before the completion of the negotiation process" with "clear requirements and criteria that would safeguard the Bulgarian national interest."

Borisov said those guarantees should include instruments that Bulgaria could use to defend its "national interests."

In other words, Sofia won't block Skopje's path to the negotiating table as long as it has methods to ensure its arguments about history with North Macedonia are resolved to Bulgaria's satisfaction.

Bones Of Contention

Under their August 2, 2017 friendship treaty, Bulgaria and North Macedonia set up a joint commission of historians who are trying to align the schoolbooks in their countries as much as possible to reduce future tensions.

They have so far been unable to find common ground on details about Ottoman-era revolutionary movements, like the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO), which both countries now claim as part of their own history.

The revolutionary group was founded in 1893 in what is now Greece's northern region of Macedonia, but also operated in what is now Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

Delchev, one of the most prominent leaders of the VMRO, lived and worked in parts of the Ottoman Empire and the then-autonomous principality of Bulgaria that are now within northern Greece, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia.

Since his death, Delchev's remains have also been buried, exhumed, and reburied in all three countries.

A statue of Gotse Delchev in Sofia, where his remains were reburied the first time.
A statue of Gotse Delchev in Sofia, where his remains were reburied the first time.

Serving as a left-wing paramilitary leader in the VMRO, Delchev was killed on May 4, 1903, just three months before the Ilinden Uprising against Ottoman rule in what is now North Macedonia and northern Greece.

That uprising was quickly quashed by overwhelming force from the Ottoman Turks. But the insurrection is credited with convincing European powers to pressure the Ottoman sultan over the treatment of European Christians under Ottoman rule.

Delchev is now celebrated in North Macedonia as a patriot and a key founder of the drive for Macedonian independence.

Bulgarian historians emphasize his Bulgarian education and influences -- including his inspirations from earlier 19th-century Bulgarian revolutionaries like Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev.

Delchev was killed and first buried in what is now northern Greece in the town of Banitsa, which was destroyed in 1913 by the Greek Army during the Second Balkan War.

During World War I, when Bulgaria temporarily controlled the area, Delchev was exhumed. His remains were sent to the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv and eventually reburied in Sofia.

But after World War II, under pressure from Moscow, Delchev was again exhumed. His remains were transported to Skopje on October 7, 1946.

Since then, Delchev's bones have been enshrined in a marble sarcophagus in the yard of Skopje's historic Church of the Ascension of Jesus.

On August 2, Bulgarian Prime Minister Borisov and his counterpart from North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, laid flowers on Delchev's grave together to mark the anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising and their 2017 friendship agreement.

But Sofia and Skopje are still unable to agree on a date for both countries to jointly celebrate Delchev's memory.

North Macedonia has proposed commemorations on October 7 -- the date his bones were sent from Sofia to Skopje.

Bulgaria rejects that date, saying celebrations should be on February 4 or May 4 -- the dates of his birth and his death.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Bulgarian and Balkan services

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