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Why An Old Bulgarian-Macedonian Feud Over An Ottoman-Era Revolutionary Is Flaring Up Once Again

 A monument to Gotse Delchev in a park in North Macedonia's capital, Skopje. (file photo)
A monument to Gotse Delchev in a park in North Macedonia's capital, Skopje. (file photo)

Even this long after his death at the hands of Ottoman police in 1903, Balkan revolutionary Gotse Delchev can't find peace. Last century, the tug-of-war over Delchev's place in shared history and tightly interwoven national narratives led to his burial, exhumation, and reburial in Greece, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia.

Now, Macedonians and Bulgarians are braced for possible provocations around a joint ceremony to mark the 151st anniversary of Delchev's birth outside his current resting place, a sarcophagus in the courtyard of the Church of the Ascension of Jesus in North Macedonia's capital of Skopje.

A similar event last year drew increased security measures but passed without incident.

But a reemergence of Bulgarian-Macedonian tensions, including a violent attack on a Macedonian citizen who identifies as Bulgarian two weeks ago, sparked a brief diplomatic breakdown last week and cast a long shadow over their mutual border while fueling Macedonians' fears that crucial national goals remain hostage to the whims of their EU neighbor.

With the two countries bitterly divided over elements of their common history and culture, why are tensions dramatically increasing now and what can be done to address the long-standing issues that have precluded good relations?

Bulgarian Elections

The most obvious impetus might lie in Bulgaria's failure to elect stable leadership. The snap elections due there on April 2 are its fifth in just two years, highlighting an obstacle to progress in any negotiations with Sofia: inconsistency.

Amid threats from Sofia after the vicious beating in Ohrid last month of Hristijan Pendikov, Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani called the Bulgarian elections an "aggravating circumstance."

Ruslan Stefanov, director of the economic program at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, also fears things will get worse before they get better. "It's politically exploited on both sides of the border," Stefanov said. There are now more extremist parties in the Bulgarian parliament, he said, but a new left-wing nationalist grouping in North Macedonia presents a similar problem.

"There are not that many issues that can make a party stand out, win votes. I think parties see this [historical debate] as a vote winner because it's emotional, it appeals to the historical myths of the two nations," Stefanov said. "You know how it goes with myths: Even if they're very similar, they tend to clash."

Weaponizing History With 'Culture Clubs'

Delchev has been at the center of some of those contested "myths," although the distinctions might be lost on many outsiders.

What's most important is that Bulgarians and Macedonians regard him as a hero for battling Ottoman rule around the turn of the century but disagree over his national identity and the ultimate aims of his secret society at the time, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), which in Skopje is referred to as the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization.

A joint Bulgarian-Macedonian commission on historical and educational affairs was even formed to seek consensus on how to honor Delchev and a handful of other figures, as well as how to teach about them. But the recommendations have not been implemented.

Stefanov noted that differing interpretations were taught under the previous education systems in Soviet-satellite Bulgaria and communist Yugoslavia. For most Bulgarians and Macedonians, he said, "by the seventh grade, you're there, you're stuck with it."

"And then, all of a sudden [after the collapses of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia], somebody comes in and tells you, 'Well, this is not exactly what you should say.'"

To make matters worse, both countries have stoked these age-old tensions over historical figures with the openings of "cultural clubs."

Gotse Delchev (1872-1903)
Gotse Delchev (1872-1903)

In April 2022, with then-Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and a vice president in attendance, Bulgarians opened a cultural club in the North Macedonia town of Bitola. The club was named after Ivan (Vancho) Mihailov, a figure who lived for most of the 20th century and who as the IMRO's last leader espoused Bulgarian nationalism and thus dealt a blow to Macedonian identity.

In October 2022, a similar club drew protests when it opened in Ohrid under the name "Tsar Boris III," a Bulgarian emperor when that country was part of the Nazi-fascist Axis in World War II.

Both clubs were the target of protests and other incidents, including the Mihailov center being set on fire at one point.

"I didn't hear a single Bulgarian politician say, 'Hey, maybe it's not that wise to name these clubs in exactly the way they did, or their benefactors did,'" Stefanov said. "Or, 'Well, they could have named it thousands of other ways that wouldn't have incited any hurt feelings, but no, they want to name them in exactly this way.'"

The Macedonian parliament subsequently passed legislation requiring Justice Ministry approval for organizations named after historical figures.

And in early November 2022, a previously registered group opened a Macedonian culture club in the Bulgarian city of Blagoevrgrad named after Nikola Vaptsarov, a 20th century poet and resister against Tsar Boris's leadership whom the organizers declared to be Macedonian. Bulgarian authorities quickly moved to ban the group that founded the club.

A 'Vicious Circle'

Zoran Nechev, a senior researcher in the EU department at the Institute for Democracy in Skopje, called it a "vicious circle." "It's intended to be a provocation, that's the whole point," Nechev said. "It's not about opening a 'Bulgarian cultural club' as such -- no one objects to that – but just the way they are named."

It was the secretary of the Tsar Boris club, Pendikov, who was so brutally beaten on January 19, following two previous attacks, that prompted Sofia to demand that North Macedonia's EU accession negotiations be conditioned on the prosecution of hate crimes against Bulgarians.

After the Pendikov attack and his transport on a Bulgarian government plane to a Sofia hospital, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov alleged an "atmosphere of impunity." He announced what turned out to be a brief withdrawal of Bulgaria's ambassador and further suggested that Sofia would "review several components and elements of our bilateral cooperation."

Celebrations in the Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad on February 4, 2022, marking the 150th anniversary of Gotse Delchev's birth.
Celebrations in the Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad on February 4, 2022, marking the 150th anniversary of Gotse Delchev's birth.

His Macedonian counterpart Osmani was quick to counter that "the entire nation can't be blamed for the actions of a few individuals," and said a suspect had already been apprehended and an investigation was ongoing. He pledged "zero tolerance" for such violence, especially as a response to interethnic problems.

But the damage was done.

Macedonian Elections

North Macedonia's elected leaders face their own reckoning, too, with a deadline looming to amend their constitution to avoid botching EU membership talks.

It's a result of the so-called French proposal from July 2022 that persuaded Bulgaria to drop -- or merely suspend, in the eyes of critics of the deal -- its veto of the Macedonian framework for EU negotiations in exchange for concessions including a pledge to add "Bulgarians" to the preamble of the Macedonian Constitution as a constitutive people. Both sides also agreed in a related protocol to establish a mechanism for lowering tensions and monitoring for possible hate crimes. The deal sparked street protests and dramatic confrontations with angry Macedonian nationalists, and prompted opposition demands that Bulgaria do the same and officially recognize the Macedonian minority in that country.

North Macedonia conditionally opened its screening process with the European Union two days after Skopje signed the bilateral protocol at the center of the Paris-brokered agreement, but it still has not amended the constitution. Managing to finagle its passage could cost any government in Skopje its mandate and force snap elections.

Nechev's institute opposed the French deal at the time because it thought the amendment obligation would mean North Macedonia "would become a target for winning political points in Bulgaria, based on nationalism, using the EU context," he told RFE/RL. He argued those "red flags" augured Sofia's more recent threats.

"Diplomatically, politically, economically -- however you want to put it -- we're the weaker side in the context of joining the EU and the Bulgarians are inside the European Union," Nechev said of Macedonians' dilemma. "They can exploit the situation as much as they want."

He also noted another aspect of the pledge. "The pressure is on our side now, regardless of whoever is in power or comes to power," Nechev said. "Now, if we want to one day become a member of the EU or progress in the [accession] process, we have to change the constitution…. It has to be done."

Neglected Corners Of Bygone Blocs

Both Nechev's and Stefanov's think tanks have argued recently that Bulgaria and North Macedonia have more pressing problems than the thorny debates over national heroes.

"As with many things in the Balkans, you can talk about history endlessly," said Nechev. "But still it takes like five hours and the road is not good if you go from Skopje to Sofia. That's the reality; those are the practical things."

While they've come a long way from their Eastern Bloc and Yugoslav days, they say that both "face outstanding governance challenges" and desperately need further investment to upgrade their economies.

"Essentially, these two countries were the furthermost corners of the [respective] blocs, and so our border was probably the most dilapidated thing after the Berlin Wall, and it still looks that way," Stefanov said. "So we think it's time -- after the French proposal -- for our politicians to focus on delivering development to people on both sides of the border."

A bust of Gotse Delchev in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. (file photo)
A bust of Gotse Delchev in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. (file photo)

In a recent report on "promoting constructive capital" in both countries, the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia and the Institute for Democracy in Skopje agreed that "the EU and NATO frameworks provide ample resources" to prioritize a joint agenda for investment and economic growth.

They further argued for finalizing rail and road connections, interconnecting gas and electricity grids, and fostering joint public-private partnerships.

Stefanov said he was especially "saddened" to see the Bulgarian government intimating in connection with the Pendikov attack that joint projects might be suspended.

The Role Of Russia

Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski emerged from a meeting of the country's Security Council on January 23 alleging that elements or institutions in Bulgaria linked to Russian intelligence were leading a campaign against his country.

Pendarovski said that, ahead of the Delchev anniversary, he'd proposed a ban on entry by a Bulgarian member of the European Parliament, along with others planning to arrive in Skopje for the event. The controversial MEP, Angel Dzhambazki, fired back on social media with what was widely regarded as a veiled threat against Pendarovski by referencing a Yugoslav king's assassination by an IMRO revolutionary in 1934. The Macedonian president's proposed ban was later rejected.

North Macedonia's president, Stevo Pendarovski (file photo)
North Macedonia's president, Stevo Pendarovski (file photo)

Russia is widely seen as benefiting from European instability, particularly since its invasion of Ukraine, but it was unclear what specific ties Pendarovski was alleging.

Nechev cited previously documented efforts by Moscow to foul Balkan relations and said some Bulgarian political elites have been conducive to Russian interests in the region, including on the question of Macedonia's EU bid.

Stefanov suggested neither Bulgarian nor Macedonian intelligence agencies had been subject to dramatic reform or lustration since the Soviet and Yugoslav eras. But more broadly, he said, "Very specifically, clearly, both in Bulgaria and North Macedonia, Russia is working to push all these buttons, and it does."

He mentioned the intense activities of Russia's embassies in both countries, as well as Putin's pointed comment in 2017 that the Cyrillic script and Slavic literacy "came from Macedonia," a comment aimed squarely at Bulgarians' pride.

"So I would say that one should be a fool to think that the Russians will not be using this, because it's such low-hanging fruit," Stefanov said.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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