In a move designed to end years of diplomatic wrangling and boost Macedonia’s European and NATO integration, on Tuesday Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev signed a friendship treaty.

Signing of this treaty ended a process that lasted for over 20 years. In practice, every Bulgarian government since 1997 has pursued this agreement. It has also been the case that every Bulgarian foreign minister called on his Macedonian counterpart to first sign a Neighbourhood Agreement and then to negotiate everything else.

Hypocritical relations

Relations between these two Balkan countries have always been marked with some kind of hypocrisy. Macedonia, or the disputed name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a small ex-Yugoslav republic of about 2 million, gained independence from Belgrade in 1991 with Sofia being the first to recognise Macedonia as an independent state. But Bulgaria still does not recognise the Macedonian language, which it views as a dialect of Bulgarian. Also, Bulgarians still insist that the Macedonians are not a separate nation, but a part of the Bulgarian nation.  “Macedonians are brainwashed Bulgarians” – almost every Bulgarian will say, when asked about their neighbours. Respectively, Macedonians call the Bulgarians “Gypsies” and “Mongols”, and they frequently destroy and demolish Bulgarian graves, monuments and plaques on the Macedonian territory. It is not unusual for Bulgarians to be detained during tourist visits to Macedonia and subjected to abuse and unreasonably rude treatment by the Macedonian authorities. But officially, both governments describe the relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia as “friendly”.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visits Macedonia

Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Bulgarian and Macedonian politicians have become more pragmatic. They took away bilateral relations from the hands of historians, media stars, and populists. While negotiating with Bulgaria, Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev demonstrated to the West that the policy of isolation is over and that the country is back on the road to NATO and the EU. Bulgarian Prime Minister Borisov won domestic and foreign policy brownie points. First put on the agenda by the Bulgarian party CEDB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), the treaty is a real success. We should also acknowledge the praise that Sofia received not only from Brussels, but also from influential member states such as Germany, where foreign minister Zigmar Gabriel patted Bulgarians and Macedonians on the shoulder.

The beginning of the beginning

But this treaty is only the first step. The road to “good neighbour relations” between Bulgaria and Macedonia is rocky.

In Skopje opposition VMRO-DPMNE party called Zoran Zaev’s SDSM to withdraw itself from the treaty with Sofia. “There should be treaty with Bulgaria, but one where the rights and obligations of both sides will be evenly distributed, and which will respect the national and state interests of the Republic of Macedonia. The government still has time to withdraw from the treaty, which would be the least it can do as a sign of respect to the Macedonian people. In Bulgaria the signing of the treaty is celebrated, while in Macedonia there is dissatisfaction and sense of defeat”, said VMRO-DPMNE in a press release.*

Earlier in July, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party were also against the signing of the agreement with Skopje.

“Mr. Borisov must give up the signing of the treaty with Macedonia. This agreement is anti-Bulgarian and goes against Bulgarian national interests”,  said the Socialist MP and Deputy Speaker Valery Zhablyanov. After a series of heated debates in parliament between GERB and BSP politicians, the two parties accepted a joint declaration of the parliament on the treaty between Bulgaria and Macedonia and the parliament obliged the government to report annually on its implementation.*

Also, in future we will see how Russia will accept this treaty.  As I said in my previous articles, Moscow sees its positions in the Balkans as heavily endangered.  At the very least, Macedonia’s step towards the EU and NATO is an unwelcome development for the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

*Translation provided by the author.