The Bulgarian government is seeking to block accession talks with Greece’s northern neighbor until Skopje acknowledges that it is historically and linguistically a part of Bulgaria.

A dispute between the two neighboring Balkan countries is taking on European proportions as December approaches – the beginning of accession negotiations between the EU and Greece’s northern neighbor, which has had the status of a candidate country since 2005.

Following the signing of the Prespa Agreement, Skopje was hoping that all the historical disputes with its neighbors would have ended after the name change and the relevant agreement with Athens. After joining NATO last March, Skopje was hoping it was finally on the long road to full EU membership. But they had not expected Bulgarian intervention.

A lengthy document entitled “Explanatory Memorandum on the Relations between the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia in Relation to the EU Enlargement, Accession and Stabilization Process” attracted the interest of the media in Greece’s northern neighbor. The six-page text was sent last August from Sofia to the capitals of the other 26 member states and presents Bulgaria’s positions on many historical issues. Central to them are the “national and linguistic interventions that took place in North Macedonia after World War II.”

“The process of accession of North Macedonia offers a real opportunity for its leadership to break the ties with the ideological heritage and practices of communist Yugoslavia,” the document said, adding that “the enlargement process should not legitimize the national and linguistic interventions of previous authoritarian regimes.”

According to official Bulgarian historiography, the people of Slavic descent in Greece’s northern neighbor are Bulgarians and speak Bulgarian, but were brainwashed under the Yugoslav regime of  Josip Broz Tito. In this process, a new “Macedonian” identity and language was artificially imposed on them.

Nikola Dimitrov, Vice President of Greece’s northern neighbor, said that “language is not a criterion for recognition or non-recognition in the 21st century, the right to self-determination cannot be eliminated.”

During World War II, Bulgaria occupied parts of southern Yugoslavia and history books in Greece’s northern neighbor call this period the “Bulgarian fascist occupation”.

In Bulgaria, on the other hand, it is presented as the liberation of “our brothers.”

A resolution unanimously approved by the Bulgarian parliament last year called on Greece’s northern neighbour not to use the term “fascist occupation” and to remove similar references to the country’s monuments.

Such problems could have been resolved in a joint committee, formed after the signing of the bilateral friendship agreement in 2017. A team of historians and educators from both countries began working on a long list of controversial issues, but its work was suspended last year. Now the Bulgarian government is asking the commission to continue its work, otherwise it would block its neighbor from joining the EU before the process even starts.

At present, the EU has not taken a position on the dispute between the two countries. Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has called on both sides to resolve all outstanding issues in the commission of historians.

“Bilateral problems must be resolved bilaterally,” said Anke Holstein, Germany’s ambassador to Greece’s northern neighbor.

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