Refighting the Balkan Wars Won’t Lead to a Seat at the Table in Brussels

Historical feuds still threaten to stop Eastern European countries from joining the EU.

A man holds a picture with Macedonian national hero Goce Delcev in front of the parliament building in Skopje on June 23, 2018 during a protest against the new name of the country, the Republic of North Macedonia.
A man holds a picture with Macedonian national hero Goce Delcev in front of the parliament building in Skopje on June 23, 2018 during a protest against the new name of the country, the Republic of North Macedonia. ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Historical feuds between Balkan nations are rarely solved once and for all. In most cases, the concerned countries either come up with temporary solutions, such as reaching out for international arbitration, or choose to ignore these disputes entirely, sticking to their version of events, as Turkey and Greece do with the Northern Cyprus issue. 

Some of these disagreements stretch back to more than a century ago, others only as far as the turmoil of the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s. However, in recent years, there has been a big prize that tempts these countries to settle such issues: the prospect of joining the European Union. So far, only Slovenia and Croatia have been succesful in their European endeavors, while the other countries that were once a part of Yugoslavia are still very far away from reaching that landmark—as are Turkey and Albania.

The EU has been perceived as the “promised land” for many of these small and undeveloped countries, which have struggled to make ends meet after the painful transition to democracy. The appeal of establishing an efficient rule of law and a functioning market economy also serves as the best motivation to put the past where it belongs and to move forward. 

While historical disputes can often ignite full-blown trade wars, as the world has seen with Japan and South Korea, the small economies in the Balkans do not have that luxury. Instead, they tend to use the leverage of EU membership over each other, provided one is a member of the club and the other seeks to join it.

If a candidate country seeks to begin accession negotiations with the EU, first it needs a recommendation from the European Commission. If it gets that, then it needs the approval of the European Council. And the European Council needs to have unanimous consent from the EU member states, especially when it comes to matters such as EU membership.

During the last couple of years, North Macedonia has probably been the leading example when it comes to resolving historical disputes with its neighbors. Last year, it ended an almost 30-year naming dispute with Greece. After North Macedonia (then called Macedonia) declared its independence in 1991, Greece strongly opposed the use of the term “Macedonia” in the name of its neighbor, since it also had a region named Macedonia. The long-standing dispute finally resulted in the 2018 agreement under which Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia. 

A year before that, the country signed a friendship treaty with another one of its neighbors—the much bigger EU member Bulgaria, with whom it differs about various interpretations of each country’s history. Bulgaria often claims that Macedonian historical figures and landmarks are actually Bulgarian. These claims range from medieval to contemporary history. The friendship treaty took more than five years to negotiate.

The two agreements were met with excitement in the region, since they symbolized a new approach—one where conflicts weren’t swept under the rug as usual but were dealt with instead. For North Macedonia in particular, the deal represented the much-awaited continuation to its stalled EU and NATO accession processes. (Because of the dispute with Greece, the country could not begin the accession negotiations with the EU, nor could it join NATO for more than a decade.)

However, two years after the friendship treaty with Bulgaria was signed, a new dispute has emerged—and it could prove to be a costly one. When the two countries signed the historic deal back in August 2017, they agreed to establish a joint history commission, which would work on problematic issues and arguments regarding important historical events and personalities. It is bizarre that a joint commission is needed to review different interpretations of what was once seen as a common threat that united both nations: their struggle against the Ottoman Empire.

Now, the joint commission is stuck on the historical legacy of one famous revolutionary hero who is claimed by both sides. Goce Delcev, born in Kilkis, Greece (then a part of the Ottoman Empire) in the second half of the 19th century, is arguably North Macedonia’s biggest national hero. Delcev was one of the most prominent leaders of the resistance against the Ottoman Empire at the time and had a significant role in the uprising of the Macedonian people against Ottoman rule at the turn of the 20th century. His name is featured in the Macedonian national anthem, and both North Macedonia and Bulgaria have named cities after him. 

Unlike Bulgaria, which declared its independence in 1908, North Macedonia had to wait until 1991 to gain its full independence. After the Ottoman Empire withdrew from the Balkans, the country became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918, which later became Yugoslavia. While the country stayed in the Yugoslav federation until the beginning of the 1990s, Macedonian nationalism began emerging in the late 19th century. And the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), a national liberation movement that began in 1893 and that Delcev was a part of, played an integral role in this process.

However, when it comes to his nationality, there are serious claims that Delcev considered himself to be a Bulgarian. In turn, Bulgaria now insists that the Macedonian side should accept that its famed revolutionary hero is Bulgarian. Sofia has even threatened to dissolve the joint commission if Skopje doesn’t accept this notion as historical truth.

The dispute quickly spread in both societies, with high officials from both countries trading blows over Delcev’s nationality. In the Balkans, these notions aren’t novelties. Another example is famed inventor Nikola Tesla, claimed by both Serbia and Croatia. In 1936, Tesla wrote, “I am equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croat homeland.” Unfortuntately, this doesn’t stop Serbia and Croatia from squabbling over Tesla’s origins every chance they get.

Delcev, on the other hand, never had the opportunity to clarify his national allegiances. And this ambiguity has been seized upon regularly by politicians in both Bulgaria and North Macedonia. “If we do not reach an agreement on when to jointly celebrate Goce Delcev, Bulgaria will withdraw from further work in the joint commission,” said Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva in June, doubling down on claims that Delcev is a Bulgarian national hero.

North Macedonia, for its part, rejects Bulgaria’s exclusive claim. “It is an undeniable historical truth, even for those with the slightest knowledge of the historical period, that Goce Delcev declared himself as a Bulgarian. But, isn’t it also historically true—100 percent true—that Goce Delcev fought for an independent Macedonian state?” the president of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski, said shortly after Zaharieva’s statement, “he even asked that his remains be buried in independent Macedonia,” he added. 

It appears that if a solution isn’t reached soon, then North Macedonia would have to deal with yet another obstacle in the process to join the EU, this time from Bulgaria. According to Atanas Velickov, a journalist based in North Macedonia, Delcev, for all of his historical greatness, does not deserve to be in the middle of a spat like this one. “Delcev is the biggest Macedonian revolutionary hero, celebrated in Bulgaria, too. He is a figure who needs to unite us, a figure who taught us that the struggle for freedom is the highest human goal,” Velickov said.

It’s not hard to imagine that Delcev, like Tesla, would have proudly embraced both identities—what is truly unimaginable is how the two nations he fought for are now fighting over his legacy. Back then, their mutual goal was to be liberated from the Ottoman Empire. Delcev epitomized that goal, and wholeheartedly fought and died for the cause.

At the beginning of August, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visited North Macedonia for a joint celebration of another historical event that unites both countries—the anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising against the Ottomans. (Although Delcev was assassinated a few months before the uprising, he played a significant role in the events leading up to it.) Borisov and North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, both paid their respects to Delcev and agreed to leave this dispute to the historians. Borisov also stated that the joint commission needs to find a solution by October, when North Macedonia expects to get the go-ahead for the accession talks with the EU. “I don’t even want to think that a situation like that one would be possible” Borisov said, when asked whether Bulgaria might block North Macedonia’s EU accession. Delcev himself would probably turn in his grave at the thought that Bulgaria would keep North Macedonia out of the EU.

The region has seen such obstructionism before. The most recent example happened a few years ago, between the EU’s youngest member, Croatia, and its nonmember neighbor Serbia—countries that fought a bitter war during Yugoslavia’s breakup. In 2016, Croatia blocked Serbia’s accession talks with the EU on several occasions. First, Croatia demanded that Serbia change its laws on prosecuting war crimes that were committed during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. (The Serbian law claimed jurisdiction over war crimes committed on the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia, and Croatia didn’t take this lightly.) 

For several months, Zagreb refused to allow Belgrade to open key chapters of the accession talks. After the issue was initially resolved, and the EU accepted Croatia’s request that the dispute would be addressed in the negotiation process, the Croatian side blocked Serbia once again. This time, both sides argued over an issue regarding the use of Croatian language in textbooks for the Croatian national minority in Serbia.

“Historical disputes in the region are, by and large, thorny issues, as they have been manipulated for decades: they thus require real leadership, which often carries political costs—such as the one paid by Syriza at the Greek parliamentary elections this year,” argued Tena Prelec, a researcher at the London School of Economics.

While there are many reasons for the Balkan countries to cooperate and help each other into the EU, some can’t resist bickering instead. The wounds from recent Balkan conflicts are still fresh. Most of the former Yugoslav countries only very recently fought several wars against each other. And this has a major influence on how they perceive and act in response to their history.

For instance, each year during August, tensions between Croatia and Serbia rise around the anniversary of Operation Storm—a 1995 military offensive that happened at the height of the war between the two sides. The military operation focused on the then breakaway region of Krajina—a mostly Serb-populated territory within Croatia. As Croatia was pushing for independence at the time, the region of Krajina was central to the Serbian nationalist movement within Yugoslavia and its infamous leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

For the Croatian side, Operation Storm was a legitimate military operation that freed occupied parts of the country. For the Serbian side, Operation Storm still represents an act of ethnic cleansing that forced more than 200,000 Serbs to flee their homes. And with each passing year, the divide between the two sides widens, with neither Croatian nor Serbian politicians willing to make amends. There have been some positive developments regarding the joint remembrance of the event, but most have come from nongovernmental organizations in the two countries rather than from political leaders. According to Stefan Cok, a historian based in Trieste, the best way of overcoming such historical conflicts of this magnitude is to approach them calmly and objectively.

“When you see a politician or a political body that uses past sufferings to create a new conflict in the present, you know this is the wrong approach,” Cok explained. “When you see a politician or a political body … that supports the freedom of historical research, that gives young generations the possibility to understand the conflicts of the past, and not to renew them, you know it is the correct approach.”

For the first half of 2020, Croatia will take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union. This could either be the best thing that has happened to Serbia’s European accession dreams, or the worst, depending on whether yet another historical dispute emerges to divide them. 

“Ideally, the way to use history to unlock potential in the region is to start changing mindsets: from arguing over whether a certain historical figure is ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’ to taking pride in common heritage—of which there is plenty,” pointed out Prelec, the researcher at the London School of Economics. 

The burden of having a history of violent confrontations, as Serbia and Croatia do, can make this process much harder. But North Macedonia and Bulgaria are free of that burden, and rather than squabbling over shared heroes, they should be working together toward integrating the region into the EU and paving the way for the others to follow.

Bojan Stojkovski is a freelance journalist covering foreign policy and technology based in Skopje, North Macedonia. His work has also appeared in ZDNet and Nature. Twitter: @bostojkovski

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