Weaponising history for domestic political agendas - The case of the Western Balkans
Updated: Feb 13
The following piece is written by Ambassador Erwan Fouéré - Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy
Over the past months, Ireland has been marking the centenary of landmark events in the nation’s struggle for independence and the turbulence surrounding the civil war. It has been suggested by some commentators that not enough has been done to acknowledge the wrongs committed during that period. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his acceptance speech in the Dáil last month referred to the “need to acknowledge and atone for the wrongs that were done on all sides, so we can finally heal the wounds and scars from that time”. The presence of both the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at the ceremony marking one hundred years since the assassination of Michael Collins has shown that, even if differences over historical narratives remain, the commemorations can be an occasion for unity and reconciliation rather than division.
To use the words of President Michael D. Higgins, the emphasis should be on the need both to “remember ethically”, and to “respect a pluralism of narratives of shared events”.
History according to President Putin
In the Central and Eastern parts of Europe however, a “pluralism of narratives” when referring to historical events is singularly absent, and often replaced by a re-writing of history to suit mostly nationalist political agendas. Probably the worst offender in this respect is President Putin. His distorted vision of Russia’s imperial past and his almost messianic mission to restore the Russian empire to justify his brutal invasion of Ukraine has had lethal and devastating consequences for the neighbouring country. By invoking the memory of Peter the Great and defining the threats facing Russia as a civilisational struggle, he has sought to rally the Russian people in support of his policy of denying the existence of Ukraine as a nation in its own right and obliterating its culture, history and identity.
Re-writing history in the Western Balkans
This weaponising of history is unfortunately not confined to Russia. In the Western Balkans there are many examples of attempts by political leaders to re-interpret historical events to justify and pursue ethno-nationalist and populist agendas. Whether it is glorifying war criminals convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or denying massacres that took place during the early and mid 1990s following the break-up of Yugoslavia, or even re-interpreting events before and after the Second World War, they underline the terrible weight of history and the deep divisions within and between the countries of the region.
These trends highlight the enormous work required to promote reconciliation and overcome the prejudices still prevalent throughout the Western Balkans. One would have hoped that since all the countries of the region are destined for accession to the EU at some point in the future, the EU would put forward its own experience of European integration in overcoming the legacy of war and creating a process based on the rule of law. The recent stand off between Bulgaria and North Macedonia does not inspire confidence in this respect. The behaviour of Bulgaria towards its neighbour has shown that it has learned nothing from its fifteen year membership of the EU, and has only deepened the animosity and bitterness between both countries.
Background to the Bulgarian veto against North Macedonia
In March of 2020, the European Council gave the green light for the opening of accession negotiations with both Albania and North Macedonia. To get to this point, North Macedonia already had to overcome many hurdles not least that of reaching an agreement with neighbouring Greece over its constitutional name which Greece objected to. A protracted decades long dispute was finally resolved by the so-called Prespa Agreement of 2018, whereby the Republic of Macedonia would become the Republic of North Macedonia, to distinguish it from the provinces of Macedonia in the northern part of Greece. The agreement was supposed to signal the opening of accession negotiations with the EU. But France put a spanner in the works by insisting on a new methodology for the accession process before the EU’s enlargement agenda could proceed. This was duly put forward by the European Commission and agreed in March 2020.
However, no doubt taking a leaf out of the Greek and French playbooks, Bulgaria decided to impose its own veto by insisting that North Macedonia would have to accept a list of demands relating to the history, identity and language of the country before accession negotiations could start, ignoring the fact that such issues have never been part of the criteria for membership of the EU.
These demands included an insistence that North Macedonia accept that its language has Bulgarian roots and that a ‘Macedonian language’ or ethnicity did not exist before 1944. There was also an insistence that it endorse a Bulgarian version of the region’s past history, despite the fact that both countries had negotiated a Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness, and Cooperation in 2017 which established a Joint Multidisciplinary Expert Commission for Historical and Education Issues.
By agreeing to this Treaty, the Macedonian government had hoped it would create a framework for building trust between both countries and help to overcome lingering bilateral disputes. It did not bargain for the hardline attitude adopted by Bulgaria in the work of this Commission which has now dominated the Treaty’s implementation.
By insisting on its own version of the turbulent events during and after the two World Wars in the Western Balkan region, and demanding that Macedonian history textbooks remove any reference to Bulgaria as the ‘fascist occupier’ during the Second World War, the Bulgarian negotiators are reflecting a reluctance by the political establishment in Bulgaria to confront its own troubled history, in particular its role during the Second World War. ( Bulgaria supported the Axis powers and conquered Macedonia it had lost during the First World War. During its occupation, it deported all 7,000 Jews living there and handed them over to the Nazi regime, where they virtually all perished in the Treblinka concentration camp. At the same time however, most of the Jews living in Bulgaria itself were spared such a fate. In October 1944, Bulgaria switched sides and declared war on Germany. It was forced to withdraw from Macedonia following the end of the war ).
Other demands imposed by Bulgaria included North Macedonia renouncing any claim to the existence of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, despite the repeated judgements by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg calling on Bulgaria to recognise the existence of Macedonian minority groups in Bulgaria, which the country has studiously ignored.( The number of ethnic Macedonians living in Bulgaria is a matter of controversy with, according to the Minority Rights Group International, evidence of these citizens being subject to harassment and intimidation. The 1992 census showed there were over 10,000; from the latest census in 2021, that figure has gone down to just over 1,000 ).
The so-called ‘French Proposal’
During the final days of the French Presidency of the European Council in June 2022, President Macron put forward a proposal for the negotiating framework which would lift the Bulgarian veto and guide the accession process with North Macedonia. The proposal basically endorsed all of Bulgaria’s demands, which caused fury among the Macedonian citizens who saw it as another insult to their nationhood and a betrayal of the EU’s repeated promises to the country.
As part of the proposal, North Macedonia would have to amend its constitution so as to include a reference to the existence of a Bulgarian community in the country. There was no mention of any reciprocity. The judgements of the European Court of Human Rights on the existence of a Macedonian community in Bulgaria were completely ignored.
This left the Macedonian government with a terrible choice - ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t’. In the end, the proposal, endorsed by the EU, was accepted, and Bulgaria lifted its veto. The first Intergovernmental Conference marking the formal opening of accession negotiations with both Albania ( blocked since 2020 because of the Bulgarian veto against North Macedonia ) and North Macedonia took place in July 2022. However the actual negotiations with North Macedonia can only start once the amendment to its constitution has been adopted by the Macedonian Parliament. For the moment there is no majority in the Parliament to support this.
Furthermore, because of the unanimity rule over enlargement issues within the EU, Bulgaria will be able to exercise its veto power at any time to block any advance in the negotiations if it feels that the bilateral issues under the Friendship Treaty are not dealt with to its satisfaction by North Macedonia. The Bulgarian Government got a taste of its own medicine when Austria recently vetoed the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen, which caused Bulgaria to complain of Austrian obstruction. The fact that it was at the same time obstructing North Macedonia’s prospects of EU accession did not seem to register.
As if to underline it is the stronger party in these disputes by virtue of its EU membership, the Bulgarian government proceeded to openly support the setting-up of so-called cultural clubs in North Macedonia named after controversial figures from the Second World War who supported the Nazi regime. Three have already been established during 2022. Some of the Bulgarian MPs present at these events have used language similar to that used by President Putin against Ukraine, thus fuelling the deep insult and animosity felt by Macedonian citizens. While the EU has remained largely silent, nationalist elements on both sides have used the controversy to whip up ethno-populist sentiments with the burning of flags and frequent incidents of hate speech. True to form, there is evidence that Russia’s malign influence is never far behind these events, with supporters of Russia within the current Bulgarian government itself.
This outcome has set a dangerous precedent which will certainly come back to haunt the EU in the pursuit of its enlargement agenda with the Western Balkans, a region replete with similar bilateral disputes. It has shown once again the the EU’s lack of understanding of the sensitivity linked to minority issues and its underestimation of the dark shadow of history over a region where the past is ever present
The EU needs to change its approach
The EU will need to radically change its approach to the Western Balkans to take account of these deep rooted societal issues. Failure to do so will allow the many fault lines within and between the countries of the region become more entrenched with any hope of reconciliation being lost. By taking sides in the Bulgaria/North Macedonia dispute, the EU has already forsaken many hearts and minds in the region.
Greater focus on supporting reconciliation projects such as people to people contacts and history teaching could help to avoid the distortions and revisionism promoted by nationalist agendas. The Thessaloniki Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe had achieved significant success in this respect with the development of joint history teaching programmes, but had to close down due to lack of funding. There are, however, a number of other mechanisms that could be used, such as the History Observatory for Peace in Europe, established by the Council of Europe ( of which North Macedonia, Ireland and other EU countries are members, but Bulgaria is not ), and the European Association of History Educators ( EUROClio ) established in 1992.
The experience of the EU’s Peace Fund for Northern Ireland, established by Commission President Jacques Delors in 1995 to support the peace process offers valuable inspiration for the Western Balkans, in particular projects on shared education and fostering a greater role for civil society in post conflict nation building and reconciliation. The EU funded Cross Border Cooperation Programmes within the Western Balkan region could also ensure greater focus on joint history teaching projects and more programmes promoting reconciliation.
Above all what is required is to convince countries in the region, in particular EU member states such as Bulgaria, that debates over centuries of history between neighbouring countries, cannot be resolved over one or two years or even decades or by imposing artificial deadlines to reach agreement. As with the EU, divergent views of past events and differences will remain, but they should not block the accession prospects of Western Balkan countries from advancing.
It is only by pursuing a “pluralism of narratives” that reconciliation can begin in a region that it has often been said has produced more history than it can absorb.
Ambassador Erwan Fouéré is Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). Prior to joining CEPS in 2013, he was Special Representative for the Transdniestrian settlement process during the Irish 2012 Chairmanship of the OSCE. During his 38 year career with the European institutions, he was the first to assume joint responsibilities of EU Special Representative and Head of Delegation in the EU External Service when he was appointed in this double capacity in North Macedonia ( 2005-2011 ), the first Head of Delegation in South Africa ( 1994-1998 ) and the first Head of Delegation in Mexico and Cuba ( 1989-1992 ). He was awarded the Order of Good Hope, Grand Officer, by President Nelson Mandela in 1998.