State non grata

petar arsovski
Petar Arsovski, political analyst / Photo: Free Press

It cannot be hate speech for Bulgaria when we say we are Macedonians, and it is not hate speech when Djambaski says we are Bulgarians.

We entered a new round of hysteria in relations with Bulgaria in the last week. After a relatively quiet period, in which there seemed to be hope that relations would remain within the realm of normality, since a month ago we are once again in a spiral of escalation. It is simply amazing how fragile the "truce" was - two marginal incidents, of course, more than suspiciously struck at the right time, managed to return us to the old rhetoric in a flash. It's as if we were at a "low start" for a fight, that within a week we had reached the point where our officials were calling for their politicians to be declared persona non grata, and their politicians had duly distinguished themselves with calls to reactivate the veto that would blocked the road to the EU. It looks like a movie script.

smell of "directing"

That is why, since the whole sequence of circumstances seems so cinematic and staged, I think it is necessary to look at the circumstances with a cool head. The fact is that there has been an escalation of antagonism in the last period, and the fact is that the progression of that escalation smells a little like "directing". From there, we need to calculate two serious factors - whether such escalation essentially suits Macedonia and Bulgaria, and whether such antagonism is autochthonous, or is it only a sporadic and marginal phenomenon. However, the majority of citizens are not basically nationalists, but are more interested in a better life and good neighborliness, which should be good news.

Additionally, neither Macedonia nor Bulgaria has a substantial strategic benefit from bad relations, except as a transitory cheap political game of isolated political entities in both countries. Therefore, we should not raise too much hysteria about such incidents, but at the same time we should be careful about the way they will be processed through the local political discourse in both countries.

A challenge for Bulgaria

Basically, there is no shortage of fools in the Balkans, on either side of the borders, so we shouldn't be too surprised when events like this occur, especially considering the fact that relations with Bulgaria are at an all-time low. However, the essential struggle is not that there are no such marginal exceptions (that is impossible), but that they remain exactly that – exceptions, which are not truly representative of the official policy of the two countries. It mostly depends on how the institutions and political elites in Macedonia and Bulgaria will behave during such provocations, i.e. whether they will "write them off as stupidity", or whether they will use them as an occasion for further escalation, i.e. a tightening of the official policy.

I think this is a bigger challenge for Sofia than for us, for several reasons: (1) they have a more pronounced ethnocentrism in their internal politics in general, unlike Macedonia where a multi-ethnic society imposes a greater spirit of tolerance; (2) they have been in pre-election rhetoric for two years, where political predation on this topic is dominant; (3) we still learned something from the problem with Greece, where it turned out that cheap populism is a long-term loss for the politicians who use it. Thus, I think that the danger of such incidents being used as an excuse for the official policy to become antagonistic is greater in Bulgaria than in Macedonia.

A new veto?

That brings us to the fundamental question: Can that mainstream escalation escalate into another official veto? In my opinion, at this stage the risk of such a move is still not high. In the Good Neighbor Protocol, which is referred to in the official framework for negotiations with the EU, it is explicitly stated that apart from the constitutional amendments, there will be no new conditions for Macedonia when opening the chapters, which means that formally, it would represent a great precedent, if Bulgaria, and in addition to such guarantees, he activates a new veto before the opening of the chapters, of course under the assumption that we will adopt the constitutional amendments. Therefore, I don't think this will lead to another veto, at least not in the near future, unless, of course, this issue becomes a top topic in the new elections, in which case all options are possible.

Precisely because of that sensitivity, both in Skopje and Sofia, I think that the reactions to these incidents by the official representatives of the state are of key importance. Here, especially in our country, I see two lines: that of Pendarovski, for declaring Dzambaski as persona non grata, colored by a security geopolitical code, and that of Osmani, which is dominated by diplomatic caution and tenderness. I think the right approach is somewhere in the middle between these two lines, here's why. I think that Pendarovski's approach is too rigid – you cannot declare someone an undesirable person, just because he shouted things that you don't like, despite the fact that they are obscene, vulgar and, of course, radical.

However, such slogans also fall within the domain of the right to opinion and speech, even if that opinion is essentially offensive. If there are other reasons for such a move (restriction of entry for the MEP), related to some other intelligence knowledge, which enter the domain of the geopolitical strategic interest of the state, then that reason for the proposal should be further explained and supported, otherwise, it will the impression remains that we are reacting inappropriately.

Osmani, on the other hand, in my opinion, is too soft - a condemnation of the incident in Ohrid and a quick institutional solution is certainly a sine qua non, I think it is wrong to constantly try to approve Bulgaria, and only Bulgaria, adding some kind of systemic patchwork for their frustrations (special institutions, special protection, etc.), without taking into account the overall context. He is certainly worse on the Bulgarian side than on the Macedonian side, because there this xenophobia is almost an official policy. Therefore, the reactions must take into account the feelings of the Macedonian citizens on this topic, because otherwise, we risk that they lose all faith that their representatives work for their interests, and make them completely apathetic and cynical.

In simple words: it cannot be hate speech for Bulgaria when we say that we are Macedonians, and it cannot be hate speech when Dzambaski says that we are Bulgarians. We can't just focus on what bothers them and they ignore what bothers us. Therefore, precisely with this perception of asymmetry in mind, every benevolent step on our part should be supported by some move from Bulgaria, because if it is not, the electorate will be further radicalized, and the parties will follow.

(The author is a political analyst)

Taken from Deutsche Welle

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