“Alliances for EU” is a 2023/2024 project implemented by an international consortium of European academic institutions and organizations (Res Publica Foundation (Poland), Institute for Modern Development (Czechia), Institute of Political History Nonprofit LLC (Hungary), Slovak Academy of Sciences: The Institute of Political Science (Slovakia) and Human and Social Studies Foundation – Sofia (HSSF) (Bulgaria) coordinated by the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities – Skopje. It is funded by the International Visegrad fund and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Korea.
The project seeks to engage in an analysis and advocacy initiative aiming at depolarizing the intercultural relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria in order to prevent the pending possibility of another stalemate of the EU enlargement process.
The Scope and Background
Polarization between the Macedonian and Bulgarian societies rose since to a dramatic extent since June 2022, following the EU solution to the Bulgarian veto and the conditioned opening of negotiations with N. Macedonia. Even the most prominent CS perceived as pro-EU started talking about alternatives to the EU. This was the overwhelming climate and ISSHS stood alone (literally) in its support of the EU Council’s decision advocating for cultural conflict resolution with Bulgaria and relaxation of the general discourse in N. Macedonia toward the Bulgarian minority. Hate speech has been normalised even in the mainstream. In the previous year, we carried out a IVF supported project seeking to devise policy solutions that could help resolve the Bulgarian-Macedonian deadlock stalling EU enlargement and promote cultural reconciliation. By way of including top v4 and other European experts in analysis, and in high level direct advocacy, we could exert some influence over some policy makers. Half of our recommendations in last years’ IVF supported project concerning lifting the veto, seem to be reflected in the EU’s General Position. However, the part of the recommendations that concerns cultural reconciliation remains yet to be realized. Considering the Bulgarian minority in N. Macedonia ought to be recognized by next year, the main efforts should be directed at depolarization, cultural conflict resolution and inter-cultural dialogue. We are sadly a rare CS initiative that seeks to engage in this issue of depolarization and maintain a strong EU commitment in the CS mainstream.
One should introduce a platform of continuous cultural exchange between the two countries enabling an essentially performative exchange on sensitive subjects concerning matters of cultural and national identity. By “performative”, we mean – performing gestures of goodwill, a self-critical stance demonstrated by each of the parties with regard to the purported “absolute” truth on matters of national identity, thus creating a dialogue of trust and tolerance of unpopular opinions to either of the two sides of the dispute at issue. Cf. Szpala, Vit, Gabor at https://tinyurl.com/6ys. Topics of history or identity should be balanced out by topics concerning the future and the very issue of EU enlargement. By the latter, we mean that we intend to raise awareness as to the importance of the war in Ukraine and why it makes EU enlargement more pressing than ever. Thus we intend to organize a series of in-person and online encounters that seek to build bridges of communication and thus sustainably combat the climate of polarization. While executing our activities targeting the issue of polarization, we intend to actively engage in presenting and seeking peer feedback on the policy solutions we propose with regard to the inter-cultural conflict (with consequences on EU enlargement) in front of key figures among the v4 policy makers and opinion makers. Considering v4 is the region we can learn most from concerning resolution of the type of problem at hand – but also shares similar medieval heritage – the project can contribute critically to the desired intercultural depolarization.
The Added Value to Already Exiting Initiatives
The civil society in North Macedonia is next to silent on this matter, except when some individual representatives of it aim to display patriotism and defend the national/ist position of their side. More often than not, the majority of the CS organizations and the academic community have been engaged in pointing “national traitors” rather than engage in active depolarization and examining one’s own nation’s nationalist stance in the dispute. Certainly, there are exceptions, and we are not the only ones engaging in challenging the status quo, but it is a highly rare occurrence in our present CS and academic environment. Due to our previous close collaboration with colleagues from Bulgaria and interaction with the Bulgarian society, we must say – the situation there is not very different than that in North Macedonia. Therefore, what we bring as an added value to the project could be broken down to the following components: 1) we engage in a self-critical stance toward our own nationalism/s and actively engage in building bridges of reconciliation with the other side, which, as said, is a rather rare practice in our Macedonian-Bulgarian context, 2) we include Bulgarian scholars and civil society representatives as part of our project team, demonstrating good faith, the performative gesture of “we are in this together,” 3) we will engage in active advocacy in front of the informed public in Bratislava and other cities in v4 (through our partners) postulating the comparative nature of similar problems within the region of v4 and the models of de-escalation we can learn from.
Regional Relevance: Good Neighborly Relations in EU
Improvement of the good neighborly relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria as the prerequisite for unblocking Europe’s enlargement process. Also, in the given context of discussions of experts and politicians of utmost European authority (e.g., Joseph Borrell, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/time-move-forward-eu-integration-western-balkans_en)), of a possible regional destabilization of the Balkans as a spill-over effect of the war in Ukraine, the enlargement process should be resumed and accelerated precisely to ward it off said danger – this project seeks to do precisely that, by seeking to establish a platform that will de-escalate the public discourse in both countries and help foreground a constructive dialogue of the decision makers in the direction of finding a possible resolution. Consequently, it is an essentially regional project, at least on thus presented two levels if not more. Currently, the only initiative toward intercultural reconciliation between N. Macedonia and Bulgaria is one that sprang precisely thanks to the IVF supported previous project run by ISSHS (Avenues of Cooperation) and it is called Bulgarian-Macedonian Friendship club. It is based in Sofia but includes numerous Macedonians, and our project leaders are among the founders of this informal initiative. As it is informal, lacks structure and direction, and is not a legal entity of any sort, we will use this network as a pool of experts and activists to keep the reconciliation debate going on the Digital Platform which is the core output of the project, thus synergizing the two efforts.
ISSHS’ and Consortium’s Experience in the Area
ISSHS has recently completed an IVF supported project on the same matter with somewhat different objectives and outputs that come down to viable policy solutions, building on the good models of the Visegrad group and the experiences of devising the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia. We continue to advocate for those solutions – and are open for their improvement and enrichment. However, in order to do so, there is a pressing need of depolarizing the binational public discourse – this project will aim to do so precisely. We were included in similar project initiatives that foregrounded the positive climate that enabled the elites to arrive at the solution called “Prespa Agreement” which put an end to the Macedonian-Greek next to three decades long dispute. In the previous IVF supported project under the titles Avenues of Cooperation, the former chief of the committee of foreign affairs of Syriza and university professor and civil rights activists, Costas Douzinas witnesses of this cooperation whose speech can be found on the YouTube playlist Avenues of cooperation. In short, ISSHS does have experience in projects of this sort, and they predate the agreements with Greece and Bulgaria: our studies on the perception of Macedonian identity, such as “Who Owns Alexander the Great: A Question Upon Which the EU Enlargement Relies,” whereas some of them deal with the matter of political polarization, the conflicts polarization creates and how to resolve them (a dozen of events and several studies published by ISSHS on the matter at hand).