How U.S. History Can Save North Macedonia and Defeat Putinism in the Balkans

Given the spectacular killing of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the less-than-spectacular Ukrainian counter-offensive, it’s looking a lot tougher to defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fortunately, the United States has a rare opportunity to defeat Putinism in the Balkans. To score this victory, the Biden Administration must shelve the bromides about the region’s European future; instead, Washington needs to assemble a rarely used arsenal—U.S. historical assets—to secure the past. Only the United States has the ability to marshal its archives and expertise as a bulwark against Bulgarian identity aggression—the same imposition of “historical truth” that fuels Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Rather than step up to its historic responsibility, Washington is once again content to do the minimum in the Balkans, arming envoys with little more than exhortations and the threat of backroom wrangling. The challenge is convincing the Macedonian Parliament to—once again—amend the country’s Constitution in deference to identity demands, this time to recognize ethnic Bulgarians as a nation under the Macedonian Constitution. Without passing the amendments—a formal condition brokered by the French-led EU Presidency last year—North Macedonia will not be able to embark on its long-postponed path to EU membership.

Surprisingly, the Bulgarian amendments face far wider and more intense opposition among ethnic Macedonians than did the breathtaking 2019 measures that changed the country’s name. Citizens were able to swallow Greek demands on the name because the hard-won Prespa Agreement promised finality. Athens kept to the bargain, lifting its veto of Macedonian membership in NATO, and has since actively supported Skopje’s membership in the EU.

No such assurance exists with Bulgaria. Rather than a fair-minded compromise between two parties like Prespa, the so-called French Proposal was crafted by Paris to placate Sofia. Passage of the Constitutional amendments by no means denies Bulgaria the ability to block North Macedonia during the long, arduous EU accession process. To the contrary, the Proposal incorporates the 2017 Friendship Treaty between Sofia and Skopje, “effectively steering Brussels into monitoring compliance of that bilateral agreement.”

The misnamed Friendship Accord—and its Joint Historical Commission—have been the primary vehicles for Sofia to demand Macedonian acceptance of Bulgarian “historical truth”, as former Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva termed it. A Bilateral Protocol, signed by the parties in July 2022 in the wake of the French Proposal, introduces additional pressures on the Joint Historical Commission, including timelines that Bulgaria can invoke within the EU negotiating framework itself.

In other words, the French Proposal has simultaneously brought a bilateral dispute into the EU negotiating process—a precedent that could stymie Ukraine, Moldova, or any other aspirant—and brought the EU into the lopsided bilateral dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Bulgaria’s current Foreign Minister, Mariya Gabriel, may well have been speaking truthfully when she reportedly told a U.S. official, “no other conditions would be set by Bulgaria… if North Macedonia did what was outlined in the current agreement.” The conditions in the current agreement are more than sufficient for Sofia to impose its view of common history.

Resigned to that fact, North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani—a leading proponent of the French Proposal and key negotiator—has for the first time conceded “that Bulgaria will continually formulate new demands.”

The point is that, unlike Greece, Bulgaria retains its formal, hostile position on the Macedonian identity, history and language. The Bulgarian Parliament and Foreign Ministry made this clear with explicit reservations on the Macedonian language attached to acceptance of the French Proposal. This means that concessions, such as allowing the EU to sign an agreement with Skopje mentioning the Macedonian language (when the EU had already employed the term following the Prespa Agreement) do not lead to “good neighborly relations.” For the Bulgarian Parliament and government, even good neighbourliness is a stick to be applied against Skopje, “at every stage in the accession process.”

The immutable Bulgarian position has been voiced by the pro-Russian President Rumen Radev, “Bulgaria will not permit the legitimization of Macedonism.” This pejorative term squelches dialogue and debate—the hallmark of good neighborly relations—by demonizing the act of presenting different views on history and national origin.

Dealt a weak hand by its EU partners and desperate to keep North Macedonia’s European perspective alive, the United States has resorted to spin. “After [passing the amendments], what will define your accession process is not the bilateral issues but the closing of [EU reform] chapters and the convergence of your economy with the greatest economy in the world,” proclaimed U.S. Special Envoy to the Balkans Gabriel Escobar on a visit to Skopje in August.

Escobar is wrong on the substance, but right to be worried. The amendments have re-exposed the inter-ethnic rift in North Macedonia that nearly brought the country to war twenty-two years ago. An overwhelming 70 to 80 percent of ethnic Macedonians resolutely reject the new EU negotiation framework, while about the same percentage of ethnic Albanians declare their unwavering support for it. Opportunistically, some Albanian parties are calling for enhanced rights that go beyond the scope of the 2001 Ohrid Agreement, the most sound and effective peace agreement of any in the region.

If the Macedonian Parliament fails to introduce Bulgarians in the Constitution, as per EU terms, Brussels may decouple Albania—which has been stymied from opening its own EU negotiations over an issue that Tirana has had no role in creating. Decoupled or not, resentment will build among ethnic Albanians who will again be denied a pathway to the EU, this time because of the Macedonian refusal to make a seemingly modest concession. Kosovo’s populist Prime Minister Albin Kurti has already aggravated relations with his “hostile” visit in August to Skopje and Tetovo, where he pandered to Greater Albania nationalists.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, the region’s leading proponent of Russia and China, seized on the initial 2019 French veto of North Macedonia to rationalize Belgrade’s duplicitous stance towards the West. At a major regional parley in August, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic recalled, “North Macedonia, which, even after changing its name, did not get a date for the start of negotiations… contributing to Euroscepticism.”

Among ethnic Macedonians, support is growing for the noxious anti-Western party Levica, as disillusionment builds in “the most depressed country in Europe.” Across the spectrum, citizens are reeling from a series of highprofile allegations of malfeasance. The coup de grace came in September when Parliament selectively reduced sentences under the criminal code, effectively “decriminalizing the entire suite of high crimes committed by public officials in the last two decades”, causing “irreparable consequences in… the fight against organized crime, corruption and… chronic impunity of high officials.”

Allegedly designed as a package deal to amnesty the exiled former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski—so as to lure his opposition party into supporting the amendments—the ploy discredits them and the wider bid to join the EU. The European Commission and other watchdogs quickly called out the abuse of the European flag procedure that party schemers employed to rush the dubious legislation through Parliament. Amnesty for Gruevski would contravene one of “the U.S. Embassy’s top priorities and a key White House priority for the Western Balkans,” given that the State Department last year sanctioned the autocrat for involvement in significant corruption.

North Macedonia’s travails—orphaned by the EU as pro-Russian actors gain ground—will serve Moscow well in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), where Skopje may serve an unprecedented successive year in the highly visible role of Chairperson-in-Office. North Macedonia is already the target of a “deliberate, sustained and cynical hybrid attack”, according to NATO. Last month, Skopje expelled three more Russian diplomats, in the third such move since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.

The demise of the French Proposal will, paradoxically, serve Paris and other EU opponents of enlargement, relieving them of the need to actually move forward on serious EU reform. Enlargement skeptics can point to the rejection of EU efforts to resolve bilateral issues as proof that “the Macedonians don’t want to make the sacrifices needed to join the EU.” This will have a depressing effect around in the region, including in Montenegro which is struggling to form a government that will finally refocus on EU reforms as the national priority.

In sum, Washington is staring at the impending demise of the single-most successful Western intervention—and counterpoint to Russian order—in all Eastern Europe. Failure to pass the amendments will invite instability in the most historically contested territory in the Balkans. The damage will extend to the wider, faltering Western strategy for the region, just as the distraction of elections in Europe and the United States rapidly approaches.

To avert disaster, the United States must supply what the EU cannot: the bedrock assurance that the core Macedonian identity will not be eroded by further Bulgarian demands. There’s a way to accomplish this without interfering in Bulgarian domestic affairs, requiring Bulgaria to accept a different “historical truth” or creating a dangerous precedent. In fact, the State Department already deploys history to advance U.S. interests. The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade proudly displays historical evidence of friendly Serbian-American relations, including a letter from President Woodrow Wilson to Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic in 1918, around the time the Serbian flag flew over the White House.

Washington can approach Skopje in similar, wholly bilateral fashion with trilateral impact. The key is to present Bulgaria with a potent counter to its narrative, that Sofia itself will trigger if it continues with identity aggression against its smaller neighbor and NATO ally.

Getting the Biden Administration to understand what it must do when Washington is consumed with the war in Ukraine—in which Black Sea state Bulgaria plays a significant role—is the real obstacle. In fact, no dilemma exists. There is a clear nexus between Bulgarian identity demands on its neighbor, North Macedonia, and the punishment inflicted by Putin’s forces on Ukraine.

The connection is the fragility of extreme Bulgarian and Russian nationalism. In each case, national identity is rooted in putative ancient origins, vested in a “lost possession”—Macedonia and Ukraine, respectively. In each case, the nationalist mission is to reassert dominion, over history and language in particular, in a territory that was unjustly removed from its rightful overlord in Sofia and Moscow. In each case, the mere existence of an independent, “artificial” Macedonian or Ukrainian identity is perceived—viscerally and intellectually—as wholesale negation of the authentic Bulgarian or Russian identity. In short, achieving formalized identity submission—vice compromise or respect for differences—is the means for undermining Macedonian and Ukrainian statehood.

Overlooked by the United States and EU, the parallels between weaponized Russian and Bulgarian nationalism are striking. Putin’s July 2021 essay, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, “portrays the country’s language as a part of the Russian language, much like official Sofia claims Macedonian to be a Bulgarian dialect,” writes Macedonian scholar and member of the Joint Historical Commission Ognen Vangelov. Just as Putin claims Ukrainians as an integral part of the Russian people, artificially separated by the communists, “so Bulgaria portrays Macedonians as being part of the Bulgarian people, also artificially separated by the communists.”

Paternalistic, self-congratulatory Russian and Bulgarian rhetoric bear an uncanny resemblance.

Moscow: “The Russian Federation recognized the new geopolitical realities, and not only recognized, but, indeed, did a lot for Ukraine to establish itself as an independent country.”

Sofia: “Bulgaria acknowledged the political realities and was the first in the world to recognize the independence of the then Republic of Macedonia…. provid[ing] critical support … throughout the difficult first years of its existence.”

While scholars like Timothy Snyder have observed Putin’s “belief in an unchanging historical essence,” the real threat to European order lies in its absolutist projection. As Putin wrote in his essay, “there was no historical basis [for a distinct Ukrainian nation] — nor could there have been any.” This preemption of any different interpretation of multilayered, centuries-old history is what renders coexistence impossible with Ukraine—or with North Macedonia. In its official Explanatory Memorandum sent to fellow EU states, Bulgaria scorns “the alternative notions of ‘shared’ or ‘intertwined’ history,” demanding fidelity to “the mutually agreed concept of common history,” as set out by Sofia alone.

The requirement for absolute exclusivity over history is where Washington’s opportunity lies. The Bulgarian crusade against “Macedonism” hinges on 1944, when the Anti-Fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia (ASNOM), proclaimed the People’s Republic of Macedonia to be an equal federal republic within the new Yugoslavia, yielding recognition of the Macedonian people and language. In Sofia’s telling, 1944 is the beginning of the “ethnic engineering project of building a ‘Macedonian identity’ and a ‘Macedonian nation.’”

This means that Bulgaria’s entire case over “Tito’s… fabrication of a new historical narrative” falls apart with evidence of Macedonian identity prior to 1944. Sofia admitted as much in the Explanatory Memorandum with its categorical claim that “all diplomatic and historic accounts… confirmed” that “following World War I the overwhelming majority of… geographical… Macedonia used to clearly self-identify as Bulgarian.”

The official Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, published by the State Department Office of the Historian, easily challenge this assertion. One example among a trove of primary sources appears in verbatim notes of a September 1919 meeting between President Wilson’s envoy to the Paris Peace Conference, Frank Lyon Polk, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. The American and French officials agree fulsomely on the need to protect “Macedonian and Albanian minorities.” The transcript also contains references to “the Macedonians” and “the Macedonian population”, in clear distinction to “Bulgarians”, “Bulgarian nationals” and “Bulgarian intrigue.”

This single example doesn’t definitively prove the existence of an independent Macedonian identity as of 1919—nor does it need to. Given Bulgarian exclusivism, all that is needed is evidence from official US materials—discussed and debated by experts acting in good faith—of Macedonian national consciousness before Tito’s Yugoslavia. Even the potential display of a cogent, officially-presented narrative different from the one Bulgaria seeks to impose is enough to assure Skopje to change its Constitution, and deter Sofia from escalating demands. For the first time, Bulgaria would have to weigh the costs of approaching complex historical questions by fiat, instead of by open debate.

Fortunately, a politically and administratively sound pathway to assurance-deterrence exists. Under their Strategic Dialogue, the United States and North Macedonia have already agreed to “strengthen promotion of education and historically accurate remembrance.” Washington and Skopje can build on this through a carefully drafted statement, echoing Bulgaria’s key citation from the Friendship Treaty:

“With the aim of deepening mutual trust, the United States and North Macedonia agree to establish a Joint Commission on Historical and Educational Issues to contribute to objective, based on authentic and evidenced-based historical sources, scientific interpretation of historical events pertaining to the bases of Macedonian-American friendship. The Commission shall meet, and its reports shall be made public, at the sole discretion of the United States.”

By drawing directly from the Friendship Treaty, and by retaining unilateral control over convening the Macedonian-American Joint Commission, Washington will be sending a clear message to both sides. The aim is not to prove Bulgaria wrong. It is to return Bulgaria and North Macedonia to the path of fair-minded, professional, and objective inquiry described in the Friendship Treaty and in line with EU values.

The assurance-deterrence effect will be compounded as the State Department assembles the combined historical assets of the U.S. government, under coordination of the Office of the Historian, assisted by the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation. The State Department can invite the Archivist and the Librarian of Congress to participate in the endeavor, bringing in an array of source materials including the papers of President Wilson. While the Department will decide whether and when the Joint Commission will meet, Macedonian and American historians will have free rein to set the agenda and methodology for their work.

Ultimately, the US-Macedonian Historical Commission need not ever meet, as long as Bulgaria and North Macedonia proceed in the original spirit of their Friendship Treaty. Bulgaria loses nothing at present; indeed, Sofia is the immediate winner once the Constitutional amendments pass. Washington can assure Sofia that bad faith from the Macedonian side under the French Proposal will prevent the Macedonian-American Commission from meeting.

Ironically, the biggest payback from America’s history endeavor will be in Bulgaria itself. The stronger that Washington stands up for the principle that disputes over history and identity must be addressed with mutual respect, the weaker the ability of President Radev and other pro-Russian actors to exploit ethno-nationalism along Putin’s lines. Bulgarian belligerence will gradually be replaced by realism as Sofia faces direct costs for its unbridled identity aggression. More moderate voices in Bulgaria will declare victory on the Macedonian issue, and look for ways to achieve common understanding on historical events by dialing down the threats.

It is long past time for the Biden Administration to assert Western values in a region that should have long ago been fully ensconced in Western institutions. Defeating Putin in Ukraine may be a tall order; defeating Putinism in the Balkans is entirely feasible.


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Edward P. Joseph
Edward P. Joseph

Edward P. Joseph is a SAIS Adjunct Lecturer and Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Institute. He served for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the US Army.