This is the second part in a series of articles which will focus on the claims of different nations in the Balkans to greater states. The previous part focused on Albania.

The origins of Greater Bulgaria start at България на три морета, or Bulgaria on the three seas. This is a reference to Bulgaria during the First Bulgarian Empire, which lasted from 681 to 1018, when it encompassed most of the Balkans and modern day Romania, reaching all the way to modern-day Ukraine. Today, it would be near impossible to find a Bulgarian interested in claiming that entire stretch of land as Bulgarian, but the memory of Bulgaria at its peak is a powerful nationalist symbol that deserves mention when discussing more contemporary ideas of Greater Bulgaria.

The modern idea of a Greater Bulgaria started in 1878 when Bulgaria was de facto free of Ottoman rule, though legal independence did not come until the 1908 declaration of independence. Russia and Turkey signed the Treaty of San Stefano, in which Bulgaria was given Macedonia and much of what is today northern Greece, along with some additional territory from each of its neighbors, including a strip of land in North Eastern Dobruja.

This was not accepted by other powers interested in influencing the Balkans in their favor who saw the treaty of San Stefano as making Bulgaria, and through that Russian influence, too powerful in the region. Within the same year, the Treaty of Berlin redrew the San Stefano borders, dividing what was supposed to be Bulgaria into three different territories; an Independent Bulgaria, Eastern Rumelia, and Macedonia. Eastern Rumelia was left as an autonomous province within the Ottoman Empire whose power within the region was quickly diminishing. However, Eastern Rumelia was mostly populated by Bulgarians who were not interested in autonomy but in Bulgarian unity, and within seven years Bulgaria bloodlessly annexed Eastern Rumelia on September 6th, 1885.

By TodorBozhinov – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The territory of Macedonia, on the other hand, remained under Ottoman rule and has been separated from Bulgaria since. Claims of a Greater Bulgaria today largely rest of the reunification of Bulgaria with Macedonia, as Bulgarians see Macedonians as ethnically the same and Macedonian as a dialect of Bulgarian which has developed from years of separation and outside cultural influence. Bulgarians feel that the unique Macedonian identity has been used as a tool, particularly during the Yugoslavian era, to keep Macedonians from supporting Bulgarian unification. For this reason, Bulgarians reject the notion of a distinct Macedonian ethnicity. Instead, Bulgarians see Macedonia as a region and not a distinct identity, one that is inhabited by Bulgarians who have created their own identity after separation and are currently trying to revise history to fit their new identity. One such example is Tsar Samuel, who was the  King of Bulgaria from 997 to 1014. Since he ruled from Ohrid, Macedonia claims that he ruled an ethnic Macedonian empire. This is seen by Bulgaria as an attempt  by Macedonia to project its modern identity into very different historical contexts and is one of the  many barriers to healthy modern Bulgaria-Macedonia relations.

In 1912, the first Balkan War started. For nearly a year, the Balkan League worked together to fight the last remains of the Ottoman Empire in the region. The victorious Balkan states divided up the  former Ottoman territories and Bulgaria was given much of South Eastern Thrace, or the territory on its southern border that reaches down to the Aegean Sea. However, many in Bulgaria did not see this as enough as it had suffered the most from the Balkan side. Bulgaria was specifically interested in reunification with Macedonia and other regions which were controlled by Greece at the time.

The region before and after the Balkan Wars

This provoked the Second Balkan War in which Bulgaria lost territory on all sides, including territory in the South to Greece, East to Serbia, West to the Ottomans, and Southern Dobruja to Romania. It did keep its holdings in South Eastern Thrace as an outlet to the Aegean Sea and in Blagoevgrad/Pirin-Macedonia, but this was only a portion of what it desired. This led to Bulgaria entering WWI on the side of the Central Powers, as it still wanted to unify with Macedonia the way that it would have under the Treaty of San Stefano. Instead, it lost its outlet to the Aegean Sea, which is probably the most important part of Greater Bulgaria after the Macedonian region. During the interwar period, Bulgaria had various movements in support of integration into Yugoslavia as the only South Slav nation not yet in Yugoslavia, but they all failed because of Bulgarian interest in reviving Bulgarian glory and taking back lost lands and glory. Integration sentiment went as high as Aleksandar Stamboliyski, the Bulgarian Prime Minister from 1919 to 1923 who considered himself a Yugoslav, and included the failed project of the Balkan Federation.

For this reason, Bulgaria again sided with Germany in WWII in an attempt to conquer lands it felt it deserved. This led to the return of Southern Dobruja from Romania in the Treaty of Craiova and the temporary Bulgarian occupation of its former Aegean holdings and the Macedonia region. Bulgaria kept Southern Dobruja but returned the Aegean Sea strip and Macedonia after the war.

Today, Bulgaria’s borders remain as they were at the end of the Second World War. Nationalism is no longer the main driving force behind Bulgaria’s foreign policy, and so Bulgarian attempts to form Greater Bulgaria are unlikely. Most  Bulgarians still hold some feelings of kinship to the Macedonian region, but few aside from the  radical right wish to reclaim the territory. Even if reunification were to occur, bringing Macedonia into  the rest of Bulgaria would bring the Bulgarian economy to a halt. Also, most realize that much time has passed and that even if they feel that the Macedonian identity is based on a false interpretation of history, it is still an identity. For this reason, Bulgaria has chosen to build up relations with Macedonia, including being the first nation to recognize its independence in 1991 and trying to help Macedonia in its EU integration, a softer form of integration that Bulgarians feel will  only bring them closer to their kin. This process has not been as smooth as it could be, as there are many unresolved issues between the two nations such as Bulgaria not recognizing Macedonian as a separate language but only as a dialect of Bulgarian. Bulgarian claims to other parts of Greater Bulgaria are losing power as nationalist symbols. The Bulgarian population in both parts of Southern Thrace, Turkish and Greek, and in Northern Dobrujia left the regions and returned to Bulgaria during the region’s conflicts and various population exchanges between the countries. Revisionist claims based off historical territory can still be heard from ultra-nationalists, but few take them seriously.

Given the recent history of the Balkans, the idea of Pan-Balkanism or a Balkan state might sound ludicrous. However, the history of the region shows us that this has not always been the case. Because of a shared history and previous global trends, the Balkan nations have undergone various attempts at some form of unification following the demise of the Ottoman empire. These attempts were not successful as the forces of nationalism and imperialism trumped every Pan-Balkanist movement, but they should not be forgotten because they give us a good counterweight to modern fallacies such as deep rooted ethnic hatred and support the dangerous rhetoric of ethnic superiority.

The first of such movements came from the Christian church immediately after the Ottoman empire’s hold on the region started to weaken. During Ottoman rule, Christians were united in the respect that they were second class citizens. The Millet system, in which each religion’s adherents were considered the same caste, ruled all Christians under the Rūm millet or Roman Nation. While the Balkan population was allowed to keep their Christian identity as long as they accepted being second class citizens, the Ottomans suppressed individual ethnic identities.

After Greek independence in 1821, some social forces started to champion Balkan unity. The strongest was the Greek Orthodox church which had grown powerful in the region as the official representative of Balkan Christians. This meant that the upper classes of Balkan Christians were taught in Greek, which spread Greek language and culture throughout the region. This allowed them to create a cohesive identity which was left after the Ottomans left the region. After independence, the Greek Orthodox church wanted to build up the Rūm millet into one new nation headed by the church, but this ran into some problems. Other ethno-centric churches opened throughout the Balkans as different regions gained more and more autonomy, which caused rivalries over authority and followers. This competition led to religion being a divisive force within the Balkans. Another major issue with a religious Pan-Balkan state based off of Orthodox Christianity is that it would have inherently excluded the non-Christians within its borders.

Christianity was not the only force at this time pushing for Balkan unity. Rhigas Feraios was a Greek independence fighter who was also interested in greater Balkan liberation. He is best known for his text “New Political Constitution of the Inhabitants of Rumeli, Asia Minor, the Islands of the Aegean, and the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia” which was an attempt to inspire the Balkans to rise up together, as well as for creating the flag that would later be associated with Balkan unity. The extent of how far the average Greek was interested in the liberation of Bulgarians and Serbians is unknown, but Rhigas is just one example of how the early struggles for independence were not strictly ethnical.

This solidarity over a shared Ottoman rule continued after Rhigas, with various groups working to rid the Balkans of the remains of Ottoman occupation. There were cases like the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, formed in 1893, which fought for Macedonian independence in its earlier years, but later on in its history was very connected to Bulgaria and served Bulgarian interests. Because it worked for liberation with the goal of integrating it into another nation as opposed to self rule, it cannot be seen as an example of Pan-Balkanism.

However, there were multiple other groups which championed Pan-Balkanism. In the early 20th century, many other left leaning groups emerged which were not focused on national interests of individual states but on the liberation of the Balkans as a whole. The Macedonian Secret Revolutionary Committee was one such group. It had strong anarchist leanings and was against nationalism, instead favoring a Balkan Federation much like Feraios. Its main functions were agitating the public against the Ottomans and for the liberation of Macedonia, and its legacy is limited to that.

Shortly after, a more militant group with ties to the MSRC emerged and had far more influence in terms of direct effect on the region. The Boatmen of Thessaloniki (or the Gemidzhiite) used terrorism within Thessaloniki in order to catch the attention of European empires to the region, with the hope of bring attention to the plight of those still living under Ottoman rule. Their short lived bombing campaign ended with no positive effect on the region; Ottoman soldiers massacred many civilians as punishment. This only exacerbated tensions in the region, which shortly after erupted into the Ilinden–Preobrazhenie Uprising.

Some of the Boatmen
Some of the Boatmen of Thessaloniki

There is a debate between Bulgarian and Macedonian scholars about whether the Boatmen were ethnic Bulgarians or Macedonians. If they are seen as ethnic Macedonians, the Pan Balkan motivations behind their actions could be ignored in favor of a national liberation interpretation. However, a few things must be considered.

First, the Boatmen were a very small group. They were not like the IMRO, which controlled a large fighting force interested in liberating and then holding territory. The Boatmen had the ability to join such a group with more resources if their goal was based on ethnic leadership as opposed to adhering to a common ideology they believed in. Instead, the boatmen acted through propaganda of the deed to encourage rebellion against the Ottomans. Second, anarcho-nationalism had a sizable following within the anarchist community during this time. Simply assuming that because they were anarchists they were against nationalism would be imposing modern anarchist thought into their actions from over 100 years ago. However, there were many prominent members of the Balkan anarchist community at the time (such as Tinko Simov, a Bulgarian anarchist who actively fought against the Bulgarian government) that rejected nationalism and ethnic ties in favor of anarchist style autonomy. The majority of the anarchist movement of the time favored anarcho-syndicalism or anarcho-communism, which were worker based movements that disregarded nationalism as a whole unless it could be used as a tool to provoke revolutionary sentiment. Therefore even if we accept the Boatmen were ethnic Macedonians as a fact, this most likely had no major effect on their anarchist ideology. Third, the Boatmen were graduates of the Bulgarian Men’s High School of Thessaloniki, where they were taught by members of the MSCR who strongly supported a Balkan federation and are seen as a major influences on the Boatmen. It is hard to imagine that students taught by strong advocates of Balkan unity and opponents of nationalism would be following a complete opposite form of thought. Therefore the debate of whether the boatmen were Macedonian or Bulgarian is not very relevant, at least for the purposes of Pan-Balkan history. This focuses simply on their actions when the focus should be on the ideology behind their actions, which was removing the last remaining traces of Ottoman rule from the region.

Following these events, the influence of anarchism on the Balkans waned. The next forces to work towards a Balkan federation were the communist, socialist, and agrarian parties of the region. The socialist parties in the Balkans had ties to the Second International, which was an organization formed to create unity between leftist movements beyond borders. This led to more localized attempts at creating cross-border socialist movements, the first major one being the Balkan Socialist Conference in 1910 which openly supported a Balkan Federation. Under their platform, this federation would have even included Turkey because “The Ottoman proletariat is united in agreement with the universal proletariat to fight against war in general” and “Only a Balkan Federation will enable the nations of the Balkans to ensure their total development of culture and political independence.” During the two Balkan wars, the Balkan communist, socialist, and agrarian parties engaged in a powerful anti-war campaign. They were unsuccessful but their effort was connected with a surge in electoral support for each, particularly the socialist parties.

When the first World War came, the Balkan left became very divided. The socialists were split between pro-government socialists who supported their respective nations and the far left socialists who encouraged turning the war into a class war, much like the Bolsheviks. This schism led to a radicalization of politics that Balkan communists most benefited from, resulting in the Balkan Communist Federation which held its first conference in Sofia in January 1920. This culminated in the May Manifesto four years later which promoted establishing a Balkan communist federation, an independent and reunified Macedonian state, and closer ties to the Soviet Union. This schism showed the divide between the moderate socialists against the radical socialists and communists, the former wanted gradual unification between the Balkan states while the latter wanted a complete overthrow of the present governments in order to create a Balkan Socialist Soviet Republic. To make tensions worse, the two sides became bitter rivals over who would be the true voice of the limited recruitment pool of Balkan workers.

The idea of closer ties to the Soviet Union or even a hypothetical Balkan Socialist Soviet Republic state remained for decades as the far left of the time believed in a global, united proletarian which would be needed to advance a global marxist revolution. But had a Balkan Socialist Soviet Republic arisen, its connection to the Soviet Union would have been very problematic. This could have resulted in a Balkan state largely subordinate to Soviet interests as opposed to its own.

Agrarian parties also advocated for a Balkan federation and the creation of a Green International which would have tried to unite farmers and agrarian parties of the world in a way that the Socialist International was able to for socialists.

The Bulgarian agrarian party was in power from 1919 to 1923. Aleksandar Stamboliyski, a strong supporter of Bulgarian integration into Yugoslavia as well as a greater Balkan state, was the Bulgarian prime minister during the agrarian party’s rule. Stamboliyski was famous for identifying not as a Bulgarian but as Yugoslavian during a parliamentary hearing in 1914. He was also arrested for opposing Bulgarian intervention in World War I because he saw Bulgaria’s Serbian front as fratricidal. After being freed, Stamboliyski organized Bulgarian troops and forced King Ferdinand to abdicate the throne, later leading the agrarian party to power in the same year.

The Croatian agrarian party was the second most powerful agrarian party of the region.  The Croatian Peasant Party was founded by Stjepan Radić in 1904. Radić was not originally interested in a Balkan or South Slav union but instead empowering Croatian peasants through land distribution. However, when Yugoslavia was established, he and the party started advocating for a decentralized federation which would expand to Bulgaria, eventually taking in Romania and Greece. For Radić, this was a way of making sure that Yugoslavia did not become Serb dominated. The Slovenian People’s Party of the time agreed with this sentiment, originally supported Slovenian independence, but then shifting to autonomy in and expansion of Yugoslavia in order to have more decentralized power which would ensure Slovenian autonomy within a greater union.

This greater-Serbian/Balkan Federation debate was at the time framed as a “Radić-Stamboliyski against Pašić-Davidović” conflict (Pašić and Davidović being the first two prime ministers of Yugoslavia). It is no wonder that both Radić and Stamboliyski were assassinated, the former by a Serbian nationalist and the latter in a far right coup which included IMRO who saw Stamboliyski as a traitor to Bulgaria for his views on an independent Macedonia. Stamboliyski supported this as a national concession to show his commitment to ending the Bulgarian claims over Macedonia and instead support for a Balkan Federation.

In the 1920s, political repression eventually took the force out of pro-federalization parties who were struggling but still able to maintain relevancy during events such as King Alexander’s dictatorship in Yugoslavia and the white terror in Bulgaria which targeted both communists and agrarians. La Fédération Balkanique was a bimonthly magazine which took up the mantle of promoting a Balkan Federation. It was published from 1924-1931 in all of the Balkan languages, but it did not have the same effects on the region that the former left wing movements held.

La Federation Balkanique
La Federation Balkanique

Though the movement’s leaders were killed, the efforts continued through the first Balkan Conference which was proposed by a former Greek Prime Minister, Alexandros Papanastassiou. Delegates from all over the region met in Athens in October, 1930 and then again in the following year in Istanbul, Romania in 1932, and Thessaloniki in 1933. The first meeting had more to do with theoretical peacebuilding, with agenda items such as utilizing the Hague International Court of Justice and the issue of minorities. The later meetings went further into establishing mutual organizations such as a Balkan postal union and health bureau. These meetings were much more serious than the earlier attempts by socialists and communists as they weren’t hypothetical ‘after the revolution’ plans but instead were attended by the foreign ministers of the Balkan countries, even though they were not empowered to act on behalf of their governments. They were also not organized by leftists, but instead in politicians that saw the practical benefits of a unified and decentralized state. This attempt could be attributed to the fact that the previous decade had many cases cooperation necessary to prevent further conflict, such as the Greco-Bulgarian Agreement of December 9th, 1927 to deal with repayment over confiscated property during population exchanges.

Following this, the Balkan states drifted away from the forces of unity and towards another ‘fratricidal’ period. In 1934, Bulgaria suffered another brief right wing military regime which was soon reversed, but the country remained on track to cement closer ties with the Axis powers. Interestingly enough, some of the forces in this coup were interested in Bulgaria entering Yugoslavia. The Little Entente, a military alliance between Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia fell through in 1937 when Romania and Yugoslavia refused to help Czechoslovakia when it was threatened by Nazi Germany. Italy slowly started to force its influence into Albania following World War I, until the military invasion and resulting occupation of 1939. Greece had suffered from the national schism during World War I which resulted in two coup attempts during the interwar period (one successful in 1922 and one not in 1935) so its foreign policy and support on Balkan integration was shaky and dependent on both internal peace and whoever was in power at the time. Yugoslavia was attacked by Germany in 1941, which resulted in Bulgarian forces occupying part of Yugoslavia in the latter stages of the conflict (particularly Macedonia), which it returned after the war as a token for peace between the two new communist countries.

Following World War II, the communists managed to take power in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia. However, Yugoslavia soon became suspicious of both the West and the Soviet Union, so it was weary of Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania as they had strong ties to the Soviet Union. Any credible interests of incorporating Bulgaria into Yugoslavia as the last South Slav nation not yet in Yugoslavia died with the Tito-Stalin split. Albania also later left the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence while seeking greater ties with the People’s Republic of China. Greece was stuck in a civil war which ended with an anti-communist regime taking power. The communist regimes in Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia all worked together to assist the communist rebels of Greece, but this cooperation was unsuccessful. This all resulted in a wide variety of interests and ideology clashing in the region, ending the closest the Balkans ever got to a unified federation.

After the cold war, new ideas related to a Balkan state emerged. From a neoliberal perspective, the Balkans are potentially more united they have ever been through membership or possible expansion into the EU. However if one looks at the Schengen Area where European borders are internally eliminated, it is clear that the Balkans and the EU are two very separate entities. Depending on one’s outlook, this can either mean that the Balkans have to continue progress until they are ready to join the EU, or that the Balkans are not yet seen as equals to the rest of the EU.

Map of the Schengen area
Map of the Schengen area

There are some parties in the Balkans, and the rest of the EU, that are opposed to the idea of a European Union, particularly because of the requirements made on the member states and austerity measures that particular countries have accepted. These measures and structural adjustment programs have been compared to requests that the great powers had of their Balkan protectorat states just over 100 years ago which landed the Balkan countries further in debt and at the mercy of the great powers. While it is foolish to think of this as a significant threat to the EU, it is still worth mentioning as certain protest parties, such as EPAM in Greece, are supporters of scrapping the EU in favor of a state with the ability to more directly advocate for the interests of the Balkans.

The prospect of a future Balkan federation is bleak. For one, it would require the end of the EU.  While there is talk of the EU falling apart under economic pressure from its poorer states (particularly Greece) and the current refugee crisis, there is little reason to believe that the EU is going to go away anytime soon.  Similarly, the bloody wars that followed the end of Yugoslavia could be used to claim that the idea would never work. This may be true, but it is worth remembering the fact that the original Balkan Wars were not a barrier to the spread of the original calls to a Balkan federation.

Twenty-six years after the official end of the Cold War with the now historic handshake between George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in 1989, the East-West dilemma could not be more alive in the Western Balkans. To many ex-Yugoslavs in each of the seven successor republics, this seems like a 30-year leap back in the past. The only difference is that these people were then deeply envied by the rest of the world for getting to address what was elsewhere a central identity issue in a pretty casual manner. A founding member of the Non-Alliance Movement, Tito’s Yugoslavia gravitated between the two poles of power throughout its entire existence without ever allowing its relationship with either the US or the Soviet Union to define its status as a country. A quarter of a century later, two of Yugoslavia’s successor states seem to be right in the middle of the revived tension between the United States and Russia, and they are just as reluctant to take sides as their glorious predecessor. This time, however, the governments of Macedonia and Serbia will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that neutrality is no longer an option.

The entire foreign policy of the Republic of Macedonia since independence in 1991 can be summarized in the following line from the anthological movie Happy New Year ’49: “The East has written us off, the West won’t write us in”. The previous leadership of the incumbent ruling VMRO-DPMNE tried very hard to portray Macedonia’s relationship with the West and the East as a zero-sum game in the late 90s. Within its broader policy of distancing the country from its immediate Communist past, the then government insisted that European integration should be Macedonia’s one and only strategic priority, thus making deteriorating relations with Russia look like acceptable collateral damage in the long run.

However, the rhetoric of DPMNE’s current leadership on this issue is very different, and its actions can even be seen as diametrically opposed. While EU membership remains Macedonia’s main foreign policy goal, its relationships with Russia, Turkey, and China are publicly being referred to by the government as ‘business as usual’, which is meant to illustrate bravery on its part for daring to “hang out with the bad guys”. Most foreign investments in Macedonia today can be traced back to either Beijing or Ankara, with the country’s only functional airport having been sold to a Turkish company, and highways nationwide being reconstructed with Chinese funds.

As much as this is indeed a bold foreign policy in times of renewed Cold War tension, it is not what Prime Minister Gruevski pledged to do when he came to power. After appointing a few German-educated ministers to his government, Gruevski made a personal commitment to improving relations with Germany upon his inauguration in 2006. However, the heads of the two countries have not held a single bilateral meeting for the past nine years. In fact, Chancellor Angela Merkel was given a harsh scolding for what appeared to be her genuine offer to help with the name issue last summer. Her definition of compromise as ‘a situation in which each party loses something’ was strongly condemned by pro-government journalists, who were sickened by the very idea of making concessions in the negotiations for something that they regard as non-negotiable in the first place.

As the government failed to provide an official response to Merkel’s statement, Macedonia lost a unique opportunity to work with one of the leading world leaders on overcoming its key EU-integration obstacle. Understandably, the German Chancellor has been quiet ever since, and the whole incident made Gruevski’s repeated assurances of unconditional commitment to friendship with the West sound like empty words. In fact, Macedonia’s recent behavior with regards to the East-West dilemma has been described as one of a ‘drunken driver who switches the left blinker on, but nevertheless turns right’. That said, nothing is likely to ever have damaged Macedonia’s relations with the West more than government rhetoric during the ongoing wiretapping scandal. The Prime Minister has, rather vaguely, blamed it on unspecified foreign intelligence services. Pro-government journalists, however, have unambiguously identified the US as the foreign power to blame, thus probably downgrading American-Macedonian relations to their all-time low.

Macedonia's PM Nikola Gruevski
Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski

Despite the similarity between the two countries in this regard today, Serbia’s history with the East-West dilemma differs substantially, and it goes back to pre-Yugoslav times. Indeed, Serbia and Russia have done many irrational things over the course of history in the name of their strong historical bond commonly referred to as panslavism, not least the sparking of World War I. Furthermore, when religion regained its role in Serbia with the collapse of Communist Yugoslavia, panslavism was complemented by the Orthodox branch of Christianity. It is because of this multilayered sense of brotherhood with Russia that many Serbians are still unable to digest Moscow’s failure to prevent the bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Russia may have vetoed the relevant UN resolution in the Security Council, but its later inability to stop the unilateral NATO mission from happening was perceived by the proud Serbian people as nothing but betrayal. It was this sensation of utter abandonment that prompted Serbian politicians in the post-Milosevic era to start pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy, and European integration was deemed to be the only policy course that could benefit Serbia.

While this approach was relatively well-received by the population, it also established the “hearts VS minds” distinction, which is very much present throughout the country to this date. Government EU-integration efforts are supported, but this support is only ever justified on economic grounds, with Russia still being regarded as the sole logical ideological ally. This binary had no tangible impact on the political reality until the European Union introduced sanctions against Moscow due to its annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and asked its candidate members to follow suit. Prime Minister Vucic’s straightforward refusal to join the sanctions did not surprise anyone in the region, but it did agitate the EU, which was convinced that Serbia had permanently dropped the East-West dilemma the minute it was granted EU candidate status. The unprecedentedly warm welcome which Putin received at a WWII liberation parade in Belgrade at the peak of US-Russian tension last November demonstrated that Brussels could not have been further from the truth.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic

At this point, it might be useful to look at Russia’s recent behavior towards the two countries. Ever since Crimea, the West has repeatedly pointed to Moscow’s endeavors to create a new sphere of influence modeled on the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, thus accusing it of violating the nowadays inalienable right to self-determination. The proponents of this view argue that Russia has taken two and a half decades to recover from the collapse of the USSR by reluctantly pursuing a cooperative foreign policy, only to return to its inherent Cold-War-era aggressiveness now that it is back on its feet. As much as there may be evidence for this claim in the Baltic states and Ukraine, applying this characterization to Russia’s foreign policy in the Balkans would be profoundly incorrect. In fact, it is interesting to note Vladimir Putin’s attitude during the November parade, which had been anticipated by both the Serbian government and local media as “the event of the decade”. The Russian President appeared motionless and indifferent to the numerous fond references to panslavism in the emotional speech of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, who even unsuccessfully attempted to address his Russian counterpart in his native tongue. What really angered the Serbian public, however, was Putin’s abrupt departure in the late afternoon to reunite with his old-time friend, Italian ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for a private dinner in Milan only a few hours later.

According to many regional analysts, Putin’s behavior that day was meant to send a clear signal to Belgrade that Russia was neither willing nor able to provide Serbia with an alternative to its slow and ultimately uncertain EU-integration process (the final section of the negotiations, Chapter 24, may well include the unconditional recognition of Kosovo whose refusal would block Serbia’s accession even if all other criteria were met in the meantime). And it is exactly Kosovo that somewhat ironically indicates the absurdity of the commitment of Vucic’s government to panslavism – trade exchange between Serbia and Russia is at the moment even lower than that between Belgrade and Prishtina! After all, it is not Serbia, but rather Bulgaria, that has always been Moscow’s favorite in the Balkans, as captured by the famous Soviet-time saying: Курица не птица, Болгария не заграница (“A chicken isn’t a bird like Bulgaria isn’t Russia”).

Russia's President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

This notion of “unrequited love” is equally applicable to Russia and Macedonia. Bilateral economic cooperation is burdened by the Yugoslav-era Quisling debt, which Russia has repeatedly refused to write off despite Macedonia’s numerous pleas to this effect. As far as political collaboration goes, there has never been a top-level bilateral meeting between the two countries, or a state visit to Skopje by a high Russian official. Contrary to these facts, US Secretary of State John Kerry has recently included Macedonia in his “line of fire” that Russia allegedly uses as a bargaining chip with the West. This statement has contributed a great deal to Macedonians’ sense of self-importance, since it was interpreted by pro-government journalists as an indication of the rightfulness of the country’s inviting attitude towards Moscow. They argue that the closer Macedonia gets to Russia, the more bargaining power it will have in the eventual EU-accession negotiations. Another move in this direction is President Gjorgje Ivanov’s confirmed presence at the traditional WWII victory parade in Moscow on May 9, where he will unsurprisingly be accompanied by his Serbian counterpart, but not by any EU head of state other than the Eurosceptic presidents of Greece, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

A fundamentally new moment in the relations between the two countries was last week’s official reaction by the Russian Foreign Ministry with regards to the still unresolved attack on a local police station near the multi-ethnic city of Kumanovo. Pro-government media hurried to celebrate Moscow’s declaration of its full confidence in the ability of the government to get to the bottom of this incident. This was in fact just a follow-up on another recent press release by the Russian MFA in which the Kremlin unambiguously took Gruevski’s side in the wiretapping scandal. What these journalists failed to mention was that these two were the only official Russian government announcements on Macedonia throughout the latter’s 24 years of existence, which have, among the rest, included an interethnic conflict in 2001 that Russia wittingly chose to ignore. The timing of this suddenly awoken Russian interest in Macedonia is hardly a coincidence, and the government might want to ask itself if any alliance based on a temporary interest is worth pursuing. Obviously, nothing would keep Russia from returning to its pre-Crimea ambivalence to Macedonia as soon as US-Russian tension winds down.

On balance, this article does not mean to suggest that Macedonia and Serbia, or any other West Balkan country for that matter, should blindly walk on the path towards the EU without constantly rethinking the rightfulness of every single action that is undertaken in the process. It would be great, for instance, if the Macedonian people started viewing the resolution of the name issue as a matter of vital national interest, rather than as a mere accession condition imposed by the EU. At the end of the day, no country could ever benefit from having different names for domestic and foreign use, regardless of its position on the East-West dilemma. However, when this rethinking leads to the coinage of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories such as the one on US involvement in the wiretapping scandal, it can be nothing but detrimental. Macedonia and Serbia need to bear in mind that, this time, they do not have the Non-Alliance Movement to hide behind. Yugoslavia is long gone, and they will have to address the East-West dilemma by themselves and for themselves, as every other sovereign nation on this planet does. And if Gruevski and Vucic are too afraid to turn their backs on Russia, they should remember that even Tito said NO to Stalin in 1948.