The Macedonian Dispute as a Yugoslav-Bulgarian conflict

Dr. George Voskopoulos
July 22, 2008

The name dispute between Greece and FYROM has been seen primarily as a conflict between Greece and FYROM. Yet historically the third factor of the dispute was Bulgarian policy and its aim to annex Yugoslav and Greek Macedonia. This very aim gave Belgrade a powerful motive in creating and cementing a distinct, artificial “Macedonian” identity in order to deal with Bulgarophilia. In essence it was an intra-Slav dispute over domination in geographical Macedonia.

The constructed “Macedonian” identity meant to alienate local populations from Bulgaria. Originally the aim was built on a Marxist platform and class consciousness. Indicative of the feud between Bulgaria and the Serbian government is the reported tensions between the two countries. As pointed out by The New York Times reporter Walter Littlefield in March 1924 “the Serbian Government blames the Bulgarian Government for its own inability to establish a stable administration in Macedonia, which includes the territory around the meeting place of the frontiers of these two countries and of Greece. [1]

The two parties expressed their incompatible attitudes during the meetings of the Institute of Politics in the US two years later (1926) when “vigorous differences of opinion on the question of minorities in Macedonia between Dr. Ante Tresioh Pavichich, Yugoslav Minister to the United States, and Dr. Stephen Panaretoff, former Bulgarian Minister to the United States, disturbed the hitherto peaceful meetings of the Institute of Politics”.[2]

It is worth pointing out that the reports of the time do not refer to a single “Macedonian” people but an amalgam of peoples residing in geographical Macedonia. Navarre Atkinson, of the New York Times reports in 1927 that “the restless peoples who inhabit the rocky mountains and dry plains of Macedonia want another Balkan war. These Macedonians, who caused the two Balkan conflicts which preceded the World War, from which they emerged without any benefits, last week made another attempt to throw Yugoslavia and Bulgaria into war”.[3]

Bulgaria supported the idea of establishing a Balkan Communist Federation thus expressing the orthodox Communist view. In 1924 Bulgarian leader Peter Tchaulev suggested that, “there will be no peace in the Balkans so long as the greater part of that area remains unwillingly under Yugoslav domination. He is one of the three heads of the Central Macedonian Revolutionary Committee, which declares it has virtually the entire population of Macedonia organized and ready to strike for its demands when the moment arrives”. [4]

The aim of containing Bulgarophilia led to the adoption of extreme policies and mass suppression of those who identified as Bulgarians or those who formulated a Bulgarian national consciousness. Actually the same policy was adopted at a very late stage by FYROM after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the mass persecution of those who identified themselves as Bulgarian-Macedonians.

In the 1940s Yugoslav-Bulgarian rivalry intensified further. As noted by M. S. Handler, “the Yugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied today to the Bulgarian note of Oct. 1, abrogating the Bulgarian-Yugoslav treaty of alliance, by accusing the Bulgarian Government of having plotted to annex Yugoslav Macedonia.[5] This aim perplexed the political situation in the region since propaganda was targeted at both Yugoslav and Greek Macedonia [6], a fact that led Mark F. Ethridge, United States delegate on the United Nations Balkans Investigating Commission to call upon the Bulgarian liaison officer, George Koulishev to explain an article in a Communist newspaper of Sofia that said Bulgarians would welcome “the creation of a Macedonian State within the framework” of Yugoslavia” [7]. Still Bulgarophilia was the main threat to Belgrade´s expansionist plans. Yugoslav irredentist plans had to be redrawn and focus on the cohesion of its territory against Bulgarian national consciousness spreading at an alarming rate.

Those in Yugoslavia who identified as Bulgarians, had to be suppressed at any cost. At the same time Belgrade actively assisted those who would like to establish an autonomous state within Bulgarian Macedonia [8]. As noted, “Yugoslav Macedonian leaders followed yesterday’s attack by Lieut. Gen. Svetozar Vukmanovitch on Bulgaria by taking today an even more aggressive stand on the question of the control of Macedonia”[9]. A year later, tensions rose on the occasion of a trial in Sofia of eleven people accused of “Yugoslav activities against Bulgaria” [10]. In the meantime the Soviet Union fully endorsed Bulgarian policy against Yugoslavia that slowly but steadily distanced itself form the Soviet block eventually becoming a non-aligned state.

In 1950 a report on “troop and supply movements in Bulgaria” gave the impression that “a new Communist offensive aimed at Yugoslav and Greek Macedonia may be in the wind” [11]. Sofia still accused Belgrade of a suppressive policy towards pro-Bulgarians and Bulgarian-Macedonians [12] while the Yugoslav government established the semi-independent Orthodox Church in Yugoslav Macedonia under the Serbian Patriarchate. The move was another means of distancing local Slav populations from Bulgarian influence [13] and the need to cement Yugoslavia against Soviet policy. As reported, “Yugoslavia today formally linked the mounting Bulgarian propaganda campaign over Yugoslav Macedonia, with the recent Soviet doctrines of “limited sovereignty” and of the Communist “right of intervention”.[14]

Inside Yugoslavia the issue had alarmed the public opinion but also government officials. A report by the New York Times in 1966 exposed this uneasiness since “a leading Yugoslav weekly charged this week that “certain Bulgarian circles” had again stirred up the Macedonian issue, which has plagued the politics of the Balkans intermittently since the beginning of this century”.[15]

Yugoslav views and tit for tat policies were formulated on the grounds of Bulgarian expansionism and Sofia being a stern pro-Soviet Union country. In September 1968 a leading figure of the Yugoslav Communist Party rejected what he termed as “greater-Bulgarian chauvinism” [16]. This explains why the official establishment of a “Macedonian” national identity in mid-1940s was a sine qua non against Bulgarian influence. The reports of the time (1966) made clear reference to “Yugoslav Macedonia, which acquired nationhood and its own language during the last 20 years” [17].

The struggle between the two countries intensified and was attributed to “an upsurge of Bulgarian nationalism that has reintroduced a long – submerged element into the dispute over Yugoslav Macedonia, which Bulgaria claims on ethnic grounds” [18]. It led to a Bulgarian-Yugoslav bilateral meeting (1969) that “aimed at settling deep-rooted differences over Macedonia and other vital issues”. The meeting led to an impasse thus “leaving the two neighboring countries at a deadlock”. [19]

The above are an abridged only description of the “Macedonian dispute” between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Greece constitutes the third parameter of the issue, yet what is less known today is the usurpation of Bulgarian history by nationalists in FYROM and the clash of the constructed “Macedonian identity” as opposed to pro-Bulgarian feelings and national consciousness in Yugoslav Macedonia. To this day Bulgarian-Macedonians have been heavily oppressed in FYROM, particularly members of the pro-Bulgarian Macedonian Patriotic Organization (see 2007 incidents), a policy aiming at purging national identity from those elements that link it to Bulgaria and points to the Bulgarian national consciousness of a number of its citizens.

1] The New York Times, March 23, 1924

2] “Clash on Balkans at Williamstown; Yugoslav and Bulgar Diplomats Differ Sharply Concerning Rule in Macedonia”, The New York Times, August 15, 1926.

3] “Macedonia puzzles Balkan statesmen; Failure of Latest Attempt to Embroil Sofia and Belgrade Puts States on Guard”, The New York Times October 16, 1927.

4] “Asserts Macedonia is ready to strike; Tchaulev, Bulgarian Leader, Tells of Aims of the “Balkan Federation”, 1924, The New York Times, August 15, 1924.

5] “Yugoslavs Accuse Bulgaria of plot, Belgrade Holds Sofia Seeks Part of Macedonia”, The New York Times, October 14, 1949.

6] “Propaganda Flood’s Macedonia, Bulgarophiles and Pan-Slavs Active in Yugoslavia”, The New York Times, July 30, 1940.

7] “Bulgarian Red Aim Asked by Ethridge”, The New York Times, April 1, 1947

8] “Macedonians Seek Autonomy in Pirin; Yugoslav Communist Congress Hears Demand on Bulgaria for a ‘Special Regime’, The New York Times, July 25, 1948

9] Ibid.

10] “Deception by Tito Charged at Sofia; Spy Trial Hears His Aide Said Bulgar Reds Agreed He Should Direct Macedonia Operation”, The New York Times, December 12, 1949.

11] “Macedonia Thrust by Sofia is Feared; Reports of Troop Movements in Border Zone Are Sifted — Threat to Yugoslavia Seen”, The New York Times, July 6, 1950.

12] “Ancient Specter Rises in Balkans; Macedonia Question Revived by Bulgarians, Who Charge Oppression by Yugoslavs”, The New York Times, September 28, 1958

13] “Yugoslavs Avoid Church Division; Macedonians Restore Old Diocese, but Recognize Serbian Patriarch”, The New York Times, October 6, 1958

14] “Belgrade Blames Soviet Policy For Sofia’s Macedonia Claims, The New York Times, February 28, 1969

15] “Macedonia issue stirs new clash; Yugoslavs Lay Irredentist Moves to Bulgarians”, The New York Times, September 18, 1966

16] Belgrade-Sofia Tension Rises”, The New York Times, September 23, 1968.

17] “Macedonia Stirred by Beauty Contest”, The New York Times August 8, 1966.

18] “Bulgarian Nationalism Colors Macedonian Issue; Sofia Marks 1878 Treaty That Assigned Area to It Celebrations Appear Aimed at Yugoslav Control”, The New York Times, July 11, 1968

19] “Macedonia talks end in deadlock; Bulgarian Minister Leaves Belgrade After Visit, The New York Times, December 14, 1969

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