Spiros Sofos: Bulgaria’s blackmail is unfair




At a time when Macedonia is under strong international pressure concerning the constitutional changes, and the region is waiting to see whether it will be coupled to the European locomotive, external views become a dire need for the country to position itself on the right coordinates during the geopolitical developments that will not leave us unaffected. After the interview with the German journalist and specialist on the Balkans Michael Martens, we present to you another conversation, this time with Spyros Sofos, whose research at the London School of Economics and Political Science has focused, among other things, on social insecurity, identity and collective action, as well as populism in Southeast Europe.

He says that Bulgarian elites playing the nationalist card poses the risk of adding fuel to the fire in the region at a time when North Macedonia's access to the EU would render the contentious issues irrelevant. Regarding the US sanctions or blacklists, as they are popularly known, he points out that they can be easily circumvented by those to whom they apply, because those individuals can still handle their accounts and assets abroad, registered under a different person, and often such individuals can maintain a luxurious way of life in their countries. He also believes that the Prespa Agreement opened the door for bringing back the voice of Macedonians in Greece.

Mr. Sofos, you are considered as someone who knows the region well because you analyse a large part of the processes through your research and academic work. Are you following the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia? Is it fair for North Macedonia to be blackmailed on its path to the EU?

- The Bulgarian elites playing the nationalist card is an additional obstacle that poses the risk of adding fuel to the fire of nationalism in the region at a time when North Macedonia's entry into the EU would render the contentious issues irrelevant. Let me be clear: not only is this blackmail unfair to the people of North Macedonia, but it is also an attempt to hold the Bulgarian electorate hostage to the country's traditional political elites. It has very little to do with whether the people on the other side of the border feel Bulgarian, are Bulgarian, dream in Bulgarian or at some point in history were Bulgarian. This is exactly what the elites are doing by using threats, all over the region – reverting to good old nationalism when they feel they are losing control.

The opposition is strongly opposed to the inclusion of Bulgarians in the Macedonian Constitution - which is a condition for EU membership negotiations. Given that you were born and raised in Greece, which also had a turbulent political history, what is your message to Skopje on that issue?

- It is difficult to pass on lessons. I can only say one thing. The opposition thrived in moments of nationalist tensions. It took advantage of and exacerbated the dispute with Greece to maintain its control over the country and its resources, and eventually left power nearly bankrupting the country. I'm not suggesting that it hasn't changed and will do the same thing again. However, I believe that nationalist reflexes are deeply rooted in the psyche of VMRO-DPMNE and sometimes they prevent it from taking a politically constructive stance. The existence and prosperity of North Macedonia can be better within the framework of the European Union (although the EU is by no means the solution to all problems, far from it).

The existence and well-being of the people in the country depend on investments, open borders and opportunities for cooperation with Macedonia's European allies. I cannot speculate on what the optimal response to Bulgarian pressure should be other than to emphasize that North Macedonia has already enshrined in its Constitution its incredible and strong cultural, religious and ethnic diversity and it has not suffered from it. The recognition of diversity is a strength in itself because it reduces the tensions that its suppression can cause, and in the current situation, it can pave the way for the country's membership in the EU. The Bulgarian nationalist elites are the ones who have more to lose in the long term with some sort of compromise (which will reflect the political reality on the ground because there are Macedonians in North Macedonia who have an affinity for Bulgaria), which will not affect the coherence of North Macedonia and will silence the Bulgarian nationalists. But I would like to see the EU adopt a more active and constructive role in this process.

The Prespa Agreement is a turning point

North Macedonia and Greece made the famous Prespa Agreement, which put an end to three decades of "antagonism". What are your assessments five years after that Agreement?

- I was very happy to see North Macedonia and Greece find a solution (however imperfect) to their dispute. I believe that it has strengthened the relations between the two countries and societies, although I see it as the first of many steps to be taken. However, I would also like to add that I was a critical supporter of the agreement. I realize that it was a child of compromise and as such was criticized on both sides. However, I think that the Prespa Agreement has improved relations between the two countries and, despite the initial opposition of the current party in power in Greece, I am happy to see that Greece is proceeding with the implementation of the agreement. True, the agreement provides opportunities to do much more in cross-border cooperation and obtain closer and deeper cooperation in so many fields, therefore both countries should do much more to integrate and provide a better future for their citizens.

Greece did not object to the registration of the non-governmental organization Macedonian Language Centre in Lerin - a move that was welcomed and commended in North Macedonia. What other benefits can be expected from the Prespa Agreement?

- I think there will be a process of "normalization" of the position of Greek citizens who identify themselves as Macedonians - by this I mean improving the conditions that will enable them to get a voice, representation, building institutions and becoming part of the main events and processes. So far, we have seen small steps and we will continue to see small steps. It is interesting that these steps are not direct outcomes of the Prespa Agreement, but of the positive climate created by that agreement. There are thorny issues ahead – the right of ethnic Macedonians of Greek origin to gain access to the property, and even to be able to visit their villages and towns. But only the positive climate we have now can pave the way for this.

Do you see a future for the Western Balkans?

- I see a mixed picture. Throughout the region there are societal forces that look to the future with a positive vision, but there are groups that harbour interests in maintaining corruption, nepotism, inciting nationalism and what is worse is that these forces have a strong hold on large segments of the population - those who fear change or those who are subject to xenophobic discourses and fears of the destruction of tradition and the disintegration of family values. The different results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Montenegro, the modest results of progressive forces in the local elections in Serbia against a very conservative political system, the protests against Vucic and his allies, the political dead-end in Bosnia or the current Bulgarian coalition government demonstrate the division across the region.

One gets the impression that the international community is going round in circles when managing the crisis between Kosovo and Serbia. Why, despite all efforts, has there been no result?

- Western diplomacy, after the US-led intervention in Kosovo, sees Kosovo more as a problem than as a potential success story. Western diplomats and peacekeepers have not dared to encourage dialogue and cooperation between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs and to find interlocutors who would be willing to engage with them and each other. Then the war in Ukraine happened, which made the European Union realize that it is not paving ways in the Western Balkans in terms of building trust, providing vision and supporting progressive forces. It resorted to the solution of appeasing the forces that were sceptical or hostile to European integration in order to reduce Russia's influence in the region. But this is a solution that would be hard to sustain because the status quo in the region encourages inequality, nepotism, corruption and the prolonging of chronic problems in the region.

US sanctions are being circumvented

Why has corruption become a strong feature of the Balkan region? Apart from the countries of the so-called Western Balkans, I also mean the EU members, Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia. What is it that makes the climate so conducive to corruption?

- In many of these countries, the form of liberal democracy was appropriated or abused by established elites for their own benefit and to take over resources that should belong to all. I think what is needed in the region is a strong civil society that will hold the political elites accountable. We need to deepen our democracies, which is a long and difficult process.

Can the American blacklist, which recently included a powerful mayor from Macedonia and a close associate of Vucic in Serbia, help in the fight against corruption in the region?

- We have seen that such sanctions can be easily circumvented by those to whom they apply, as they can still handle their accounts and funds abroad, registered under a different person, and often such individuals can maintain a luxurious lifestyle in their countries. The main function of the blacklist is symbolic, although increasingly the US Treasury Department and other financial institutions are refining their blacklists to make them more effective. What I think should be added to those lists is the support of the groups, organizations and individuals who fight against corruption and their actions for greater transparency and justice.

You are also considered as someone who is well informed and has done research on the processes in Turkey. Why is President Erdogan such a powerful figure - he endured the military coup, the massive earthquake that claimed many lives among other things due to the chaos in the standards of construction, and the record inflation that reached 70 percent?

- Erdogan is a product of his time, and his rise represents the factorization of a part of Turkish society that was marginalized by what we call the Kemalist system. It is not only the religious Turks, but also the rural and urban underprivileged population, internal migrants, those who accept menial jobs to maintain the lifestyle of a large, more privileged part of society. These people were ignored. They had little access to education, job opportunities and political representation. Erdogan managed to mobilize their fears of a return to the political situation before his rise to power and their aspirations for a good life and convince them that under him they would continue to do relatively well and be heard. As long as such inequalities continue to exist in Turkish society and fuel Turkey's political polarization, Erdogan will prosper.

Journalist: Sonja Kramarska