The French Proposal and Identity in North Macedonia: Perspectives from Moderates in Skopje and Ohrid

© Photo by Stefan Didam – Schmallenberg via Wikimedia Commons

Ordinary (north) Macedonians are concerned about the revised French proposal’s potential ramifications on their identity.

On Sunday, 3 July, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski defended his government’s decision to accept and proceed with the “modified French agreement.”[1]

This comes after thousands attended a protest in Skopje on Saturday, 2 July.[2]

The French Agreement

A version of the modified French agreement – exact details unpublished and possibly still being negotiated[3] – was received by the North Macedonian government on 30 June.[4] It aims to settle a dispute between Skopje and Bulgaria over the “language, history, and rights of ethnic Bulgarians in North Macedonia.”[5]

Settling this dispute is significant as it should facilitate Skopje’s bid to join the European Union.

Bulgaria – whose own government collapsed on 22 June – conditionally approved dropping their opposition to North Macedonia’s EU membership on 24 June.[6] Sofia had opposed North Macedonia’s accession for over two years, insisting that “North Macedonia formally recognise that its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was hate speech against Bulgaria.”[7] Bulgaria seeks to “tweak” the North Macedonian constitution,[8] which the modified French agreement likely incorporates.

Greece had also previously blocked then Republic of Macedonia’s membership but lifted its veto after the two signed the Prespa Agreement in 2018. This agreement required ‘then’ Macedonia to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, in order to maintain the distinctiveness of the Hellenistic Macedonian identity of Northern Greece.[9]

Identity

German Deutsche Welle on 3 July described the protestors as “nationalists.” Most Macedonians – who refer to themselves as Macedonians, and not North Macedonians – are likely to strongly reject the label of “nationalist.” In a range of interviews this week with humanitarian workers, taxi drivers, Airbnb hosts and bar staff, all underscored their identity as a Macedonian “patriot” challenging the term “nationalist.” Most considered themselves apolitical or anti the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party – the party that has been heavily critical of the government’s acceptance of the revised French deal.[10]

Amongst some North Macedonians, there is suspicion regarding Sofia’s demands, with one Airbnb host believing that it is Sofia who is “still” trying to forge their own identity. The Airbnb host believes Sofia holds grudges against Macedonia – a long history of conflict does date back beyond the Ottoman Empire and resurfaced during both world wars.[11]

Before the government’s acceptance of the French deal this weekend, the humanitarian worker said “we do not have a problem with the Bulgarians and they do not have a problem with us, but it is not clear why they want these guarantees. It must mean something.”

The humanitarian worker added that “there is not a problem with the people, this is only [a problem] at the political elite.” Most Macedonians will likely reflect this sentiment, which is typically a shared assessment of citizens throughout the Balkans. Many agree that ethnic communities are managed well in North Macedonia, however.

The Macedonian language – officially recognised as a separate language by the UN in 1970 – has been described as “mutually intelligible” with the Bulgarian language.[12] Those interviewed point to their differences, nevertheless.

Macedonians take pride in describing themselves as a “gentle people.” Notably, some of those interviewed contrasted this trait to citizens of some of the neighbouring countries. Most in North Macedonia believe they missed out on the opportunity to get EU membership at the time of Bulgaria’s accession, and the feeling of unfairness is palpable and well documented.[13]

What Next?

The opposition VMRO DPMNE will capitalize on discontent within North Macedonia. Its President, Hristijan Mickoski, tweeted in response to the government’s decision on 3 July that “Macedonia is not for sale.”[14] This emotive conflation positions the VMRO DPMNE as the protector of the Macedonian identity. This will resonate with VMRO DPMNE’s supporters. Although this will likely be perceived by the moderates – most of which are probably not VMRO DPMNE voters – as a vote grab, it is a realistic probability that they will be inclined to tolerate the VMRO DPMNE and their messaging in defence of their national identity.

Malign actors might exploit and stoke tensions, especially on social media. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov alleged in March that relations between Sofia and Skopje “had been aggravated by Russian intelligence.”[15]

The French agreement has fostered a negative reaction in North Macedonia, which has triggered a spirited defence of the Macedonian identity. To some extent, this should have been expected by those designing the agreement.  However, it is the moderates in North Macedonia that also feel the threat of infringement on their identity. The moderates – probably a majority – are an audience that likely feels let down by their government’s decision.

It is now up to the North Macedonian government to decide what to do next. It should start with clearly communicating the agreement to its people. As of 4 July, the details of the agreement that has been accepted by the government are not clear.[16]  

Many citizens already feel left out of the negotiating process. Some dissatisfaction and distrust with the political elite seem to be present in North Macedonia.

The agreement comes during Russia’s war on Ukraine and mixed feelings about stalling EU membership in the Western Balkans. Many continue to feel left out of the European “project” following Ukraine and Moldova’s candidacy award in June. As a taxi driver said this week, “we have often been caught in a bigger geopolitical game between the west and the east over the last 50 years, this is nothing new.”

Those interviewed this week largely represent the majority of citizens in North Macedonia – proud patriots who love their country and their identity. Citizens’ real or perceived infringements on their identity, the feeling of absence of subsidiarity and a dwindling stake in their country will likely lead to greater dissatisfaction in North Macedonia.


Luke James has worked at the International Criminal Court, the OSCE, the Center for the Study of Democracy, the British Red Cross and is currently the head of the South East Europe and Black Sea Region Programme at the Platform for Peace and Humanity where he coordinates the South East Europe and Black Sea region series of The Peace and Security Monitor project. Luke has owned a small international business for nine years and a holds first class Public International Law Master’s degree with specialization in weapons law from the University of Amsterdam. He is an army reservist, teaching transitional justice as part of a human security package.


[1] Stevo Pendarovski, (3/07/2022) Tweet, accessed 4/07/2022 https://twitter.com/SPendarovski/status/1543610042817069058?s=20&t=pUdu-9IN1sapCSweOBwdHA

[2] DW, (3/07/2022), North Macedonia: Nationalist protesters reject French EU proposal, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.dw.com/en/north-macedonia-nationalist-protesters-reject-french-eu-proposal/a-62342216

[3] Euractiv, (4/07/2022) Macedonians split over proposal to unlock EU path, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/macedonians-split-over-french-proposal-and-path-to-unlocking-bulgarias-eu-veto/

[4] European Western Balkans, (30/06/2022), Government of North Macedonia receives a new French proposal, accessed 4/07/2022 https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2022/06/30/government-of-north-macedonia-receives-a-new-french-proposal/

[5] Politico, (4/07/2022) North Macedonia backs compromise plan with Bulgaria, opening the way for EU membership, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.politico.eu/article/north-macedonia-backs-compromise-plan-with-bulgaria-opening-the-way-for-eu-membership/

[6] RFERL, (24/06/2022), Bulgarian Lawmakers Vote To Lift Veto On North Macedonia’s EU Talks, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.rferl.org/a/bulgaria-withdraws-macedonian-eu-veto/31913536.html

[7] RFERL, (3/07/2022) Thousands Protest In North Macedonia Against Compromise With Bulgaria, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.rferl.org/a/thousands-protest-north-macedonia-bulgaria/31926735.html

[8] RFERL, (24/06/2022), Bulgarian Lawmakers Vote To Lift Veto On North Macedonia’s EU Talks, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.rferl.org/a/bulgaria-withdraws-macedonian-eu-veto/31913536.html

[9] New York Times (17/06/2018) Greece Macedonia Name Dispute, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/17/world/europe/greece-macedonia-name-dispute.html  

[10] VMRO DPMNE retweet of Hristijan Mickoski, (14/06/2022) Tweet, accessed 4/07/2022 https://twitter.com/mickoskihm/status/1536795383694872576?s=11&t=w4o2MJyR30oejRPS_pA6eg

[11] James Ker-Lindsay (25/06/2021), Bulgaria-North Macedonia | The Dispute over National Identity accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCtqHHZvj1M

[12] James Ker-Lindsay (25/06/2021), Bulgaria-North Macedonia | The Dispute over National Identity accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCtqHHZvj1M

[13] Eurothink (17/01/2022) Persistent on the Road to the EU? Accessed 4/07/2022 https://eurothink.mk/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Persistent-on-the-road-to-the-EU.pdf

[14] Hristijan Mickoski (3/07/2022) Tweet, accessed 4/07/2022 https://twitter.com/MickoskiHM/status/1543660655286403073?s=20&t=q28wgjtnAgwtMl9xFafOhw

[15] Balkan Insight, (31/03/2022) Bulgaria blames Russian spies for tensions with North Macedonia, accessed 4/07/2022 //balkaninsight.com/2022/03/31/bulgaria-blames-russian-spies-for-tensions-with-north-macedonia/

[16] Euractiv, (4/07/2022) Macedonians split over proposal to unlock EU path, accessed 4/07/2022 https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/macedonians-split-over-french-proposal-and-path-to-unlocking-bulgarias-eu-veto/

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