Yugoslav - Bulgarian Relations from 1955 to 1980

by Evangelos Kofos

from J. Koliopoulos and J. Hassiotis (eds), Modern and Contemporary Macedonia: History, Economy, Society, Culture, vol. 2, (Athens-Thessaloniki, 1992), pp. 277--280.

Throughout the post-war period, the traditional dispute between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria faithfully reflected all the fluctuations in Soviet policy towards Yugoslavia. For the analysts of this period-Kremlinologists and Balkanologists- it became axiomatic that whenever relations between Moscow and Belgrade cooled, then the heat rose in the Macedonian problem as far as Sofia was concerned. When relations improved, the Macedonian thermometer could even sink as low as zero. It was not until the late 1970s that Sofia managed to escape from this direct dependence for two or three years: at this time, although there had been no serious deterioration in Soviet-Yugoslav relations, the Bulgarians launched a fierce attack on Belgrade and Skopje. Presumably President Zhivkov had sensed the damage being done by Skopje propaganda both within his country and in international public opinion, and had received the approval of his Warsaw Pact partners for Bulgaria to defend its own particular interests.

These fluctuations in relations between Belgrade and Sofia, depending on the wind blowing from Moscow, led many observers to attribute the dispute between the two countries to outside instigation. Undoubtedly this was the basic factor in whatever occurred in bilateral Bulgarian-Yugoslav relations. But to attribute the successive crisis in the Macedonian Question solely to Soviet influence is to underestimate a dispute which has deep historical roots and which has always been prone to extreme nationalist outbursts when the susceptibilities and the national identity of sections of the people of each country were affected. The essence of these problems can be seen in the arguments advanced by both sides in the war of words which they waged on each other during the period 1977-1980.

Apart from the drawback of being dependent on Soviet interests, Bulgarian policy over Macedonia also suffered because of Georgi Dimitrov's "original sin" -that is, the recognition in the 1940s of Tito's precedence on the issue. That concession was tantamount to a Bulgarian admission of the existence of a "Macedonian nation", to recognition that the inhabitants of Pirin (Bulgarian Macedonia) were part of the newly-established nation, and to consent for the Pirin region to be absorbed into the People's Republic of Macedonia.

In later years, however hard the Bulgarian Communists tried to attribute Dimitrov's "error" to the weakness of Bulgaria immediately after the War, the Yugoslavs never seemed prepared to relinquish the "title deeds" which Dimitrov had given them. Further concessions had had to be made by the new Bulgarian leadership after the restoration of Soviet-Yugoslav relations in 1955, when the official census for 1956 recognized the presence of some 188.000 "Macedonians" in Bulgarian Macedonia.

Under this burden, Bulgarian diplomacy was compelled in the post-war period to come to terms with Belgrade over Macedonia whenever Moscow judged it beneficial to flirt with the "non-aligned" Yugoslav Communists. On the Yugoslav side, the primary condition seems to have been that Bulgaria should cease to lay claim to the population or territory of Skopje. The Bulgarians, argued the Yugoslavs, should return to the earlier Dimitrov position, and the only concession they were prepared to make was to drop their claim for the immediate annexation of Pirin.

Needles to say, whenever there was a change of guard in the leadership in Moscow, these negotiations came to a fruitless halt. Then the Bulgarians, relieved, would return to the fray laying claim -as Bulgarian- to the history, the Slav population as well as the territory of the Peoples' Republic of Macedonia. In brief, it could be said that the Macedonian tug-of-war was the key element which, for some forty years, set the tone and influenced the course of relations between the two neighboring Communist states.

The periods of acute crisis over the Macedonian Question can be summarized as follows:

  1. From 1948 to 1953, after the Stalin-Tito quarrel and the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform.
  2. From 1957 to 1961, largely as a result of Yugoslav criticisms of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
  3. From 1968 to 1970, a period of renewed coolness and extreme Yugoslav suspicion of the Soviet Union caused by the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the introduction of the "Brezhnev doctrine".
  4. From 1978-1980: as we have seen, this crisis was not the outcome of any deterioration in Yugoslav-Soviet relations, but was a dispute between Sofia and Belgrade.

Whenever the crises began to lose momentum, diplomatic efforts were usually undertaken in earnest to bring about a rapprochement between the governments. It is difficult for students of this issue to assess the content of these negotiations with certainty, without access to source material. However, the publications of both sides allow some conclusions to be drawn. The most basic conclusion is that when Bulgaria was a complete satellite of the Soviet Union (that is, in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s) the Bulgarians were more prone to make concessions. However, they avoided making painful commitments similar to those of Dimitrov in 1945-47, thanks to the recurrence of fresh crises in Soviet-Yugoslav relations.

Thus, in the period 1955-56 Sofia acknowledged the existence not only of a "Macedonian" Nation -thus waiving historic claims to the territory of Yugoslav Macedonia -but also of a "Macedonian" minority on Bulgarian soil. Later, in the negotiations of 1963-64 on the highest party and governmental level, Zhivkov found himself in an extremely difficult position, but he managed to avoid any fresh commitment to the "Macedonification" of the inhabitants of the Pirin region.

Following the painful impact of the Czechoslovakian crisis and the declaration of the Brezhnev doctrine, particularly after 1974, the ice began to melt a little as countries from the two blocs -East and West- agreed to sign the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. In this climate, fresh bilateral talks between Sofia and Belgrade were held in 1975-77 on a permanent settlement to the dispute. We have a considerable amount of information about this period, since after the breakdown of negotiations in 1978 both sides published some of the basic documents containing their positions and proposals. A study of this evidence reveals the full extent of the Bulgarian-Yugoslav controversy over the Macedonian Question, particularly as it developed during the 1970s.

The official texts show that Presidents Tito and Zhivkov had an unofficial meeting in Helsinki in 1975 at which they decided to set up a special commission which would attempt to smooth over the disputes which had made an official meeting between the two leaders impossible since 1965. The commission met in Sofia in September 1976 and in Zagreb in April 1977, but made no progress because of disagreement over the Macedonian Question. The Yugoslavs proposed the signing of a joint declaration which, inter alia, would acknowledge the existence of a "Macedonian" nation and recognize the rights of the "Macedonian" minority in Bulgaria. The respective parliaments would issue statements confirming the rights of the Bulgarian minority in Yugoslavia and of the "Macedonian" minority in Bulgaria, and at the same time the two countries would announce that they had no territorial claims on each other and that they respected the inviolability of their frontiers. However, the Bulgarian side was prepared to countenance only the statement of no territorial claims.

The failure of these negotiations was followed by intensification of the war of words over the Macedonian Question, focusing on the events held in Bulgaria to mark the centenary of Bulgarian liberation from the Turkish yoke -that is, of the Treaty of San Stefano (1878). The tension came to a head in June 1978, when the 11th Congress of the League of Yugoslav Communists issued a statement concerning the "restoration of the abolished rights of the Macedonian minority of Pirin".

In a speech at Blagoevgrad, President Zhivkov replied with a declaration that Bulgaria had no territorial claims on Yugoslav Macedonia, and proposed to President Tito that the two countries should sign an agreement on the inviolability of their borders. However, he also made it clear that he would not tolerate intervention in his country's domestic affairs and that he denounced Yugoslav distortion of his country's policies in the eyes of international public opinion.

The Yugoslavs rejected the Zhivkov proposal -not very convincingly, it has to be admitted- with the argument that it did not deal with the essence of the problem, which was the recognition of the "Macedonian" nation in general and, more particularly, the granting of minority rights to the "Macedonian" minority in Pirin. They also published the draft agreements which they had drawn up in preparation for the unsuccessful bilateral talks with the Bulgarians in 1976. The charges against Bulgaria could be summed up as follows: a) that it regarded the Treaty of San Stefano as having "settled in a just manner the Bulgarian national cause by creating a unified Bulgarian nation"; b) that it had distorted the historical past of the "Macedonian" nation; c) that it still had designs on the creation of a Greater Bulgaria, and d) that it was relating historical events to current developments in international politics. The conclusion was quite clear: Yugoslavia accused Bulgaria not only of failing to recognize the "Macedonian" nation and the "Macedonian" minority on Bulgarian soil, but also of concealing territorial claims beneath a veil of historical interpretation.

The Bulgarian answer came in a lengthy announcement from the Foreign Ministry in Sofia on 24 July 1978. On the question of territorial claims, Zhivkov's statement regarding respect for territorial integrity was confirmed. As for the recognition of the "Macedonian" nation, a nebulous interpretation was given: theoretically, said the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, it was possible for a new nation to be created by its division between two different states. This would mean that within changed political conditions it was theoretically possible for the formerly Bulgarian population of Yugoslav Macedonia to change its national orientation. The Bulgarian announcement did not give a name to this new nationality, but it recognized the status quo in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia in accordance with the Yugoslav Constitution, which, of course, spoke of a "Macedonian" nationality.

However, on the question of the recognition of a "Macedonian" minority, Bulgaria was adamant. It called on the Yugoslav side to accept the internal status quo of Bulgaria. The Yugoslav obsession with the question of the minority, according to the Bulgarians, could only be concealing a claim to Bulgarian territory. Historical evidence was produced to analyze the Bulgarian ethnic origins and consciousness of the inhabitants of Pirin, and the announcement concluded with a categorical statement: "No one in the People's Republic of Bulgaria would agree to a distortion of the national history of the Bulgarian people, or to the appropriation of its historical and national heritage".

Nonetheless, the Bulgarian side made an interesting proposal: that the disputed historical facts should be studied jointly and that "coordinated or joint celebrations" should be held "to honor important historical events and personalities which are shared by the history of the peoples of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia". Since neither side was prepared to give ground over the historical dimension of the problem, the following compromise could be reached: some events (e.g. the Ilinden uprising) and some historical personalities (e.g. Gotse Delchev) could be regarded as belonging to the shared historical heritage of the two peoples. Admittedly, this was a clever proposal, but it did not appeal to the Yugoslavs.

The announcement from the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry was followed by an international campaign to publicize the Bulgarian positions on the Macedonian Question. Two to three months later, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences published a bulky volume in Bulgarian and English entitled Macedonia: Documents and Materials. This book, containing 452 documents and texts of all kinds dating from the 6th century AD to 1940, was intended to prove the Bulgarian origins of the Slav population in Macedonia down the centuries, and of Macedonia itself as a whole.

A further step was the publication, in January 1979, of the memoirs of Tsola Dragoicheva, old member of the Politburo of the Bulgarian CP. This book attempted to prove that Yugoslavia had tried to annex Pirin Macedonia in the period 1943-1947, and to explain why the Bulgarian CP had been forced to back down and make the concessions already mentioned. Skopje, in reply, published a similar work by M. Apostolski, entitled Greater Bulgarian Claims Since the Treaty of San Stefano.

When the texts on the negotiations between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia over the Macedonian Question were published, the crisis deepened. However, the death of Tito (1980) and the new policy introduced by Moscow to win over his successors averted any further escalation. Bulgaria was duty bound to follow the new Moscow line, which it did in practice by bringing its public polemics to an end. Until the eventual demise of the Soviet empire, Sofia was careful to keep a low profile even when provoked by Skopje. Gradually, Skopje reduced its assaults on its eastern neighbor but its extreme nationalism had to be kept alive, and a way out of the impasse was found in the direction of Greece.

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