The picturesque Sharr mountain range, situated mostly in southern Kosovo and extending into eastern Albania and the western regions of North Macedonia, is home to a diverse number of Balkan peoples. These include the Gorani, whose name is derived from the Slavic word for mountain – gora.
Despite the fact that the region historically inhabited by the Gorani is in the Western Balkans and significantly removed from Bulgaria’s borders, most Bulgarian sources nevertheless refer to them as Bulgarian. Similarly, in Macedonian sources, the same group is described as Macedonian, and in Serbia, as ethnically Serbian.
Despite these claims, Alden from Mlikë, Kosovo, who runs a YouTube Channel dedicated to Gorani music and culture, is clear on the matter. “Goranis are not Bulgarian, Macedonian, Bosnian, or Serbian,” he tells Emerging Europe. “The Gorani are a separate nation. We have always had issues in Kosovo because the Albanians think we are Serbians and the Serbians think we are Muslims. Because of this, we are accustomed to being used for various political reasons.”
Although the Gorani live mainly in southern Kosovo, a significant part of the community also lives in northeastern Albania. In 2017, the Albanian state began recording its Gorani minority as ethnic Bulgarians. Ever since, Bulgaria has been pushing for Kosovo to do the same.
“Bulgaria was among the first countries to recognise Kosovo as a state. We want Bulgarians in Kosovo to be recognised as a minority so we can help them live better and have better opportunities to learn their mother tongue and preserve their culture,” argued the former head of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, Petar Haralampiev, in 2018. Since then, Haralampiev has been arrested on corruption charges.
The Gorani culture has been gaining more and more visibility in Bulgaria in recent years, as numerous news sources have picked up stories about the group. The initial interest was probably sparked by the 2009 book by Bulgarian journalist and ethnographer Tanya Mangalakova The Gorani in Kosovo and Albania, in which she is admittedly careful with her language surrounding national identity. The subsequent narratives that have come out of the country are anything but.
Bulgaria’s second-biggest private media platform bTV has made several on-the-ground reports about the Gorani community in Albania, in which traditions widespread throughout much of the Balkans are presented as proof that Gorani culture is part of Bulgaria’s culture, while all of the interviews with locals are exclusively with people who identify as “one hundred per cent Bulgarian”.
Even in these ideologically charged interviews, the people do not shy away from their expectations from Bulgaria. Mevlut Hodzha, a shop owner from Pakisht, Albania, asks the TV crew: “Why is Bulgaria not giving us passports? Some people who have no links to Bulgaria are getting them, but not us.”
An article from this April by the Gorani online platform Radio Gora, titled ‘Bulgarian passports are emptying out the Gorani villages around Kukës (Albania)’, points out that Bulgaria is not the first Balkan country to use citizenship offers to Gorani as a political tool. After Kosovo’s independence in 2008, Serbia expected the Gorani to maintain Serbian citizenship, which would reinforce Belgrade’s territorial claims over Kosovo. North Macedonia also offers the Gorani people the opportunity to claim Macedonian citizenship. However, according to the same article, the Bulgarian EU passport is the only one in which a significant number of Gorani have taken an interest.
Another Radio Gora article from 2018, titled ‘Bulgarian “love”-beware!’, argues that the Gorani issues are much better represented in Kosovo – where there is a Gorani representative in government – than in Albania which only recognises the community as Bulgarian.
All pathways towards Bulgarian citizenship require the individual to have a work or study permit, to have lived in Bulgaria for a certain length of time, and to be able to speak the language. The only exception is citizenship on the basis of ethnicity, which allows for an immediate start to the citizenship acquisition process through an ethnicity certificate. The certificate is usually meant for the children of Bulgarian emigrants, although people belonging to a number of West Balkan Slavic groups, including Gorani and Macedonians, and the Slavic Pomaks in Turkey, have frequently been granted the certificate as well.
By providing this quick and easy pathway towards European citizenship, Bulgaria is arguably taking advantage of people in a vulnerable situation by coercing them into essentially giving up their own ethnic identity and culture in exchange for a certificate declaring them ethnic Bulgarians, just to reinforce the country’s nationalistic narratives. Simultaneously, the Bulgarian state makes it virtually impossible for people of the same groups to legally migrate to Bulgaria in any other way. This includes more than 70,000 North Macedonians who received Bulgarian citizenship since 2004, according to the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice.
Bulgaria’s aggressive attempts to force a Bulgarian identity onto the somewhat geographically-removed community might seem random to some, but anyone familiar with the Bulgaria-North Macedonia relations can see that at the heart of these efforts lies the desire to delegitimise a separate, Macedonian national identity.
The angle Sofia is trying to spin is along the lines of: “If these people living west of North Macedonia, who are essentially speaking the Macedonian dialect identify as Bulgarians, how can Macedonians not?”
During an EU ambassadors’ discussion on the framework for negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia earlier this week, Bulgaria stated that it will veto the formal launch of EU accession talks with North Macedonia unless its concerns about language and history are taken into account.
This new statement come just two months after the EU state sent a six-page ‘explanatory memorandum’ on the relationship of Bulgaria with North Macedonia in the context of the EU enlargement and association and stabilisation process to all EU capitals explaining Bulgaria’s position on several issues surrounding the relations between the two countries. This included the idea that, “the enlargement process must not legitimise the ethnic and linguistic engineering that has taken place under former authoritarian regimes.”
Experts from Bulgaria and elsewhere have questioned the motivation of the memorandum. Ulf Brunnbauer, chair of history of Southeast and Eastern Europe at the University of Regensburg, describes it as Bulgaria’s way of “pressing its own nationalistic view on the history and culture of another country and its people.” Meanwhile, Ivaylo Ditchev, professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, argues that the primary accusation Bulgaria is making in the memo is that “North Macedonia exists at all”.
Germany’s ambassador to North Macedonia, Anke Holstein, rejects Bulgaria’s endeavour to include these issues in the EU negotiation framework. Germany, which currently holds the rotating European Council presidency, has asked the two countries to resolve outstanding problems bilaterally.
Following the collapse of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria was the first in the world to recognise Macedonia’s independence and the two countries have cooperated on numerous important issues ever since. Further attacks on the Macedonian identity and questions over its right to self-determination are therefore outlandish and unlikely to achieve anything other than hurting Bulgaria’s international reputation.
The experience of neighbouring Serbia with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia should alone be enough for Bulgaria to realise that linguistic similarities between nations are far from reason enough to question another nation’s right to a separate identity.
There are significant cultural, historical, and linguistic similarities between all of the Slavic nations of the Balkans. In the 21st Century, these should be a source of unity rather than an excuse to delegitimise other groups’ ethnic identity, whether these are small minority groups or independent nations.
The EU’s support for the negotiating framework was expected to be signed off at the coming ministerial meeting of the General Affairs Council on November 10. However, Sofia’s decision to escalate tensions with its neighbour seems likely to cause a delay.
It is unfortunate that despite North Macedonia overcoming its long-standing disagreement with Greece by agreeing to change its name in 2018, the possibility of Bulgaria becoming another hurdle to the country’s entry to the EU now seems unavoidable.
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