Bulgarian President Rumen Radev [L] and North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski [R] at Skopje airport on May 26, 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Less than a week before the June 22 EU Council opens, North Macedonia’s leaders are travelling to neighbouring Bulgaria to explore a possible breakthrough in their dispute that would prompt Sofia to lift its blockade on the start of Skopje’s EU accession talks.
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, the Deputy PM for EU affairs, Nikola Dimitrov, and Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani are all travelling in the delegation to Sofia on Thursday.
They are to meet Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev as well as with representatives of Bulgarian’s main parties.
Bulgaria blocked the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks last year, citing disputes over its history, language and identity, which it insists have Bulgarian roots. Skopje has repeated that it cannot compromise over sensitive issues such as national identity.
But since the start of this month, the two countries, supported by Brussels, have renewed efforts to reach a possible breakthrough.
Tight-lipped about possible breakthrough
Both governments have remained guarded regarding the details of the talks. But their most recent statements have revealed the contours of possible steps that both countries are mulling.
In a Wednesday interview for MIA news agency, Zaev said he did not wish to exaggerate hopes of a breakthrough by June 22, but that both sides were working on a solution that may come later.
“I have a feeling the problem won’t be solved by June 22. Bulgaria has a technical government and has no parliament [in session, ahead of July elections], but this option is not impossible,” Zaev said.
“But I believe that these days we can reach an agreement that would be ratified by us and by the next Bulgarian government and parliament,” he added, noting that at least Bulgaria does not deny the existence of a Macedonian language and identity.
Along similar lines, Bulgaria’s Yanev on Wednesday expressed hopes that the two government can take “practical steps” that could later be “reviewed by the new Bulgarian parliament so that a permanent solution could be sought, one that would be in the interest of the EU integration of the region”.
While both sides have not revealed what these concrete steps might be, their recent statements correlate to a previous effort by Brussels to move things forward.
In May, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi and the Portuguese Foreign Minister, Augusto Silva, whose country holds the EU presidency, went on a brief tour of both countries where they presented a fresh plan to overcome the issue.
The plan, which draws inspiration from the previous efforts of the German EU presidency, envisages allowing North Macedonia to start accession talks this month, while installing EU-facilitated mechanisms and a roadmap for the two states to boost cooperation and trust, so that they can eventually, in parallel with the EU talks, resolve the more sensitive issues.
Bulgarian interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev speks during the official ceremony in Sofia, Bulgaria, May 12, 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV
Pressure persists over sensitive issues
However, adding more heat to the sensitive dispute, a Bulgarian MEP, Andrey Kovatchev, who comes from the ranks of the former ruling conservative GERB party of Boyko Borissov, whose cabinet blocked North Macedonia’s EU talks at the end of 2020, on Thursday played down Zaev’s hopes.
“It is not a problem that Bulgaria has a provisional government, as Zaev believes. The problem is that Skopje did nothing to implement the [2017 friendship] agreement with Bulgaria. On the contrary, it puts efforts and lobbies to undermine Bulgaria’s position and [exert] pressure on Sofia,” Kovatchev told Bulgaria’s BGNES news portal.
“We are not disputing their [North Macedonia’s] current identity and language. The agreement speaks of a joint history of the current two peoples, a joint Bulgarian history, not a shared one, not intertwined, but a joint history of one ethnos in the past, which was divided cruelly at the start of the 20th century by unfortunate fate and the big powers,” he added.
[Bulgarian nationalists laid claim to then Ottoman-ruled Macedonia in the 19th and 20th centuries but were cheated of their hopes when Bulgaria came out badly from the Balkan wars of 1912-13, after which today’s North Macedonia became part first of Serbia, and then became a part of Yugoslavia.]
Meanwhile, Zaev’s government, which insists it will not negotiate over Macedonian identity, is under a different kind of pressure at home where the biggest opposition party, the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party, continues daily protests, accusing the government of secretly planning to surrender to Bulgaria’s demands. Zaev has denied this.