Tensions between North Macedonia and its eastern neighbour Bulgaria, which is blocking Skopje’s EU membership bid, should “naturally decline” after the 4 April election in Bulgaria, North Macedonia’s Justice Minister Bojan Marichikj told EURACTIV.
The stand-off between the two south-eastern countries has intensified after Sofia refused to give its blessing last autumn for the start of Skopje’s formal EU accession negotiations, citing ongoing arguments over language and common history.
Asked if it is a good strategy to wait for the outcome of the ballot, given that there appears to be a cross-party consensus in Bulgaria on the veto against Skopje, Marichikj said North Macedonia needs to see who its negotiating partner is.
“We think that with intensive dialogue after the Bulgarian elections, we can reach an agreement if we have a genuine willingness … and if we are looking for a solution that is based on mutual respect, on rationality, on European values, and on modern, 21st-century concepts,” Marichikj said.
Bulgaria and North Macedonia signed a treaty in 2017 that was supposed to provide a framework to resolve the disputes, but the progress achieved since then has been deemed insufficient by Sofia.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t give such intensive and fast results as maybe Bulgaria expected, [but] we thought that this is a good framework for managing the differences,” Marichikj said, emphasising that negotiations need to based on “mutual respect” and “self-determination.”
While Skopje points to Bulgaria refusing to recognise the Macedonian ethnicity and language as distinct from Bulgarian, Sofia says North Macedonia is distorting and appropriating parts of Bulgarian history.
The bilateral relations have worsened since last September with accusations from Sofia of discrimination against Bulgarians.
Germany tried unsuccessfully to break the deadlock during its six-month EU presidency last year.
Portugal, currently in the driver’s seat, has been somewhat less active. Nevertheless, the minister said that the fact that enlargement is still one of Lisbon’s stated priorities “is good enough for us and gives us hope that they can make a try until the end of their presidency for a breakthrough.”
If no breakthrough is achieved by June, “then we’re anticipating the Slovenian presidency to make more [efforts]. Slovenia comes from the region, they are a very strong supporter of North Macedonia, and of the enlargement in general,” Marichikj added.
Marichikj said that any solution for the impasse would have to be “sustainable,” that is not fuel further nationalism, and while it is possible to “interpret, reinterpret” historical events and persons, “any discussion about our language is certainly not acceptable.”
One of the latest episodes that sparked tensions between the two countries was Skopje’s Eurovision song contest representative, Vasil Garvanliev.
Critics at home said Garvanliev, who has dual citizenship of North Macedonia and Bulgaria, and has declared himself as ethnic Bulgarian, purposefully showed Bulgarian symbols in the music video accompanying his entry, which the artist denied.
The episode prompted a public backlash from Sofia.
North Macedonia’s former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who ruled the country for nearly a decade until 2016, fled to Budapest after facing jail time at home, where he obtained asylum in a record time in 2018. He is a close ally of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.
Skopje has twice asked for Gruevski’s extradition, with little success.
Asked if Hungary may be the next stumbling block to the opening of EU accession negotiations once the Bulgarian veto is lifted, Marichikj said there has been “no sign of that for many years.”
“We agreed then, when this happened, that apart from the strong differences that we have on this particular case, that will not harm our general relations and I can reassure you that so far, those relations have been at a high level,” the minister said.
Meanwhile, Hungarian businessmen with ties to Orbán’s government have invested in North Macedonia’s media market.
In 2019, the financial police conducted an investigation on suspicion that some advertisements in the country represented “laundering” of Hungarian state money, and forwarded their conclusions to the prosecutor’s office but so far no charges were brought.
The justice minister said that the country is acutely aware of the importance of media freedom, learning from the times when Gruevski was in power.
“This is why we’re very careful in what we can do and how we follow the situation with the media financed by Hungarian companies,” he said.
“All of those media are pro-opposition media, and we strongly believe that there is a connection with Gruevski and his ties. Of course, that is not illegal,” Marichikj added.
“So we’re not approaching [this] with a prejudice. Because every foreign investment is welcome, regardless of whether it comes from Hungary or any other country. But, of course, it needs to be in accordance with all the laws.”
Meanwhile, the government in Skopje is preparing to hold a national census, the first one in 19 years. The last attempt to hold a population tally in the ethnically diverse country was called off after immense political backlash in 2011.
“What is different this time is that the census is fully implemented by the experts and not by politicians,” Marichikj said, pointing out that the count will meet the standards of the EU’s statistical office, Eurostat.
The census has also fuelled negative rhetoric from Sofia.
“Today the Republic of North Macedonia has 130,000 Bulgarians who are Bulgarians but are not entitled to declare themselves as Bulgarians at the forthcoming census,” Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki (ECR) from the nationalist VMRO party said at the debate on enlargement in the European Parliament debate last week.
Marichikj said it was “manifestly untrue that the Bulgarians will not be able to register, to the contrary, all the ethnic groups … are having the same chance”.
In the 2002 census, only about 1,500 people out of two million declared themselves as Bulgarians.
According to Marichikj, “many or most of these people who have taken Bulgarian citizenship have done it for more predominantly economic reasons because this gives them a chance to work abroad, in the European Union, without any special approvals or licences”.
The census is also a complex issue for North Macedonia’s largest ethnic minority, Albanians. Kosovo’s new prime minister, Albin Kurti, on 18 March urged the Albanians from North Macedonia to take part in the tally.
“We don’t interfere in any matter of any neighbouring country,” Marichikj said, but added: “I also don’t see why any politician from other countries would speak about this”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]