Bulgaria and Macedonia start removing hurdles to relations

Zoran Zaev [L] and Boyko Borissov. Sofia, 20 June. [Dnevnik]

During new Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s visit to Sofia on Tuesday (20 June), it was announced that Bulgaria and Macedonia will soon sign a bilateral treaty, removing some obstacles to Skopje’s bid to join NATO and the EU.

In 2012, Bulgaria joined Greece in vetoing the opening of EU accession talks with Macedonia, despite a positive recommendation by the European Commission.

Bulgaria vetoes Macedonia’s EU accession talks

Bulgaria has joined Greece in vetoing the opening of EU accession talks with Macedonia, despite a positive recommendation by the European Commission.

Greece has longstanding objections to Macedonia’s name, which both countries claim.

The country’s internationally recognised name is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) but Skopje would prefer to simply be called Macedonia, which is also the name of a northern Greek province.

Bulgaria also sees irredentist tendencies in Macedonia. During many public events Macedonian officials have stood in front of maps showing “Greater Macedonia”, including Bulgarian and Greek territories. Bulgaria also rejects the appropriation of Bulgarian history by Skopje.

Since 2013, Bulgaria has proposed a bilateral treaty on good-neighbourly relations, in which countries would commit to respecting the other’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and renounce any territorial claims. Eleven sessions for discussing such a treaty are reported to have taken place, but little progress was made.

However, a long period during which the country was dominated by the hardline VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski has ended. The new Social Democratic Premier, Zoran Zaev, has said he will mend ties with Greece and Bulgaria, speed up NATO accession and open EU accession talks. It has already been reported that the new government in Skopje would agree to join NATO under the FYROM name.

New Macedonia leaders vow to revive EU/NATO bid

Macedonia’s new leaders showed fresh resolve to revive the country’s stalled bid for membership of the EU and NATO on Monday (June 12) by vowing to mend relations with estranged EU neighbours Greece and Bulgaria and implement long-delayed reforms.

In Sofia, Zaev said his country didn’t have an alternative to NATO and EU accession, and that his talks with his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov had opened “new perspectives”.

“We will do everything we can with our friend Greece to solve all the problems, because the destabilisation of Greece means the destabilisation of our borders,” Borissov was quoted as saying by Dnevnik, the EURACTIV partner in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian premier also said that the countries could jointly celebrate historical dates, including 24 May, the celebration of Cyril and Methodius, the invention in the 9th century by the brothers Cyril and Methodius of the Cyrillic alphabet.

Borissov also said that until the signature of the treaty, “important details” remained to be addessed, including the issue of the Macedonian language, which Bulgaria considers to be a Bulgarian dialect.

The two leaders announced that hopefully the treaty would be signed on 2 August, the day of the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising of 1903, an organised revolt against the Ottoman empire, which marks the peak of the liberation struggle of the Bulgarians who remained under Turkish rule following the Berlin Congress of 1878, which gave back part of the Bulgarian territories freed following the Russian-Turkish war to Turkey. Macedonia reagards those events as a struggle for its own statehood, a view strongly rejected by Bulgaria.