Bulgaria vetoed the decision to open EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia on Tuesday (17 November), a move which indirectly also affects Albania, another Western Balkans candidate which has advanced on its EU path in tandem with Skopje.
The decision is hardly surprising. The Bulgarian Parliament unanimously adopted a tough declaration in October 2019, warning North Macedonia that Sofia will not tolerate the distortion of historical events, documents and artefacts, as well as the role and views of personalities from Bulgarian history.
The former Yugoslav republic, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the mid-14th until the early 20th century, insists on its own version of history, based on events from Bulgaria’s medieval and more recent history. A bilateral historic committee was set up under the terms of the 2017 friendship treaty to sort out problems of interpreting common history. Both sides have since accused the other of not allowing any progress.
German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, told reporters following the General Affairs Council that “there were some open questions from the Bulgarian point of view that have to be clarified”.
The obstacles thrown up by Bulgaria effectively threw off course Germany’s efforts to have that issue wrapped up by the end of the year.
Bulgaria, Roth said, objected to the name North Macedonia — arrived at last year after Greece refused to allow it the name “Macedonia”, the same as one of its provinces — rather than “the Republic of North Macedonia”.
Bulgaria officially uses the full name ‘Republic of North Macedonia’, instead of the shorter version ‘North Macedonia’, to avoid confusion with the geographic term of Macedonia, comprising Aegean Macedonia in Greece, Vardar Macedonia in the Republic of North Macedonia, and Pirin Macedonia in Bulgaria.
However, the name was not among the three conditions spelled out by Bulgaria’s foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva for lifting the Bulgarian veto.
As the first condition, Zaharieva said Bulgaria does not accept the mention of ‘Macedonian languages’ in the negotiating framework but would accept the formulation “the official language of the Republic of Northern Macedonia”.
Sofia considers the language of its neighbour a dialect of Bulgarian, although it admits the language of the neighbouring country had been modified under the Serb influence in Yugoslavia after 1947.
Bilateral agreements between Skopje and Sofia have been signed with the mention that they have been written in the official languages of both countries. Apparently, Bulgaria wants the same arrangement at the EU level.
Zaharieva also said Bulgaria wants a roadmap for the implementation of the 2017 Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighborliness included in the negotiating framework, which would require an additional chapter in the framework, Number 35.
Bilateral disputes with North Macedonia are not part of the criteria for EU membership or the start of the negotiation process, which is why a number of EU countries were reportedly against such a solution.
Bulgaria also wants an explicit text in the roadmap saying that claims for a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria will not be supported in any form.
As Bulgaria considers the Slavic population of the Republic of North Macedonia its own brothers with whom it has been separated by history, Sofia rejects the concept of “Macedonian minority” in Bulgaria.
According to the 2011 census, 1,600 Bulgarian nationals have called themselves Macedonians. According to Bulgarian historians, these people are not a minority but refugees who migrated to the Bulgarian territory following the 1913 Balkan war.
Reactions in Skopje
After changing its name, thereby giving up any claims to ancient Greek history under the Prespa agreement, North Macedonia is very sensitive in questions concerning its identity.
“Macedonian identity and language are non-negotiable”, was one of the first reactions from the government in Skoplje after the news of the Bulgarian veto.
“This is a failure of EU enlargement policy, a bad message for the entire region and a defeat of the fundamental European values and principles,” the government said in a statement. Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said “an opportunity was missed today … but the next one is the General Affairs Council in December. Discussions will continue to find a way to overcome these differences”.
One more GAC council will take place on 8 December under the outgoing German presidency, and the upcoming Portuguese presidency is unlikely to have the capacity to untie the Gordian knot.
“The accession negotiations should not become a negotiation with Bulgaria. Our progress in EU integration should depend on domestic reforms related to chapters, EU legislation and acquirement of European standards”, Osmani said.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told a TV channel on Tuesday evening that the development was very hard for him because he believed this was not the will of the Bulgarian nation or Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Zaev and Borissov indeed had good chemistry, but Sofia says that his government has wrongly taken Bulgarian support for granted.
Zaev did not spell it out, but it is clear that he was blaming Krasimir Karakachanov, Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the nationalist party VMRO. This party claims to be a legal successor of VMRO – Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. And Karakachanov was the first to say that Bulgaria will block Skoplje’s accession negotiation.
A year ago, when France blocked the opening of accession talks, a political crisis erupted in Skopje and Zaev resigned. Now the situation is different. North Macedonia is a NATO member, the toxic impact of Russian politics is limited, ethnic Albanians are on the same page with the ruling SDSM (Social democrats) and stability of the state is secured.
Greeks ‘discreetly’ celebrate
In Greece, there has been no official reaction from the ministry of foreign affairs.
While it was in opposition, the ruling New Democracy (EPP) fiercely opposed the name change deal reached between leftist Syriza party and Zaev’s government. But when it took the power the conservative party said it would implement the Prespa agreement.
Meanwhile, three memoranda of understanding with North Macedonia as part of the Prespa Agreement still need to pass through the Greek parliament and it seems that the government has delayed the process.
Greek media report that New Democracy cannot find a rapporteur to speak positively about the Prespa agreement, as the political cost will be high.
Athens’s reluctance over the issue was also obvious in a joint statement signed on 28 September between the US and Greece.
The draft US-Greece statement referred to a “historic” Prespa Agreement. The English version of the statement was immediately published on the Greek foreign affairs ministry website but the Greek version was not published at all.
However, a couple of hours later, the word “historic” disappeared from the joint statement posted the website of the Greek Foreign Affairs Ministry.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]