Bulgaria vetoes Macedonia’s EU accession talks

Alexander Macedonia.jpg

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

Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev told EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle on Wednesday (31 October) that Macedonia is “not ready” to start accession negotiations.

This is the fourth consecutive year that accession talks have been delayed.

Füle visited Bulgaria in a bid to clarify the government's position with respect to Macedonia. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has accused Skopje of stealing from Bulgaria's history and badmouthing his country (see background).

But Füle got more than explanations and was told that Bulgaria doesn’t see Macedonia as ready to begin accession negotiations.

Füle had invested a lot of his political ambition in trying to unblock the stalemate between Skopje and Athens in the dispute over 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 be called simply Macedonia, which is also the name of a northern Greek province.

On 10 October, Füle proposed a compromise whereby negotiations would start before a resolution of the name dispute is found. It was the fourth time that the Commission has recommended the start of accession negotiations with Macedonia, and each time the efforts were blocked by Greece.

But this time it appears that some momentum has been introduced by Athens for signing a bilateral memorandum, in which both sides would commit to respecting the other’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and renounce any territorial claims.

Carefully prepared statements

The situation looks different today. Plevneliev told Füle in a carefully prepared statement that before expecting any good news from Brussels, Skopje would first have to improve its relations with Bulgaria.

“The authorities in Skopje will unlock their EU perspective not through propaganda and marketing campaigns but through actual reforms and actions for good-neighbourly relations,” Plevneliev was quoted as saying by the website Novinite.

The Bulgarian president pointed out that Sofia does not deny an EU perspective to Macedonia, and in fact supports that, but takes into account the fact that the former Yugoslav republic is not ready to start talks for EU membership.

“Bulgaria cannot grant an EU certificate to the actions of the government in Skopje which is systematically employing an ideology of hate towards Bulgaria,” Plevneliev stated.

“It is strategically important for the long-term stability in the Balkans that the government in Skopje starts applying the European approach towards its neighbours, without claims and manipulations. It is high time that the government in Skopje be done with its anti-Bulgarian campaign, and the manipulation of historical facts. The responsible European approach towards one’s neighbours and the next generation is to preserve history whatever it might be,” Plevneliev added.

Füle reportedly disagreed with Plevneliev, and argued that Macedonia has been waiting for too long for membership in NATO, which Greece has also blocked, and the EU.

“I am one of those people who believe that it is not good to leave our partners waiting before the door for too long. I believe that integration is the best means for coping with nationalism, and I am convinced that isolation boosts nationalism,” Füle was quoted as saying.

Commission cites of EU values

A diplomatically worded Commission communiqué states that Füle understands Bulgaria's concerns, but urges both countries to solve any open issues in a neighbourly spirit.

“I welcome the fact that presidents have exchanged letters, and that Ministers Mladenov and Poposki are contributing to improving relations between the two countries. I am confident that through constructive dialogue and common understanding real progress can be achieved,” the Commission statement said. Nickolay Mladenov is foreign minister of Bulgaria and Nikola Poposki is his Macedonian counterpart.

But precisely this exchange of letters has added fuel to the fire.

Plevneliev had proposed that Bulgaria and Macedonia jointly celebrate certain historical dates and avoid a nationalist reading of history. One such date is Ilinden, which commemorates an uprising on 2 August 1903 that freed the Bulgarians in Thrace and Macedonia from Ottoman rule. Macedonia has a different reading of the events and denies the role of Bulgaria in liberating its present territory.

Much to the disappointment of Bulgarian authorities, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov responded to Plevneliev, pretending he didn’t understand the purpose of the proposal. The Macedonian website MINA reported that Ivanov gave Plevneliev three dates which Macedonia would consider celebrating jointly with Bulgaria: Europe Day; the day Bulgaria recognised Macedonia and the day Bulgaria and Macedonia established diplomatic relations.

This was seen in Sofia as an offense with Mladenov and Borissov reportedly making statements to the EU commissioner confirming Bulgaria’s determination.

These developments took place amid threats by the EU executive to publish an extraordinary monitoring report on Bulgaria’s ailing judicial system, which may have encouraged Sofia to hit back at the Commission at a time when Füle was seeking mediation over Macedonia.

Nationalism rife in both Sofia and Skopje

Borissov’s populist stance is widely shared, with the opposition Socialist Party signalling that it shares the government’s position on Macedonia.

In Skopje, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the leader of the nationalist VMRO-DPNE party, appears as the main instigator of tensions with its neighbours. Gruevski’s government has financed statues and arches promoting Macedonian nationalism and has renamed the airport and for Alexander the Great, an historical figure claimed by both Greece and Macedonia.

Greece considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. Similarly, Bulgaria considers that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its mediaeval history and the 19th- and early-20th century struggle against Ottoman rule.

Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje. Both nations claim Alexander as a native son.

Similarly, an Macedonia-sponsored exhibition of mediaeval manuscripts in Brussels recently infuriated Bulgaria. The manuscripts mention Bulgaria and the Bulgarian language, and never Macedonia, which became an independent nation in 1991.

Macedonia has also invested heavily in badmouthing Bulgaria, the most striking example being the film “Third halftime” that depicts wartime Bulgarians as fascists, despite the Bulgarian government's decision to refuse Nazi orders to deport the 48,000 Jews in the country to concentration camps.

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