Blocking the start of EU accession talks with Macedonia over the country's 'name conflict' with Greece is "perverse", as it is unacceptable for a country to be denied use of whatever name it chooses, Zhelyu Zhelev, Bulgaria's first democratically-elected president, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
"It is unacceptable that the European Union decides on behalf of a country by a vote held in its circles," said Zhelev, who is founder and president of the Balkans Political Club, an NGO gathering prominent politicians and intellectuals from South-East Europe.
"[Greece] only looks for arguments against Macedonia's EU accession. This is dangerous, as it creates tensions [in Macedonia] between Albanians and Macedonians," said Zhelev, referring to the majority population of Slav origin and the substantial ethnic Albanian minority.
Zhelev spoke out strongly in favour of Turkey's EU accession, and criticised Greece for seeking to exacerbate the Cypriot problem as a way of keeping the issue off the EU agenda.
The former Bulgarian president also rejected views held in France and Germany that Turkey is too large a country and would overshadow Paris and Berlin in the EU Council and the European Parliament. It is the political groups that matter in parliament, he said.
Asked if his views, which do not seem to reflect Bulgaria's official positions, were personal, he replied by saying that they were "the positions of the majority of EU member states".
Asked to assess his two terms as president, from 1990 to 1997, he said that he was most proud of having helped to preserve peace between ethnic groups.
The communist regime of Todor Zhivkov conducted a campaign of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing in the 1980s, which culminated in the forced deportation of 360,000 Bulgarian ethnic Turks to Turkey in the summer of 1989, just months before the regime collapsed.
Zhelev – who was speaking in Paris at a conference marking the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Round Table, which paved the way for the country's peaceful transition to democracy and a market economy – said he was worried by the fact that political forces such as the extremist Ataka party were again playing the nationalist card.
Ataka holds 21 seats in the 240-seat Bulgarian parliament and is a non-official partner of the ruling GERB party led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, which is affiliated to the European People's Party.
Zhelev also said that he was worried that Borissov's government does not have a strategy for leading the country out of the crisis.