At the Western Balkans summit in Brdo, Slovenia, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev told North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev that the “subtle erasure” of Bulgarian identity in the neighbouring country must stop before Bulgaria lifts its veto on Skopje’s EU accession negotiations. EURACTIV Bulgaria reports.

Bulgaria and North Macedonia are working on a bilateral protocol with six areas of co-operation, which could see the former lifting its veto on the European perspective of Macedonians in early November.

This became clear on Wednesday (6 October) from Radev’s statement after his two meetings with Zaev at the summit.

The European pressure on Sofia to unblock Skopje’s EU path was particularly visible. The first Radev-Zaev meeting was organized at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday by EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa.

The second was immediately after at 9 o’clock on the initiative of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. French President Emmanuel Macron was also present.

After the talks, Bulgaria maintained a stern tone towards North Macedonia, although some steps were outlined to potentially overcome the crisis.

The cooperation protocol must be presented and finalised in early November before the elections in Bulgaria, Radev said. He added that it could be signed by the caretaker government if it meets the framework declaration with conditions for Skopje, adopted by the Bulgarian parliament in 2019.

But apparently, this is not the end of the Bulgarian conditions. Sofia also insists on preparing a roadmap with “written guarantees” that North Macedonia would provide for Bulgaria. If approved, Bulgaria will request the inclusion of this roadmap in Skopje’s negotiation process.

“The Republic of North Macedonia cannot escape its catharsis,” Radev said. He added:

“As long as this kind of “revival process” (in North Macedonia) continues, as long as our compatriots are subject to a subtle erasure of their identity until their fundamental rights are suppressed, and they are not fully integrated into the Republic of North Macedonia along with other parts of the population, there is no way for us to say ‘yes’ to starting negotiations,” the Bulgarian president said.

The ‘revival process’ is a term applied to the forced Bulgarisation of ethnic Turks in the last years of communism.

In response to a journalists question, Radev explained that the key to Bulgaria’s agreement to lift the veto “is not complicated.” Sofia wants the spirit and letter of the 2017 Neighborhood Agreement to be implemented.

But there are three main demands.

The first is to treat Macedonian Bulgarians on an equal footing with other “constituent parts of peoples” in the Macedonian constitution and answer “their request to be inscribed” in it.

“This equality should be solemnly proclaimed by the parliament and the president,” Radev said.

In the Constitution of North Macedonia, Serbs, Albanian, Turks, Bosniaks, Roma, are mentioned, but not Bulgarians.

The second request is for the number of Bulgarians in North Macedonia to be “adequately reflected in the census process” of the Macedonian population. Radev said that 120,000 Macedonians have requested and received Bulgarian passports after declaring their Bulgarian origin.

This is a tricky issue because, for years, Bulgaria has had a serious problem with corruption in the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, which certifies the Bulgarian origin of foreigners. Many Macedonians have taken advantage of this to obtain Bulgarian citizenship to work in the EU, not because they consider themselves Bulgarians.

Bulgaria’s third demand is that North Macedonia recognises the “historical truth”, as it did in the treaty with Greece, and that Macedonian textbooks would not instil hatred towards Bulgaria.

Textbooks in North Macedonia describe Bulgaria as a “fascist state” and Bulgarians as “Tatars”.

The Bulgarian President also wants the EU to ensure in the negotiation process with Skopje that the candidate country does not deviate from its commitments in these areas.

“This is neither a veto nor a halt to the process; we want no more than what each of our European partners wants, to respect the basic European principles and interests of each EU member state,” Radev said.

The Bulgarian president expressed his expectations that Zaev and President Stevo Pendarovski should take bold decisions to “finally break with the ideologies of the totalitarian past, with Macedonianism and hatred of Bulgaria.”

Vain expectations

Up until now, Skopje’s expectations that Euro-Atlantic pressure on Bulgaria will pay off are in vain. Zaev commented that “if the EU does not act, the disappointment among the region’s citizens will cause serious and irreparable damage to the great European idea of ​​community and cooperation.”

For now, Skopje is hostage to the pre-election situation in Sofia, which has no prospects of producing a government at least until the end of November.

In early 2020, then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov demonstrated his unreserved support for North Macedonia’s EU membership.

In August, Krassimir Karakachanov, then-Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the nationalist VMRO, junior coalition partner to Borissov’s GERB party, made it clear that he would make the Macedonian issue central to his party’s election campaign. This is how the hardening of the tone towards Skopje began, and in the end, Borissov agreed to veto the negotiation process, with the rare full support in the Parliament.

Relations between the two countries have been severely hampered, first during the elections in North Macedonia and then by the political crisis in Sofia. In November, Bulgarians will vote for the third time in parliamentary elections. Caretaker cabinets have run the country since May.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]