MS Risk Blog

North Macedonia and Bulgaria’s European Dispute

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North Macedonia has been attempting to join the EU since 2004. Only in 2020 did North Macedonia’s government receive permission to enter into accession talks. However, these talks were made more complicated by a dispute between North Macedonia and their neighbour Bulgaria.

Bulgaria had been vetoing North Macedonia’s accession talks because of a feud about common cultural and language heritage. In 2020, Bulgaria offered a compromise and agreed to acknowledge Macedonian language and national identity if North Macedonia would recognise that both nations and languages have a common cultural heritage and historical roots. North Macedonia rejected this idea.

Although this may sound like a good deal, to many Macedonians, acknowledging a link between North Macedonia and Bulgaria has some threatening undertones. After World War II, Yugoslav Macedonia set about building a nation with its own identity. A way of doing this is by cutting ties with its neighbour who has a similar cultural identity and so the Cold War narrative laid out was to be anti-Bulgaria.

These narratives still surface today with the burning down of the Bulgarian cultural centre in Bitola that was named after Ivan Mihajlov, a very controversial figure because of his anti-communist ideas and his fight for Bulgarian nationalism. Many see him as a Nazi and a fascist sympathiser, hence his unpopularity in North Macedonia. Thus, he set about eliminating left-wing Macedonians and any enemy of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria condemned the burning of the cultural centre and added a new roadblock to talks between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev called it a provocation and ‘part of a long-standing anti-Bulgarian campaign in North Macedonia.’ If North Macedonia was to join the EU, they would need Sofia on their side.

However, external factors meant that it was desirable for the Balkan nation to join the EU. The war in Ukraine put fear into the minds of the unattached Balkan countries who feared that, like Ukraine, not having a link with the EU would make them an easy target for Russian expansion.

It became important for the integrity of Europe to improve relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia and finally, under President Kiril Petkov of Bulgaria and President Dimitar Kovečevski of North Macedonia these talks bore fruit. On 24 June 2022, under pressure from the EU, Bulgaria’s parliament approved lifting its veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks.

In order that these accession talks go ahead, North Macedonia must agree, and put into constitution, that Bulgarians are ‘on equal footing with other peoples.’ They must also sign bilateral protocol and effectively implement a 2017 treaty of friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, ending hate speech against Bulgarians in North Macedonia.

Ultimately, it was in the best interest for the Western Balkans, to allow North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU. For all involved it creates a security barrier against Russian incursions, it provides economic advantages and will allow these countries to prosper moving forward.