Tensions Rise Between Bulgaria and North Macedonia Over Controversial Compromise

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 115

Large groups took to the streets in Skopje to protest the compromise agreement (Source: AP)

Bulgaria is heading for new parliamentary elections once again, for the fourth time in 16 months. Kiril Petkov’s centrist government collapsed on June 22, after only seven months in office, when the opposition united around a no-confidence vote in parliament. Earlier, one partner, the There Is Such a People (ITN) party, withdrew from the governing coalition (DW, June 22).

In the following weeks, three attempts to form a new government failed and fresh elections are expected to be scheduled for the beginning of October 2022 (Dnevnik.bg, July 28). The elections will likely produce another fragmented parliament and result in yet another fragile governing coalition, at a time when war is raging in Ukraine, an energy crisis looms over Europe and security vulnerabilities continue to proliferate in the Balkans.

Bulgaria’s perpetual political crisis, which started in 2020, has affected not only domestic politics but also neighboring North Macedonia—and, by extension, the Western Balkans and the European Union. Bulgaria finally lifted its veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession in June 2022, after the French presidency of the Council of the EU facilitated a compromise between the two countries. This allowed North Macedonia and Albania to formally start EU accession talks in July 2022 (Euronews, July 19).

But the process of accession for North Macedonia is conditioned on pending constitutional changes and maintaining good relations with Bulgaria at every step—relations that can be easily undermined by nationalist politicians on both sides. Intensified political instability in Sofia and growing criticism of the compromise with Skopje threaten to revive tensions between the two states. As an example, the political party of showman Slavi Trifonov, ITN, is planning to run in a coalition with the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO-BND); the two are united by their opposition to lifting the veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession. ITN, which was established in 2021 and won the elections in July 2021, has lost support and will not make it over the election threshold on its own (Faktor.bg, July 27).

In November 2020, Sofia vetoed Skopje’s membership negotiations with the EU, primarily as a result of its internal political crisis and the falling popularity of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov during his third mandate. With widespread corruption and COVID-19 ravaging the country, the government channeled popular sentiments toward the “Macedonian question,” essentially Bulgaria’s long-standing denial of the existence of a Macedonian identity and language. The policy was mainly driven by nationalists in the governing coalition, such as VMRO-BND, but it gained 84 percent of public support and became a useful political tool for the embattled prime minister after months of anti-government protests (Alpha Research, October 2020). In fact, it was the only government policy that garnered any significant public support.

Public attitudes demanding concessions from Skopje on historic and identity questions left an arduous legacy for future Bulgarian governments. Interim cabinets appointed by the Bulgarian president throughout 2021 failed to make progress in resolving the dispute with North Macedonia. Eventually, the cabinet of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov worked out a compromise solution with Brussels. The Bulgarian parliament accepted the proposal on June 27, and the Macedonian parliament voted for the agreement (68 out of 120) on July 17 amid protests against it on the streets of Skopje (SvobodnaEvropa.bg, July 16).

The settlement, however, essentially inserted the bilateral disputes between Sofia and Skopje over history, identity and language into North Macedonia’s EU accession process, which is unprecedented in the EU’s history (see EDM, July 8). Under the agreement, North Macedonia must make changes to its constitution to include protections for the Bulgarian minority, along with the Albanian, Turkish, Bosnian, Serbian and Roma minorities—thus, providing collective rights in language, culture, education and political representation. Yet, constitutional changes require a two-thirds qualified majority, or 80 votes, which will be difficult to muster without the support of at least 12 opposition members of parliament.

The main opposition party, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), and its ally, Levitsa, insist on holding a referendum before any constitutional changes are introduced in parliament (BalkanInsight, July 25). The parties are now preparing a formal proposal with the questions and conditions for the eventual referendum. President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski said the question for a potential referendum should revolve around whether the Macedonians want the country to join Europe under the conditions of the bilateral agreement with Bulgaria. He believes that the majority of Macedonian citizens will vote “yes,” as they voted “yes” on the Prespa Agreement with Greece that led to changing the country’s name (Mediapool.bg, July 28).

The head of the EU delegation to North Macedonia, David Geer, said that if the change in the constitution does not happen, the most likely scenario is that the accession process will simply stop (Novinite.com, July 27).

The protocol signed between Sofia and Skopje earlier this month allows Bulgaria to interfere in North Macedonia’s EU accession over any disagreement related to the implementation of the 2017 bilateral friendship accord. Disputes over historical figures, the presentation of historical events in Macedonian textbooks or even public rhetoric that may be perceived as hostile by Sofia can serve as justifications to pause Skopje’s EU accession talks. In addition, the new internal political crisis in Bulgaria presents a clear risk to resolving outstanding disputes between the two neighbors and further endangers North Macedonia’s EU membership prospects.