A protestor holds a sign reading ‘Either Zaev, or Macedonia,’ during a protest in North Macedonia against leftist government policy towards Bulgaria, in front of the government building in Skopje, late on Thursday. [Boris Grdanoski/AP]
Bulgaria’s insistence on blocking European Union accession talks with North Macedonia risks creating another fissure in NATO’s southeastern flank. Two of its member-states – Greece and Turkey – are already deeply divided and now two more appear headed for a collision, over a two-century-old controversy on ethnic grounds.
Both Bulgaria and North Macedonia are key regional members of the Alliance. Bulgaria for its role as supervisor over the Black Sea and southern Russia, and North Macedonia as a buffer against further Russian expansion in the heart of the Balkans. Both also feel the impact of the American-Russian conflict of influence very strongly.
NATO, however, appears unruffled by the Sofia-Skopje rivalry, regarding it as a European matter that needs to be settled by the EU’s member-states. While this may strictly be the case, Bulgaria’s objections to North Macedonia joining the EU do not stem from the accession criteria, such as the need to bolster democracy and crack down on corruption; instead, they are fueled by historical claims that are stoking nationalism on both sides and will at some point soon have an impact on NATO unless these differences are resolved.
Anti-Bulgarian fever is rising in North Macedonia, with the blessing of the political leadership and the media, and Skopje’s stance toward Sofia is becoming more aggressive. Indicatively, it rejected Sofia’s request to participate in NATO’s air policing of North Macedonia and also withdrew interest in Bulgaria’s Belene Nuclear Power Plant, opting instead to support the natural gas project in Greece’s northern port of Alexandroupoli.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, is gearing up for elections in the spring and the political class is banking heavily on nationalist sentiment by trying to shape a new Balkan agenda inspired by the Ottoman Empire and grand 19th century aspirations, accusing its Balkan brethren of straying from the proper path.