Trouble still brewing in the Balkans

Trouble still brewing in the Balkans

Apart from weakening the so-called systemic parties and electing new ones to Parliament on the merit of their defiant populist rhetoric, the recent elections in Bulgaria also expressed the electorate’s disapproval of the ultra-nationalist parties that did not make the cut.

This may prove a good thing for tranquility in the Balkans, as the vice president and defense minister of pro-Western Boyko Borisov’s outgoing coalition government – the leader of the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO), Krasimir Karakachanov – had imposed the Macedonian issue on the foreign policy agenda, causing a significant strain in relations between Sofia and Skopje. Threatening departure from the coalition – which would have led to its collapse – if he did not have his way, Karakachanov (who has been dubbed the “Bulgarian Kammenos” after Greece’s Panos Kammenos, who was also the head of a nationalist party in the previous SYRIZA-led coalition government) – forced Borisov to veto North Macedonia’s European Union accession over its refusal to accept the deeply nationalist Bulgarian narrative that Bulgarian blood flows in Slav-Macedonian veins.

Now it remains to be seen whether the government that will emerged in Sofia from the new Parliament – if the country does not go back to the polls – will maintain the same firm line and keep up the tension with Skopje, or if it will change tack, in part because of pressure from the West at June’s EU summit.

Even if Sofia unblocks North Macedonia’s path to accession, however, the damage has been done. Relations between the two nations have been bitterly poisoned and trust will be very hard to rebuild, especially in Skopje, which is cultivating the feeling of a looming threat from the “evil stepmother” that they see Bulgaria as.

The Macedonia issue has roots that stretch deep into the past. Wars have been waged, blood spilled, thousands displaced, an atmosphere of suspicion cemented and dormant nationalist faults awakened to become a new threat to societies; it will take time and hard work from everyone for the region (and those affected by the situation) to turn over a new leaf.

Agreements may have been signed between the different parties, but their implementation has yet to take off in earnest. And at the top of each country in the so-called Macedonian triangle (North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece), there are still those trying to raise obstacles by lighting fires at home.

Sofia is waving the veto, nationalists in Skopje are preventing the renaming of the science academy, and in Athens, some are already getting ready for battle ahead of the ratification of several bilateral agreements.

There is a lot of hard work ahead if the page is to be turned.

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