North Macedonia and Albania are hoping to get an official date for the start of European Union membership talks by the end of the year. Last year French President Emmanuel Macron had halted the process but he subsequently lifted the veto after the European Commission submitted a stricter and reversible EU accession procedure to meet the conditions set by Paris. Meanwhile, the Prespes accord removed the Greek obstacle. Now, North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is running into another obstacle in his country’s path to the much-coveted start date: a deal with Bulgaria.
Although Bulgaria was first to recognize the newly founded Balkan state in 1991 under its constitutional name “Republic of Macedonia,” and although Zaev and his Bulgarian counterpart signed a friendship treaty in 2017 that was designed to settle their historical differences, Sofia is now threatening to block Skopje’s accession negotiations.
Over the summer, the Bulgarian side issued a document titled “Explanatory Memorandum on the Relations between the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia in Relation to the EU Enlargement, Accession and Stabilization Process,” which it made public to the governments of the 26 member-states. The document clarified Bulgaria’s positions on many historical disputes with North Macedonia.
What are the sticking points? One is the language, which they never recognized as “Macedonian,” viewing it as a dialect of Bulgarian. They also deem that the identity of the Slav citizens of North Macedonian is in fact Bulgarian.
In light of the parliamentary elections this spring, a section of the political class led by Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov (also with the backing of certain historians) is challenging the treaty with North Macedonia.
Zaev is making efforts to find a compromise solution on the historical differences so as not to upset relations between the two sister countries, but deep down he has no reason to be concerned about a possible Bulgarian block on his country’s path to EU accession.
However, for the Europeans and the Americans, the deal between Bulgaria and North Macedonia and the Prespes accord are two key pillars on which calm and stability in the Balkans can be upheld.