Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov met North Macedonia’s premier Dimitar Kovacevski to set the scene for intensified attempts to resolve the dispute about their different views on history which has stalled North Macedonia’s progress towards the EU.
Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov [(left) and his North Macedonian counterpart, Dimitar Kovacevski in front of the government building in Skopje. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Bulgarian and North Macedonian Prime Ministers Kiril Petkov and Dimitar Kovacevski told a press conference after their meeting in Skopje on Tuesday that as a sign of initial goodwill, Bulgaria will no longer make an issue of the use of the name North Macedonia in international organisations, dropping its previous claims that the name implicates territorial claims against Bulgaria.
In return, Skopje has already sent a verbal note to the United Nations, saying that the short version of the full name Republic of North Macedonia in no way or form implies Skopje has territorial claims on Sofia’s territory.
“We agreed that Bulgaria accepts the use of the short name, North Macedonia, along with the long name, Republic of North Macedonia. Bulgaria has already notified the UN about this,” North Macedonia’s Kovacevski told the joint press conference.
“I think that what we achieved at our first meeting should signal that we are ready and willing to completely change the meaning of good neighbourly relations,” Petkov said.
On the core issue that mars bilateral relations, the issue of different readings of the two countries’ history and identity, Skopje and Sofia have agreed to work on them, but first to focus more on other areas where there is potential cooperation.
“We will pay attention to the issues that bring us closer, and we will give a longer time [to solve] the other issues,” Petkov stated.
Both countries agreed to form working groups in five areas – the economy, infrastructure, EU integration, culture and historical questions, which will convene on a weekly basis so communication between the two countries can intensify in practical terms, the two premiers said.
Both have also agreed to hold a joint inter-governmental session next week and to establish a direct air connection between the two capitals as soon as possible.
For two years in a row, Sofia has been blocking the EU accession process of its neighbour, insisting that Skopje accepts a de facto Bulgarian identity that centres around the claim that today’s Macedonian identity and language are of Bulgarian origin. These demands are tough for Skopje to accept.
During his visit to Skopje, Petkov, who like Kovacevski was elected prime minister at the end of 2021, reiterated Sofia’s stance that it recognises the existence of the modern Macedonian identity and the language “as stated in the country’s constitution”.
Although the two premiers’ talks passed off in a positive atmosphere, some observers have warned that both newly-elected leaders have a hard road ahead.
“This could be a new start, but we don’t know how the talks will develop. The political elites that signed the  friendship treaty [between Bulgaria and North Macedonia] are no longer in power, so they have no direct influence. Now Petkov and Kovacevski have a clear playing field, although with weights on their legs,” Ljupco Popovski, a veteran journalist and political analyst from Skopje, commented about the visit.
“They have a chance to make a breakthrough, but the nationalistic sentiments in both countries are so strong, so I don’t believe that this will be an easy task,” Popovski added.
In a statement distributed to the US embassy in Sofia ahead of the visit, a spokesperson for the US State Department of, Ned Price, said that Washington strongly supports North Macedonia and Albania’s EU accession and believes that Skopje and Sofia have started a “constructive dialogue” that will help overcome their bilateral differences.
Albania is also a victim of the Bulgarian EU blockade because Skopje and Tirana are moving towards EU accession as a single package.
Pektov’s visit coincided with the 30th anniversary of Bulgaria’s recognition of the then Republic of Macedonia, but not of its national identity and the Macedonian language.
His visit sparked a protest action by the small opposition Levica [Left] party, which put up banners in two prominent places.
The first banner displayed on the highway leading from the Skopje airport to the centre of the city said: “Welcome Administrators of [Bulgarian] Tzar Boris”, referring to one of Sofia’s demands, that Skopje should scrap the term “Nazi occupying force” from its textbooks when referring to the Bulgarian occupation of today’s North Macedonia during World War II, and refer to the wartime occupiers as mere “administrators”.
The second, displayed near the government headquarters, called for “European Rights for the Macedonians in the Pirin [in western Bulgaria]”, a reference to Sofia’s policy not to recognise the existence of Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.
As this dispute continues, Sofia is now claiming that it is Skopje that is failing to address the rights of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia.
The latter banner might have been provoked by recent comments made by Petkov. In an interview with Bulgarian media at the weekend, Petkov reiterated Sofia’s stance that there was no Macedonian minority in his country.
“There is no such [Macedonian] minority so it cannot be a matter of discussion,” Petkov said.
When asked at the weekend about the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia, he told Bulgarian channel BTV: “I want them to have whatever European citizen should have – zero tolerance for discrimination… It’s a question of when is the right moment for this to happen, without any arm-twisting, just through constructive dialogue.”
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