2022 has been a complex year for the Western Balkans. The key issue that had to be resolved was connected with the relations between Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia, and the veto which this country had imposed with regard to the European prospects of North Macedonia, thus blocking the road to EU accession of another Balkan country – Albania. How have things played out during the outgoing year, and what have the strengths and weaknesses in Bulgaria’s policy in the region been? Commentary by journalist Nikolay Krastev, analyst of the processes in the Balkans and former BNR correspondent in Belgrade and in Moscow.
“That was a crucial question which went through many obstacles, cost a lot of effort, connected with the aspiration of the international community, of the participants from the region, of Bulgaria and of the then ruling party to find a solution to the issue of the launch of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia. As a result came the proposal of the French Presidency of the EU, which gave Bulgaria tentative hope that the country has not been forgotten by its Western partners, even though it incited much tension in North Macedonia – just remember the protests in Skopje back then.
Everything happening since 2020 connected with North Macedonia came to an end roundabout mid-2022, with the proposal by the French Presidency, a proposal I consider to be good, and a sound basis for finding a solution to the problems accrued between Sofia and Skopje.”
Is this proposal workable for Skopje, and, on its part, has Bulgaria managed to explain to Europe where the problem with North Macedonia is rooted, and also that our position is not mere obstinacy?
“I am glad you use the word “obstinacy”, too bad that it seems to be the only thing our Western partners have seen and understood. Bulgaria should have strategically demonstrated more patience, it shouldn’t be forgotten that North Macedonia comes from a country where there have always been very strong anti-Bulgarian sentiments, the Yugoslav indoctrination in the Republic of North Macedonia is a fact and nobody is denying it, but there was a chance, while Zoran Zaev, and the Social Democratic Union was in power, for things to change. Because Bulgaria, with its stubbornness, bullheadedness even, opened the way for North Macedonia to enter the regional Open Balkan format (Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia), and, unfortunately, created an opening for good things to be said inside North Macedonia about Serbia, and bad things about Bulgaria.”
Is Bulgaria’s insistence on changes to the constitution of North Macedonia, and on including Bulgarians in it as “state-establishing” people realistic?
“I don’t think there is much point to this act or to Bulgaria’s wish to see this being done in view of the fact that this cements the postulates of Macedonism that Macedonians are a separate ethnicity and a separate nation. With this specific demand, Bulgaria is doing everything it can to cement Macedonism as such, and to turn it into a major factor in Sofia-Skopje relations. The authorities in North Macedonia are probably very happy at this time to see us helping them by saying they have everything they want. What I am saying is that this is a major strategic mistake and that a different approach to the issue should have been found instead of insisting on this at all cost.”
The war in Ukraine has catalyzed the processes in the Balkans very deeply, we have been seeing growing tension between Kosovo and Serbia. “One more time in 2022, we saw a situation unfolding on three separate occasions, when barricades were put up over vehicle registration plates,” Nikolay Krastev says and adds:
“Incredibly, Bulgaria does not have a special envoy of its own for the Western Balkans, it could have taken part - alongside Great Britain, Germany and France - in this process of de-escalation between Kosovo and Serbia, of enhancing stability. Regrettably, today Bulgaria is in the loge of honour, watching what is going on in our region instead of taking part in the decision-making process.”
In Nikolay Krastev’s words, Bulgaria dissipated its inheritance from its successful time in the Presidency of the Council of the EU at the beginning of 2018 when it had assumed the role of motor of the European integration processes in the Western Balkans.
Are the negotiations a Bulgarian parliamentary delegation had in Turkey, on this country acting as mediator in the EU-Turkey talks on the migrant issue, an attempt at recovering its leadership position?
“I believe that European diplomacy is quite capable of talking to its Turkish partners without any help. Yes, Bulgaria is strategically located in Southeastern Europe – the border with Turkey, the border between the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. Bulgaria can and should act as facilitator, i.e. offering good partnership, a good opportunity to hold talks because it is better if this were to take place in the Balkans than in Brussels – at least one of the partners will feel at home. It is a good thing that Bulgaria is active at this time. What we found out from the meeting the President of Bulgarian parliament Vezhdi Rashidov had with his Turkish partners is that the Bulgarian President is going to be in Brussels on 8 and 9 January where he will acquaint our European partners with this initiative.”
To what an extent is the political instability inside the country affecting the image of Bulgaria in the Balkans?
“Regrettably, it is having its effect, all of our neighbours have been watching what has been happening in Bulgaria these past two years. Politicians should have a sensibility on the matter, a resource of trust among them should have been found, albeit for a limited space of time - until the local election in 2023, or until the election for European Parliament in 2024. I very much hope that 2023 will be a good year for everyone, in the Balkans and in Bulgaria as well, though I am more of a pessimist about the region. There are going to be attempts at retaliation in Kosovo, politicians in Serbia are going to bring things to a head – and nobody is going to like it. In Montenegro there is political instability at this time, a group of pro-Russian parties are ready to take power unless there are early elections for parliament. The political situation in the Balkans is highly unpredictable, that is why Bulgaria, which is an important partner within the EU, should have at least been an island of stability at this moment, and, together with Romania and Greece, factor bringing predictability to the Western Balkans.”
Photos: EPA/BGNES, Facebook / Nikolay Krastev
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