Over the past week, thousands of Macedonians have been taking to the streets of capital Skopje to protest against what they call a forced "Bulgarization" of their nation. Protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs and other objects at police, ignited fireworks, and damaged government buildings, including of the Parliament and Foreign Ministry. Nearly 50 police officers were injured in violent clashes on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, violence escalated further when small groups of Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, which comprise around 25% of the population, clashed in the center of Skopje, endangering the fragile multiethnic peace in the Balkan country.
Tensions had been growing for weeks after the European Union offered North Macedonia a start to accession negotiations for full membership — under specific terms. The proposal was formally submitted by the French presidency of the EU and is thus called the "French proposal." For many in North Macedonia, including the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, the proposal endangers the identity of their nation by succumbing to the demands of neighboring Bulgaria.
From the perspective of Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the VMRO-DPMNE party, "the Bulgarization of our society becomes the main condition for entry into the European Union," as he told DW on Wednesday.
Mickoski's VMRO-DPMNE, joined by a smaller pro-Russian opposition party, Levica (The Left), have been organizing the daily protests in Skopje.
What is the basis of the proposal?
Bulgaria, which as an EU member retains veto powers over new members, wants North Macedonia to formally recognize that its Macedonian language has Bulgarian roots, to recognize a Bulgarian minority in the country and to quash "hate speech" against Bulgaria.
Both countries have been locked in a bitter dispute about history and identity for decades, and Bulgaria has been blocking North Macedonia's EU accession since 2020, demanding concessions from Skopje.
The French proposal places these Bulgarian demands into the negotiating framework between North Macedonia and the EU.
The parliament in Sofia accepted the French proposal on June 24 after Bulgarian President Rumen Radev concluded that it includes most Bulgarian demands toward Skopje.
How was the proposal received?
In North Macedonia, a country renamed in 2018 to satisfy another neighbor — Greece — in a similar historic dispute, the proposal was welcomed with a mixture of quiet acceptance and a storm of protest.
After seeing his country wait for 17 years to begin accession talks with the EU, North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski and the Social Democrat-led government backed the proposed deal as a better alternative than staying out of the process for even longer.
"Accepting this proposal would neither be a historic triumph, neither a historic disaster," Pendarovski said in a televised speech on Sunday.
North Macedonia's Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani went a step further, saying that it was a "good proposal."
"We shouldn't miss this chance to start the accession negotiations [with the EU]," Osmani posted on his Facebook account.
How did it get to 'No to Europe'?
But while the government in Skopje hopes that the agreement could open the door to the EU, many critics — including Nikola Dimitrov, the former foreign minister who signed the historic deal with Greece — reject the proposal as indecent.
"In seeking 'success' at any cost, the French proposal makes the EU complicit in betraying the European hopes of the Macedonian citizens," Dimitrov said.
Over the last two decades, support for the European Union in North Macedonia rarely dropped below 80%, as a large majority of the population saw its future tightly connected with the rest of Europe.
But in 2019, France blocked North Macedonia's EU accession, with Bulgaria following in 2020.
A poll conducted by the Institute for Democracy "Societas Civiis" in Skopje this February showed that only 13% still see the EU as "the biggest ally" of their country — down from 43% before that initial veto.
Such polling indicates that though hope is still present, support has declined.
Now, after the latest French proposal, "No to Europe" chants are growing stronger in daily protests on the streets of Skopje.
What happens next?
Under the terms of the French proposal, North Macedonia would start accession talks with the EU only after it changes its constitution to include the Bulgarian minority. The current government in Skopje lacks the necessary two-thirds majority in the parliament to achieve that.
And even if the government could manage to convince the nationalist opposition to change its refusal for such a vote, according to Dimitrov, that would not be the end.
"Our road to the EU would be completely dependent on satisfying Bulgarian demands," he said, referring to a long list of conditions from Sofia concerning the history, language and minority issues which are now part of the EU negotiating framework.
That would give Sofia the right to block North Macedonia's accession on issues such as refusing to officially recognize the identity of a medieval king or a 19th century revolutionary as "Bulgarian."
The EU proposal also contains a unilateral declaration in which Bulgaria would reserve the right to claim that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian.
In a bid to ease growing discontent in North Macedonia, French president Emanuel Macron on Thursday sent an open letter to the "Macedonian people," telling them that "the agreement is not perfect, but will open your European road."
For critics like Dimitrov, these messages of support are not enough.
"This path is a dead end, which will never bring us to the desired membership," Dimitrov said, referring to the Bulgarian demands in the EU accession negotiations.
"It is a path to eternal agony and torment."
Edited by: Sonya Diehn