On June 4, 2022, a masked man riding a bike stopped in front of the Bulgarian cultural club Vanco Mihailov in the North Macedonian town of Bitola. He doused the door with flammable liquid, set it alight and left. The incident was recorded on CCTV. Though there was little damage to the building apart from the door, the ensuing fire has reignited the smoldering political conflict that is synonymous with Macedonian-Bulgarian relations in recent years.
Тhe two Balkan countries have been embroiled in a dispute over history, identity and language for decades. Since the mid-1950s, Bulgaria does not recognize the existence of a separate Macedonian nation and language. According to officials in Sofia, Macedonians are part of the Bulgarian nation, and their language is a dialect of the Bulgarian language.
Despite the attacker's swift arrest, politicians on both sides of the border quickly picked up on the incident. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev claimed the arson attack "was another provocation, part of a long-time anti-Bulgarian campaign in North Macedonia." The North Macedonian government condemned the incident. However, there were calls by at least one opposition party and many individuals on social media for protests in support of the attacker.
The Bulgarian club is named for Vanco Mihailov, a Bulgarian revolutionary who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. Its opening some two months ago was promoted by Bulgarian politicians as a reconciliatory move but sparked a storm of outrage in North Macedonia. President Stevo Pendarovski condemned the name chosen by Sofia as a provocation that did "not contribute to rapprochement between the two peoples."
These are aspects German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will have to bear in mind when visiting Skopje and Sofia on Saturday in his effort to find a compromise aimed at kickstarting European Union accession negotiations for North Macedonia. In light of Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine and the geopolitical impact, EU expansion is seen as more important than ever.
Problems in the neighborhood
Former Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov sees Scholz's visit as a "culmination of German diplomatic efforts to secure a breakthrough that is important not only for the Balkans but also for Ukraine."
"This problem," said Dimitrov when alluding to a Bulgaria veto on North Macedonia, "makes the EU geo-politically incapacitated in its own region."
The EU is keen to demonstrate its ability to mediate problems within the European neighborhood and simultaneously prevent Russia, China and other regional players from making inroads into the Western Balkans. Two of the six Western Balkan countries — Serbia and Montenegro — are already in negotiation for full EU membership, and Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are hoping to become candidates. Meanwhile, a Bulgarian veto has blocked North Macedonia and Albania's accession processes for the last two years.
Ukraine complicates EU accession in the Balkans
Berlin sees EU enlargement as one of the key pillars of its European policy, one that is also enshrined in the government's coalition agreement. But Scholz is not alone in his diplomatic efforts.
On June 6, 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron called his counterparts in North Macedonia and Bulgaria to offer Paris as a venue for the signing of the bilateral agreement "when the time comes." But time is a luxury no one currently has. Paris is pushing for a solution by the end of June 2022, when its EU presidency terminates.
Ukraine's application for EU membership further complicates matters. Opening negotiations with Kyiv in June 2022 would raise a problem for Brussels, as several Western Balkan countries have been waiting years for their membership to materialize.
On May 9, when asked about Ukraine's application for EU membership, Scholz referred directly to this situation during a joint press conference with Macron in Berlin. "Very many have already made far-reaching preparations and taken courageous decisions. At some point, such courage must be rewarded. Take North Macedonia, for instance," Scholz said.
A Bulgarian veto with conditions
In 2019 Bulgaria said it would block North Macedonia's accession to the EU unless its western neighbor accepted that the two countries share a common history and speak the same language — Bulgarian. Skopje rejected the ultimatum on the grounds that it went against European principles and the right to self-determination.
Bilateral talks are now focused on including the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia's constitution. The last census established that 3,504 Bulgarians live in the country, equal to 0.19% of North Macedonia's population of 1.8 million. Sofia wants them constitutionally recognized by the Parliament in Skopje before North Macedonia begins accession negotiations with Brussels or is even included in the EU's Negotiating Framework.
The current government in Skopje, however, doesn't have the votes to push through such a motion. The country's nationalist opposition considers any rapprochement with Bulgaria a "national betrayal."
Complicating matters, the government in Sofia lost its tiny parliamentary majority on Wednesday — three days before Scholz was due to arrive in Bulgaria — after the populist party There Is Such a People (ITN) left the ruling coalition. ITN's leader, Slavi Trifonov, accused Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov of attempting to lift the veto on the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and disregarding Bulgaria's national interests. "It's a national betrayal," Trifonov wrote on social media.
Window of opportunity
Daniel Smilov, a Bulgarian political analyst and associate professor at the University of Sofia, believes there is a window of opportunity for a solution to the dispute between the two countries.
"One possible agreement might be based on a binding commitment to include a reference to Bulgarians in the constitution of North Macedonia and incorporation of elements from existing treaties between the two countries in the accession negotiation framework," Smilov told DW. "The question is whether there will be a Bulgarian government to push through such a deal."
Even if, as announced on June 9, Bulgarian Prime Minister Petkov continues to lead a minority government, the country's president, Radev, remains the main obstacle.
"Radev has positioned himself as the main 'hardliner' on the Macedonian question," Smilov said. "The reasons for this policy are mostly domestic; contemporary populism is very effective in mobilizing support behind claims that 'the people should not succumb to foreign pressure.'"
The European Commission and the majority of EU member states, including Germany, are loath to allow bilateral disputes to enter the Negotiating Framework but are willing to compromise if Skopje and Sofia find some kind of agreement.
Former Macedonian Foreign Minister Dimitrov warns that such a diplomatic solution would only postpone the problem by "moving the Bulgarian veto onto the Negotiating Framework," enabling Sofia to further block North Macedonia during the accession negotiations. "Everyone should be careful in this pursuit of success. It could easily become short-lived and superficial."
Edited by: Rüdiger Rossig, Lucy James