SKOPJE – Nightly protests in North Macedonia over the past week have left dozens injured. At the heart of the turmoil is the small Balkan country’s long-running quest to join the European Union, a process that has faced one hurdle after the other.
The most recent obstacle is a veto by EU member Bulgaria. A French proposal for a compromise to address Bulgaria’s concerns has divided North Macedonia, sparking the sometimes violent protests. France's plan also met deep objections in Bulgaria and helped to bring down the government, which had accepted the compromise.
WHAT IS THE DISPUTE ABOUT?
North Macedonia has been an EU candidate for 17 years. The country emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and sought to forge a strong national identity. But in a region where borders and ethnicities have shifted and overlapped over centuries, it was beset by problems from the start.
The country's chosen name, Macedonia, sparked outrage in neighboring Greece, which said the term harbored expansionist aims against its own province of the same name and was an attempt to usurp Greek history and culture. Athens held up Skopje’s EU and NATO membership bids for years, until a 2019 deal was reached that included the smaller country changing its name to North Macedonia.
But the following year, neighboring Bulgaria blocked the renamed nation's attempts to join the EU, accusing Skopje of disrespecting shared cultural and historic ties. Among Bulgaria’s key demands were acknowledgment that the language of North Macedonia derived from Bulgarian, and the recognition of a Bulgarian minority.
The size of the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia is a matter of contention. Official data from the 2021 census put it at 3,504 people, or about 0.2% of the population. Bulgaria has doubted the figure, noting that about 90,000 of North Macedonia's roughly 2 million population received dual Bulgarian citizenship over the last two decades based on their family roots. About 53,000 more applications are pending.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
North Macedonia’s EU bid is tied to a similar bid by neighboring Albania. Both countries see joining the 27-nation bloc as a means of securing stability and prosperity in an increasingly unstable world. The EU prospects of the Western Balkan countries gained increased attention in the wake of the bloc’s efforts to bring Ukraine closer following the Russian invasion.
WHAT IS THE FRENCH PROPOSAL?
France held the rotating EU presidency between January and June and so has been deeply involved in negotiations to break the deadlock. EU leaders held a summit with Western Balkan nations last month, during the same week they made Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership.
French President Emmanuel Macron hoped to present unblocking the EU bids of North Macedonia and Albania as a major success. On Thursday, the French Embassy in Skopje posted a message from Macron.
“Once again, North Macedonia has reached a crucial moment in its history. Seventeen years after receiving candidate status, a historic opportunity has opened: .... The choice is yours,” he said.
Macron’s proposal envisages concessions from both sides. The government in Skopje would commit to changing its constitution to recognize a Bulgarian minority, protect minority rights and banish hate speech.
The French leader stressed the proposal doesn’t question the official existence of a Macedonian language, but he noted that, like all deals, it “rests on compromises and on a balance.”
HOW WAS THE PROPOSAL RECEIVED?
The compromises in the French proposal led to rifts in both countries.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s centrist government was toppled in a no-confidence vote on June 22. A junior governing partner quit the fragile four-party coalition, describing Petkov’s willingness to lift the veto of North Macedonia as a “national betrayal.” An early election could result in a stronger presence in parliament of nationalist and pro-Russia lawmakers.
The National Assembly already has approved the proposal, but legislators set additional conditions for agreeing to North Macedonia's EU membership. They included proper constitutional protection for Bulgarians living in North Macedonia, and no assumption that Bulgaria would recognize Macedonian as a separate language from Bulgarian.
In North Macedonia, both President Stevo Pendarovski and the government of Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevsk backed the proposal as a reasonable compromise. Accepting it “will be neither a historic triumph, as one camp would call it, nor a historic failure or debacle, as those in the other camp say,” Pendarovski said.
The government has stressed the proposal does not endanger national interests or identity. But the center-right main opposition party, the VMRO-DPMNE, as well as others, disagree, saying the deal favors Bulgarian demands that question North Macedonia's history, language, identity, culture and heritage.
Biljana Vankovska, a law professor at the Saint Cyril and Methodius University's Institute for Security, Defense and Peace, slammed the French proposal as bowing to “the nationalistic and chauvinistic demands of Bulgaria.”
“It is unbelievable that a small nation was asked to give up its language, history and constitution-making powers to external powers in order to start the EU accession process,” she said.
Political analyst Albert Musliu, head of the Association for Democratic Initiatives think tank, argued the proposal offers North Macedonia a chance to start membership talks with the EU.
“If you ask me whether it is fair, then yes, the proposal is unfair, but international order is not based on fairness,” he said.
Bulgaria has accepted the French proposal, which now requires the backing of North Macedonia’s parliament. The text is now at committee level in parliament. No plenary session has been scheduled.
Toshkov reported from Sofia, Bulgaria. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed
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