EU enlargement commissioner encourages dialogue between Skopje, Sofia.
By Miki Trajkovski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 13/11/12
Macedonia President Gjorge Ivanov (left) and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule address reporters September 4th in Brussels. [AFP]
Bulgaria may be stepping in to aid Greece in blocking Macedonia's EU integration, after it issued a series of demands for Skopje to improve good neighbourly relations in order to obtain Sofia's support in the accession process.
Sofia's primary demand concerns Macedonia changing its history textbook references to Bulgaria, but the list also includes improving the treatment of Bulgarian minority and companies and media treatment.
"An EU and NATO member should accept everything in real terms and respect others' history and opinions," said Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. "The government in Skopje should solve their problems in a European manner so they can gain our support."
The European Commission will decide next month whether Macedonia will receive an EU accession negotiation date.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule visited Bulgaria on October 31st to discuss Sofia's concerns with the country's leadership.
Fule disagreed with Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev that Macedonia is not ready for EU accession negotiations. He argued it is better to start negotiations while concurrently solving outstanding issues through dialogue.
"We all know Macedonia will wait a long time in front of a closed door expecting EU and NATO membership. It is not good to leave partners to wait," Fule said.
Fule reiterated that message in subsequent media interviews, and claimed the long-standing name issue may be solved after Macedonia's EU accession negotiations begin, rather than as a condition for negotiations.
"Endlessly keeping Macedonia in the EU waiting room creates risk of inter-ethnic tensions," Fule said, referring to Macedonia's restive Albanian minority, which has recently shown signs of radicalisation.
Fule's comments prompted a reaction by the Greek foreign ministry, which asked Fule to re-assesses his position.
"Bulgaria is a silent partner with Greece to block Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration, and is filling in now that Greece is too burdened with the economic crisis," Goran Ilic, political science professor at St Kliment Ohridski University in Bitola, told SETimes.
In a subsequent effort to show goodwill to Sofia, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov sent a letter to Plevneliev suggesting the two countries jointly celebrate three holidays, including Europe Day.
Joint holiday celebration has been a long-standing Bulgarian demand.
Plevneliev, however, discarded the offer, claiming Bulgaria had other holidays in mind. "We will judge by the deeds, not the letters," Plevneliev said.
Reactions in Macedonia have been strong to what is perceived as an increasingly aggressive Bulgarian stance which further strains tenuous relations between the neighbours.
"Obviously, their assessment is they can profit by pushing now the otherwise unsustainable thesis that the Macedonians are Bulgarians," Risto Nikovski, analyst and former Macedonian ambassador, told SETimes. "Sofia is clearly determined, just like Athens, to blackmail us to negate ourselves if we want to enter the EU."
"The historical facts should be left to historians to discuss it through mutual dialogue, and not be used as a political tool," Todor Chepreganov, director of the Institute for National History in Skopje, told SETimes. "I am not aware of a country in the world being conditioned by another about the content of its history textbooks."
But Dimitar Bechev, a Bulgarian who is an analyst at the European Council for Foreign Affairs, said he does not expect Sofia to use a veto in December.
"[But Bulgaria] will not actively support Macedonia's EU integration," Bechev told Dnevnik. "The biggest risk today is establishing a vicious circle in which Bulgarian and Macedonian nationalism will strengthen thanks to the other."