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The cost of the problem with the Bulgarian blockage of Macedonia becoming part of NATO

Putin's war in Ukraine is changing the way the EU conducts its enlargement foreigner policy. It puts additional pressure on Bulgaria to lift its veto on the start of negotiations for North Macedonia's accession to the EU.

Never before has the idea of abandoning the unanimity rule in foreign affairs gained so much traction than after the invasion began on 24 February. The example that first comes to mind is Bulgaria's veto. Sofia finds it difficult to explain and the other 26 capitals find it difficult to understand.

In the current geopolitical situation, described by some as World War III in hybrid form, the EU is trying to limit its vulnerabilities, many of which are linked to the infinitely complex situation in the Western Balkans. It is regrettable that the EU has allowed the region also known as the 'soft underbelly of Europe' to be so vulnerable to conflict and Russian influence in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania.

But now is not the time for academic analysis, but for quick solutions.

Viewed from the perspective of the war in Ukraine, the Bulgarian veto does not hold water. The author of this text is a Bulgarian who knows that his opinion does not appeal to many in Sofia [the original of this text is in English and is intended for an international audience].

Bulgarian official reason is the "fear" that after becoming an EU member, North Macedonia will continue to pursue a hostile policy towards Sofia, from the higher position of an EU member.

Largely because of the legacy of Yugoslavia's communist leader Josip Broz Tito, but also because of earlier Balkan history, when Serbia and Bulgaria fought for dominance over the territory of present-day North Macedonia, anti-Bulgarian sentiment was state policy in the former Yugoslav republic. Today they are also present.

From the point of view of the federation of southern Slavs that was Yugoslavia, Bulgaria was the bad guy, part of the Soviet bloc, and it was looked down upon, which continued even after the fall of communism and its accession to the EU.

Tito's Yugoslavia was also aware that Bulgaria and the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were closer than Skopje and Belgrade (it should be recalled here that after the First World War Serbia viewed North Macedonia as "southern Serbia").

Thus, at least three generations grew up in the "Socialist Republic of Macedonia" and were fed anti-Bulgarian propaganda.

Even today, in the textbooks published in Skopje, Bulgarians are presented as Tatars and fascists.

This is based in part on the role Bulgaria played in World War II, when it was an ally of Nazi Germany and was allowed to occupy what is now northern Macedonia.

Describing a neighbouring nation as fascists or Nazis is disturbing, especially these days.

In Bulgaria, however, it is said that the (Slavic) Macedonians and the Bulgarians are the same people. This may be true if proven by serious genetic research, but it is also irrelevant because most people in Northern Macedonia do not feel this way.

At a time when Putin is denying Ukrainians the right to be a separate people, Sofia should be very careful with its narrative.

Russia and Ukraine are nations with much common blood, separated by history. The same applies to Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

But the chance for Sofia and Skopje is that they can have a decent common future in the EU if they find a solution to the current problem.

Even in the EU, historical wounds are sometimes reopened. The latest example was when Hungarian President Viktor Orban hinted on Monday that his country had no access to the sea because Croatia had taken its Adriatic port of Rijeka.

However, this does not mean in the slightest that the Hungarian army will invade Croatia! Even Croatian President Zoran Milanović dismissed this as "Orbán's populist ambitions, which are not really dangerous".

Hungary will not invade Croatia, Bulgaria will not invade North Macedonia, this is absolutely unthinkable.

It is not unthinkable, however, that Putin's Russia will mobilise its resources to destabilise the EU's weak spot - the Western Balkans.

That is why Bulgaria and North Macedonia must find a quick solution to their problem with the help of the European Commission. Only the Commission has conveniently stayed out of the problem for two whole years now.

An agreement is needed because if Bulgaria lifts the veto without tangible progress in relations, the fragile government of Kiril Petkov will fall, early elections will be held and a pro-Russian coalition is very likely to come to power.

Even now, two pro-Russian parties are represented in the Bulgarian parliament, and after the elections two more may emerge. Bulgarian public opinion remains largely pro-Russian (44% believe NATO is responsible for the war, against 23% who blame Russia) because of the extremely strong Russian propaganda.

My guess is that Putin's strategy is precisely to destabilise the EU by helping to establish a pro-Russian government in Sofia.

The European Commission was supposed to contribute to an agreement between Sofia and Skopje, even to become its guarantor, and this will probably include a change in the constitution of Northern Macedonia.

Instead, the Commission chose the worst bureaucratic approach - to do nothing.

If Putin had his own man in the College of Commissioners, he would hardly have achieved a better result.

As of September 2019, the EU does not even have a permanent representative in Sofia, which is madness.

The permanent representation is responsible for communicating EU policies, which is done very poorly in Bulgaria. In contrast, the Russian embassy is very effective in spreading its message.

We can only hope that this war will bring about a positive change in the way the European institutions work...

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