EU expansion efforts in Balkans add to Bulgarian PM’s woes

Sofia, BulgariaAfter just seven months in office and now reduced to a minority government, Bulgaria’s liberal Prime Minister Kiril Petkov finds himself between a rock and a hard place on European Union enlargement amid the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion spurred the EU to accelerate its expansionist drive in the western Balkans, where Moscow still wields considerable influence. But EU and NATO member Bulgaria is blocking part of the process in the case of neighboring North Macedonia – one of the six EU hopefuls in the region – over a dispute over history and cultural identity.

Prime Minister Petkov, 42, has pledged to seek a solution to the decades-long deadlock that would indirectly also unravel Albania’s bid for membership. But Bulgaria says its neighbor has not made enough concessions and the chances of a breakthrough appear slim.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev on Friday urged the cabinet to allay any suspicions that the country might take the deeply unpopular step of lifting its veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession.

Speaking to reporters in Sofia, Radev called on Petkov to “defend national interests” at next week’s European Council. He warned Petkov – already under fire over the economy and facing a no-confidence vote in parliament next week – that “any harassment or attempt to replace (the Bulgarian veto) will have serious consequences”.

The 27-nation bloc has invited the heads of government of six Western Balkan countries, including North Macedonia, to the June 23 meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.

In preparation, the six leaders gathered in the seaside resort of Ohrid in North Macedonia on Friday, with most arguing that the war in Ukraine has made their bids for membership even more urgent.

“Once the war in Ukraine is over, Russia will go back to its old ways, attacking western democracies with fake news and propaganda and urging us not to seek EU and NATO membership,” said North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski.

“We have been candidates for (EU) membership for 17 years. This unfinished project has taken a toll on us.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is also seeking EU membership for his country, urged EU hopes to halt trade with Russia.

“You shouldn’t give money to those who seek your destruction,” Zelenskyy said via video link.

Back in Bulgaria, Prime Minister Petkov said his government had decided to refer all issues related to the neighboring country’s EU membership to parliament.

“The North Macedonia issue is being used as bait,” Petkov said. “From now on, no politician can say that the government is capable of taking unilateral action. The decision lies with Parliament.”

Sofia insists that if the EU wants to soften its stance, it must guarantee that North Macedonia implements three key Bulgarian demands: a constitutional amendment to recognize the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority, an end to “hate speech” against Bulgaria and the settlement of Disputes over the land history of the two countries.

Bulgaria has seen a surge in pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, and analysts say a move by Petkov to lift the veto on North Macedonia could bring pro-Moscow parties to power and change the country’s stance. On the other hand, maintaining the veto could also strengthen Russia’s hold in the Balkans by keeping North Macedonia out of the EU.

Parvan Simeonov from the Balkans agency Gallup International said about 70% of Bulgarians were against lifting the veto and warned that such a move would provoke “brutal Putinism” in Bulgaria.

Last week, one of the four parties in Petkov’s ruling coalition left office, citing disagreements over fiscal policy and North Macedonia. That leaves Petkov at the helm of a minority government facing a no-confidence vote in parliament next week over the economy tabled by the country’s main opposition party. ——— Testorides reports from Skopje, North Macedonia.

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