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News 20 Jun 17

Macedonia PM Aims to Heal Breach With Bulgaria

Macedonia's Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, on Tuesday heads to Bulgaria on a mission to warm up strained relations - and seek Bulgaria's aid in Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic intregration bids.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Maria Cheresheva
BIRN
Skopje, Sofia
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Photo: MIA

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev will meet his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov and President Rumen Radev on Tuesday, amid optimism that the two countries can finally resolve their open issues by signing a long delayed agreement on good-neighborly relations.

There is optimism that such an agreement, on which Sofia insists, could be signed during or soon after Zaev's visit to Sofia.

Bulgaria has demanded signature of the agreement since 2012 as a precondition for Sofia's diplomatic support.

However, the two sides are yet to settle two key open issues, the naming of the languages in which the agreement will be signed and Bulgaria's insistence that Macedonia pledges not to interfere in Bulgaria's domestic affairs.

A diplomatic source from the Macedonian Foreign Ministry told BIRN that both sides are engaged in overcoming these issues.

"I cannot say whether we will make it on time for the [good neighbourly] agreement to be signed during [Zaev's] visit but there is a positive atmosphere and we are working hard," the source said on Monday.

The head of Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic Council, an NGO, Ismet Ramadani says Macedonia should use the new, more positive atmosphere in Brussels and Sofia to finally strike a deal.

Such a move could turn Bulgaria from being a potential obstacle into one of Macedonia's strongest allies when it comes to joining NATO and the EU.

"If these two issues are overcome, some kind of compromise will be found so the agreement can be signed, and then Bulgaria can help Macedonia a great deal," Ramadani said.

While Macedonian relations in Greece are strained by the dispute over Macedonia's name, which Greece has used to block Macedonia's membership of NATO and the EU, relations with Bulgaria have generally been friendlier.

Bulgaria was the first country to recognise Macedonia when it proclaimed its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Moreover, unlike Greece, Bulgaria recognises its neighbour under its constitutional name, the “Republic of Macedonia”.

However, Bulgaria in the distant past laid claim to Macedonia, and Sofia still does not recognise the existence of a separate Macedonian language. Many Bulgarian historians still maintain that Macedonians are ethnic Bulgarians.

While many Macedonian scholars have accused Bulgaria of trying to assimilate the Macedonian minority there, Sofia has in turn complained about discrimination against the Bulgarian minority in Macedonia.

Bulgaria, which is both a NATO and an EU member state, has, however, made it clear that it will do what it can to help Macedonia join both organisations, if all the current open issues are resolved.

In that respect, Macedonia hopes to benefit from Bulgaria's forthcoming Presidency of the European Council, in the first half of 2018.

Bulgaria's minister for the EU Presidency, Lilyana Pavlova, has pledged that the Western Balkans, of which Macedonia forms part, will be present in “all possible formats” during Sofia's six-month presidency.

A top-level meeting on the region will be held in Bulgaria during the Estonian presidency in October 2017.

Hope for improved bilateral relations followed the election in Macedonian of a new government led by Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev on June 1.

This ended a prolonged political crisis in Macedonia.
 
Zaev pledged to work hard on improving relations with Macedonia's neighbours, especially Greece and Bulgaria, and on reviving the stalled Euro-Atlantic membership bid.

Borisov has also expressed his belief that the two countries can turn a fresh page, which would allow Bulgaria to help Macedonia fulfil its EU and NATO aspirations.

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