'A lot of bitterness': N. Macedonia PM laments Bulgaria's EU blockade

Skopje (Republic of North Macedonia) (AFP) –


Bulgaria's fresh blockade of North Macedonia's dreams of joining the European Union goes against the bloc's values and has caused a "lot of bitterness among us", Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told AFP.

Speaking during an interview in Skopje, the 46-year-old Prime Minister lamented the "unpleasant surprise" he experienced when Bulgaria used a veto to halt progress on North Macedonia's EU accession negotiations this week.

Sofia wants its small neighbour to recognise what it says are the Bulgarian roots of its language, people and history before allowing the Balkan country to move ahead in the accession process.

Zaev said any questioning of the Macedonian identity was a "red line".

"That is an issue of self-determination" which is at the heart of the European project, he told AFP.

"There is the absurdity of the whole problem."

North Macedonia, a poor country home to two million people wedged into the heart of the Balkan peninsula, has been down this road before.

It became a candidate for EU membership in 2005 but was until last year blocked by Greece from moving forward.

Athens vetoed the move over the country's former name, Macedonia, which it considered an encroachment on Greek territory and heritage.

To overcome that impasse Zaev struck a tough deal with Athens in 2018 to add the geographical qualifier 'North' in order to distinguish it from the Greek province of Macedonia.

But new hurdles keep cropping up, from initial objections among EU members like France to the latest row with Bulgaria, again over history and heritage.

"We showed how much we believe in the European values," Zaev said, referencing the painful compromise of the name change.

"And now, when Europe was supposed to show its European values –- they were not there."

- Friends to foes -

Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, was the first country to recognise North Macedonia after it declared independence from a crumbling Yugoslavia in 1991, one reason why Zaev described them as "our biggest friend".

But the neighbours' entangled histories are now the source of conflict as Sofia argues that the Macedonian identity is an artificial construct, essentially claiming the people and the language are historically Bulgarian.

Much of the disagreement stems from the fact that this region was for centuries under Ottoman rule, with nation states emerging and often changing borders through the wars of the 20th century.

Bulgaria accused North Macedonia of stealing its history and is especially irked over the lack of progress from a joint commission that has been trying to agree on a common narrative for textbooks.

Zaev said he believed such matters should be primarily work "for historians", but that it was important to also highlight the agreements the commission has come to in some areas.

"Great anger has been created on both sides, between brotherly people that live on two sides of the border," he told AFP.

But he insisted that he still believed a breakthrough was possible.

"I believe a lot in the European values, maybe a lot more than some individuals in the EU," Zaev said.