Bulgarian prime minister at odds with president and partners over North Macedonia

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov ended a visit to the Bitola 2 electricity project in North Macedonia, April 16, 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov called on the ruling coalition and the opposition to support his call to lift the Bulgarian veto on the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks.

“The future of our neighbors is so important that even the [ruling] coalition cannot decide alone. We need wider acceptance; everyone in the country should agree with the decision,” he said Monday in Rome, where he is expected to meet North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski this week.

“The abolition of the right of veto can only become a fact after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs presents the latest results of the progress of the dialogue,” he added.

Petkov said he was counting on parliament to provide a clear signal about the consensus that could be reached when the decision on the veto comes to a vote.

Differing views on the veto within the ruling bloc are creating greater distance between the Prime Minister and President Radev as rekindle the conflicts between the parties of the coalition.

The claim that Bulgaria is “betraying” its interests by allowing North Macedonia to start talks with the EU is increasingly popular with nationalist voters.

Last Friday, “There’s Such People”, one of the four parties in the coalition, threatened to leave the government if Bulgaria lifts the embargo on its neighbour.

Earlier in May, Slavi Trifonov, its leader, otherwise known as a singer and entertainer, criticized Petkov for dealing with a number of issues, including the conflict with North Macedonia, on his own without coordinating with other parties.

“Everyone realized that Petkov and his advisers were scheming behind the scenes to circumvent Bulgaria’s national interests,” he said of North Macedonia.

The leader of the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party, Kornelia Ninova, said April 16 that it was “impossible to reverse our position” on the dispute.

President Rumen Radev meanwhile said on Monday that North Macedonia, not Bulgaria, was the country that needed to make progress.

“If the end goal is to heal the internal dialogue within the coalition, then it should be made clear what the reasons for the conflicts are in it, and whether there is progress on the side of North Macedonia to keep up. with the [2017 friendship] treaty. Is there a change in the position of our European partners and institutions? I would like to discuss these issues with the prime minister,” he said.

In recent months, the once-friendly relationship between Petkov and Radev, who appointed Petkov as acting economy minister in 2021 and helped launch his political career, has soured.

The two are also at odds with Ukraine and over whether Bulgaria should contribute to the Ukrainian military. Petkov increasingly supports Ukraine, but Radev remains in favor of Bulgaria remaining as neutral as possible.

The veto on North Macedonia’s talks with the EU was first imposed in November 2020 by the previous government led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party and the far-right alliance United Patriots, based on unresolved historical disputes between the two countries.

The move came as public confidence in the government waned amid corruption allegations and a wave of protests against the political establishment.

In Skopje, Bulgarian claims brought back fears of a wider attack on Macedonian identity, as Bulgaria’s claims include an agreement that the Macedonian language has Bulgarian origins and that a large suppressed Bulgarian community exists in North Macedonia. At the same time, Bulgaria refuses to admit the existence of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.

After Petkov’s “We Continue the Change” party took power in December, promises to improve diplomatic relations between Skopje and Sofia have been made. But progress has been slow. Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia again more recently December 15.

Despite his sympathy for the idea of ​​improving political ties with Skopje, Petkov has also sent mixed signals, recently witnessing the opening of a controversial Bulgarian cultural club in the northern Macedonian town of Bitola.

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