North Macedonia: Thousands Protest Against ‘Indecent’ Terms of EU Membership Proposal

Over the past week, thousands of Macedonians have taken to the streets of the capital Skopje to protest against what they call a forced “bulgarization” of their nation. Protesters threw rocks, petrol bombs and other objects at police, set off fireworks and damaged government buildings, including parliament and the foreign ministry. Nearly 50 police officers were injured in violent clashes on Tuesday.

Violence escalated further on Wednesday when small groups of ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, who make up around 25% of the population, clashed in central Skopje, endangering the fragile multi-ethnic peace in that country. of the Balkans.

Tensions had been rising for weeks after the European Union offered North Macedonia to start accession talks to become a full member – under specific conditions. The proposal was formally submitted by the French EU Presidency and is therefore called the “French proposal”. For many in North Macedonia, including the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, the proposal endangers their nation’s identity by succumbing to demands from neighboring Bulgaria.

Citizens of North Macedonia protest against proposed EU membership

From the point of view of Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the VMRO-DPMNE party, “the Bulgarianization of our society becomes the main condition for entry into the European Union“, he told DW on Wednesday.

Mickoski’s VMRO-DPMNE, joined by a small pro-Russian opposition party, Levica (The Left), organizes the daily demonstrations in Skopje.

What is the basis of the proposal?

Bulgaria, which as an EU member retains a veto over new members, wants North Macedonia to officially recognize that its Macedonian language has Bulgarian roots, recognize a Bulgarian minority in the country and rescind the ” hate speech” against Bulgaria.

The two countries have been locked in a bitter dispute over history and identity for decades, and Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia’s EU membership since 2020, demanding concessions from Skopje.

The French proposal places these Bulgarian demands within the framework of negotiations between North Macedonia and the EU.

The parliament in Sofia accepted the French proposal on June 24 after Bulgarian President Rumen Radev concluded that it included most Bulgarian demands on Skopje.

North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski (right) spoke with EU Council President Charles Michel in early June.

How was the proposal received?

In North Macedonia, a country renamed in 2018 to satisfy another neighbor – Greece – in a similar historic dispute, the proposal was met with a mix of quiet acceptance and a storm of protest.

After watching his country wait 17 years to start accession talks with the EU, North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski and the Social Democrat-led government backed the proposed deal as a better alternative than stay out of the process even longer.

“Accepting this proposal would be neither a historic triumph nor a historic disaster,” Pendarovski said in a televised address on Sunday.

North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani went further, saying it was a “good proposal”.

“We must not miss this opportunity to start accession negotiations [with the EU]“, posted Osmani on his Facebook account.

How did we arrive at the “No to Europe”?

But while the government in Skopje hopes the deal could open the door to the EU, many critics – including Nikola Dimitrov, the former foreign minister who signed the landmark deal with Greece – reject the proposal as indecent.

“By seeking ‘success’ at all costs, the French proposal makes the EU complicit in betraying the European hopes of Macedonian citizens,” Dimitrov said.

Nikola Dimitrov, former foreign minister of North Macedonia, called the French proposal a “dead end”

Over the past two decades, support for the European Union in North Macedonia has rarely fallen below 80%, as a large majority of the population saw their future closely tied to the rest of Europe.

But in 2019, France blocked North Macedonia’s EU membership, followed by Bulgaria in 2020.

A poll carried out by the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civiis” in Skopje last February showed that only 13% still consider the EU to be their country’s “greatest ally” – compared to 43% before this initial veto.

Such polls indicate that while hope is still present, support has waned.

Now, after the latest French proposal, the chants of “No to Europe” are getting louder and louder in the daily demonstrations in the streets of Skopje.

In the capital Skopje, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against Bulgarian demands

What happens next?

Under the terms of the French proposal, North Macedonia would only start accession talks with the EU after amending its constitution to include the Bulgarian minority. The current government in Skopje does not have the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to achieve this.

And even if the government managed to convince the nationalist opposition to reconsider its refusal of such a vote, according to Dimitrov, it would not be the end.

“Our road to the EU would depend entirely on meeting Bulgarian demands,” he said, referring to a long list of conditions from Sofia regarding history, language and minority issues that are now part of of the EU negotiating framework.

This would give Sofia the right to block North Macedonia’s membership over issues such as refusing to officially recognize the identity of a medieval king or a 19th-century revolutionary as “Bulgarian”.

The EU proposal also contains a unilateral declaration in which Bulgaria would reserve the right to assert that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian.

In a bid to quell growing discontent in North Macedonia, French President Emanuel Macron sent an open letter to the “Macedonian people” on Thursday, telling them that “the agreement is not perfect, but will pave the European way for you”.

For critics like Dimitrov, these messages of support are not enough.

“This path is a dead end, which will never lead us to the desired membership,” Dimitrov said, referring to Bulgarian demands in EU membership negotiations.

“It is a path to eternal agony and torment.”

Edited by: Sonya Diehn

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