With mounting political problems at home Bulgaria’s government looks to divert attention.
The EU’s goal of expanding its footprint in the Balkans now faces another obstacle with Bulgaria refusing on Tuesday to approve the membership negotiations with North Macedonia.
The veto by Bulgaria is an attempt to strong-arm its smaller neighbour to recognise the Bulgarian roots of its language and explicitly make clear that it has no territorial ambitions.
But as always in the Balkans, things are not always as they seem.
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has seen months of protests against his rule demanding that he resign for his failure to tackle corruption.
The protests have often descended into violence resulting in hundreds of injured people. As the EU’s poorest country the political instability in Sofia has seen the government accused of being in bed with criminal networks.
North Macedonia, therefore, provides a welcome distraction and an opportunity to beat the drums of nationalism.
The nationalist junior coalition partners of Boyko Borissov’s government, the United Patriots have led the campaign against Northern Macedonia to get Skopje to acknowledge the Bulgarian roots of its language.
Bulgaria’s foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva recently said of North Macedonia: “No-one is disputing their right to self-define their nation and call their language what they like. But we cannot agree that this right will be based on hatred, history theft and denial of Bulgaria.”
One Macedonian academic called the latest development “exhausting” for having to constantly “defend aspects of Macedonia's identity (since independence) while the EU remains largely silent to its own members trying to rewrite history by bullying others.”
Bulgaria is by no means the only regional country accused of “bullying” Macedonia.
In 2019 Greece pressured Macedonian to change its name to North Macedonia before allowing the landlocked country to be accepted to the NATO military alliance. While the move ended the 27-year dispute it was divisive and bitter.
It also marked a moment that gave the upper hand to member states within the EU bloc to potentially blackmail states wishing to get in over historical issues they may have with neighbouring countries.One regional analyst said the precedent set by Bulgaria was a bad omen for the region.
“If you think Bulgaria and North Macedonia is bad, consider what happens with Serbia as an EU member and Kosovo trying to make it in,” the analyst said referring to the former Yugoslav region that broke away after Belgrade tried to ethnically cleanse the Albanians in 1999.
Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo and in the future could block its bid to join the EU.
One analyst argued that “It's honestly remarkable that Macedonians are still as pro-EU as they are, despite all they've put up with” referring to past Greek and more recently Bulgarian strong-arm tactics to gain concessions from the Macedonians.