Bulgaria, North Macedonia meet to boost ties, ease strains

Jan 24, 2022, 3:28 PM | Updated: Jan 25, 2022, 5:30 am
Bulgaria's Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, left, and North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevs...

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, left, and North Macedonia's Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, right, shake hands during the news conference after their talks, in the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Bulgarian Prime minister Kiril Petkov was visiting North Macedonia Tuesday in a bid to improve ties between two Balkan neighbors strained with Sofia's veto for Skopje's strive to start membership talks with European Union. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

(AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — The governments of Bulgaria and North Macedonia held a joint session Tuesday to improve relations, which have been locked in a historic row and further strained after Bulgaria blocked its Balkan neighbor’s bid to join the European Union.

The meeting of the two governments in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, comes a week after Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov visited North Macedonia and agreed with his counterpart in Skopje, Dimitar Kovacevski, to work together to overcome their differences.

The two officials reiterated their resolve in Sofia on Tuesday, saying that renewal of dialogue was in the interest of both nations. Petkov said good neighborly relations should be at the center of the effort.

“Issues that were sidelined in the last years will be approached,” he said. “We have to catch up a lot, but I hope that this will happen fast,”

Petkov and Kovacevski announced the creation of working groups to tackle issues such as trade, investment and cross-border infrastructure — currently, there are no rail or air links between the Balkan neighbors.

Kovacevski noted that concrete improvements will help people see the benefits of better cooperation and dialogue.

Bulgaria and North Macedonia for decades have been locked in a simmering row over history and language. The dispute peaked in 2020, after EU member Bulgaria vetoed the start of membership talks for North Macedonia.

Bulgaria argued that Skopje had failed to honor parts of a friendship deal signed in 2017, particularly regarding shared history, and language. Previously, Skopje had to settle another historic argument with its southern neighbor, Greece, and eventually agreed to change the country’s name from Macedonia to North Macedonia.

Six Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia — are on different stages in their quests to join the EU. Serbia and Montenegro are at the forefront, while Albania’s bid — being tied to North Macedonia’s — has also been stalled by the dispute between Sofia and Skopje.

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Bulgaria, North Macedonia meet to boost ties, ease strains