EU expansion drive in Balkans adds to Bulgarian PM’s woes

Jun 16, 2022, 8:56 PM | Updated: Jun 17, 2022, 10:45 am

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — After just seven months in office, and now reduced to heading a minority government, Bulgaria’s liberal Prime Minister Kiril Petkov finds himself between a rock and a hard place over European Union enlargement amid the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion spurred the EU to speed up its expansion drive in the Western Balkans, where Moscow still wields considerable influence. But EU and NATO member Bulgaria is blocking part of the process in the case of neighboring North Macedonia — one of the six EU hopefuls in the region — due to a dispute over history and cultural identity.

Prime Minister Petkov, 42, has pledged to seek a solution to the decade-long gridlock, which, indirectly, would also unsnarl Albania’s accession bid. But Bulgaria says its neighbor has not made enough concessions, and chances of a breakthrough seem slim.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev on Friday urged the cabinet to disperse any suspicion that the country might take the deeply unpopular step of abandoning its veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession.

Speaking to reporters in Sofia, Radev called on Petkov to “defend the national interest” at next week’s European Council. He warned Petkov — who’s already under fire over the economy and faces a no-confidence vote in parliament next week — that “any chicanery or attempt to replace (the Bulgarian veto) will have severe consequences.”

The 27-nation bloc has invited the heads of government of six Western Balkan countries, including North Macedonia, to the EU leaders’ meeting in Brussels on June 23.

In preparation, the six leaders gathered Friday at the lakeside resort of Ohrid, in North Macedonia, most arguing that the war in Ukraine had added greater urgency to their accession bids.

“Once the war in Ukraine is over, Russia will return to its old ways, fighting democracies in the West with fake news and propaganda, and pressing us not to seek EU and NATO membership,” North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski said.

“We have been a candidate for (EU) membership for 17 years. This unfinished project has taken a toll on us.”

Also seeking EU membership for his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the EU hopefuls to halt trade with Russia.

“You should not give money to those who seek your destruction,” Zelenskyy said, speaking by video link.

Back in Bulgaria, Prime Minister Petkov said his government had decided to submit all issues linked to the neighboring country’s EU membership to Parliament.

“The North Macedonia topic is used as a decoy,” Petkov said. his “From here on now, no politician can say that the government is capable of taking unilateral actions. The decision is parliament’s.”

Sofia insists that if it is to soften its stance the EU must guarantee that North Macedonia implements three key Bulgarian demands: changes its constitution to recognize the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority, drops “hate speech” against Bulgaria and moves to settling disputes over the history of the two countries.

Bulgaria has seen a spike in pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, and analysts say a move by Petkov to lift the veto on North Macedonia could elevate pro-Moscow parties to power and change the country’s orientation. On the other hand, maintaining the veto could also strengthen Russia’s grip on the Balkans by keeping North Macedonia away from the EU.

Parvan Simeonov, from the Gallup International Balkan agency, said some 70% of Bulgarians oppose lifting the veto and warned that such a move would bring “brutal Putinism” in Bulgaria.

Last week, one of the four parties in Petkov’s governing coalition walked out, citing disagreements over fiscal policy and North Macedonia. That left Petkov in charge of a minority government, which next week faces a vote of no-confidence in parliament over the economy, brought by the country’s main opposition party. ___ Testorides reported from Skopje, North Macedonia.

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EU expansion drive in Balkans adds to Bulgarian PM’s woes