Monday, December 4, 2023

Petkov’s underwhelming Skopje visit opens a door

No guarantee of progress for the Western Balkans, but at least best efforts are being made on both sides of the dispute
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia/Wikiwand
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Skopje)

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Bulgaria’s new Prime Minister Kiril Petkov visited Skopje January 18, after completing a bit more than a month in his new job. The only thing about this significant visit that interested foreign observers and the scores of Balkan journalists was how quickly the new Bulgarian government would remove its longstanding veto on the initialization of North Macedonia’s EU accession process. In public, Petkov was less than conclusive on that point, but provided plenty of information about the new processes he plans to utilize for bilateral discussions. At this point, there is much work to be done on a wide range of issues and no reason to expect immediate solutions to the major questions.
Too many moving parts – in both countries 
Petkov’s host in Skopje, new Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski, has been in office even less time – he was “elected” January 16 to replace former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Kovachevski, formerly deputy finance minister, is largely seen as Zaev’s hand-picked successor and finally took his country’s helm after Zaev cobbled together enough deputies to form a new more stable ruling coalition based upon his SDSM (Social Democrats) party. Zaev had offered to resign after the SDSM suffered important defeats in key cities in last October’s municipal elections, and the right-nationalist opposition came within one vote of toppling the SDSM-led coalition through a vote of no-confidence actually triggered when Zaev announced he would remain in office for a while longer. Ultimately though Zaev and many of his key supporters decided that with a new coalition in place, it was time to move off center stage, at least for the present. 
Since all of these intense political machinations in North Macedonia occurred before Bulgaria’s new government had formed up (that country held three elections in 2021), it is hard to argue that the appropriate conditions to resolve the bilateral cultural, historical, and linguistic dispute existed before now. 
Petkov brought a significant delegation with him including the new foreign minister, transport minister and deputy parliament speaker. In addition to the PM, Petkov met with North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski, Speaker of Parliament Talat Xhaferi and leaders of the political parties large enough to be represented in parliament.
Working Groups forming up
A large meeting of senior officials from both countries is set for January 25 in Skopje, after which the five working groups Petkov has laid out will begin work. Petkov had said in December these working groups would have six-month life spans. Early emphasis will be given to transport infrastructure issues, considering the extremely limited set of transport linkages that exist between both countries, largely because of the mountainous geography of the region. In Skopje Petkov said that within 30 days, the specifics of a new Sofia-Skopje air link will be announced. 
Petkov also indicated Bulgaria will henceforth refer to the Republic of North Macedonia, the country’s official name since the 2018 Prespes Agreement with Greece, simply as North Macedonia, the so-called “short form.”
Coalition member wants Washington, Brussels to offer “incentives”
Slavi Trifonov, whose “There is Such a People” party is part of Petkov’s government coalition, suggested in a social media post in early January that Washington should incentivize the Bulgaria-North Macedonia negotiations with something more concrete than the standard talking points on EU Enlargement drafted by low-level State Department desk officers. He suggested Washington drop its visa requirement for Bulgarian citizens as a start. Brussels, on the other hand, should immediately include Bulgaria in the Schengen Zone and North Macedonia, for its part, needed to recognize its Bulgarian roots if an agreement were to be possible. Trifonov’s suggestions were met with immediate scorn during the holiday period, but his ideas that Washington and Brussels provide tangible incentives instead of just tweets and talking points are now the subject of open discussion. 
An agreement will emerge eventually
Ultimately, there should be no doubt that a bilateral agreement will be reached, and that will happen sooner if Skopje understands that much of its external support has faded. EU member Bulgaria, like Greece in 2018, has no reason to compromise on any of the key issues with an unstable and impoverished EU aspirant country, and that approach should never be considered by Sofia. 
The average EU citizen is in no rush whatsoever to accept more member states, despite the timeworn arguments EC officials might make, and certainly the corrupt and unstable Western Balkans countries do not offer much of anything to the citizens of the union they aspire to join, and likely will increase problems already caused by immigration flows from the region. Those problems tend to reveal themselves in strengthened support for ultra-nationalist (anti-immigrant) parties in various EU countries. Only if Brussels or Washington throw in some important incentives for Bulgaria should Petkov yield one substantive “millimeter” in the bilateral dispute.
Finally, there is commentary generated by some Enlargement supporters that Bulgaria’s intention to join the Eurozone in the coming years be quietly linked to a resolution of the dispute with North Macedonia. In theory, the Eurozone entry approval decision is based on well-known, purely economic criteria. We understand that non-economic factors have been allowed into these equations in the past, and the result has been a weaker less efficient Eurozone than otherwise would have been created.
Hopefully, that lesson is not lost. 

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Co-founder and Executive Director for Global Economics and Southeast Europe at NE Global Media.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.


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