EU’s Balkan expansion drive adds to Bulgarian prime minister’s woes | National policy

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — After just seven months in office, and now reduced to leading a minority government, liberal Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov finds himself between a rock and a hard place over the expansion of the European Union in the midst of the war in Ukraine.

The Russian invasion boosted the EU to accelerate its expansion 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 six EU candidates in the region – due to a dispute on history and cultural identity.

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

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

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

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

In preparation, the six leaders met in the North Macedonia resort of Ohrid on Friday, with most saying the war in Ukraine had added greater urgency to their membership bids.

“Once the war in Ukraine is over, Russia will go back to its old ways, fighting Western democracies with fake news and propaganda, and urging us not to seek EU and NATO membership” , said the President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski.

“We have been candidates for membership (to the EU) for 17 years. This unfinished project cost us dearly.

Also application for EU membership for his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged EU candidates to suspend trade with Russia.

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

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

“The subject of North Macedonia is being used as a decoy,” Petkov said. his “From now on, no politician can say that the government is capable of taking unilateral measures. The decision rests with Parliament.

Sofia insists that if it wants to soften its stance, the EU must ensure that North Macedonia implements three key Bulgarian demands: amend its constitution to recognize the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority, abandon the “speech of hatred” against Bulgaria and moving on to the settlement of 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 direction of the government. country. On the other hand, maintaining the right of veto could also strengthen Russia’s grip on the Balkans by distancing North Macedonia from the EU.

Parvan Simeonov of Gallup International Balkan said around 70% of Bulgarians oppose lifting the veto and warned that such a move would lead to “brutal Putinism” in Bulgaria.

Last week, one of four parties in Petkov’s governing coalition pulled 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 on the economy, brought by the country’s main opposition party. ___ Testorides brought from Skopje, North Macedonia.

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