By CJ Stowell*
Bulgaria is going to hold its third election of 2021, and North Macedonia is watching with anticipation. North Macedonia has been waiting for EU accession for over two decades, and after a painful compromise with Greece in 2019, the possibility of EU membership seemed within reach (Halasz, Labropoulou, and McKenzie 2019). EU accession requires a unanimous decision by the member countries, and the Greece deal seemed at the time like the last obstacle that North Macedonia had to overcome. That is, until Bulgaria exercised its veto right in an EU intergovernmental meeting over unresolved historical differences in November of 2020 (Deutsche Welle 2020). The merits of the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria deserves close study, but an examination of the historical and linguistic differences at the root of the issue is not my purpose here. Rather, this piece will provide an overview of the political tensions in Bulgaria’s National Assembly that is delaying progress for North Macedonian integration, and then attempt to discern where the current leading political coalitions stand on integration. In short, a summer of internal political turmoil in Bulgaria has prevented an opportunity for the North Macedonia accession issue to be resolved. North Macedonia will more than likely not have an answer regarding EU integration until Bulgaria can form a government, and as of present date, Bulgaria will have its third election of the year. So, what is going on in Sofia and when can we expect more clarity on the North Macedonian accession question?
In short, Bulgaria has been facing political instability since the mass demonstrations that began in the summer of 2020. Diverse interest groups with diverse aims came together to protest, among other things, government corruption. Discontent was partially fuelled by scandals surrounding former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Borisov, who is also the leader of Citizens for The European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), was implicated in a Catalonian money laundering scandal in February of 2020 (RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service 2020). In June of the same year, photos were leaked of Borisov sleeping next to a gun and several 500-euro bundles in his nightstand (Gotev and Nikolov 2020). The protests lasted for months, and videos of police brutality during the demonstrations surfaced a year later, after an ad hoc investigation by the Bulgarian parliament (Koseva 2021).
The goal of Borisov and incumbent majority party GERB during the protests was essentially to survive until the parliamentary elections in early 2021. Bulgaria held its first election of the year in April, and GERB won 26.2% percent of the vote (Centre for Strategic and International Studies 2021). They were unable to form a government and returned the mandate to caretaker President Rumen Radev on April 23rd (Tanev 2021). Opposition party There is Such A People (ITN) was second in line to receive the mandate, but their party leader, former night show host Slavi Trifinov, announced on April 26th that they would return the mandate to form a government as soon as they received it (Leviev-Sawyer 2021). The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) was then handed the mandate on April 29th. (Petrova 2021) They too, did not succeed in forming a government, and on May 11th, President Rumen Radev called a snap parliamentary election for July 11th and appointed Stefan Yanev as caretaker Prime Minister. (Tsolova 2021). Public statements by Bulgarian Ministers (in the caretaker government) regarding North Macedonian accession were happening during this time. On May 11th, caretaker Foreign Minister Svetlan Stoev said the following “From now on, everything is in the hands of North Macedonian officials. They know what the Bulgarian position is and should not speculate that there would be any change in the next 2-3 months, as long as this caretaker government lasts” (Novinite 2021). Stoev likely did not predict that the caretaker government would be in place for a third election. Nonetheless, Stoev would double down on this statement on May 23rd, saying that “No change in Bulgaria’s national position regarding the Republic of North Macedonia can be expected” (RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service 2021).
However, on May 25th, Stoev changed his tone, saying, “We are open for dialogue… What is needed in our relations is, on the one hand, consistency and, on the other hand, a constructive attitude in the bilateral dialogue. The goal is to achieve sustainable and irreversible results in restoring trust between the two countries” (Bne IntelliNews 2021). Why the slight pivot? This could be partially due to President Radev meeting with current European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on May 24th, where, “opportunities for making progress with the adoption of а negotiating framework and starting EU accession talks with Skopje dominated the talks” (Novinite 2021). Radev was ultimately not swayed by the proposals brought forward by leaders in the EU. He responded to the proposal regarding having EU historians participate in dialogue between Skopje and Sofia with the following, “We do not need any intermediaries. No one knows our history better than we do…The steps we have to take do not go through the other European capitals and from there to [place] pressure on Bulgaria,” but Radev did emphasize that Bulgaria and North Macedonia are, “determined to share a common future in a united Europe” (Bulgarian National Radio 2021). Ultimately, Bulgaria would still maintain their veto at the June 22nd EU General Affairs Council meeting (Dimitrievska 2021). And, in Bulgaria, the July 11th elections were looming.
The July elections resulted in a narrow win for ITN, but conflict between ITN, Democratic Bulgaria, and ‘Stand up BG! We are coming!’ (the parties necessary at the time to garner enough votes in the national assembly to form a government) started shortly afterwards (Koseva 2021). Part of this stemmed from ITN’s lack of compromise with the other parties, alongside ITN’s controversial nominations for their draft cabinet. ITN’s nominee for Prime Minister, Plamen Nikolov, had no prior political experience; and an academic plagiarism scandal arose regarding their nominee for deputy Prime Minister (Koseva 2021). Right before the August 11th parliamentary vote on ITN’s draft cabinet, Trifonov announced that they would not put one forward (Dnevnik 2021). The mandate to form a government was subsequently returned to President Radev, and it was then handed to GERB, who placed second in the July elections; GERB returned it immediately. With the presidential election scheduled for November, there were calls in parliament on August 25th to possibly have the parliamentary elections coincide with the presidential elections (Dnevnik 2021). Nonetheless, President Radev gave the third and final mandate to BSP on August 27th, and although BSP made statements that it would attempt to form a government, they would go on to return the mandate. (Dnevnik 2021).
At the present moment, President Rumen Radev’s caretaker government has the highest amount of public trust of any government institution, at 54% (Market Links 2021). He ran as an independent candidate in 2017, but was supported by BSP. And, he is the frontrunner to win the presidential elections scheduled for November. It seems that after this summer’s political drama, GERB has made a resurgence, and ITN has dropped off. BSP announced that they will officially return the mandate on September 7th. So, it is likely that GERB will have to contend with (Pro-European) Democratic Bulgaria for the top spot during November elections. An August 25th public opinion poll by Market Links places GERB in front of the polls at 26%, Democratic Bulgaria at 16% with ITN dropping to third at 15% (Todorov 2021).
Only one of these parties has a clear stance on North Macedonia integration, Democratic Bulgaria. Democratic Bulgaria is the only political coalition to openly support North Macedonia’s integration into the EU. (Nikolov 2021). Bulgaria’s original veto occurred under GERB and former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s rule, but he met with North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in June, and it seems Borisov has changed his position (Nikolova 2021). If this is the case, it is quite possible that GERB would lift the veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession if they are able to form a government after the November elections, but this is speculative at best. ITN, on the other hand, does not really have a clear stance regarding the North Macedonian question. That is, other than a tweet (possibly in jest) by ITN party leader Slavi Trifonov about sending two Bulgarians and one North Macedonian into space with the help of NASA (Nikolov 2021). Similarly, a 2007 Youtube video from Trifonov’s night show shows him criticizing (and cracking jokes) regarding the historical accuracy of an article from a North Macedonian newspaper. It would not be unreasonable to think that ITN would maintain the current veto against North Macedonia’s accession to the EU.
Since BSP was unable to form a majority coalition in parliament, the elections in November will be the determining factor in the timeline for North Macedonian integration. If nothing changes in the National Assembly, GERB will win the November parliamentary elections and will likely not form a majority coalition. This would result in another instance of President Radev passing the mandate from one party to the next; further delaying the integration question. Even if GERB does form a government, their view on North Macedonian integration is opaque at best. Democratic Bulgaria is the only party with a clear stance on North Macedonian integration, but they would need the cooperation of ITN and ‘Stand up BG! We are coming!’ to form a majority coalition. Given the July conflict between ITN and the other two parties, this also seems unlikely. Ultimately, North Macedonian integration depends on whether Bulgaria can resolve the current political drama playing out in the National Assembly, and at present moment, the prospects do not look good.
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*CJ is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. He obtained his Bachelor’s Degree from Saint Leo University Magna Cum Laude, and is completing his Master’s Degree in Business Administration at Mount St. Mary’s University. He is on the leadership team of the American-Central European Business Association, where he covers Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Moldova.