SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Days before a European Union summit that could clear the way for his country to start accession talks with the bloc, North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, is visiting neighboring Bulgaria to try to settle a dispute that might derail the project.
So far, EU member Bulgaria has been reluctant to reverse its veto on the launching of the long-delayed talks because of disputes over its small neighbor’s history and language.
But, following a meeting with Zaev on Thursday, Bulgarian caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said there were opportunities to work on unresolved issues.
“Our aim is to create a favorable environment of trust, friendship, frank conversation and open dialogue, which will help our specialists to sit down and find the right solutions,” Yanev said.
North Macedonia’s delegation “came with specific decisions, which we will discuss today and in the coming days,” Yanev added.
Zaev appealed to the Bulgarian people for “fraternal support, because we owe this to the young and future generations, as well as to the present ones.”
“I believe that we will find the solutions,” Zaev said and added that “first and foremost, we must clear the issues among ourselves, so that we do not leave unsolved problems in the European family.”
Bulgaria’s stance regarding North Macedonia was backed by all the country’s political parties in parliament, and the current interim government has no authority to change it. But it can prepare possible legislative changes to be approved by the new parliament, to be elected after snap polls on July 11.
Bulgaria wants its Balkan neighbor to formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, and to stamp out allegedly anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. Skopje says its identity and language are not open to discussion.
A commission of historians from both countries has been set up to resolve the standoff, but so far has failed to reach common ground.
Yanev added a new twist to the dispute on Thursday by saying that while historians have an important place and responsibilities in the work of this commission, it is after all the responsibility of politicians.
Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, has been an active supporter of letting North Macedonia and another five Western Balkan countries into the 27-nation bloc, which could help improve living standards and insulate the region from the influence of Russia and China.