The Bulgarian Factor in North Macedonia’s Elections and EU Prospects

May 02, 2024
The May 8 elections will be crucial for North Macedonia’s EU membership negotiations, with the campaign dominated by complicated relations with Bulgaria and a pro-Russia party leading in the polls.

In the first round of North Macedonia’s presidential election, on April 24, Gordana Siljanovska Davkova from the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) received 40.1% of the votes and President Stevo Pendarovski from the governing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) 19.9%. Since Davkova did not win a majority, a second round will be held on May 8 alongside the parliamentary elections. Her winning the ceremonial presidency would have little significance, but her performance could boost the pro-Russia VMRO-DPMNE’s chances in the all-important contest for the legislature.

North Macedonia’s EU membership perspective is at the heart of the parliamentary elections. The country has been a candidate since 2005, in a process that has been slowed down by disputes. Changing its name to North Macedonia in 2019 resolved a 27-year argument with Greece but a dispute with Bulgaria still simmers. 

Bulgaria has demanded that North Macedonia include its ethnic Bulgarian minority in the constitution as one of the state’s founding peoples, alongside Albanians, Bosniaks, Roma, Serbs, and Turks. This is part of a larger dispute over history and identity that has been going on for more than 30 years. This change in the constitution was included into the EU accession process, at Bulgaria’s request, to put an end to discrimination against Bulgarians in the country. The constitutional amendment was put to a vote in parliament last year, but it did not get the two-thirds majority required.

Bulgaria has demanded that North Macedonia include its ethnic Bulgarian minority in the constitution as one of the state’s founding peoples.

A bilateral dispute between an EU member and a candidate state is nothing new, but those cases have historically been solved outside the accession process. This is what happened, for example, in the dispute between Croatia and Slovenia over a sea and land border demarcation in the Adriatic Sea. In the context of the elections, there is some concern in North Macedonia that, even if the constitutional change is made, Bulgaria could raise another requirement in the negotiations and potentially yield a veto. However, Sofia has repeatedly said that it will not demand new requirements and European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Olivér Várhelyi confirmed that there will be no change in the process. 

Bulgaria as an Electoral Issue

Bulgaria, Bulgarians, and the constitutional change are more or less the main topic in the parliamentary elections campaign. VMRO-DPMNE has instrumentalized the fear of another Bulgarian veto. According to polls in mid-April, it is set to come first with more than 23%, followed by the SDSM with around 13%, and the European Front (regrouping Albanian, Roma, and Turkish parties) with 7%. The latter two are in favor of the constitutional change, but it was VMRO-DPMNE’s refusal to support it in parliament that led to it not being adopted. The party says that it will continue to block the change and, with it, North Macedonia’s EU perspective. VMRO-DPMNE also argues that Bulgaria could impose further requirements. If it forms the next government, it is likely to try to renegotiate the accession conditions and push for having the dispute resolved separately.  

Bulgaria and the EU see the exclusion of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia’s constitution as discriminatory. Until they are not recognized like other groups in the constitution, they will remain deprived of rights pertaining to legal protection from discrimination based on their ethnicity, to the use of their language and access to education and media in it, to having a representative in the parliament’s Community Relations Committee, and to a guaranteed percentage of employment in the state administration. Cases of aggression against Bulgarian symbols and institutions in North Macedonia have influenced the political rhetoric in Sofia. In 2022, a Bulgarian cultural center was attacked in the city of Ohrid, and, the following year, the authorities refused to register ethnic Bulgarian institutions as official cultural centers. In 2023, a young man who was allegedly attacked because of his Bulgarian identity did not receive any help from the police.

No Trust, No Friendship

There is a lack of political trust on both sides. Bulgaria and North Macedonia signed a “good neighbor” agreement in 2017, but divisions have deepened since then. In early 2024, President Pendarovski accused Sofia of continuously mistreating the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, and said that it should also be recognized in the Bulgarian constitution. Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev said this made North Macedonia’s EU membership a more distant prospect. 

Bulgaria and North Macedonia signed a “good neighbor” agreement in 2017, but divisions have deepened since then.

Bulgaria’s constitution does not foresee the recognition of different ethnic groups, unlike North Macedonia’s. Nor does the country allow the registering of ethnic political parties. Thus, for years, Bulgaria has refused to register the ethnic Macedonian organization OMO-Ilinden as a party. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled on several occasions that this violates the organization’s rights of assembly and association, but the court also concluded that there was no violation of its rights when it comes to registration as a political party. 

The recent fall of the coalition government in Bulgaria, meaning that in June the country will go to the polls for the sixth time in three years, adds to the unpredictability regarding the future of its relations with North Macedonia. There is certainly an essential need for a change of narratives in both countries and for rapprochement. Until this happens and the constitutional change is adopted in North Macedonia, the country’s progress toward EU accession will continue to stagnate.