Macedonia and Bulgaria agree on "friendship treaty" as Skopje seeks to mend relations

Macedonia and Bulgaria agree on
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje July 14, 2017

Macedonia and Bulgaria have agreed on the text of a good neighbourhood agreement between the two countries that will be signed early next month. The treaty is intended to put an end to all disputes arising from history, language and minority issues, which have resulted in a troubled and complex relationship between Skopje and Sofia.

After coming to power on May 31, Macedonia’s new Social Democrat-led government started intensive communications with the country’s neighbours and further abroad with the aim of speeding up the stalled EU and Nato integration processes. The power changeover came after a decade of rule by the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, during which relations with neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria worsened.

The idea of a “friendship treaty” between Macedonia and Bulgaria has existed for a long time, but was revived during Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s visit to Sofia in June, when his Bulgarian peer Boyko Borissov endorsed the idea.

“The countries [Bulgaria and Macedonia] should overcome divisions, together celebrate their historical heroes and focus on infrastructure projects in order to change the Balkans in the next ten years,” Borissov was cited in the Bulgarian media.

Zaev’s visit to Bulgaria was seen as a chance to open a new page in the relations between Skopje and Sofia and was also a good opportunity for Macedonia to ask for support for its Euro-Atlantic aspirations as Bulgaria will take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency on January 1, 2018.

The friendship agreement is due to be signed on August 2, when Macedonia is celebrating Ilinden day, which marks the uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

“We have reached a compromise on the text,” Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said in an interview with Reuters at the end of the Western Balkans summit held in Trieste on July 12.

In the meantime, Macedonia’s opposition has asked for more information on what was agreed. VMRO-DPMNE is insisting the government reveal details of the agreement, seen in some quarters as controversial, and for the issue to be discussed in the parliament.

“This agreement is very important and it would be good to know that it does not harm the national and state interests of the country,” an MP from VMRO-DPMNE and former foreign minister Antonio Milososki was cited by media recently.

The SDSM said previously it would reveal details of the treaty once the whole text is agreed.

Issues with other neighbours

Macedonia also aims to improve its relationship with its southern neighbour Greece, which is obstructing Skopje’s bid to join the EU and Nato due to the unresolved “name dispute”. Greece objects to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a northern province with the same name.

A recent meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries was hailed as a potential breakthrough in relations. Greek Foreign Minister Nikoz Kotzias said after meeting his Macedonian peer Nikola Dimitrov in Athens that Greece insists on finding a final solution to the name dispute before allowing Macedonia to become part of international organisations. Kotzias added that Athens won’t allow its northern neighbour to be accepted into Nato under the provisional name FYROM.

If Macedonia improves its relations with its neighbours, it will definitely help the country to make further progress towards the long-awaited Nato and EU accession, as will other reforms, a blueprint for which has already been endorsed by the government.

Measures include reforms in public administration, judicial system, the fight against corruption, restoring rule of law and free media.

However, new problems with Macedonia’s neighbours keep cropping up. As relations with Athens and Sofia thaw, Serbian officials have lowered the temperature by saying that Belgrade should not have recognised Macedonia under its current name. 

During a recent visit to Athens, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic reiterated his position that Serbia was wrong to recognise Macedonia under the name it is using, accusing Skopje of having a “negative attitude” towards the Serbian position in relation to Kosovo. 

Macedonia first recognised Kosovo and then supported its failed bid to join UNESCO, which angered Serbia.

However, the heated rhetoric from Macedonian and Serbian officials seemed to fade out in May after Zaev, then Macedonia’s prime minister-designate, and Serbia’s now President Aleksandar Vucic met and expressed regret for certain "incompatible statements". They also stressed the need to work on improving cooperation between the two neighbouring countries.