A network of Russian spies has been working to hinder the EU membership of the Western Balkan countries and was behind the worsened relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said on March 31.
Sofia blocked the start of EU membership talks with North Macedonia during the previous government, led by Boyko Borissov, and the two countries have not yet found a way to resolve the situation. As Albania's progress has been coupled with North Macedonia's, both countries have been unable to progress on their EU accession paths.
“The Russian interest has been focused on preventing a European future for the Western Balkans. Someone is trying to replace the Bulgarian interest,” Petkov said as quoted by Dnevnik news outlet.
Over the last few years, EU officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that the long drawn out enlargement process is leading to democratic backsliding in the Western Balkans, and creating opportunities for Russia and China to increase their influence in the region.
Seeking a resolution
Since the change of government in Sofia — and even more so since the Russian invasion of Ukraine — Bulgaria has been under pressure to lift its veto on the start of talks with North Macedonia.
Petkov said on March 28 that his government is committed to achieving this outcome as soon as possible, and stressed that North Macedonia “has a place in the European family”.
"I think our relationship has historically improved a lot in the last three months. We have a common goal. Against the background of the war in Ukraine, the Western Balkans must take the path to the EU accession. For North Macedonia and Albania, this process must begin. I expect this process to accelerate in the next few weeks,” Petkov commented on March 28.
The Bulgarian veto was a bitter blow to politicians in Skopje, who had already taken the radical step of changing the country name from Macedonia to North Macedonia in order to end an earlier dispute with Greece, which had previously been the obstacle to its progress towards EU accession.
North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani warned in March of declining enthusiasm for EU membership in the country, saying that the citizens are tired and disappointed as they have waited too long for the launch of EU accession talks.
Osmani said that the talks with Bulgaria are ongoing and urged the EU to make decisive decisions and to give the country a date for the launch of the EU accession negotiations during the French presidency by the end of June.
“The issue is no longer about the credibility of the EU, but the security of the continent,” Osmani said.
Bulgaria reevaluates relationship with Russia
Meanwhile, Bulgaria, until recently one of the most pro-Russian states in the EU, has been reevaluating its relationship with Russia.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, Bulgarians have turned against Russia and its President Vladimir Putin since the invasion of nearby Ukraine, but politicians remain conflicted in what was for many years one of the EU’s most pro-Russian states.
Pre-war, approval for Putin among the Bulgarian population hovered around 60%, but recent polls show that the approval of the Russian president has collapsed to just 16% in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. Around 80% of Bulgarian disapprove of the war.
They are increasingly critical of politicians including President Rumen Radev, who have taken a more ambiguous stance on relations with Moscow. Petkov, meanwhile, has taken clear pro-EU and Nato positions, but he is a hostage of the divergent positions within his four-party ruling coalition, where the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party is blocking any chance of a firm response to the war.
The prime minister’s claim of Russian involvement in the decision to block North Macedonia’s EU progress follows a series of spy scandals in Bulgaria, which expelled multiple Russian diplomats on suspicion of spying in 2020 and 2021.
In the latest developments on March 31, the specialised prosecution investigated the offices of the national security agency, DANS, over suspicions of Russian espionage, public broadcaster BNT reported. DANS also participated in the operation, BNT added.
Earlier in March, Bulgaria expelled 10 Russian diplomats. Although the government wants to take measures against Russian ambassador, Eleonora Mitrofanova, so far she has not been declared persona non grata. However, Sofia has summoned its ambassador to Russia, expecting that Moscow will do the same with Mitrofanova.