Monday, July 24, 2006

For Dream Jobs in Europe, the Line Forms in Bulgaria

STARO KONJAREVO, Macedonia — Pance Nikolov and a dozen or so other young men from this rich and fertile village have plans to do something many Macedonians only dream of — they will soon pack their bags and cross into the European Union, hoping to find jobs.

A Bulgarian passport will soon allow work in the European Union.

Yet Macedonia is not a member of the union.

Most European states give few visas here, particularly to young single men, out of fears of inviting an inundation of poor migrants. But Mr. Nikolov and his friends expect to get passports in September across the border in Bulgaria, which is to join the European Union on Jan. 1.

They will be able to travel within the union without a visa; in some of the countries, Bulgarians may soon be permitted to work. “We are all young people,” Mr. Nikolov said of his group, as he picked sticky green tobacco leaves at his parents’ farm under a hot sun. “We haven’t seen anything outside Macedonia.”

“Even if we don’t find a job there, I would like to see what Europe looks like. It’s like being locked up in quarantine here.”

Bulgaria occupied much of Macedonia three times between 1878 and 1913, regarding it as part of an extended nation. In 1999 each nation renounced any claims to the territory of the other, but Bulgaria has still not formally recognized the existence of a Macedonian language or culture.

Bulgaria, which is larger than Macedonia, is willing to grant citizenship to Macedonians who prove Bulgarian ethnicity. Doing so requires providing their family name and birth certificate, and completing complex paperwork. Under Bulgaria’s rules, perhaps two-thirds of Macedonia’s population of two million could be eligible for citizenship. Tens of thousands have applied, and at least 7,000 have already been approved.

About 300,000 members of Bulgarian communities in Moldova and Ukraine may also be eligible for citizenship. There are no restrictions on which people in which country are permitted to apply.

The European Union asked Bulgaria to tighten the rules, and Bulgaria recently agreed. Its vice president, Angel Marin, said only 6,000 passports would be given annually to applicants outside the country.

But many Macedonians fear the success of the Bulgarian program. Some fear an exodus of young men from an already depopulated region. Some — including some senior politicians — fear that Bulgaria may be plotting to claim part of Macedonia.

One is Zoran Ristov, the leader of the city council for the regional authority of Strumica, which is near Staro Konjarevo; it is an area where many Macedonians have applied for passports. “There could come a time when Bulgaria can say to international authorities, ‘See how many Macedonians have shown themselves to be Bulgarian,’ ” he said. “It is undermining Macedonian sovereignty.”

Farther north in Veles, an agent who helps Macedonians applying for passports said the police had pressured him to identify his customers. “They are particularly interested in anyone in the army or police,” said the agent, who asked for anonymity to avoid the authorities’ attention.

The matter of the passports is touchy. Macedonia is committed to joining the European Union, although it has no clear timetable, at a point where its fragile identity is under attack from several directions.

Greece disputes Macedonia’s name — it says the only area that should be rightfully known as Macedonia lies in northern Greece — and so since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 Macedonia has agreed to use the awkward formal name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, in its international dealings.

The Orthodox Church in Serbia disputes the authority of Macedonia’s church.

Five years ago, ethnic Albanians rebelled in the north in the hopes of carving out a breakaway state, in a dispute patched up in an internationally brokered agreement.

In Staro Konjarevo, the signs of exodus are clear.

For three decades leading to the implosion of Yugoslavia, many Macedonians left for Europe. Most of the village’s 350 or so houses were built or renovated with the money those workers sent home.

But last year the village’s main cafe, Riki, closed after its owner obtained a Bulgarian passport. More and more fields lie untended, lacking the hands to cultivate them.

“Soon, only the old people will remain, and they will do their best to live as they can,” said Zoran Ivanov, a manual laborer. He plans to leave. Mr. Nikolov’s parents, too, are resigned to seeing three of their sons leave home, even if that means no help with next year’s tobacco crop.

“We haven’t been paid yet for last year’s crop,” said his mother, Makedonka. “This is our fate.”

His father, Slobodan, added, “There’s no future here for young people.’’

Mr. Nikolov said, “There’s no money in being a patriot.”

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