Thursday, July 27, 2006

Past disputes cloud Bulgarian support for Macedonia's EU bid

SOFIA, Bulgaria-Macedonia's efforts to join the European Union could face a new obstacle: a historical spat with neighbor Bulgaria over Macedonian identity and language.

Bulgaria, which is set to join the EU next year, had been a supporter of Macedonia's eventual accession to the bloc. But Bulgaria's foreign minister, Ivailo Kalfin, recently threatened to withdraw support for Macedonia's accession over a historical spat between the two Balkan neighbors.

"We have declared our support for Macedonia's membership, but this backing cannot be unconditional," Kalfin said at a recent meeting of Bulgarian ambassadors.

"There are criteria which must be met. We insist that Macedonian authorities strictly observe principles of good neighborly relations and lack of aggression toward the Bulgarian nation and history."

He did not elaborate.

The two neighbors share a history of long-standing ties, and tensions.

Bulgaria was the first country to recognize Macedonian independence from the former Yugoslav republic in 1991, but refuses to formally acknowledge the existence of a separate Macedonian ethnicity or language.

The dispute, which also involves neighbor Greece, stems from the geographical region of Macedonia, which spans the three countries.

Athens, concerned about potential territorial claims, has long demanded that Macedonia stop calling itself the Republic of Macedonia and change its name to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to distinguish the republic from the geographical region.

Bulgaria also is concerned by what it called "separatist demands" by a tiny Macedonian minority, and the Constitutional Court banned a party representing the minority, saying it "endangered national integrity." Some politicians in Bulgaria allege the group enjoys the tacit support of authorities in Skopje.

Another issue complicating Sofia's support for Macedonia is citizenship.

Macedonians must only prove an ancestral connection with Bulgaria to be naturalized. Over the last five years, nearly 8,000 Macedonians have become Bulgarian citizens, officials said. Former Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski is among even Macedonian politicians with Bulgarian passports, according to Bulgarian Vice President Angel Marin.

Some Macedonians suspect Bulgaria's naturalization policy is a disguised method of assimilation.

But most applicants are young people seeking opportunities in the EU, an official at Macedonia's Interior Ministry said, asking not to be identified.

Macedonia has taken the first steps toward EU membership and is expected to receive official candidate status in December, but is still several years from gaining membership.

Maja Stojanovska, a 36-year-old from the Macedonian capital, Skopje, said she wants Bulgarian citizenship to travel more easily.

"I'm tired spending hundreds of euros in foreign embassies for visas," she said. "Bulgarian citizenship will save money, my nerves and my dignity."

Dimitar Dimitrovski, 47, a manager at a travel agency, said he has a Bulgarian passport: "Now I'm European, a Macedonian with Bulgarian citizenship."

But Marina Maneveska, an unemployed economist, said she would never seek dual citizenship.

"I'm not so naive: I know Bulgarians are granting easy citizenship for Macedonians just to claim later that our origin is Bulgarian," she said. "They will, I'm sure, try to benefit from this move."

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