SOFIA - With just months to go until it is due to join the European Union, Bulgaria is being flooded with citizenship applications by Macedonian and Moldovan nationals claiming Bulgarian origins to obtain a European passport.
“Since 2001, Bulgaria has been attractive for its Euro-atlantic prospects, its stability and the travel opportunities that Bulgarian passports offer. Applications have increased exponentially,” Stefan Nikolov of the Agency for Bulgarians Abroad told AFP.
Valid claims of ethnic Bulgarian origin presented by Macedonians, Moldovans, Russians, Israelis, Ukrainians and Serbs increased from 5,495 in 2001, to 29,493 in 2004, with another 23,200 in 2005.
“The administration is overwhelmed but still conducts severe checks to prevent unlawful claims,” according to Nikolov. Some 50,000 claims are still to be considered, while “a large part of these might be based on documents with dubious validity,” he added.
“Every file is reviewed by experts from the Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, the Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry to prevent abuses, but this happens at the price of delays in taking decisions,” Nikolov said.
Bulgaria is scheduled to join the EU in 2007, although it is still awaiting September 26 and the European Commission’s final ruling on whether accession will go ahead on time or be postponed with another year.
Some 20,000 people have acquired Bulgarian citizenship since 2001. In 2005 alone, 2,425 Macedonians, 2,455 Moldovans, 160 Russians, 152 Israelis, 245 Ukrainians and 128 Serbs were granted a ”facilitated naturalisation procedure.”
Unlike other applicants, they enjoy all the rights of Bulgarian citizens, including that of attending Bulgarian universities for a token fee, without having to renounce their other nationality.
Among those who profit the most from gaining a Bulgarian passport are the descendants of Bulgarian emigrants in Besarabia, a region between Moldova and Ukraine. Some 20,000 of them have already registered in the north-east of the country.
The issue however is especially delicate with applicants from Macedonia, a neighbouring Balkan country of about two million inhabitants with which Bulgaria has historically had a dispute over the origin of its Slavic population.
Bulgarian historians say Macedonians are of Bulgarian origin and their language developed from a Bulgarian dialect, which Skopje denies. But Sofia was also the first country to recognise Macedonia’s independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and now favours its joining the EU.
“Every Macedonian national who does not claim Albanian or Serbian origin has the right to declare a Bulgarian origin. This is an individual act in accordance with the historical reality of our common ethnic origin,” according to Nikolov.
A scandal broke out recently in Macedonia over news that the former prime minister and current deputy Ljubco Georgievski had also acquired Bulgarian citizenship.
Since 2001, some 25,000 passport claims have been deposited by Macedonians in Sofia, according to official data. The authorities in Skopje refuse to give any comment or present any figures.
“I do not want to be a second-class citizen anymore. My husband and I, we love travelling, but the procedure for obtaining Schengen visas is a real torture. This is the only reason I am applying for a Bulgarian passport,” explains Gordana Sonevska, a 43-year-old Macedonian lawyer.
Legal procedures granting Bulgarian citizenship are neither simpler nor stricter than in EU member states, according to Nikolov. But the procedure for ethnic Bulgarians is much easier than for other foreigners. Every year, only 100 of the latter are granted a Bulgarian passport.