Recently, tensions have increased in relations between the two Balkan countries, North Macedonia and Bulgaria. In fact, after the Sofia administration lifted its veto on Skopje’s resumption of negotiations with the European Union (EU) in June 2022, there has been a partial improvement in relations between the parties. In this context, from June 2022 to January 2023, relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria have progressed relatively well. However, this situation has been changing recently.
The basis of the problems between the parties is based on disputes about history, language and identity issues. Bulgaria claims that Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect and that the roots of the Macedonian people are also Bulgarian. In a sense, the Sofia administration is creating obstacles in the EU accession process similar to the obstacles that Greece created in the process of joining North Macedonia to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While these problems between the two countries continue, Bulgaria, which is a member of the EU, has tried to obtain some concessions in the process of North Macedonia’s membership in the union.
Although Sofia lifted its veto on North Macedonia and gave the green light for its membership, this development provoked a severe reaction from the opposition and the people in Skopje. The underlying reasons why North Macedonia wants to approve a resolution that has received such a backlash from both the opposition and the public is probably the government’s willingness to benefit from EU financial aid and the idea of completing integration with the West after NATO membership.
On the other hand, on January 19, 2023, Hristijan Pendikov, an employee of one of the Bulgarian Cultural Clubs, who calls himself Bulgarian and is considered provocative by some Macedonians, was attacked in Ohrid, North Macedonia. This attack has caused the strains of the relations between the two countries. Following the attack, Pendikov received severe brain damage and was transferred to Sofia on a plane belonging to the Bulgarian Government. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov stressed that Sofia will not give up on the protection of the rights of Bulgarians in North Macedonia.
In response, on January 23, 2023, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski convened his country’s Security Council and then stated that he would ask the government to ban the entry of several Bulgarian citizens who he said were carrying out activities against North Macedonia and linked to the Russian Intelligence Services.
In this respect, North Macedonia’s position on the tension with Bulgaria is noteworthy. Skopje claims that its relations with Sofia have deteriorated through third parties. Therefore, considering the war conjuncture in Europe, it can be argued that North Macedonia wants to take advantage of anti-Russianism.
On the other hand, Bulgaria recalled its Ambassador to Skopje to the country on January 25, 2023. Milkov said this will continue until signs of change are seen in North Macedonia. North Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani described Bulgaria’s move as disproportionate. Moreover, Osmani also claimed that Sofia’s decision is connected with the country’s election in April 2023.
As can be understood, Bulgaria attaches importance to the fact that Bulgarian Cultural Clubs in North Macedonia operate comfortably in the country. In this respect, the existence of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia is important in shaping the relations between Sofia and Skopje. Furthermore, the fact that Bulgaria will enter the election atmosphere indicates that this issue may be on the agenda more often.
On January 26, 2023, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev held a meeting with EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi. Radev urged the EU to take steps to guarantee the protection of the rights of Bulgarians in North Macedonia and ensuring their security. Moreover, Radev pointed out that the attack on Pendikov was a hate crime and that it stemmed from years of policy in North Macedonia to instill hatred against Bulgarians and everything that is Bulgarian.
Bulgaria, as can be seen from Radev’s statements, will reactivate the EU factor in its relations with North Macedonia. Thus, the Sofia administration will use Brussels as a pressure factor for its problems with Skopje, just as it has done in the past.
Furthermore, another issue that has recently caused tension between Bulgaria and North Macedonia is related to historical heritage. The Skopje administration has ordered increased its security in the country at events marking the 151st anniversary of the birth of Goce Delcev, whom it describes as its greatest hero, on February 4th 2023. Because both Bulgarians and Macedonians claim Delcev. Therefore, the historical problems between Bulgaria and North Macedonia will continue to play a role in shaping the relations.
To summarize briefly, after Bulgaria lifted its veto on North Macedonia, some fundamental problems remain, although there has been a partial improvement in bilateral relations. Sofia demands that Skopje secure the presence of Bulgarian Cultural Clubs in the country. Bulgaria is therefore uncomfortable with North Macedonia’s policy towards the Bulgarian minority.
In conclusion, if North Macedonia does not take steps to please the Bulgarian authorities in the face of this problem, it may face difficulties again in terms of EU membership in the future. In this context, Sofia may reuse its veto card against Skopje. Nevertheless, it can be said that the relations between the parties will be guided by the problem of the existence of “Bulgarian Cultural Clubs” in North Macedonia for a while.
 “Bulgaria, North Macedonia Condemn Ethnic-Related Violence”, Associated Press, https://apnews.com/article/politics-european-union-northmacedonia-bulgaria-sofia-b503ae09a10b909dfd9ef9bcf6d376b3, (Date of Accession: (28.01.2023).
 “North Macedonia Says Bulgaria Recall ‘Disproportionate’ As Balkan Tensions Bubble Over”, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, https://www.rferl.org/a/north-macedonia-bulgaria-recall-balkan-tensions/32241269.html, (Date of Accession: 28.01.2023).
 “President Radev: EU Should Guarantee the Security and Rights of Bulgarians in North Macedonia”, Bulgarian National Radio, https://bnr.bg/en/post/101770500/president-radev-eu-should-guarantee-the-security-and-rights-of-bulgarians-in-north-macedonia, (Date of Accession: 28.01.2023).
 “Rumen Radev: Hristiyan Pendikov Case is a Hate Cime”, Bulgarian National Radio, https://bnr.bg/en/post/101771111, (Date of Accession: 28.01.2023).
 “Hero’s Memorial Day Further Inflames North Macedonia-Bulgaria Relations”, Balkan Insight, https://balkaninsight.com/2023/01/25/heros-memorial-day-further-inflames-north-macedonia-bulgaria-relations/, (Date of Accession: 28.01.2023).