Ilhan Kyuchyuk: Walls have no place in relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia

We often argue over things that are in the past, but they are also a subject of various media speculations

Photo: EP Ilhan Kyuchyuk.

All of us who are actively involved in the process of North Macedonia's accession to the EU would like to see dialogue with Bulgaria resumed and sustainable solutions to existing bilateral issues found. No one benefits from a protracted dispute, says Ilhan Kyuchyuk, Bulgarian MEP from Renew Europe/MRF and EP standing rapporteur for North Macedonia, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Mr Kyuchyuk, you recently returned from an important official visit to North Macedonia where you had numerous meetings, including with the entire political elite of the country. What impressions did you come away with, are the reforms required for the country's accession to the European project actually being introduced?

The Republic of North Macedonia has come a long way and deservedly reached the phase of opening formal accession talks with the EU. My visit was a clear reflection of what we have been seeing in the country for the past few years. The government is showing continuity in its commitment to the country's European integration and is endeavouring to introduce stable and inclusive democratic reforms, especially by taking important steps to strengthen democracy and rule of law. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic and strained relations with Bulgaria have put North Macedonia in a difficult spot, but the country should press forward with the reforms nevertheless. Some areas are in need of faster and more fundamental reforms, a greater measure of progress, but the government clearly has the capacity to continue on the path to European integration.

As the European Parliament's standing rapporteur on the country, you paid this official visit as part of preparing your report on the progress of the Republic of North Macedonia. What areas boast the most notable achievements and in what areas does the country need to step up its efforts?

The trends when it comes to the country's reforms have been laid out in detail in the European Parliament's report on North Macedonia. At the beginning of its second term, PM Zoran Zaev identified combating corruption and organised crime as a top priority. This is noteworthy because a properly working judicial system and anti-corruption measures are of the utmost importance for any functioning democracy. The European Parliament will continue to prepare regular assessments of the results, while drawing attention to the areas that need more work. Accession talks are a marathon and crossing the finish line is the culmination of reforms getting completed in a number of sectoral policies.

It was reported you told officials in Skopje that good neighbourly relations are a key part of any framework for EU accession talks and that trust between North Macedonia and Bulgaria must be restored. What was their position on this matter?

The 2017 treaty takes central place in the current relations between the two countries. Of course, the issue that Bulgaria and North Macedonia need to solve is far more complex than the Prespa Agreement, which put an end to the name dispute (between Athens and Skopje - editor's note). Right now, all that this emotional opposition from both sides brings is nationalism and hate speech, which are extremely detrimental to the cause of restoring trust between the two countries. I think that both Bulgaria and North Macedonia are cognisant of that and will get back to the essence of the matter very soon.

Did North Macedonian officials voice their opinion on the vicious propaganda, provocations and hate speech often used in North Macedonia against Bulgaria and Bulgarians? Bulgaria is painted in a negative light even in school textbooks. At the same time, the EU is a project built on the ideas of solidarity, convergence and mutual respect.

I am confident that pretty soon the governments of Bulgaria and North Macedonia will turn their back on nationalism and engage in constructive negotiations because walls have no place in our relations. But for us to overcome this shared problem called nationalism, we need more than political will. Even though we are so close, each of us knows very little about the other. We often argue over things that are in the past, but they are also a subject of various media speculations. Creating joint media projects that would put an end to fake news and nationalistic rhetoric is vitally important. Along with building joint infrastructure, educational and cultural projects that would bring us closer, we can expand the potential of our countries and leave our differences behind really quickly.

In your view, what is the outlook for solving the dispute between the two countries? Do you think Bulgaria may greenlight the first intergovernmental conference as soon as this year?

All of us who are actively involved in the process of North Macedonia's accession to the EU would like to see dialogue with Bulgaria resumed and sustainable solutions to existing bilateral issues found. No one benefits from a protracted dispute. The outlook cannot be bad because we already have proof of the two countries' ability to cooperate successfully after they jointly hosted the presidency of the Berlin Process for the Western Balkans and forged important decisions such as the establishment of a common regional market as a step towards the EU single market. For that to happen, however, the joint commission on history must continue its work and come up with constructive solutions, providing politicians with the platform to demonstrate political courage.

Speaking of joint media projects between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, do you think such will be realised soon?

I am exceedingly happy that serious efforts are being made to that end and we already have several successful media exchanges. Credit must be given to Vlado Buckovski, special envoy for Bulgaria, who has worked tirelessly on this issue. As a result, the Bulgarian National Television now broadcasts in North Macedonia. The Macedonian newswire MIA has opened representation in Bulgaria, while its Bulgarian counterpart, BTA, is set to do the same in Skopje. I believe these are extremely important projects that have a key role to play in our bilateral relations.

 

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Ilhan Kyuchyuk is a Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament (EP) from the group of Renew Europe/Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Having served as Vice-President of the ALDE Party since 2015, he was re-elected for a 3rd time to the position on 26 October 2019. Mr Kyuchyuk is a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and of the Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, as well as a substitute member of the Committee on Transport and Tourism, and of the Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula. Since November 2014, Mr Kyuchyuk has been a member of the Human Rights Committee of the Liberal International, and since May 2015 he has been ambassador of the European Entrepreneurship Education Network. He has been a member of the Youth Movement for Rights and Freedoms since 2005 and in November 2012 he became its president. Ilhan Kyuchyuk is the EP's standing rapporteur on North Macedonia.

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