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How Biden Can Thwart Putin Loyalists in Bulgaria

Pro-Russian nationalists are close to taking power in Sofia. Washington can weaken them by offering recognition of North Macedonia’s nationhood.

By , a conflict management expert who teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Protester holds scarf reading "Macedonia" during the demonstration organized by opposition party VMRO-DPMNE in front of the Macedonian Government building in capital Skopje on Nov. 28, 2020.
Protester holds scarf reading "Macedonia" during the demonstration organized by opposition party VMRO-DPMNE in front of the Macedonian Government building in capital Skopje on Nov. 28, 2020.
Protester holds scarf reading "Macedonia" during the demonstration organized by opposition party VMRO-DPMNE in front of the Macedonian Government building in capital Skopje on Nov. 28, 2020. ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP via Getty Images

SKOPJE, North Macedonia—U.S. President Joe Biden’s Balkans crisis has arrived. Years of neglect and European Union duplicity toward the region have come back to haunt the United States and Europe at a vulnerable moment. Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to see the government of Bulgaria—a NATO and EU member—taken over by his allies, led by the country’s president, Rumen Radev.

Very soon, this Black Sea country, sandwiched strategically between Turkey, Romania, and Ukraine, could flip from being a vital supporter of Kyiv to open alignment with Moscow. The current, pro-Western prime minister, Kiril Petkov, is hanging by a thread. If the government falls, Radev will rule until new elections are held. A Radev ally, former Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, who parroted Putin’s description of Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “special military operation” before being summarily dismissed by Petkov, could return as caretaker prime minister—a disaster for the West as Putin tries to break trans-Atlantic solidarity.

Moscow loyalists in Sofia have been employing Kremlin-style bullying tactics against the country’s smaller neighbor, North Macedonia.

SKOPJE, North Macedonia—U.S. President Joe Biden’s Balkans crisis has arrived. Years of neglect and European Union duplicity toward the region have come back to haunt the United States and Europe at a vulnerable moment. Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to see the government of Bulgaria—a NATO and EU member—taken over by his allies, led by the country’s president, Rumen Radev.

Very soon, this Black Sea country, sandwiched strategically between Turkey, Romania, and Ukraine, could flip from being a vital supporter of Kyiv to open alignment with Moscow. The current, pro-Western prime minister, Kiril Petkov, is hanging by a thread. If the government falls, Radev will rule until new elections are held. A Radev ally, former Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, who parroted Putin’s description of Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “special military operation” before being summarily dismissed by Petkov, could return as caretaker prime minister—a disaster for the West as Putin tries to break trans-Atlantic solidarity.

Moscow loyalists in Sofia have been employing Kremlin-style bullying tactics against the country’s smaller neighbor, North Macedonia.

The bleak scenarios are rapidly materializing. Citing Petkov’s willingness to lift the veto that Bulgaria has used to stall EU accession talks on North Macedonia, singer-showman Slavi Trifonov announced this month that his party would leave the government. On June 16, Trifonov’s party again invoked the Macedonian issue to oust the speaker of Bulgaria’s parliament, Nikola Minchev, a member of Petkov’s party. The party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov also voted against Minchev. A no-confidence vote is scheduled for Wednesday.

There’s a way to deny Putin this victory, with a tactic the Biden administration can deploy almost immediately. The key is to turn the very issue that Radev has been exploiting—frenzied nationalism against neighboring Macedonians—into an instant and lasting political liability.


Led by Radev, Moscow loyalists in Sofia have been employing Kremlin-style bullying tactics against the country’s smaller neighbor, North Macedonia. Instead of bombs, Sofia has blocked Skopje from opening its EU accession negotiations until Macedonians cave to Bulgarian demands. Petkov would like to lift the veto, but his opponents are on the verge of bringing him down over the issue. Launched by the pro-Russian Borissov in November, 2019, the shifting Bulgarian ultimatum is redolent of Putin’s stance on Ukraine. Essentially, North Macedonia is being asked to acknowledge that it is an “artificial country” and submit to the “authentic” Bulgarian identity.

In formalized documents, as well as insults and provocations from the highest levels, Sofia demands that Skopje concede that prior to 1944—when Josip Broz Tito began formalizing what became Yugoslavia—Macedonian history is Bulgarian. From medieval Slavic literacy to the heroic uprising against the Ottomans in the early 1900s, Bulgaria seeks acknowledgement that national heroes, major events, and especially the Macedonian language were all essentially Bulgarian. References to the Bulgarian fascist occupation of Macedonia in World War II are to be expunged and textbooks changed.

These arcane disputes over history and territory are notorious in the Balkans and other parts of Eastern Europe—and ripe for exploitation by the Kremlin. In Bulgaria, Putin’s allies are poised to exploit the EU’s own accession process to subvert the sovereignty of a fellow NATO ally, North Macedonia. Under cover of concern for the “equality of Macedonian Bulgarians,” as Radev puts it, Sofia can demand policy changes, such as quotas in public administration and widespread acceptance of Bulgarian identity.

Combined with forced changes to the historical narrative, Sofia can undermine the foundations of the Macedonian state. Moscow understands that this will set the stage for further destabilization in the region, as Serbia, Greece, and Albania, assert their own historical and territorial claims in the country.

Bulgaria’s relentless demands are particularly destructive given that Macedonian citizens already narrowly agreed to change the country’s name to “North Macedonia” in deference to a separate set of demands around national nomenclature and identity—from Greece. The 2018 Prespa Agreement, a true compromise, also saw Athens formally affirm the language and identity of the Macedonian people.

It was not long after Prespa that Borissov, then Bulgaria’s prime minister, launched the identity assault against North Macedonia, a flagrant abrogation of the 2017 Friendship Treaty that he had signed with Skopje. That agreement was designed precisely to keep such radioactive issues out of the political realm by consigning them to historians.

Sofia’s veto also stops Albania’s path to the EU, as Brussels has linked Tirana’s own accession to North Macedonia. Most EU countries prefer to see the accession of Albania and North Macedonia as a package, not a competitive race. If Brussels decouples the two neighbors, freeing Albania to open its negotiations, Skopje will be left at the mercy of Sofia.

As Albania moves forward, leaving its ethnic kin in North Macedonia behind, frustration will mount. North Macedonia’s successful ethnic balance, set out in the 2001 Ohrid Agreement, requires forward movement toward the EU to succeed. Bifurcation of Albania and North Macedonia would be tempting fate in a country that nearly sank into war two decades ago and in a region notorious for ethnonational fragmentation, often promoted by Moscow.

Russia also stands to benefit from the engineered political crisis in Bulgaria. Under Petkov, copious amounts of ammunition compatible with Ukraine’s Soviet-era weapons systems have flowed via Bulgaria to Ukraine through a U.S. Defense Department contract; that arrangement would be in jeopardy if Radev is calling the shots.

Bulgaria has applied sanctions on Russia and refused to pay for Russian gas in rubles, prompting Gazprom to shut off the gas flow. In turn, Petkov accelerated completion of a gas pipeline to Greece that could provide the Balkans with an alternative source of gas, dampening wholesale dependence on Russia.

Trying to notch a success, French President Emmanuel Macron—fresh from a parliamentary election disaster that has turned him into something of a lame duck domestically—has put forward a last-ditch proposal to lift the veto at the French-led EU Council meeting this week. Contravening EU protocol, Paris would allow Sofia to bring its bilateral demands inside the formalized EU negotiating process—a dangerous step not just for North Macedonia but the entire EU.

Nearly every prospective member of the EU has a neighbor eager to right perceived historical wrongs. Ukraine, which is seeking EU candidacy, is the object of intensified revanchist claims from Hungary. The Bulgarian precedent will set up Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to demand similar EU consideration of Budapest’s claims against Kyiv.

If accepted in Sofia, the French proposal would touch off a political crisis in North Macedonia. Under the terms, the Macedonian government gets a symbolic political opening of its EU negotiations and then Skopje must pass a Constitutional amendment—requiring a two-thirds majority—enshrining the Bulgarian nationality into the Preamble. Bulgaria would see its positions on history and culture officially recognized by the EU. A close associate of Orban’s, Oliver Varhelyi, would be the European Commission official in charge of assessing Macedonian performance.

The reaction in Skopje has been sharply negative. Nikola Dimitrov, formerly deputy prime minister in the current government and the official who negotiated the Prespa Agreement with Greece, believes the French proposal gives Bulgaria “full control over our destiny.” Dimitrov explained that North Macedonia’s EU “negotiations can be stopped at any moment, not by Brussels but by Sofia, [depending on] how satisfied [Bulgaria] is with how we are implementing changes to textbooks, for example.”

Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, excoriated the French deal as “shockingly bad … meaning we will assimilate, Bulgarianize, or we will never be part of the EU.” Sensing victory in early or scheduled elections, Mickoski vowed to sink the required Constitutional amendment at a protest on Saturday.

At the moment, the high-stakes French proposal sits with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bulgarian parliament. Radev has praised the deal as the “fairest” and “best so far.” The Bulgarian President zeroed in on the inclusion of Bulgaria’s detailed historical claims (in “Bilateral Protocols”) as the most important element.

For his part, Prime Minister Petkov has put the onus on the parliament to decide Sofia’s official position, emphasizing that once Skopje changes its constitution, “we will guarantee that we will not invent one condition every six months.” A member of Petkov’s party, Rumen Gechev, noted that the French proposal allows Sofia to thwart Skopje’s progress at will.


Biden is now looking at a simultaneously unfolding disaster in two NATO allies—a mess originally created by a third ally, France. It was Macron who encouraged Bulgarian obstruction in the first place by casting his own EU veto against North Macedonia in 2019. Today, thanks to the Bulgarian veto, three Balkans countries—Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia—are inclined to boycott the French-hosted Western Balkans Summit.

There’s too much at stake to let the French President’s crumbling diplomacy play out. Washington needs to supplement the French bid by adding the missing ingredient: imposing a cost on Bulgaria for its identity aggression.

Extreme Bulgarian nationalism has one overarching objective: to deny the Macedonian identity. The solution is for the United States (and allies such as the United Kingdom, which could follow Washington’s lead) to enter into a bilateral cultural agreement with North Macedonia that affirms the Macedonian identity. The agreement could be concluded swiftly under the recently opened Strategic Dialogue between the United States and North Macedonia.

The key text would be lifted from Article 7 of the Prespa Agreement—an accord respected across the Atlantic. The U.S. government would simply “acknowledge that the Macedonian people have their own history, culture, heritage and Macedonian language”—exactly the sort of identity Bulgarian nationalists want to erase.

In response, Radev will likely fulminate against the United States and mobilize anti-American protests. That’s a penalty worth absorbing to protect U.S. interests.

The way to marginalize pro-Russian influence in Bulgaria is by finally taking the abusive Macedonian card away from Radev and his associates.

First, as long as Radev holds the Macedonian card, Petkov remains vulnerable. The French proposal in no way removes Sofia’s ability to pressure Skopje, which means Radev can pressure Petkov or any pro-Western government. The way to marginalize pro-Russian influence in Bulgaria is by finally taking the abusive Macedonian card away from Radev and his associates.

The truth is that pro-Russian nationalists such as Radev—and Serbia’s Vucic—have no strategic Russia option. This was true before Feb. 24 and is even more the case after the catastrophic Russian invasion of Ukraine. The network of relationships with the West is too strong to sever ties. Just as Vucic uses the Kosovo card to sustain his duplicity, so Radev and his confederates exploit the Macedonian issue to keep Bulgaria split between pro-Russian and pro-Western tendencies. This is precisely what Petkov seeks to break with his premiership. But he cannot do it without an external constraint on abusive nationalism.

By providing North Macedonia with a strong political defense of its identity—akin to muscular military aid to defend a nation’s territory—Bulgaria would be confronted with reality: the abject futility of its mission. Just as Putin cannot convince Ukrainians that they are really Russians, Radev and company cannot demand Macedonians begin the process of surrendering their identity to Bulgaria.

There will be tumult in Bulgaria, but there is already tumult, including a vote of no confidence. Indeed, it is just as likely that the fault for any U.S.-Macedonian agreement will be pinned on Radev, once Bulgarians finally see a direct cost to the abuse of Sofia’s EU membership. At present, isolation within the EU is a modest, sustainable cost in Bulgaria.

Second, the reality in North Macedonia is that the French proposal will both fail and severely weaken the pro-Western leadership of President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski. Instead of applying U.S. pressure to round up votes in the Macedonian parliament that are not there, Washington is better off applying U.S. power to tackle the problem: the palpable and understandable insecurity that Macedonians have from a menacing EU and NATO neighbor.

The idea of affirming Macedonian identity is natural for an experienced politician such as Biden. As a presidential candidate in August 2020, Biden issued a statement congratulating Macedonian Americans on the anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising—which is among the contentious historical events souring Bulgarian-Macedonian relations. U.S. President George W. Bush created a precedent in this sphere, when his administration (over Greek objections) recognized what was then called the Republic of Macedonia by its constitutional name in 2004, to thwart a brewing ethnonational crisis.

Along with the benefits, officially affirming the Macedonian identity is also the right thing to do—a means of halting Kremlin-style bullying by one NATO ally against a smaller NATO ally seeking its place in the European Union.

Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the U.S. Army, and as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

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