By Fatos Bytyci
SKOPJE (Reuters) - Streets in Skopje, North Macedonia, were brought to a standstill on Friday because of protests against a proposed compromise deal with Bulgaria that would finally allow the Balkan country to begin long-awaited European Union membership talks.
On Friday hundreds of people parked their vehicles around government buildings in central Skopje as well as on several other regional roads. The daily protests that started at the beginning of this week have at times become violent, causing injuries to at least 10 protestors and dozens of police officers. No injuries were reported from Friday's demonstration.
North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years, but its approval had been blocked first by Greece and now by Bulgaria, which wants North Macedonia to recognise a Bulgarian minority and shared history with the Bulgarian language.
A 2017 agreement to change the country's name from Macedonia to North Macedonia ended the dispute with Greece, and seemed to open the door for EU membership talks. However Bulgaria, another EU member state, lodged a veto in 2020 over history and language issues, which opposing North Macedonians say attack their national identity.
France, which held the EU presidency up until July, drafted a proposal last month to amend North Macedonia's constitution to recognise a Bulgarian minority, while the remaining issues would be discussed between Skopje and Sofia. The proposal does not require Bulgaria to recognise the Macedonian language.
The Bulgarian parliament lifted its veto last month, which also caused unrest in the country and led to a no-confidence vote that toppled the government.
North Macedonia's parliament is expected to debate the proposal next week.
"We will never, never accept this treaty because it is contrary of our national interest and it is contrary to our identity,” said Hristijan Mickoski, leader of the largest opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, which supports the protest.
Protester Acka Stanisheva likewise is against the compromise agreement, saying it is not a European deal but a Bulgarian proposal.
“The government should not accept this proposition,” Stanisheva told Reuters.
Political analyst Petar Arsovski thinks the proposal is both good and bad for North Macedonia.
"It is good in a sense that it does offer start of membership talks but the downside is that there is no principle of reciprocity and Bulgaria is not obliged to recognise Macedonian minority."
He said the framework for bilateral talks would enable the two countries to resolve all national issues.
North Macedonia was the only former Yugoslav Republic to leave the federation peacefully. But in 2001 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pulled North Macedonia from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency and promised faster integration into the EU and NATO.
The Balkan country joined NATO in 2020, but has still not opened accession talks with the EU.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Skopje; Additional reporting by Ognen Teofilovski; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Josie Kao)