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Bulgaria: Resolution Of Macedonian Language Dispute Clears NATO Hurdles

Prague, 12 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The resolution of a long-standing language dispute between Bulgaria and Macedonia is more than a way to unblock stalled accords between the two countries.

The deal, announced Wednesday (Feb. 10) by Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, also resolves potential territorial disputes that had threatened to keep both countries from joining NATO.

Bulgaria was the first country to recognize Macedonia's statehood after it declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992. But none of Sofia's governments in the past seven years have recognized the language spoken in Macedonia as anything more than a regional dialect of the Bulgarian tongue.

Sofia feared that recognition of "Macedonian" as a unique language would set a precedent allowing Macedonia to make future territorial claims in southwestern Bulgaria -- where a similar dialect is spoken.

Skopje has refused to recognize Sofia's position out of similar fears that such a move might allow later Bulgarian claims on its territories.

The breakthrough agreement, in the form of a joint declaration, was initialized on yesterday by the deputy foreign ministers of both countries. In it, both sides pledge that they have no territorial claims on each other. That removes the primary concerns behind the language dispute.

More importantly for Sofia, it resolves an issue that has threatened to keep Bulgaria out of NATO. That's because NATO insists that applicants will not be considered for membership as long as they have territorial disputes with their neighbors. Both Bulgaria and Macedonia have NATO aspirations and are members of the Partnership for Peace program. But Skopje has yet to fully resolve its dispute with Greece over use of the name "Macedonia," which is also the name of a northern part of Greece.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Alexander Dimitrov, speaking from the Kosovo peace talks near Paris, told RFE/RL that the deal with Bulgaria will benefit regional stability in the Balkans as well as bilateral ties. "Our interest is in the development of relations between the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia. We are determined, as a new government, to give a new impetus to relations in response to the interest of both countries and their people."

About 20 accords have been prepared by Bulgaria and Macedonia in the past seven years. Many are vital for removing barriers to trade and economic relations -- such as eliminating double taxation and guaranteeing foreign investments. But none of those accords have been finalized because of Skopje's insistence on the inclusion of a single clause: "The agreement will be written in the official language of Macedonia and the official language of Bulgaria."

Sofia had called that clause unacceptable because Skopje's constitution names its official language as "Macedonian." Sofia also has been uneasy about Article 49 of Macedonia's constitution, which says that Skopje has a right to protect its ethnic minorities abroad.

By agreeing to sign accords "in the official languages of the two countries," Bulgaria's Prime Minister Kostov has offered a compromise that is, in effect, de facto recognition of the Macedonian tongue. In return, Skopje has agreed not to apply Article 49 to Bulgaria -- in effect, saying that there is no Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.

"The joint declaration will be signed in the official languages of both countries -- the Bulgarian language according to the constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria and in Macedonian according to the constitution of the Republic of Macedonia."

The Macedonian language is so close to Bulgarian that citizens of both countries can understand each other without translation. Nevertheless, Skopje has insisted on bringing translators to Sofia on visits by Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov and other senior officials. That has turned some joint news conferences in Sofia into comic affairs.

When Gligorov made his first state visit to Sofia in 1994, the Bulgarian president at the time, Zhelyu Zhelev, told the translator from Skopje to sit down and be quiet because her efforts were unnecessary. The incident, and Gligorov's red-faced reaction, revealed as much about bilateral relations than the policy statements of the two presidents.

Kostov says the declaration will be signed on Feb. 22 when Macedonia's new Prime Minister Lyupco Georgievski is due to visit Sofia. Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov has hailed the accord, saying it would keep the dignity of both states and open the way to broad cooperation.