Is the United States putting undue pressure on Bulgaria over the North Macedonia dispute?

Is it true that US President Joe Biden is supporting North Macedonia and putting pressure on Bulgaria over our stance on the start of negotiations for this country’s EU membership? These questions, prompted by articles in Bulgarian media, were posed by a FactCheck.bg reader.

The news was first reported in an interview with the Macedonian News Agency (MIA) by Daniel Serwer, an American expert on the Balkans. However, many Bulgarian media headlines about this issue are deceptive because they present the expert’s opinion as the official US position.

Focus News Agency was the first to report on the interview, and both the headline and text accurately reflect the interviewee’s point of view. The agency cites a June 10 MIA publication in which Serwer claims that “the US will increase pressure on Sofia to unlock North Macedonia’s European integration.” According to MIA, the expert called Bulgaria’s demands on North Macedonia regarding language and history “absurd.” Bulgaria’s behavior has irritated many European capitals as well as Washington, according to Serwer, who adds, “The administration will put Bulgaria under a lot of pressure. However, I doubt that anyone in Sofia is paying attention.”

Focus News Agency (Bulgaria) and the Macedonian MIA Agency report on Serwer’s statement claiming that the USA will pressure heavily Sofia over its stance on the start of the EU accession negotiations with Skopje (source: Factcheck.bg)

The phone conversation between President Rumen Radev and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on June 11, 2021 provided a reason to discuss American “pressure” on Bulgaria in connection with the dispute with North Macedonia.

According to the Presidency’s official announcement, Radev spoke with Blinken at the request of the US Secretary of State. The topic of Skopje’s EU membership was also discussed, and Anthony Blinken expressed “expectation for accelerating North Macedonia’s process of European integration.”

Two Bulgarian online media Fakti and O!Novini claim that the USA pressures the Bulgarian president over North Macedonia (source: Factcheck.bg)

The official US position is that Washington supports the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia. This was confirmed on June 11 by US State Department spokesman Ned Price, who tweeted: “We support the opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania without delay. We are engaging at the highest levels of government to demonstrate our commitment to the aspirants’ European paths.”

Notwithstanding, based on these official announcements, it is impossible to conclude unequivocally that pressure is being applied to Bulgaria or what it consists of.

However, the Bulgarian President does mention pressure.

Roumen Radev stated that Bulgaria was under pressure on the issue of North Macedonia, but he did not mention the United States, but rather the European Union. “For the past month and a half, Bulgaria has been subjected to immense pressure from European partners to begin membership negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia,” Radev said ahead of the European Council meeting on June 24.

“We will not be twisted by lobbying, media pressure, or political pressure,” the President added. Here is the video where he staes that in Bulgarian:

Who exactly is this American expert?

His name is Daniel Serwer. He is the director of Johns Hopkins University’s Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs. During the Bosnian and Herzegovina war, he served as a US special envoy and mediated in the Dayton peace talks between Bosnian Muslims and Croats. He published his book From War to Peace in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Ukraine in 2018. In recent months, he has been actively commenting on various Western Balkans issues, including the conviction of two Serbian high-ranking intelligence officials during Slobodan Milošević’s regime, the indictment of former Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi, the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina 25 years after the Dayton Peace Accords, and a recommendation on his personal blog to Joe Biden on U.S. foreign policy on the Balkans and other issues.

There is no official documentation confirming Serwer’s employment with the Biden administration. However, he has been asked to serve as a Balkans adviser. Serwer was invited as an expert to a Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in the US House of Representatives in December 2020. The hearing was also attended by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and analyst Janusz Bugajski, in addition to Serwer. The meeting’s goal was for the experts to make recommendations to the new administration on future US actions in the Balkans.

Serwer’s personal blog recently published a post titled North Macedonia is success story, may it continue! on July 1, 2021. It includes comments on Serwer’s speech to an international forum on the Prespa Agreement on July 1. North Macedonia, according to Serwer, “has attempted to resolve its historical and linguistic problems with Bulgaria.” “The clouds on the horizon now come primarily from outside Macedonia — Bulgaria’s claims to its own ethnic identity and Serbia’s renewed territorial ambitions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, which threaten to destabilize the region,” he said of Sofia’s position. At the end of the piece, he expresses his desire to see Macedonia join the EU.

The headlines claiming that US Vice President Joe Biden is backing Macedonia and will apply “crushing pressure” on Bulgaria are false. The official White House position is presented as the expert’s opinion, who, while influential, has no official position in the US administration and does not speak for it. 

According to Bulgaria’s president, the European Union is putting pressure on Bulgaria to accept the start of EU negotiations with North Macedonia.

The story of alleged American pressure on Bulgaria over its policy towards North Macedonia was verified by FactCheck.bg on 2 July 2021.

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