Andrey Kovatchev, MEP (EPP/GERB):
Bulgaria-Macedonia links hit new stage
Everything that used to divide us is now in the past and it is time to focus on the future, we are offering a helping hand in Skopje's bid for EU and NATO
1 December, 2017
Close-up: Andrey Kovatchev was born on 13 December 1967 in Sofia. He graduated the University of Saarland, Germany, and has a PhD degree in natural sciences.
Kovatchev is a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Subcommittee on Human Rights, as well as the Delegation for Relations with the United States of the European Parliament. He is a substitute of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and the Delegation to the EU-Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee.
Before becoming a MEP, he has worked as Commercial Manager for Bulgaria of the Swedish company Alfa Laval Agri/Tetra Pak, and as director for the Commonwealth of Independent States of the US company John Deere International.
- Mr Kovatchev, the Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev recently said that his country is not only a friend of Bulgaria but also an ally. What kind of a signal does that send to our society?
- It means that we are truly at a new stage in the relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia. Everything that used to divide us is now in the past. The time has come to concentrate on the future as two countries that have shared history. I hope that in time we will also have a common future in the European Union.
- Is the Good Neighbourly Relations Agreement actually fulfilling the achievement of its goal?
- This agreement is only the first step. It is a document in which the two countries state their willingness to cooperate with each other and have good relations. Now we have to put these words to action. I hope that the agreement will be ratified in the Macedonian parliament in short order. The bad practices we have witnessed should remain a thing of the past. We are offering Macedonia a helping hand in its bid for full membership of the European Union and NATO. We will do everything in our power to help the cause.
- Speaking of the European Union enlargement process, should the topic of the Western Balkans be a priority of our Presidency of the Council of the EU?
- Of course, this will be among the main topics. The European perspective of the Western Balkans should be discussed and not only in terms of the political process of accession. The citizens of these countries should know that they are not forgotten by the European Union and get assurance that their future is in the family of European nations.
- Keeping in mind all efforts being made in that direction, what is your take on the recent incident with the Bulgarian doctors in Bosilegrad? It raised a lot of questions.
- It was a really unfortunate situation. On the one hand, the central government in Belgrade says that it strives for a full membership of the European Union and seeks Bulgaria’s backing. On the other hand, in the former Bulgarian territories there (the so-called Western Outlands) local authorities are adhering to practices of the Communist-era Yugoslavia for the oppression of Bulgarians living there. What happened was not an isolated incident in that regard.
- Are we talking about an artificial division?
- There is a big difference between the situations in Macedonia and the Western Outlands. In the latter case we deal with Bulgarian population that has been torn from our country as a result of an unfair accord. The problem now is that the inertia from the Yugoslavian past is still at play locally. You see how hard it is even for a simple order for restoring Dimitrovgrad to its original name Tsaribrod to enter into effect, even after two decisions by the Municipal Council there. There have been a total of 15 initiatives by fellow Bulgarians there, but the change is yet to happen. Furthermore, there is a shortage of Bulgarian language textbooks in the local schools even though the translation was finally done after so many years. There are only about 30-40 copies, which is more than insufficient. This has discouraged parents from enrolling their children in classes providing Bulgarian language education. We do not approve of that development.
- Do you see a shift in society’s attitude towards Macedonia as a whole?
- Absolutely, and the results of the study I commissioned support that notion. Bulgarians show great support for the Good Neighbourly Relations Agreement and the idea of Bulgaria protecting its cultural and historical heritage in Macedonia, as well as assisting the country’s bid for membership in the European Union and NATO.
- What is your take on the Macedonian church’s letter stating that it was prepared to acknowledge the Bulgarian one as the mother church, if Bulgaria recognises its independence?
- The letter issued by the Macedonian Archbishopric is a positive and I would say breakthrough development. In the current extremely favourable political landscape between the two countries, it would be a great signal. I hope that the Bulgarian Synod will respond appropriately and will be willing to cooperate with our brothers.
- But as you know there is no administrative recourse through which the Bulgarian Orthodox Church can officially recognise the Macedonian church as independent. Not to mention that some analysts say the move will strain our relations with other countries.
- We should not be influenced by others. After all, the matter concerns fellow Bulgarians. We should act in our own interest. I do not see why anyone should be offended by the situation. The letter sends a strong message and is a unique opportunity to accept Macedonia’s gesture in this favourable political environment. Of course, this is my personal opinion, ultimately the Synod will make the decision.
- The European Parliament recently had a debate dedicated to the legacy of the totalitarian Russian Revolution of 1917. What was the purpose of this discussion?
- The European People’s Party requested a special European Parliament debate on the consequences of the Bolshevik coup. The First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans noted that totalitarian ideologies have no place in Europe anymore, and that the best method to prevent this problem from resurfacing is education. We must keep the memory of what happened on our continent alive so that the new generations learn from it and do not become easy victims of modern populists who exploit the situation to promote quick fixes for complex social and political issues.
- We recently marked another 10 November 1989 anniversary. What has changed over the years? You know that people are apt to reminisce.
- What is interesting is that, on the one hand, there is a nostalgic sentiment about the communist era in Bulgaria, and it has very practical roots. People seem to be of the belief that everything was free during that period - education, healthcare, etc., that there was more security. These are all cliches that are constantly being reinforced. At the same time, a huge chunk of the population, 60% to be exact, welcomes the fact that Bulgaria is part of the European Union and thinks this is the right path.
- Have we already gained a good grasp of what democracy is?
- I presume that everyone has a different answer to that question because people have their own understanding of democracy. The mere fact that you and I are talking without any fear of persecution is a testament that we enjoy freedom of speech. You know, during the Russian Revolution debate there were some remarks that the European Union is similar to the Soviet Union. However, some among my colleagues responded that such words would have lead to persecution in the Soviet Union, while in the European Union anyone is free to criticise and voice their opinion. And so, democracy means freedom of travel and speech.
- It would be remiss of me if I did not ask you for your view of the latest European Commission report on Bulgaria. Was it really positive?
- To be honest, I would prefer to refrain from answering that question. People have their own interpretations of the conclusions in every Commission report. It is all pointless. We are not doing policies and reforms in the justice system to satisfy some official in Brussels. The goal is to ensure fairness so that all citizens feel protected in their own country.
- But do you share the opinion that the latest report indicates a scrapping of the monitoring mechanism for Bulgaria in the foreseeable future?
- I would not want to make predictions, it would not be right. There are some indications that the monitoring mechanism might be lifted at the end of 2018 but I cannot say if that will actually happen. I acknowledge the moves that have been made but we will have to wait and see what happens.