The provocative move by Bulgaria to use its security services to protect ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonia is driven by fears of the coming census, said Tito Petkovski, leader of Zaev’s coalition partner the NSDP party. The dispute between Bulgaria and Macedonia escalated this week after Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said that he has convened the intelligence and security services chiefs to order them to protect the rights of Bulgarians in Macedonia. This was prompted by a letter from an association of Bulgarians from Bitola, who told Radev that they are being discriminated.

Macedonia holds a census in April and the Bulgarian President still doesn’t know how many Macedonians will use it to declare that they are Bulgarians. And this even after the association in Bitola offered fast-track Bulgarian citizenship to anyone who does so. Imagine if the census shows that the number of citizens who declare themselves as Bulgarians is more or less the same as during the last census (under 1,500). Bulgaria claims that it issued 100,000 passports to Macedonian citizens, but all these claims are about to fall through, Petkovski said.

According to him, the fear that just a token number of Macedonian citizens will declare themselves as Bulgarians at the census motivated President Radev’s threat to intervene in Macedonian internal affairs. Bulgaria is freely issuing passports to Macedonian citizens who declare that they have a Bulgarian origin. But this is mainly used by people who wish to move out to EU member states where the Bulgarian citizenship is valued equally to all other EU states, and doesn’t translate into an active Bulgarian minority in Macedonia.

Zaev’s coalition includes strong proponents of making major concessions to Bulgaria, such as former Prime Ministers Ljubco Georgievski and Vlado Buckovski. Petkovski, on the other hand, is a former communist official who, in the early days of independence, staged a move where Bulgarian language propaganda was distributed through Macedonia with the aim of blaming the VMRO-DPMNE party of being funded by Bulgaria. Petkovski ran for President in 2000 as the SDSM party candidate, but was defeated when Albanian voters sided with VMRO’s Boris Trajkovski, after viewing Petkovski as a pro-Serbian politician in the aftermath of the Kosovo war. In 2006 he created a faction in SDSM that sided with Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO and was crucial in defeating the Buckovski led SDSM