By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria has threatened to block North Macedonia's path towards European Union membership and said it should recognise that both its national identity and language have Bulgarian roots, its foreign minister said on Friday.
Ekaretina Zaharieva said Bulgaria, which focused its first period as the EU's rotating presidency in 2018 on the swift accession of western Balkan nations to the 27-member bloc, could veto the formal launch of accession talks with North Macedonia next month unless the two sides can resolve the issue.
This poses yet another challenge for Skopje, which agreed to add "North" to its name to resolve a decades-old standoff with Greece and clear its path to entry into both the EU and NATO. The renamed North Macedonia joined NATO earlier this year.
Bulgaria is losing patience over what it sees as North Macedonia's reluctance to implement a friendship treaty the two countries signed in 2017.
As a way out, it is proposing backing the formal start of accession talks if Skopje acknowledges that its identity and language have Bulgarian foundations, thereby ending any claims that there is a distinct "Macedonian" minority in Bulgaria.
"Our concerns come from the never-ending claims for a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. The acknowledgment of Bulgarian roots would put an end to this," Zaharieva told Reuters.
If North Macedonia agrees, Zaharieva said Sofia was ready to recognise Macedonian as one of the official languages of its neighbour and acknowledge a Macedonian identity.
"We are not disputing their right for self-determination, neither their right to call their language what they like. We are ready to re-confirm the current realities, but they have to acknowledge the historical truth," she said.
Sofia takes the view that the idea of a Macedonian nation and language were engineered in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1940s and that prior to the 1920s most people in the region considered themselves Bulgarians.
The two countries have held talks in the past two weeks to try to resolve their differences ahead of a Nov. 10 EU meeting on the issue, but with little success.
On Thursday, North Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he hoped the two countries would find a solution, but he said that the identity and language of the country were not up for debate.
(This story corrects to clarify in paragraph 7 that Bulgaria was ready to accept Macedonian as one of the official languages in North Macedonia.)
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Hugh Lawson)