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SKOPJE — Parliamentary talks in North Macedonia over a French proposal to unstick Skopje’s EU negotiations have been delayed amid finger-pointing and calls for calm after a fifth straight night of clashes over possible concessions on sensitive cultural and historical issues.

Bulgaria, which has previously blocked North Macedonia’s EU bid, has endorsed the French proposal, which could lead to mentioning the Bulgarian minority in the preamble to the Macedonian Constitution, among other things.

Macedonian critics, including the leading opposition party, have attacked the proposal as a national betrayal that threatens to “Bulgarianize” their country, which declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and has been an EU candidate for 16 years.

Dozens of police have been reported injured, including two seriously, since thousands of critics of the initiative launched nightly rallies in the streets of Skopje on July 2, with some hurling stones and bottles and at least one report of gunfire.

President Stevo Pendarovski on July 7 condemned the use of “violence and inciting violence for political purposes” as “unacceptable” as his Balkan nation confronts another perceived challenge to its national identity following a name change to mollify Greece that was aimed at reopening a path to EU membership three years ago.

“I appeal to all the organizers of the protests that are taking place in North Macedonia these days to take responsibility and continue to exercise their democratic right to protest with dignity and without violence,” Pendarovski said in a statement.

Pendarovski praised the police for “timely action that prevented major clashes” on July 6 and called for those responsible to be detained and punished.

He said the events of the previous evening “must not be repeated” and discouraged the carrying of firearms except by security authorities.

Opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski — whose Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) organized the first street protest on July 2 — shared a photo overnight on July 6-7 of a protester brandishing a gun, alleging that “this is the man who was going to kill me tonight” and demanding his arrest.

Some of the comments underneath Mickoski’s post made references to staged provocations or threatened to “take justice into our own hands.”

Bulgaria has used its veto power on new EU members to raise decades-old grievances over Macedonians’ national and linguistic roots, but parliamentarians in Sofia last month endorsed the initiative from France.

The proposal would reportedly require a Macedonian commitment to some of the half-dozen or so demands that Sofia has been pushing, including better implementation of a 2017 Friendship Treaty.

Bulgarian officials, including President Rumen Radev, have reportedly narrowed Sofia’s demands to a mention of the Bulgarian minority in the preamble to the Macedonian Constitution, a vague concession on language, and a commitment to fighting hate speech.

Critics say incorporating Bulgarian demands in North Macedonia’s framework for negotiations with the European Union is a huge risk that hands Sofia perpetual veto power over accession.

But Pendarovski has publicly expressed his support, and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski called the French document a “solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country.”

Visiting European Council President Charles Michel said on July 5 that “together we are on the verge of a possible breakthrough in your country’s EU accession process” and urged Kovachevski to seize on a “historic opportunity.”

Analysts have warned of the risk the Bulgarian-Macedonian impasse poses to the European aspirations of Macedonians and to the much-needed reforms in the country but also the risks for Serbians, Montenegrins, and others who have campaigned for decades to join the bloc.

The European Union is ideally intended to help put aside such historical disputes, according to Oxford School of Global and Area Studies lecturer Dimitar Bechev. He tweeted on July 7 that at least Bulgarian and Macedonian leaders “should agree to disagree on the past and focus on what really matters to citizens on both sides of the border.”

Lawmakers and other Macedonians appeared bitterly divided along partisan lines.

The ruling Social Democratic Party (SDSM) and the opposition have traded accusations of responsibility for the violence, including a suggestion by a VMRO-DPMNE lawmaker and protest organizer that “police provocateurs” were to blame.

Police in riot gear stand guard against protesters, who threw roses at their feet.

The VMRO-DPMNE legislator, Dragan Kovacki, alluded to backing for the French compromise as a “betrayal.”

A stumbling block emerged quickly after Macedonian lawmakers convened in parliamentary groups on July 6 over whether parliament’s stance would only apply to the framework for EU negotiations or also to other documents, including a proposed bilateral protocol with Sofia.

Warnings by Kovachevski and Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski of alleged plots of violence and a repeat of protesters’ clashes with police then put those parliamentary proceedings on hold.

More street protests were planned for late on July 7.

Deputy Prime Minister Artan Grubi suggested a compromise in which the government would forward the French proposal to parliament alongside the proposed bilateral protocol with Bulgaria and other documents.

Grubi, a member of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration party, the country’s third-largest, also likened the current unrest in Skopje to the roiling in Montenegro ahead of its accession to NATO.

He suggested, without providing evidence, that foreign elements like Russia might be behind the political violence of the past week in North Macedonia.

Grubi said the majority of Macedonians are protesting legitimately and are merely concerned about the future of the common state and don’t oppose EU-integration efforts.

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