Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov (left) and North Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani visited Hristijan Pendikov in the hospital on January 22 after he was attacked and beaten over the weekend in Ohrid, North Macedonia.
SKOPJE -- North Macedonia's foreign minister, Bujar Osmani, has described Bulgaria's decision to recall its ambassador to Skopje as "disproportionate" if it is a response to a weekend attack on a minority Bulgarian in the city of Ohrid.
Hristijan Pendikov, a Macedonian citizen who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative, was attacked and beaten last weekend in that Macedonian city.
Sofia announced the diplomatic withdrawal on January 25, with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov saying it would remain in effect until Sofia sees signs of change.
Relations between the Balkan neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic ties that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's EU negotiations.
Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year but only after slightly reshaping the Macedonian EU accession framework.
The day after the attack on Pendikov, he was flown to Bulgaria on a Bulgarian government plane to undergo surgery for his injuries.
Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski called a meeting of the Security Council on January 23, after which he said he would ask the government to ban the entry into the country of several Bulgarian citizens he said were leading a campaign against North Macedonia and were connected to Russian intelligence services.
Osmani blamed the attack on Pendikov on individual perpetrators and said Macedonian officials had done all they could to respond to the attack.
"The state immediately identified the perpetrators, [and] one of them is in custody," Osmani told the Macedonian Desk of RFE/RL's Balkan Service on January 26. "There were condemnations by the president, the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs. I went to Sofia [and] we expressed what the state should show our citizens, so I don't see what the connection would be between one case and the reaction."
Milkov suggested on Bulgarian state television that Sofia would "review" joint projects with its North Macedonia and said "things cannot continue as they have been."
He added that "things have changed" between the neighbors.
Osmani rejected generalizations about a state's behavior based on a single incident.
He also said he thought the Bulgarian government's actions were related to elections there scheduled for early April -- the country's fifth in less than two years.
"The Republic of Bulgaria is entering the election process," Osmani said, adding that a political vacuum over the past two years has been an "aggravating circumstance" with respect to "sensitive issues."
He said "the season of provocateurs, thugs, and political profiteers is open and now everyone is in trouble."
The European Commission is currently reviewing all 33 of North Macedonia's accession chapters to determine what North Macedonia must achieve to prepare to become an EU member.
Any existing member state -- including Bulgaria -- can veto the opening and closing of such chapters in negotiations.
Bulgarian cultural clubs became a flashpoint for tensions between the countries as their numbers and visibility increased last year.
Other recent celebrations of historical figures have further stirred tensions.
A large contingent of Bulgarian nationals is expected to travel to North Macedonia to mark the 151st anniversary of the birth of revolutionary Goce Delcev on February 4.
Earlier this week, the Macedonian government instructed the Interior Ministry to take measures to keep the event safe.