Sofia angry over Skopje’s rejection of cultural club names
The decision of the authorities in North Macedonia to de-register a Bulgarian cultural club in Bitola has sparked new tensions between the two countries and harsh comments from Bulgarian President Rumen Radev at an EU summit on Thursday (23 March).
The club, named ‘Ivan Mihailov’ after a controversial Bulgarian 20th-century nationalist, considered a Nazi collaborator by some, was decried as a ‘provocation’ when it was opened in April 2022.
At the end of last year, North Macedonia adopted a law that forbids the naming of clubs after “controversial” personalities.
North Macedonia’s Justice Minister Krenar Loga said that naming the club after Mihailov was insulting and provocative to Macedonians and that the figure “was a person close to the Fascist ideology and with his actions, he denied the uniqueness of the Macedonian people”.
“Celebrating and praising Mihailov and his work is causing irritation, intolerance and hatred in Macedonian society,” the official decision reads.
Radev told journalists in Brussels on Thursday that the news of the ban resonates “very badly” in the EU.
“This decision is an expression of panic, of powerlessness, because the authorities in the Republic of North Macedonia must finally admit that there are Macedonian Bulgarians, that there is a Bulgarian presence, not from today and yesterday, but for centuries, for 1,300 years, that there is a Bulgarian history and cultural historical heritage,” said Radev.
While Sofia insists opening such clubs in North Macedonia is about preserving the culture and the right of Bulgarians to freely form associations, Skopje sees it as a threat to attempts to reconcile the two countries’ historical disputes.
A controversial figure
Mihailov (1896 -1990) was a Bulgarian revolutionary in interwar Macedonia and the last leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO). During his leadership, VMRO carried out numerous attacks against Yugoslav officials, the most spectacular being the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934.
He is also known for collaborating with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Admiral Horthy’s Hungary, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Bulgarians see him as the torchbearer of the Bulgarian national liberation movement in Macedonia.
The new Macedonian law mandates that all associations undergo evaluation by a newly formed Commission on the Use of Personal Names. This Commission gave a negative opinion about the ‘Ivan Mihailov’ club on 16 March and the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry was quick to react.
“The institutions in Skopje did not present any real arguments for disputing the registration of the Bulgarian association. They made their decision only by unprincipled, one-sided and tendentious placement of the names of the associations in a distorted historical and ideological context”, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Kostadin Kodjabashev said on Wednesday.
An expert from the ministry, Zhelyazko Radukov, suggested that the decision was selective.
“A total of 17,000 names of associations are being considered by this commission, but at this stage, this is the only decision. It strikes us that it is also the first.”
But in fact, Skopje has also rejected the name of the King Boris III club in Ohrid, citing administrative reasons.
“The Association King Boris III of Ohrid did not submit [its registration] to the Central Registry within the legally stipulated period of 30 days … in accordance with the Law on Associations and Foundations,” the registry in charge of such matters said.
In recent months, some Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia have been vandalised, and one employee was assaulted, while Macedonians have protested against their presence.
Bulgaria reacts to attack on its cultural centre in Skopje
Bulgaria expressed serious concern over the attack on its cultural and information centre in Skopje, with its Foreign Ministry saying the attack had taken place amid an ongoing ‘anti-Bulgarian campaign’ in North Macedonia.
For several years, Bulgaria blocked the opening of EU accession for North Macedonia over historical disputes between the two countries.
In the summer of 2022, it removed the veto on condition that Skopje includes Bulgarians in the constitution – which would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority that cannot be achieved due to political opposition.
While Bulgaria accepts the independence of North Macedonia, it insists that the Macedonian identity and language are Bulgarian in origin and says there is a sizeable Bulgarian minority in the country that is being repressed.
“The erasure of the names of the Bulgarian clubs will not erase the firm determination of Bulgaria, the European institutions and our European partners for the Republic of North Macedonia to include the Macedonian Bulgarians in its constitution,” Radev vowed.