EFA Report on Macedonia in Bulgaria 15, 16 and 17 February 2018

20 February, 2018

European Free Alliance Fact finding mission with Anke Spoorendonk, Andrea Cocco and Lorena Lopez de Lacalle Several Bulgarian institutions were contacted to fix meetings with them but we never got an answer to our letters. We regret the lack of interest on their part to discuss about the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.

I. The first meeting with Macedonian ambassador (in Sofia), Mr. Marjan Gjorchev was cancelled because of the visit of Macedonian President to Sofia on the same dates.

Subjects that we wanted to tackle with him:
• The compliance of Bulgaria with the Charter of Minority rights, focusing the attention to the situation of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.
• The implementation of the (8) ECHR judgements regarding the registration of Macedonian organizations, such as Omo Ilinden Pirin, in Bulgaria.
• His role or competences (if any) to support the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria.
• The 10th anniversary of Bulgarian membership in the European Union and the current Bulgarian EU Council presidency to have some insight on his evaluation of a decade of Bulgaria’s EU membership and an exchange of opinions about the upcoming challenges of the country vis a vis the EU while holding its presidency.

The present Bulgarian Government is a coalition of Prime Minister’s party, GERB, member of the EPP group in the European Parliament, and a far right ultranationalist coalition “United Patriots”, owner of two National TV stations, formed after a vote in the Bulgarian Parliament (134 votes in favor and 101 against, out of a total of 240 MPs).

The visit of the President of Macedonia was the main news on the press, radio and TV. The present Government of the Republic of Macedonia is a Coalition of Macedonian Social Democrats, in minority, and Albanian Parties.

The Republic of Macedonia (former ex Yugoslavia) submitted its membership application in 2004, 13 years after its independence from Yugoslavia. They are very keen on taking the opportunity to push for their dossier under the Bulgarian presidency. It could still take nonetheless 4 or 5 years. The procrastination of its accession is not only due to the necessary adjustments of their economy, judiciary social and political life but also because of the very name of the Republic of Macedonia.

Bulgaria is ready to accept the name of the Republic of Macedonia as such but questioned the existing Macedonian nation, identity history and language. Greece asks for the change of name and proposes “Republic of Northern Macedonia” or even no mention at all of the word Macedonia.

The historical Macedonia, apart from the present Republic of Macedonia, comprises territories in Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and a little territory in Serbia.

Bulgaria denies the existence itself of the Macedonian people in its territory and would be satisfied recognizing the existent Republic of Macedonia with its borders as they are now defined. In any case, the Macedonian issue, even in the Republic of Macedonia is a bone of contention for Bulgaria which will certainly use it as bargaining condition during the Republic of Macedonia’s accession negotiations and pressure will be brought to bear on the Republic to abandon the Macedonian minority of Bulgaria.

The Republic of Macedonia is thus doing its utmost not to upset Bulgaria right now with the question of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. They prefer to keep a low profile for the moment. On the opinion of Mr. Krassimir Kanev, Chair of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, once Macedonia becomes an EU member the matter of the rest of the Macedonian minorities will again be taken on board. Stoyko, Omo Ilinden Pirin Copresident, is not as confident as that.

Some Background Information
minorityrights.org/country/bulgaria/

Bulgaria has 4 main minorities: Turkish and Roma, recognized although discriminated and Macedonians and Pomaks, not recognized.

According to the Bulgarian “National Council for Ethnic and demographic issues”, the list includes the following peoples: Turks, Roma, Russians, Armenians, Vlahs, Karakachans, Greeks, Tatars, Jews, Serbians, Cherkezians and Albanian. But they are treated as a demographic issue, not as minorities and in the official list there is no mention of Macedonians neither of Pomaks.

The Pomaks: descendants of Slavs, not Bulgarians, with their own language, the pomak. Although precise figures are not available in census data, the minority is estimated at about 160,000-240,000 people, dwelling mainly in the Rhodope Mountains. The authorities do not consider the Pomaks a distinct minority.

The Roma: the 2001 census recorded 370,908 Roma (4.6 % of the total population). However, non-governmental sources estimate that there were some 700,000 Roma in Bulgaria. In 2006 the government adopted regulations aimed at reducing segregation of Roma in schools. Nevertheless, Roma remain deeply marginalized in Bulgaria, and routinely confront police abuse and harassment; complaints of ill treatment by police or others are often not investigated. Nationally, unemployment among Roma is estimated at 65%.

The Turks: according to the 2001 census, there were 746,664 Turks in Bulgaria, constituting 9.4% of the total population, most of whom lived in villages in the countryside. Despite a provision in the 1991 Constitution banning ethnically and religiously-based political parties, the predominantly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) narrowly escaped abolition by the authorities. The MRF has gone on to become the third largest party, and has participated in several Bulgarian governments.

The Macedonians: Their existence is not recognized by Bulgaria. The issue of whether a separate Macedonian language is spoken in Bulgaria and, if so, by how many people, is denied by Bulgaria because it has traditionally claimed that there are no such people as Macedonians since they are ethnic Bulgarians. The 1992 census indicated 10,830 Macedonians, but in the 2001 census this figure had decreased to 5,071 although there were claims of official pressure to dissuade people to identify as such. Some unofficial sources have claimed a population of up to 250,000, but this figure cannot be established and because of endless pressures to become Bulgarians, their numbers are constantly dwindling. The majority of Macedonians live in the Pirin region, in the south-western Bulgarian district of Blagoevgrad, although there are reportedly Macedonian communities in Plovdiv, Burgas, Varna, Ruse, Pernik and Kyustendil.

II. Meeting with Stoyko Stoykov, Copresident of OMO Ilinden Pirin on 15.2.2018 and with him and other Copresidents Ivan Singartiysky, Georgi Hristov and other members of OMO Ilinden Pirin on 16.2.2018
www.omoilindenpirin.org/about.asp

We also met with Stoyan Georgiev honorary President and founder of the movement who met Nelly Maes in 2005 in Rennes GA when she was EFA’s President. They joined EFA in 2006 as observers and in 2007 as full members.

10 years after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU the situation has not improved, on the contrary, it has deteriorated. Bulgaria as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights is bound by the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights, the EU Treaties and Directives and international law on protection on minorities.

But Bulgaria does not recognize the existence in its territory of a Macedonian minority. Therefore there is no provision at all for them in the Bulgarian Constitution neither in the Bulgarian national law.

Bulgaria is a very centralized country for which the unity of its territory has become ideological.

The non recognition of the Macedonian minority means that they cannot found political parties, OMO Ilinden Pirin was accepted as a political party in 1999 during the Bulgarian accession negotiations but one year later, the Constitutional Court banned it as a political party and had to become a “Movement”. They have tried in several occasions after that (2002, 2006, 2007 and 2008) but their applications to be recognized as a political party were always rejected by the Court. So, they cannot participate in political life, elections and so on. The only remaining possibility is to include some of their people in other parties’ lists but, officially, those other parties will not help them to overcome such undemocratic situation. Under Bulgarian law there is a 4% threshold for political parties to be able to present themselves in the elections. Macedonians are just under that percentage which means that even if they all voted, it wouldn’t be enough. There are no exceptions to reduce the thresholds for minorities as it is the case in Germany, for example, where the exemption from the 5% clause is exclusively applied to the political party of the danish minority SSW.

Macedonian NGO’s, if they apply openly as Macedonians, are denied their right to exist. Just the word, Macedonian, is enough to refuse their applications, understanding it as a threat to the unity of the Bulgarian nation. But apart from some exceptions, the refusals are usually not justified on the grounds of being Macedonians. The Bulgarian authorities use generally other excuses to refuse them, administrative or others, because in such a way they avoid the possibility of the plaintiffs to bring the case before the Courts, be them national, European or international.

Nonetheless, there are several claims on minority discrimination presented before the ECHR Court and won and there are others pending both in ECHR and in the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

The excuse to deny all their rights is that they are secessionists and separatists, thus contrary to the Bulgarian constitution. They are considered as traitors to Bulgaria. But such accusations are groundless and the Bulgarian authorities have never submitted any proof of it.

The Bulgarian Constitution does not recognize its own minorities but Bulgaria demands the recognition of Bulgarian minorities abroad.

As from 1.1.2018 Bulgaria is applying a recently passed law which in theory could facilitate the registration of NGOs but Macedonian representatives are rather skeptical.

Since the accession period it exists in Bulgaria a Commission for the Rights of Minorities but Macedonians are not represented in it.

Bulgaria is bound by the treaties and international law not only to protect but to promote the language, culture and social and political life of its minorities.

But Macedonian language is not taught in school and there are harsh problems to transmit it. Furthermore, Bulgarians despise the use of it and describe it as the silly language of the peasants. Derision and hate language against minorities is not persecuted either. There is only one Macedonian newspaper in Bulgaria, ‘Peoples will’, on Macedonian and Bulgarian language, founded by a Copresident of Omo Ilinden Pirin. No Macedonian radios, no Macedonian TV in Bulgaria and the TV broadcasting from the Republic of Macedonia cannot be tuned.

Non recognition means also that they do not get any funds from the State. The Macedonian diaspora mainly in Canada and Australia helps them. They feel nonetheless that the Macedonian Republic has let them down, obsessed by its accession to the EU.

Macedonians in Bulgaria, as long as they do not openly say or recognize themselves as Macedonians, do not have any problem to live in Bulgaria.

That has led to a kind of voluntary assimilation of the Macedonian youth that in order to avoid social and economic discrimination prefer to abandon their sense of belonging to a distinct community: the Macedonian community. This lack of consciousness has to be attributed also to the fear of the sufferings of the past: prison, torture and assassinations.

There are not many young people in the Macedonian movement and that is a real problem for the future of their nation.

Omo Ilinden Pirin thinks that a sort of mutual good relations’ agreement should be signed among all the Balkan Countries in order to respect and recognize all the national identities of the region. That would contribute greatly to peace and stability in the Balkans.

Decisions

They rely on international awareness and help. Recognition is The Key word and their maximum priority.

1. In the G.A, in Landshut, we could give them 5 minutes while presenting their motion in order to raise awareness, in EFA too. We should also profit to relaunch a campaign to collect signatures for the Minority Safe Pack Initiative.
2. It has to be discussed with our MEPs but we could organize a Hearing this semester (Bulgarian Presidency) to tackle the issue with a good panel of international experts and some witnesses. It should be done with other MEPs or EP political parties as such.
3. Both as EFA Group and as EFA Party we should make a good follow up of the EP recently adopted resolution (7.2.2018) on protection and non-discrimination with regard to minorities in the EU Member States.
4. In December the EU Monitoring Committee has to establish a report on Bulgaria. The minority question is not in the agenda of the verification procedure of Bulgaria after its accession to the EU but we should try to push for its inclusion from the protection of human and fundamental rights view.
5. With CMC they would like to publish two well documented books on Macedonians in Bulgaria.

III. Press Conference.
The most influential local newspaper attended but published nothing. It has to be pointed out that the journalist carefully took pictures of all the people present in the room. (NGO’s representatives, guests and us).
Conscious of the possibility of having no echo in the Bulgarian press we released a press note which was sent to all the Bulgarian media and put on EFA’s website. (see press release attached).

IV. Meeting with NGO’s
They all attended the press conference and some were disappointed by our point on demanding dialogue to the Bulgarian authorities with the Macedonian minority. They just don’t believe in it anymore and rely entirely on what could be done from abroad. Those were the NGO’s we met:
• Association of Repressed Macedonians in Bulgaria, victims of communist terror,
• Cultural-enlightenment society ‘Nikola Vaptsarov’
• Committee for the Defense of Human Rights “Tolerance“.
• Association Macedonian Club for Ethnic Tolerance
• Macedonian Club for Ethnic Tolerance and Preservation of Macedonian Folklore, Traditions and Customs
• Makedon Suringrad
• OMO “Ilinden”
• Newspaper ‘Will of the people”.

Subjects treated:

Very heavy past of war, oppression, jail and torture, repression, forced emigration, Macedonian families separated by the Greek and Bulgarian border.

Political and social discrimination in all fields (employment etc.)
No existence, no recognition. No possibilities to develop proper activities if not registered, police intimidation and so forth. Flagrant cases of discrimination.

They represent the generation that has most suffered from the oppression. (Only one woman present).

Decisions

1. Taking into account the newly approved legislation on registration of NGO’s it is proposed to submit as many applications as possible to put pressure on the Bulgarian authorities and increase their visibility abroad. Some of them are very skeptical on the matter.
2. They should try to collect as many proofs of discrimination cases to be able to bring their cases before the ECHR and UN with the help of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and to allow us to put pressure on the EU.

V. Meeting with Mr. Krassimir Kanev, Chair of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Sofia 17.2.2018
Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Independent non-governmental organisation for the protection of human rights
www.bghelsinki.org/en/
www.liberties.eu/en/organisations
www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf

There has been no progress at all regarding the Macedonian minority, on the contrary, there is a drawback compared with the years in which Bulgaria was in its accession period.
The minority question was monitored by the EU before the accession, not afterwards.

The ECHR dismisses many cases because it applies a very narrow approach. It only takes into account the violations of art. 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental freedoms on freedom of assembly and association, but not of article 14 which states: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

Nonetheless some cases are won. The most recent, 3 cases that they have won this same January 2018. The plaintiffs received 30.000ˆ on compensation.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee is a member of the “Liberties” Network with headquarters in Berlin and works among others with Liberty Human Rights in the UK, Rights International in Spain or Associazione Antigone in Italy. They are also members of “Civic Solidarity”, “Fair Trials”.

The situation of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria is also deteriorating. Particularly after the formation in May 2017 of the new government in which the far right is part of it. Although the Turkish minority is recognized and has political representation, it is experiencing a curtailment of its linguistic rights. The use of the Turkish language is now forbidden in political campaigns.

As for the ROMO minority it is also discriminated as we have stated before. We talk particularly on the case of Roma children in public institutions. They are nowadays in smaller units of 12-14 children, 50% with disabilities. Material conditions are better but there is a problem of physical abuse. There have been official enquiries and staff has been dismissed as a result of it but it is a systematic problem of which they only get information accidentally.

The priorities are:

1. Recognition: without Recognition there is no Registration and therefore no possibilities of EU financial assistance. Bulgarian Government funds exist but are distributed by the National Council for minorities, Macedonian are not part of it and the head of that Council is the Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister, member of the United Patriots Coalition. There are also local donors that could help but they are afraid of doing so if the Associations are not registered.
2. Therefore, as many applications as possible should be submitted under the new Law.
3. Macedonian NGO’s, OMO Ilinden Pirin etc. should try to collect proofs of discrimination to bring more cases before the ECHR and other institutions with the help of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.
4. Education is a key factor. Languages, if not transmitted, are lost.
5. NGO’s should organize, even under difficult circumstances, cultural activities, teach Macedonian, have contacts with other Macedonians. Here again they face the problem of the involvement of the new generations.

20.2.2018
Lorena Lopez de Lacalle Arizti

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