Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The issue of whether a separate Macedonian language is spoken in Bulgaria and, if so, by how many people, is highly controversial. Bulgaria has traditionally claimed that there are no such people as Macedonians since they are, in reality, 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. In the 2011 census only 1,654 people declared themselves to be of Macedonian ethnicity. However in its 2014 report, the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of Minorities reported that only three pre-defined ethnic groups were presented in the census questionnaire, with remaining ethnicities having to declare under ‘other’; furthermore, Macedonians were reportedly discouraged or obstructed from declaring their identities. As a result, many Macedonian groups reject the census figures entirely. 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.
South-western Bulgaria, where ethnic Macedonians are concentrated, became a part of Bulgaria in 1912.
Immediately after World War II, the Bulgarian Communist Party recognized a separate Macedonian identity, even to the extent of obliging ethnic Bulgarians in the Pirin region to define themselves as Macedonians on their identity cards. The authorities never published the 1946 census results for Macedonians, but some claimed that they exceeded 250,000.
In 1947, Macedonian language and history were made compulsory in schools in the Pirin region. However, the deterioration of relations between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia in 1948 led the authorities to replace its policy of recognizing a separate Macedonian ethnicity with increasingly aggressive policies of assimilation. The government ended Macedonian-language education; in the early 1960s it revoked identity cards giving the bearer’s nationality as Macedonian and reissued them with the inscription of Bulgarian. Macedonian activists were prosecuted and some Macedonians compulsorily resettled. In order to defuse irredentist sentiments, the authorities invested heavily in the Pirin region. These policies led more Macedonians to take up identifying as Bulgarians, and the census of 1956 recorded fewer than 190,000 Macedonians.
With the end of the communist regime in 1989, several Macedonian political parties were established, most notably the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden (UMO-Ilinden), which takes its name from the St Elijah’s Day or Ilinden (20 July) rising against Ottoman rule in 1903. The authorities soon circumscribed its activities, however, citing article 11 of the 1991 Constitution banning the formation of ethnic or religious parties. The government also relied on a constitutional provision defining Bulgaria as a homogenous, mono-ethnic state, in which all activities ‘aimed against the unity of the state’ are banned. UMO-Ilinden’s principal goal was to secure the recognition of the Macedonians as a minority in Bulgaria entitled to their own cultural and educational facilities. Extremists within UMO-Ilinden and its pro-Bulgarian rival party, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Union of Macedonian Organizations, advocated respectively the annexation of the Pirin region by Macedonia and the annexation of Macedonia by Bulgaria.
When the government established a consultative body on minority issues in 1997, the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Questions, Macedonians were excluded. Under EU pressure in the course of its accession process, Bulgaria allowed registration of the Macedonian party ‘UMO-Ilinden-PIRIN’ (the acronym is also transcribed as OMO) in 1999, but in 2000 the Bulgaria’s constitutional court agreed with a government motion to ban it as threatening the unity of the state.
Without their own party, Macedonian voters were left to choose from among other parties in Bulgaria, all of which denied the existence of a separate Macedonian identity.
In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Bulgaria had violated Macedonians’ right to freedom of assembly by prohibiting commemorative activities of the previous incarnation of the UMO-Ilinden organization.
In subsequent years, Macedonians have reportedly faced harassment. In July 2005, members of a nationalist Bulgarian party disrupted a Macedonian commemoration in Razlog with violent intimidation, and police refused to provide protection. In September 2007, police in Blagoevgrad, whose mayor has been virulently anti-Macedonian, prevented a rally by members of UMO-Ilindin-PIRIN by detaining participants and seizing posters. Police in the town had previously gone door-to-door to question party members.
In 2005 the ECtHR again ruled against Bulgaria for its ban of the UMO-Ilinden-PIRIN party, and the ruling came into effect in January 2006. However, the government has assiduously avoided action to comply with the ruling, with domestic courts citing Bulgaria’s 1991 Constitution, which gives primacy to domestic over international law. Under increasing pressure from the EU while in the final phases of its accession process, Bulgaria proceeded to pass new domestic legislation on political parties. Yet when the UMO-Ilindin-PIRIN party attempted to re-register, the government aggressively challenged the signatures on its required petition. Signatories reported police harassment, and Bulgarian media indulged in scornful coverage of the party, reinforcing the popular prejudice that Macedonians do not constitute a separate ethnicity, and that claims to the contrary amount to secessionism.
In February 2007, less than two months into Bulgaria’s EU membership, its Supreme Court confirmed lower court rejections of the party’s registration. In September 2007, the European Commission reminded Bulgaria of its obligation to respect the ECtHR ruling, as well as the EU Directive that all EU citizens are protected from racial or ethnic discrimination. Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini stated that the Commission would inquire whether that Directive has been adequately incorporated into Bulgarian legislation. To this day the party is not recognized, and members have accused authorities of subjecting them to harassment, intimidation and detention.
The injunction on the UMO-Ilinden-PIRIN party is not the only case of denial of Macedonian identity by Bulgarian courts. In 2009 and again in 2010 the Sofia Appellate Court upheld decisions of the Blagoevgrad Regional Court to refuse to register two Macedonian non-profit associations. In both decisions the Sofia Appellate Court ruled that ‘in Bulgaria there is no separate Macedonian ethnicity’. The court went even further in reasoning that the very existence of an organization of ethnic Macedonians is contrary to the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and origin, among other grounds.
The most recent report of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2014 noted the reluctance of the Bulgarian authorities to expand the personal scope of the Framework Convention to the Macedonians. It also observed that the long-term effect of the difficulties Macedonians experience regarding their freedom of assembly and association is to create a climate of intimidation and harassment that runs counter to convention provisions.
Updated July 2018
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