Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000

S O U T H E A S T E R N    E U R O P E
Bulgaria's Secret

Židas Daskalovski

On 29 February, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled by a vote of nine to three to outlaw OMO-Ilinden-PIRIN, an ethnic Macedonian party. The party has a base in the Pirin Macedonian region of Bulgaria and its full name is the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden-Party of Economic Development and Integration of the Population (the last part produces the acronym PIRIN). It was founded in February 1998 and registered following a Sofia tribunal ruling one year later. In last year's Bulgarian local elections OMO-Ilinden-PIRIN gained five local officials. A year ago, however, the Constitutional Court was petitioned by a group of 61 MPs. (50 MPs from the opposition socialist party, four from the Euro-Left, four from the ruling United Democratic Forces and three independents) to outlaw the party. Subsequently the Bulgarian cabinet and the Interior Minister, Justice Minister and the Prosecutor General supported the petition. For the first time in Bulgaria's post-Communist history the court ruled that a party is illegal.

Reactions to the ruling of the Bulgarian Constitutional Court were immediate. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of the Republic of Macedonia, and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights issued a joint statement condemning this decision. According to these human rights organizations the decision of the Constitutional Court in was in violation of the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom from discrimination. The government of Bulgaria had never recognized Macedonian identity and undertook a variety of repressive measures to suppress its free expression both before and after the fall of Communism. Helsinki Human Rights warned that:

"The decision of the Constitutional Court in fact revives Communist-era theories that not only the actions but also the thoughts and the statements of political groups and leaders could be subject to scrutiny and repression. It is also discriminatory as there are a number of monarchist political parties in the Republic of Bulgaria that have expressly anti-constitutional views and yet operate freely and routinely take part in elections. As such, the decision violates a number of basic human rights principles."

The Constitutional Court declared the party unconstitutional on the basis of article 22 paragraph 2 of the Bulgarian Constitution, which prohibits organizations whose activity is directed against Bulgaria's sovereignty and territorial integrity and the unity of the nation. However, the party itself has never made any separatist statements; it declared in the beginning that it would respect the constitutional and legal system of Bulgaria and carry out its political activities peacefully. OMO-Ilinden was registered as an all-Bulgarian political party, as the Bulgarian constitution prohibits formation of political parties along ethnic and religious lines. This decision could lead to an effective ban of the party, deprivation of its juridical person status, confiscation of its property and the prevention of its taking part in elections.

The responses to this development across the border in Macedonia, were stalwart. The Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski expressed regret at the decision. While Trajkovski acknowledged that it is "unusual" for a president to comment on a decision by another country's court, he said he felt compelled to express his opinion on what he described as a "sensitive issue." The Macedonian Foreign Ministry said the court decision appears to have been based on "political arguments" rather than on legal considerations, adding that it was an "unprecedented act."

The Macedonian Premier, the Parliament, a number of ministers, political parties and NGO's all condemned the outlawing of OMO-Ilinden. On March 10 a peaceful rally was staged in the front of the Bulgarian embassy in Skopje. Although tensions were high the protest ended without incident.

Meanwhile Bulgaria rejected Macedonian criticism. Foreign Ministry spokesman Radko Vlaikov said that "those who believe that the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities offers legal justification for extremist activities are wrong." He added that the convention "applies to the rights of existing minorities but does not sanction setting up new minority groups." Vlaikov also said that Bulgaria guarantees the individual rights of all its citizens but "cannot tolerate separatist manifestations" and noted that Sofia hopes the "excellent relations" with Macedonia will not be affected by the outlawing of the party.

Other Bulgarian commentators reacted more soberly. The dissenting opinion of Margarita Zlatareva, one of the judges of the Constitutional Court, was that the activity of a party should be judged by the actions and statements of its leaders after it was registered. According to Zlatareva, the collected proofs on the work of OMO-Ilinden after its founding congress are not convincing in that its activity is directed against the territorial integrity of Bulgaria. "These are ideas which we do not like which are not pleasant both for the incumbents and for a large part of the public, but we cannot forbid ideas by force. The power of statehood lies in allowing different opinions rather than banning them," said Zlatareva. Stephan Nikolov, a well known Bulgarian sociologist, explained in the Sofia daily 24 asa that the outlawing of OMO-Ilinden should not have occurred since it seriously threatens the democratization of Bulgaria. Nikolov said that ethnic identity can not be regulated by the state and that therefore he cannot accept the administrative decision of the Bulgarian court. The influential weekly Kapital was of the opinion that OMO-Ilinden was a moderate party which could not under any circumstances threaten the territorial integrity of Bulgaria. Criticizing the decision of the Constitutional Court, Kapital warned that it might lead to more extremist reactions by ethnic Macedonians in Bulgaria.

OMO-Ilinden-PIRIN chairman Singartiiski warned that the party will contest the ruling before the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. In fact, in 1998 the European Human Rights Commission ruled that a petition by Boris Pankov and OMO-Ilinden against the ban by the Bulgarian authorities to register the organization and their ban for rallies and meetings, was admissible. A number of human rights organizations, as well as the Macedonian based Liberal Party, announced that they will help OMO in the preparation for the proceedings in Strasbourg. The editorial comment in Kapital warned that Bulgaria stands to loose the case and be considered as another rogue state, of the type Turkey and Greece are considering their human rights record. Hopefully, this episode will democratize Bulgarian attitude towards its minorities and the Macedonians in particular and it will not cause serious anxiety in the relations between Skopje and Sofia.

Židas Daskalovski, 3 March 2000

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