Macedonian Minority in Bulgaria at the Library of Congress

Macedonian Minority in Bulgaria at the Library of Congress

On June 9, 2022, UMD President Metodija A. Koloski delivered remarks on his latest paper “Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Constitution Guarantees Protections of Ethnic, Cultural, Linguistic and Religious Minorities,” during the 11th Conference of the Bulgarian Studies Association “Bulgaria: 30 Years After the Fall of Communism” at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The paper focuses on the unrecognized Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian authorities have institutionalized discrimination against the Macedonian Minority in Bulgaria.

Below is the video followed by the full text of the remarks prepared for delivery:

11th Conference of the Bulgarian Studies Association
Bulgaria: 30 Years After the Fall of Communism

Thank you, Markus and Angela, and your entire teams for organizing the 11th Conference of the Bulgarian Studies Association: Bulgaria: 30 Years After the Fall of Communism. Quite timely coinciding with the opening of the Victims of Communism Museum in Washington, D.C.

I am so pleased that this conference welcomes diverse perspectives, which are needed and healthy for building an inclusive democratic society, whether in the United States or Bulgaria.

The title of my paper is Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Constitution Guarantees Protections of Ethnic, Cultural, Linguistic and Religious Minorities.

Since the fall of Communism, as you know Bulgaria has become a NATO and European Union member, and as such, Bulgaria has democratic obligations.

The Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria guarantees fundamental rights and protections of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious minorities in the country, which I will get to in a moment.

In my paper, I briefly analyze Bulgaria’s rationale behind its institutionalized policy of not recognizing a Macedonian minority within its borders.

In 1971, the CIA coined the term “Macedonian Syndrome” in reference to Bulgaria’s intense preoccupation with claiming Macedonia as being one and the same as Bulgaria. The campaign has always been prevalent; it gained traction during the communist regime when Bulgaria was a Soviet puppet state. Westerners could never truly understand this strange and unreciprocated obsession with Macedonia – the independent country of Macedonia recognized by Bulgaria in 1992. I do not use the terminology “North Macedonia” to not lend credence to the unconstitutional and undemocratic process that led to the renaming of the country under the Prespa Agreement.

Successive Bulgarian governments in the past have dreamt of uniting Macedonian lands with Bulgaria – and if a recent protest in Sofia, which displayed posters saying, “Macedonia is Bulgaria” is evidence, this dream is alive and well amongst pockets of the general population. In my research, I discovered a romanticized view of Macedonia.

Popular songs written in Macedonia, and performed by Macedonian musical artists, like “Makedonsko Devojce” or Macedonian girl, “Nazad Nazad Kalino Mome” or Back Away Back Away Kalino Girl, “Ne Kazvaj Libe Dobro Nojkh,” or My love, Don’t say Good night are regularly played on Bulgarian TV and presented as Bulgarian folk songs.

In my own personal experience, attending Bulgarian functions in D.C., I’ve witnessed this. However, what always surprised me is, one or two people upon learning I was Macedonian, would come up to me and say, “oh my grandmother or my grandfather was Macedonian.” This sparked my interest to learn more.

I also discovered territorial pretensions towards Macedonia in Bulgarian music. One example: In 2010, the popular Bulgarian singer Gloria came out with a song titled “Kade I Da Odish,” or Wherever you go. The lyrics state that if anyone claims Bulgaria is small, don’t worry there are 8 more lands that belong to us (alluding to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia), and may Bulgaria be united, and may everyone know it.

Bulgarian political elite, historians, and academics claim that Macedonians are nothing but western Bulgarians, and their language is a western Bulgarian dialect.

In the recent Bulgarian elections, political TV advertisements by the European Member of Parliament Angel Dzhambazki, who belongs to the nationalist Bulgarian IMRO Political Party, included Lake Ohrid in Macedonia as Bulgarian lands calling on voters to support their party. The former Bulgarian Minister of Defense Krasimir Karakachanov regularly gave interviews to Bulgarian media outlets asserting the viewpoint that there is no such thing as a Macedonian. What I discovered is several of these political elite built up their careers based on disputing a Macedonian identity, rather than a real platform to help improve Bulgarian society.

My paper brings up more examples, not just among smaller parties, but also in mainstream Bulgarian politics and the political elite.

As a result of all this, anytime the rights of a Macedonian minority are brought up in Bulgaria, they are seen as a threat to the existence of a Bulgarian state and only brought up in the context of relations between Bulgaria and its neighbor Macedonia. Bulgaria has not come to terms yet that there are a group of individuals within their state that identify as Macedonian, separate from a Bulgarian national identity.

Let me now shift to why the Bulgarian constitution is so important in this debate. I highlight a few articles of importance:

Article 6 (2): “All citizens* shall be equal before the law. There shall be no privileges or restriction of rights on the grounds of race, national or social origin, ethnic self-identity, sex, religion, education, opinion, political affiliation, etc…”

Article 29: “(1) No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or to forcible assimilation.”

Article 36: “(2) Citizens whose mother tongue is not Bulgarian shall have the right to study and use their own language alongside the compulsory study of the Bulgarian language.”

Article 40: “(1) The press and the other mass information media shall be free and shall not be subjected to censorship.”

Article 43: “(1) All citizens shall have the right to peaceful and unarmed assembly for meetings and demonstrations.”

Article 54: “Everyone shall have the right to avail himself of the national and universal human cultural values and to develop his own culture in accordance with his ethnic self-identification, which shall be recognized and guaranteed by the law.”

Article 57: “(1) The fundamental civil rights shall be irrevocable.”

This is the law of the land. Since the fall of Communism, Bulgarian governments have continuously broken these laws, as well as the European legal rights of minorities and communities. Let’s dig further:

According to Article 6, all Bulgarian citizens, regardless of national origin or ethnic identity, are equal. Bulgarian citizens of Macedonian national origin and ethnic identity have no rights.

On July 4–11, 2011, the UN independent expert on minority issues Gay McDougall conducted a fact-finding mission in Bulgaria, at the invitation of the then Bulgarian government, and issued a report of those findings on January 3, 2012.

McDougall: “the (Bulgarian) Government denies the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority.” This was in 2011. This past January, the current Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov in a speech before Bulgarian Parliament stated: “Topics about the Macedonian minority are absolutely inadmissible. I will not even discuss it.” Petkov referred to the Macedonian cultural association in Bulgaria, OMO Ilinden, as a “provocation.”

The UN report states “However, the Government denies the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority and does not recognize the Pomaks (considered as Bulgarian- speaking Muslims by the Government) as a distinct minority — claiming that both groups are in fact ethnic Bulgarians.”

The independent UN report also states, “Representatives of those who self-identify as ethnic Macedonians and as Pomaks claim that their minority rights are consequently violated.”
The UN fact-finding mission of Bulgaria confirmed that “Ethnic Macedonians consider it of crucial importance that their ethnic identity and distinctiveness be officially recognized.”

Continues: “Community representatives strongly dispute census findings reflecting very low and declining numbers of Macedonians, and claim that the true population is many times higher.”

Furthermore, “The Macedonian language is not recognized or taught in schools and Macedonians are not represented on the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues,” according to the independent UN report on Bulgaria.

The independent UN report on Bulgaria notes that “In the 2011 census (in Bulgaria), 1,654 people officially declared themselves as ethnic Macedonians. The 2001 census recorded 5,071 Macedonians.”

For my paper, I analyzed Bulgarian Census data from 1946, 1956, 1965, 1992, 2001, and 2011.

In 1946, 160,541 individuals identified as Macedonian in the Bulgarian Census.
In 1956, the number rose to 187,789.

In 1965, the number fell to 9,632.

In 1992, the number rose to 10,803, of which 3,500 indicated their mother tongue was Macedonian.

In 2001, the number fell to 3,117.

In 2011, the number fell even further to 1,654.

Bulgaria underwent a new census recently. While no data is out yet, the 2021 U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report on Bulgaria cited cases in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria of “national census counters told individuals they visited that “Macedonian” was not an available option for ethnic identification.”

In the same report, Authorities continued to deny registration of ethnic-Macedonian activist groups such as the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden, the Society of Oppressed Macedonians-Victims of Communist Terror, the Association for Defense of Individual Civil Rights, and the Macedonian Ethnic Tolerance Club in Bulgaria, despite 14 prior decisions by the ECHR that the denials violated the groups’ freedom of association. In one example on May 31, the Sofia appellate court confirmed the Registration Agency’s decision of November 2020 denying registration of the Society of Oppressed Macedonians-Victims of Communist Terror on the grounds that the group would pursue a political agenda threatening the unity and security of the nation and would violate the rights of the rest of the population in the country that does not identify as Macedonian.

Let me shift back to the UN report, which concludes “In accordance with its Constitutional provisions to respect the right to ethnic self-identification, the Government should ensure and protect this right, as well as the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association of members of the Macedonian and Pomak minorities.”

The report made recommendations to Bulgaria, which Bulgaria has not implemented, despite it being Bulgarian authorities who invited the independent expert on minority rights to visit Bulgaria on a fact-finding mission:

“The Government’s position not to allow the use of mother tongue languages as the language of instruction in schools, particularly in regions where minorities are a majority or constitute a large percentage of the population, is a concern for minorities, including the Roma, Turkish Muslims and Macedonians. Bilingual education commencing in the early years of schooling would enable children to become proficient in their mother tongue as well as in Bulgarian. Furthermore, it would enable them to maintain their ethnic and linguistic identity and help minority pupils to achieve positive educational outcomes. The Government is urged to consider introducing bilingual education and to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.”

The UN is not the only institution, which has shed light on the violations of the Macedonian minority’s fundamental rights in Bulgaria. Various Macedonian cultural associations and organizations have brought cases before Bulgarian courts based on discrimination and violation of their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.

For those unaware, to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), all domestic courts must be exhausted. Domestic Bulgarian courts denied registration of various Macedonian cultural organizations, and these cases were brought before the ECHR — the ECHR found Bulgaria in violation of the fundamental rights of the Macedonian minority. To date, Bulgaria has not implemented the decisions of these cases.

In June 2021, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers met and urged “Bulgaria to give high-level message on freedom of association of the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and similar associations.”

Bulgaria has refused Macedonian organizations to be registered under Bulgarian laws. The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers “was particularly concerned that, more than 15 years after the first judgment in this group, associations aiming to “achieve the recognition of a Macedonian minority” continue to be routinely refused registration and this seeming to be, at least partly, due to a larger problem of disapproval of their goals.”

At the European Union, members of the European Parliament have raised the question of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria with not much luck, and Bulgarian officials denied answering any questions on this matter.

With this paper, I try to build a case that recognition of minorities and affording them all civil rights guaranteed under Bulgarian law does not jeopardize the interests of the country. On the contrary, Bulgarian society is enriched by its minorities.

Ethnic Macedonians in Bulgaria are seen as a Communist ruse or an instrument of the Republic to meddle in internal affairs. Ethnic Macedonians in Bulgaria are an inconvenient truth, which the Bulgarian authorities should confront sooner or later, in particular, as ethnic Macedonians are seeking basic rights which most nations would accord a minority group in their country. Dealing with minorities in a respectful way should not be an existential threat to the Bulgarian State and would allow it to move past a narrative locked in the 19th century and from the times of the Treaty of San Stefano.

There is much more to discuss on this topic, and I look forward to your unbiased feedback on how I can improve my paper.