The opening ceremony of a Bulgarian cultural center in the northern Macedonian city of Bitola, named after a controversial figure, has led to another rupture in Bulgarian and Macedonian relations.
The center was named after Ivan (Vancho) Mihailov. The decision prompted an immediate reaction from Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski, who accused Sofia of proposing a “Nazi” as a symbol of the two countries’ rapprochement.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev accused Skopje of promoting “anti-Bulgarian ideology”. Bulgaria‘s response was swift, and fresh tensions are likely to make it almost impossible to lift Bulgaria’s veto before the end of France’s EU presidency.
“The anti-Bulgarian ideology swirling in North Macedonia is deliberately poisoning our relations and undermining the country’s path to the EU,” Radev commented on Thursday (April 21).
Macedonians, including Meto Koloski, the head of the United Macedonian Diaspora, have called for EU action to open the center. He called it a “blatant anti-Semitic move” since it opened across from Bitola’s Jewish school. “In a city where the entire Macedonian Jewish population was deported by the then Nazi Bulgarian forces,” he added.
Relations between the two countries began to improve late last year with the election of the new Bulgarian government led by Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who has called for the lifting of the veto on North Macedonia’s path to EU integration. But coalition partners from the BSP, ITN and President Radev are opposed to Petkov’s actions towards North Macedonia.
Dimitar Kovachevski’s government has also expressed a desire for dialogue, although nothing concrete on Bulgaria‘s demands has yet been offered.
“Not Ivan Mihailov, but other people killed and interrogated tens of thousands in concentration camps after the establishment of the Yugoslav dictatorship in Macedonia, just because they decided to continue calling themselves Bulgarians and not Macedonians. This is real fascism,” Radev claimed.
Authorities in Sofia are pushing for constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of Bulgarians in North Macedonia, make progress on historical disputes and eliminate hate speech against Bulgaria. Pendarovski said he had the political will to enshrine the Bulgarian minority in the constitution, but asked for a guarantee that the next Bulgarian government would not ask for more from Skopje.
According to Kovachevski, EU membership of the Western Balkan countries is a matter of geopolitical importance for the EU itself. This is the position of all EU countries, except for some rulers in Sofia, he added.