Bulgarian authorities on Saturday morning condemned what they call the deliberate burning down of a Bulgarian cultural center in North Macedonia.
In April, the Ivan Mihailov Cultural Center opened in Bitola, North Macedonia. While Mihailov is considered a national hero in Bulgaria, in North Macedonia and by many historians, he is considered a Nazi ally.
Mihailov did not recognize the Macedonian identity and for some time during World War II lived in Zagreb with Ante Pavelic, the head of a fascist organization and later leader of the Croatian Nazi puppet state. He then attempted to establish a similar state in North Macedonia but failed.
Macedonians fiercely resisted the naming of the cultural center, whose opening was informally attended by high-ranking Bulgarian officials.
After the arson attack on the center on Saturday, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry handed a protest note to the Acting Head of the Embassy of the Republic of North Macedonia in Sofia, Vladimir Krastevski.
The following day, Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said the incident did not affect the dynamic and atmosphere of talks with Bulgaria, which continues to block Skopje’s EU membership bid.
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov called the fire “an attempt to provoke and destabilize our relations with our neighbors,” adding that his government will continue to work to protect the rights of the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia.
He expects punitive measures from the Macedonian authorities. “The region’s future should not be held hostage to attempts to destabilize malicious fringe groups,” Petkov said.
For Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, this is “another provocation, part of the longstanding anti-Bulgarian campaign in North Macedonia”, which was tolerated by the authorities in North Macedonia.
Registering citizens with Bulgarian identity in the country’s constitution as nation-building peoples and providing safe and irreversible guarantees to overcome hate speech are the most important conditions for lifting the veto in the EU membership negotiation process, he said.
At the time of the incident, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska was visiting Skopje and visiting the cultural center in Bitola – which officially opened on April 17 in the presence of Petkov and Vice President Iliana Yotova – after it burned down.
“I saw on the footage of one of the cameras a man who leisurely arrives on his bicycle, takes a tube of flammable liquid and calmly pours the liquid out on the doorstep. (…) I suspect the man has some injuries from that fire, perhaps he will seek medical attention. The man was wearing a mask,” Genchovska said.
“I don’t think this will affect our relations with North Macedonia. I wouldn’t say our relationships are on fire. At the moment our relations are normal and constructive, there is normal working dialogue,” she said.