Anger erupted after top officials from Sofia attended the opening of a Bulgarian cultural club in North Macedonia that is named after controversial Nazi collaborator Ivan Mihailov.
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Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (centre) with Bulgarian Vice-President Iliana Iotova leading the unofficial Bulgarian delegation at the opening of the Bulgarian club in Bitola, North Macedonia. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Saturday’s opening of a Bulgarian cultural club in the North Macedonia town of Bitola named after Ivan Mihailov, a controversial 20th Century nationalist movement leader who became a Nazi collaborator, has been criticised as a threat to ongoing attempts to achieve a breakthrough in the two countries’ dispute over history.
The opening of the cultural club named after Mihailov, which was attended by top Bulgarian politicians, “does not contribute to rapprochement between the two peoples”, North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski said at the weekend.
The event in Bitola was attended, in an unofficial capacity, by a spectrum of top Bulgarian politicians, including Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, Vice-President Iliyana Yotova and Foreign Minister Teodora Genchovska.
Bulgarian Socialist Party member and MP Dragomir Stoynev, MP Andrei Gyurov and former defence minister and leader of the right-wing VMRO-BND party, Krasimir Karakachanov, were also present, as well as former foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva.
The event was held amid an increased police presence and a nearby protest by outraged locals.
Dragi Gjorgiev, co-chair of the joint North Macedonia-Bulgaria Commission for Historical and Educational Affairs, said it was nothing short of a “deliberate provocation”.
“This is a historical figure who, due to his ideas about the non-existence of the Macedonian nation, is extremely negatively perceived by Macedonians,” Gjorgiev told Deutsche Welle on Monday.
“And when the name of such a person is imposed as the name of a cultural club on the territory of North Macedonia, and that person has nothing to do with culture, then it can be understood only as an arrogant provocation, or even as an act that leans towards the opposite of the so-called friendship [which Sofia says it wants],” he added.
The opening of the club comes amid fresh attempts from both countries, as well as from the EU, for a breakthrough in the bilateral history dispute which would lift Bulgaria’s blockade on its smaller neighbour’s progress towards the EU.
In 2020, Bulgaria, then led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, blocked the start of EU accession talks for North Macedonia over the historical disputes between the two countries.
Among Bulgaria’s most notable demands, Sofia wants to scrap from the EU negotiating framework the use of the term ‘Macedonian language’, which it insists is just a dialect of the Bulgarian language, despite the fact that it was recognised by the UN in 1977.
Sofia also insists that North Macedonia should accept its views that historically speaking, today’s Macedonians have Bulgarian origins. It further insists that there is no Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, but at the same time claims that there is a big Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia, which is being repressed.
Reacting to the opening of the cultural club, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski urged Bulgaria to allow the same level of freedom at home to Bulgarian citizens who define themselves as Macedonian.
“North Macedonia’s government. as well as the public. is eagerly waiting for the time to come when our neighbours [Bulgaria] will allow its citizens who, for example, define themselves as Macedonian, to practice their own convictions in the same way, freely,” Kovacevski said.
The event in Bitola was protected by police, amid a nearby protest by outraged locals. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Mihailov seen as ruthless anti-Macedonian and Nazi collaborator
Although regarded by right-wingers in Bulgaria as a national hero, Ivan Mihailov, also known by his nickname Radko, who was the last leader of the clandestine Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, VMRO, has a very negative image in North Macedonia.
Born during Ottoman rule in 1896 near the town of Stip, in today’s North Macedonia, Mihailov on one hand advocated for the formation of an independent Macedonia, within geographical borders that now cover today’s North Macedonia, western Bulgaria and northern Greece, with its capital in Thessaloniki.
But on the other hand, Mihailov did not recognise the existence of a Macedonian national identity as separate from the Bulgarian identity. According to some historical accounts, Mihailov ruthlessly ordered assassinations of his revolutionary compatriots if they were seen as competition to him inside the VMRO.
During the World War II, Mihailov lived for a period in Zagreb, as the guest of Ante Pavelic, the founder and head of the fascist organization known as the Ustasa and later the leader of the Independent State of Croatia, NDH, Nazi puppet state.
Before the end of the war, in September 1944, Mihailov returned to Skopje, where he tried but failed to establish a Nazi puppet state similar to the NDH in Croatia.
After World War II, he was living in exile, regarded as an enemy of the state and Nazi collaborator by Socialist Yugoslavia, of which Macedonia was part. He died in Rome in 1990.
After the event in Bitola, optimism about a speedy breakthrough in the bilateral dispute appeared to diminish.
“Even the biggest optimists are starting to realise that after this reincarnation of fascism by Bulgarian state leaders in Bitola, Macedonia will not enter the EU,” said former parliament speaker Tito Petkovski, the leader of the small New Social Democratic Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.
“The message [to people in North Macedonia] from Bitola is clear – accept that you are Bulgarians and only then we will let you start the EU accession talks. They [Bulgaria] want us to discuss whether Macedonians and the Macedonian language exist at all,” Petkovski remarked.
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