The grand opening of a Bulgarian cultural centre in North Macedonia’s city of Bitola, named after a controversial figure, has caused yet another rupture in Bulgarian and Macedonian relations.
The centre 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, in turn, accused Skopje of promoting “anti-Bulgarian ideology”. Bulgaria’s response came quickly, and new tensions will likely make it almost impossible to lift Bulgaria’s veto before the end of the French EU Council presidency.
“The anti-Bulgarian ideology that is swirling in North Macedonia is deliberately poisoning our relations and undermining the country’s path to the EU,” Radev commented on Thursday (21 April).
Macedonians, including Meto Koloski the head of the United Macedonian Diaspora called for EU action over the centre’s opening. He called it a “blatant anti-Semitic move’ as it was opened across the street from Bitola’s Jewish school. “In a city where the entire Macedonian Jewish population was deported by then-Nazi Bulgarian forces.” he added.
Relations began to improve between the two countries at the end of last year with the election of the new Bulgarian government led by Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who has called for lifting the veto on North Macedonia’s EU integration path. But coalition partners from the BSP, ITN and President Radev oppose Petkov’s approach to North Macedonia.
Dimitar Kovachevski’s government has also shown a desire for dialogue, although nothing concrete has yet been offered on Bulgaria’s demands.
“Not Ivan Mihailov, but other people, after the establishment of the Yugoslav dictatorship in Macedonia, killed and inquisitioned tens of thousands in concentration camps just because they decided to continue to call themselves Bulgarians, 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 explained that 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 for Western Balkans countries is a matter of geopolitical importance for the EU itself. This is the point of view of all EU countries, with the exception of some of those in power in Sofia, he added.