Just Access welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Call for input of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism for her Report to the 78th session of General Assembly. Just Access would like to inform the Special Rapporteur about the recent developments regarding the establishment of organisations in North Macedonia that carry names and promote the ideology of prominent fascists and collaborators of the Nazi regime during World War II, as well as the measures adopted by the State, the efficacy of the measures and some civil society initiatives to prevent and combat the manifestations of glorifying Nazism and to eliminate racial discrimination.
As will be shown, several organisations that have been founded in recent years in North Macedonia seek to glorify historical figures that are known fascists and collaborators of the Nazi regime. In view of this fact, the Macedonian authorities have adopted legislative and political measures that have been effective in limiting the expansion of such organisations. However, these organisations continue to be supported by the State authorities of Bulgaria, an aspect that is particularly worrying.
This is especially relevant in view of the concerns expressed by of the UN General Assembly with respect to the glorification of “those who fought against the anti-Hitler coalition, collaborated with the Nazi movement and committed war crimes and crimes against humanity”.1 In this resolution, UNGA also emphasised the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur that “any commemorative celebration of the Nazi regime, its allies and related organizations, whether official or unofficial, should be prohibited” by States.
The establishment of organisations glorifying fascist figures in North Macedonia
This submission will focus on two organisations that have been established in North Macedonia, “Ivan Mihajlov Cultural Centre” and “Tsar Boris the Third”.
Тhe association “Ivan Mihajlov Cultural Centre” was registered by the Central Registry of Republic of North Macedonia on 15 March 2019 in Bitola, North Macedonia.2 The Statute of this Association provides that its mission is to promote the life, ideology, rehabilitation and illumination of the image and work of Ivan (Vancho) Mihailov. This figure is a known collaborator of fascists during World War II, who issued numerous monographies, brochures, and articles in which he denied the existence of the Macedonian people and the specificity of the Macedonian language. Moreover, Mihailov issued numerous arrest and execution warrants against Macedonian intellectuals and members of the revolutionary movement.
On 16 April 2022, the club “Vanco Mihajlov” opened its doors in the centre of Bitola’s Jewish neighbourhood, in a house that used to belong to the Jewish family that was deported by the Nazi regime.3 The organisation timed its opening on a Shabbat that coincided with the first day of Pesach, one of the most significant Jewish holidays. According to the Jewish community and the Holocaust Fund of the Jews of Macedonia, “this act represents an offence to the Jews and a threat to the human rights and freedoms, violation of the democratic character and values of modern Europe”.4 Since its establishment, the association’s Facebook page has been continuously publishing posts that deny the uniqueness of the Macedonian people and language, and the role of the fighters in the anti-fascist national liberation war (1941-1945) in the creation of the independent Macedonian state. The organisation calls on citizens of North Macedonia to identify as Bulgarians. These posts propagate a distorted view of Ivan Mihajlov, and incite hatred and discrimination against the heirs, admirers and continuers of the works of the Union of Fighters, as well as against the Macedonian people and the Macedonian language.
The association for the Affirmation of the Cultural Values of the Macedonian Bulgarians “Tsar Boris Treti” Ohrid was founded on 9 November 2021, admitted to the Central Registry on 16 November and approved on 17 November 2021. Tsar Boris the Third is associated with the persecution and murder of Jews from the occupied territories by fascist Bulgaria during World War II. Tsar Boris the Third and the Government of Imperial Bulgaria are directly responsible for the deportation of more than 11,300 Jews from the occupied territories in Macedonia, Greece and Serbia, to the Treblinka extermination camp. On 21 January 1941, Tsar Boris the Third signed the anti-Jewish Law for the Protection of the Nation and adopted the slogan of Nazi Germany ‘One Tsar, One People, One State. Tsar Boris was subsequently condemned as a conspirator in the implementation of the so-called ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’.
In August 2022, the Jewish Community and the Holocaust Fund of the Jews of Macedonia strongly condemned the registration of the association, considering it “a blatant example of denial and distortion of the Holocaust, of mockery and insult to the Jews”.5 The actions of the Tsar Boris the Third organisation are clearly not justifiable as an exercise of freedom of association, but instead fall under the scope of Art. 4(b) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which obliges States to “declare illegal and prohibit organizations which promote and incite racial discrimination”. As held also by this Special Rapporteur, revisionism and attempts to falsify history may, in certain circumstances, fall under the prohibition of hate speech.
Moreover, it is also recognised that incitement may be express or implied, through actions such as displays of racist symbols or the distribution of materials as well as words, or – as in this case – through the glorification of antisemitic figures. Under Art. 87 of the Durban Declaration, States committed to move forward in acting against organisations that disseminate ideas based on racial superiority or hatred. The General Assembly has also encouraged States to take measures in order to “prevent revisionism in respect of the Second World War and the denial of the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the Second World War”.6 Such measures have been adopted by the State of North Macedonia.
Measures adopted by North Macedonia
First, in September 2022, an ad hoc governmental advisory body on the use of names of historical figures of associations was formed. The effectiveness of this measure is attested by the fact that as early as October 2022, the body denied a request to register an organisation under the name Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, another figure closely connected to fascist ideology.
On the 13 October 2022, the Commission for Prevention and Protection from Discrimination of North Macedonia issued a decision concerning the Ivan Mihajlov Cultural Centre. It found that this organisation committed “a prolonged and repeated harassment tantamount to severe discrimination based on national and ethnic affiliation, other beliefs and personal social status in the field of action in associations, foundations or other organizations based on membership”, as well as “a prolonged and repeated calling, incitement and instruction of harassment as a severe form of discrimination on the basis of national and ethnic affiliation, other belief and personal social status in the field of activity in associations, foundations or other membership-based organizations”.7 In addition, the Commission held that the Ministry of Justice of North Macedonia committed “indirect discrimination due to failure to exercise its legal powers, which enabled the Ivan Mihajlov Cultural Center in Bitola to carry out actions prohibited by Article 5 and Article 6 of the Law on Prevention and Protection from Discrimination”.
On 2 November 2022 the Government of North Macedonia adopted an Amendment Act of the Law on Associations and Foundations.8 It included a provision prohibiting associations to carry “names, surnames, nicknames, pseudonyms, abbreviations and initials of persons who have on any basis, ways or forms been related to racial, religious, national, ethnic and other impatience, intolerance, hatred, genocide, extremism, propagation or support of fascism, Nazism, National Socialism and the Third Reich”. The law has a retroactive effect and applies to already registered associations and foundations. The law stipulates that associations and foundations that contravene the aforementioned provisions are dissolved and deleted from the register after the Minister of Justice makes a decision to this effect.
The Amendment complies with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, according to which refusing to register an association whose name is defamatory does not constitute a particularly severe interference: it is not disproportionate to require the applicants to change the proposed name.9 Moreover, Art. 17 of the ECHR prohibits the invocation of, inter alia, the right to freedom of association with the aim of committing, promoting or justifying acts characterised as xenophobia and racial hatred, including antisemitism,10 or denying and revising of clearly established historical facts, such as the Holocaust.11 For example in 2020, on the basis of Art. 17, the ECtHR rejected a claim related to the dissolution of a far-right association which expressed support for persons who had collaborated with Nazi Germany and promoted the ideology of the Vichy regime, especially its racial laws.12
In February 2023, the deadline for organisations to align with the amended law expired. The Central Registry announced that the request made by both organisations was rejected because the required documents were not submitted within the legally stipulated period. The Commission on the use of names of historical figures by associations gave a negative opinion on the use of the name Vanco Mihailov. According to the Commission, the name is associated with fascist ideology and offends the national feelings of the Macedonian people, which is in contradiction with the adopted amendments to the law on organisations. On 29 March 2023, the organisation “Ivan Mihajlov” was deleted from the Register of Associations. In April 2023, the organisation “Tsar Boris the Third” was deleted from the Register of Associations. In its reasoning, the Commission on the use of names stated that the Bulgarian Tsar Boris the Third was responsible for crimes committed during the Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia in the World War II.
On 13 April 2023, the political party Levica submitted a criminal complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Ohrid against Hristijan Pendikov, in his capacity as General Secretary of the association “Tsar Boris the Third”. Pendikov was accused of a series of crimes, inter alia that of causing hatred, discord or intolerance on national, racial, religious and other discriminatory grounds, punishable under Art. 319(1) of the Criminal Code.13
On 28 April 2023, Tome Blazeski, Chairman of the association Tsar Boris the Third, was called to appear at the local prosecutor’s office on suspicion of “inspiring national, racial and religious hatred, discord or intolerance”.14
In May 2023, the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Bitola filed an indictment against an authorised person of the Association “Cultural Center Ivan Mihajlov”, namely the administrator of the association’s Facebook account. He is charged with a prolonged criminal offence also consisting of inciting hatred, discord or intolerance on national, racial, religious and other discriminatory grounds, as well as for another prolonged criminal offense consisting of the dissemination of racist and xenophobic material through a computer system, punishable under Art. 394(g) in conjunction with Art. 45 of the Criminal Code of North Macedonia. The accused, a 45-year-old resident of Bitola, committed the crimes in the period from 16.04.2022 to 22.03.2023, knowing that he would incite hatred and intolerance based on ethnicity, language, religion and social status against the Macedonian people and its members in a discriminatory manner of the Jewish community in the country.15
In sum, the measures adopted by the authorities in North Macedonia have proven effective and appear to be in line with the State’s international human rights obligations. These measures have impeded the registration of organisations that glorify Nazism and fascist figures, and they have introduced an obligation for those already registered to change their names. The State has adopted judicial measures consisting in the prosecution of individual members of these organisations that have been allegedly engaged in acts of hate speech and discrimination. However, it is particularly worrying that these organisations received and continue to receive support from a third State, and that the measures adopted by North Macedonia have been opposed by the authorities of a foreign country.
The role of the Bulgarian authorities
In this respect, the role played by the Bulgarian authorities is a source of concern. First, the opening of the Ivan Mihajlov Cultural Center was attended by the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, the Head of Diplomacy Teodora Genchovska and the Vice President of Bulgaria, Iliana Yotova. In the case of the other organisation, Bulgaria’s ambassador to Skopje, Angel Angelov, attended the opening and even cut a red ribbon in the doorway to celebrate the inauguration.
The Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, shortly after the Macedonian Parliament voted on the legal amendments for associations and foundations, announced that such Bulgarian clubs will receive State support to continue their work. Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry has expressed “strong concern” over the recent legislative amendment in North Macedonia that prevents organisations and cultural clubs from using names with fascist links.16
The foundation “Macedonia”, established in 2021 in Bulgaria, has been supporting the funding of these organisations in North Macedonia, and promoting a revisionist history that denies the existence of the Macedonian national identity.17 According to its website, “the Foundation ‘Macedonia’ is a cultural and educational organization created by Bulgarians from Bulgaria, RNM and the world with one goal – for the population of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Northern Macedonia to be one society in two countries”.18 The foundation has threatened that Macedonia would not become a member of the European Union as long as it celebrates 11 October, the Day of People’s Uprising against the fascist occupation, as an official holiday.19 Viktor Stojanov, president of this Foundation from Sofia, committed acts of hate speech, including threats to physically destroy a member of the Commission for Protection against Discrimination (KSZD) in North Macedonia, Vesna Bendevska. This Commission found that these acts not only incite violence and hatred towards a member of the KSZD, who is an elected State official, but also represents an attempt to influence the independence of the Commission as a whole.20 The Bulgarian authorities have not taken any action in this respect.
In sum, the role of Bulgaria in these cases is particularly worrying and will be hopefully addressed by the Special Rapporteur. The State of Bulgaria has not only failed to act against organisations that are unlawful under Art. 4(b) ICERD, but it has even supported such organisations in North Macedonia.
1Resolution 77/204, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 15 December 2022.
4Opinion of the Commission on Discrimination.
6Resolution 77/204, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 15 December 2022.
7Opinion of the Commission on Discrimination
9ECtHR, APEH Üldözötteinek Szövetsége, Iványi, Róth and Szerdahelyi vs. Hungary, 1999; W.P. and Others vs. Poland, 2004.
10ECtHR, Pavel Ivanov vs. Russia; W.P. vs. Poland.,
11ECtHR, Garaudy vs. France.
12ECtHR, Ayoub and others v. France, 2020.