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European Court Condemns Ban on Bulgarian Party

Bulgaria embarrassed after Strasbourg judges lambast Sofia for outlawing ethnic Macedonian party.
By Boryana Dzhambazova

Bulgaria was criticised for violating human rights last week, after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the constitutional court’s ban on a political party was unjustified.

The decision over this controversial case is seen as a landmark in the struggle to overcome Bulgarian resistance to recognising the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority.

Last week, the Strasbourg court, empowered with addressing violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, attacked the constitutional court's decision to ban the OMO Ilinden Pirin party.

It said the ban had violated article 11 of the convention, which guaranteed freedom of association.

Bulgaria, which ratified the convention in 1992, is the second European country after Turkey to receive a ruling from Strasbourg accusing it of violating the right to association as foreseen in the Convention on Human Rights.

For more than 15 years, Bulgarian institutions have resisted efforts by groups in some southern districts to identify as ethnic Macedonians and form political parties.

The attempts date back to 1990, when several groups identifying themselves as Macedonians united under the name OMO Ilinden, and demanded registration of their association in the courts.

After being denied official listing, they allegedly maintained illegal activities and were accused by the authorities of endangering national integrity with separatist demands.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts to legally register, a group led by Ivan Singartiyski in 1999 registered in Sofia the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden – Party for Economic Development and Integration of the Population, OMO Ilinden Pirin.

After a short period of legal existence, in which the party elected two village mayors and three members to municipal councils in the Gotse Delchev and Razlog areas, in 1999 a group of 61 deputies in parliament petitioned the constitutional court, seeking a ban on the grounds that the party was based on an ethnic principle, which is prohibited by law.

While the court declined to define OMO Ilinden Pirin as an ethnic party, it proclaimed it unconstitutional, basing this verdict on media and interior ministry reports that spoke of the party’s separatist demands, the opinions of the justice committee of parliament, the minister of interior, the minister of justice and the chief prosecutor.

Five years on, the Strasbourg court’s decision presents the authorities with a dilemma. It suggests that either the Bulgarian constitution needs to be changed, or the constitutional court, one of the highest judicial authorities in the land, has misinterpreted it.

While none of the sides blames the constitution, opinions clash over whether it was misinterpreted. While human rights activists believe it was abused, the judges defend their decision, claiming the Strasbourg court issued the wrong verdict, possibly due to lack of information about the arguments informing the constitutional court’s decision.

“There was nothing wrong with the constitution… but the constitutional court was interpreting it arbitrarily,” said Krasimir Kunev, of the Bulgarain Helsinki Committee.

Nedelcho Beronov, chairman of the constitutional court, blamed unsatisfactory presentation of the case to the court in Strasbourg.

But Ivan Singartiyski of OMO Ilenden Piron says he did not submit any new evidence to the human rights court, while the government’s representative there, Milena Kotseva, said all the documents on the case had been duly translated and presented in Strasbourg.

Their varying comments highlight the complexity both of the case and of the Strasbourg court’s decision, which some politicians have called “ridiculous”.

In the ruling, the judges admitted that “it was not unreasonable for the authorities to suspect that certain leaders or members of the applicant party harboured separatist views and had a political agenda that included the notion of autonomy for the region of Pirin Macedonia, or even its secession from Bulgaria”.

The ruling agreed that members of OMO Ilinden Pirin had openly claimed that the Pirin region, where most party members live, was not part of Bulgaria.

On the other hand, the court found the measure to ban the party was extreme, as its leaders and members never voiced an intention to use violence or other undemocratic means to achieve their aims.

“However shocking and unacceptable the statements of the applicant party’s leaders and members might appear to the authorities or the majority of the population and however illegitimate their demands might be, they did not appear to warrant the interference in question,” the ruling went on.

“The fact that the applicant party’s political programme was considered incompatible with the prevailing principles and structures of the Bulgarian state did not make it incompatible with the rules and principles of democracy.”

The second important factor behind Strasbourg’s decision was OMO Ilenden Pirin’s negligible public influence, which made claims that it threatened national security appear exaggerated.

Such arguments do not sway the sponsors of the original petition to the constitutional court, however.

Krasimir Karakachanov of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, VMRO, one of the deputies who filed the complaint against OMO Ilinden Pirin in 1999, said he stood by his earlier views.

“There is evidence that OMO Ilinden Pirin is a separatist organisation,” he said. “If the European court cannot see deeper into this issue and act accordingly, it’s a senseless authority.”

Karakachanov admitted that it had gained only a few hundred votes and that the party’s political influence was insignificant.

But he still objected to Strasbourg’s argument, saying, “There is no such term in law as ‘negligible’. There is either a violation of the law, or no violation of the law.”

He also said the party’s tiny voting results was not an argument in favour of its legal existence. ”You might say the political influence of Hitler at his first elections was negligible but we all know what happened after that,” he said.

Ivan Singartiyski, however, dismissed accusations of separatism, “It is ridiculous to think of separatism nowadays and it is neither part of our party's program nor our policy,” he said.

He admits that some party members may have expressed such views privately but says it has nothing to do with OMO Ilinden Pirin’s agenda. “All we want, is to participate in Bulgaria's public life, to have political representation and to receive the same rights as other minorities in this country,” he said.

As a signatory to the human rights convention, Bulgaria will have to abide by its court's decision. “Even though it’s not a good sign for us, we have to obey,” said Nedelcho Beronov.

Singartiyski, meanwhile, is embarking on a new registration campaign for his party. Although the courts cannot reject registration on the same grounds as those mentioned by the constitutional court, he remains pessimistic.

“Our application will be delayed again endlessly, and without much explanations, as happened before,” he said.

He tried to register a new organisation in 2002, called OMO Pirin, and after being rejected by the city court in Sofia and the court of appeal, he still awaits a decision of the supreme court.

He hopes that once Bulgaria become a EU member and reforms its judicial system, it will be more careful about violating what he says is his elementary human right.

Boryana Dzhambazova is a BCR contributor and Albena Shkodrova is the Sofia director of BIRN, a localised IWPR project.

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