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ECHR rules again in favor of Macedonians in Bulgaria

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled Thursday against Bulgaria for violation of the right of association according to Article 11 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, in the case of Macedonian Club for Ethnic Tolerance in Bulgaria and Radonov v. Bulgaria, MIA reports from Strasbourg.

Strasbourg, 28 May 2020 (MIA) – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled Thursday against Bulgaria for violation of the right of association according to Article 11 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, in the case of Macedonian Club for Ethnic Tolerance in Bulgaria and Radonov v. Bulgaria, MIA reports from Strasbourg.

The judgment comes after the application against the Republic of Bulgaria lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by the “Macedonian Club for Ethnic Tolerance in Bulgaria”, an association based in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, and the chairman of its board, Mr Angel Kirilov Radonov, a Bulgarian national (“the applicants”), on 10 October 2013.

The case concerns the question whether it was necessary in a democratic society for the Bulgarian courts to refuse to register an association which advocates the idea that there exists an oppressed Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and seeks to protect that alleged minority’s rights, on the grounds that (a) the association was directed against the unity of the Bulgarian nation, and that (b) its goals were political and therefore only capable of being pursued by a political party rather than a regular association.

In the judgment, ECHR gives the following facts:

The first applicant, the “Macedonian Club for Ethnic Tolerance in Bulgaria”, is an association set up in 2012 in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. The second applicant, Mr Angel Kirilov Radonov, is Bulgarian national who was born in 1954 and lives in Blagoevgrad; he is the chairman of the association’s board.

The applicants were represented before the Court by Mr T. Menkinoski, a lawyer practising in Skopje, North Macedonia. The Government were represented by their Agent, Mr V. Obretenov of the Ministry of Justice.

The facts of the case, as established by the Court, may be summarised as follows.

On 3 April 2012 the nine founders of the applicant association held a meeting at which they resolved to form the association, adopted its articles, and elected its board and chairman (the second applicant). They went on to instruct the second applicant to take the necessary steps to have the association registered.

On 13 June 2012 the association applied to the Blagoevgrad Regional Court to be registered. On 7 February 2013 the court refused its application.

The second applicant appealed. He argued, inter alia, that the refusal to register the association was in breach of Article 44 § 1 of the Constitution.

On 11 April 2013 the Sofia Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s decision. It noted that not-for-profit associations were chiefly characterised by their goals, which is why these goals had to be spelled out in their articles. In recognition of the fundamental right enshrined in Article 44 § 1 of the Constitution, which belonged to all people irrespective of their ethnic, confessional or linguistic differences, associations were by law entitled freely to set their goals. But as a corollary to that, the Constitution also envisaged, as was indeed permissible under international law, some universally applicable restrictions to freedom of association. A person’s self-identification as a member of an ethnic minority was thus neither a ground for privileges in that respect nor a ground for tougher restrictions.

The Court assesses that the complaint is neither manifestly ill-founded nor inadmissible on any of the other grounds set out in Articles 34 and 35 §§ 1-3 of the Convention. It must therefore be declared admissible.

The refusal to register the applicant association in 2013 amounted to a “restriction” of both its and its members’ right to freedom of association (see United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others v. Bulgaria, no. 59491/00, § 53, 19 January 2006; United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others v. Bulgaria (no. 2), no. 34960/04, §§ 27 and 30, 18 October 2011; Yordan Ivanov and Others v. Bulgaria, no. 70502/13, § 39, 11 January 2018; and United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others v. Bulgaria (no. 3), no. 29496/16, § 32, 11 January 2018).

The fact that the association is capable of seeking registration afresh under the new registration mechanism put in place in the beginning of 2018 is of no relevance in this respect. The Court has in a number of cases treated a refusal to register an organisation as a “restriction” in its own right, and has even observed that earlier or later registration proceedings fall outside the scope of the case relating to that particular “restriction” (see United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden–PIRIN and Others v. Bulgaria (no. 2), nos. 41561/07 and 20972/08, § 70, 18 October 2011).

According to ECHR, there is no need to examine whether the “restriction” was “prescribed by law” or pursued a legitimate aim (see United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others (no. 2), Yordan Ivanov and Others, § 40; and United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others (no. 3), because, even assuming that it was and did, it was not “necessary in a democratic society”, for the following reasons.

The Sofia Court of Appeal based the refusal to register the applicant association on two grounds. The first was that the association advocated the idea that there existed a Macedonian ethnic minority in Bulgaria, which meant that it sought to cultivate such a minority – since one did not in reality exist – and was thus directed against the unity of the nation. The second was the characterisation of the association’s goals as political and hence only capable of being pursued by a political party. In United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others (no. 2) and Yordan Ivanov and Others, both of these grounds were found to be insufficient to justify a refusal to register a similar association. The present case presents no material difference. There has therefore been a breach of Article 11 of the Convention, concludes the ECHR.

The Court holds that the respondent State is to pay the applicants jointly in respect of non-pecuniary damage, within three months, EUR 7,500, plus any tax that may be chargeable.

The judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision. It was delivered by the European Court of Human Rights (Fifth Section), sitting as a Committee composed of André Potocki (president),
Lәtif Hüseynov, Anja Seibert-Fohr (judges), and Victor Soloveytchik (deputy section registrar).

This judgment is the latest in the series of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights in favor of the associations of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, which the country does not recognize. However, they are still not enforced and are under the monitoring of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

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