The clock is ticking on cultural clubs and other groupings in North Macedonia that celebrate Bulgarian historical figures reviled among many Macedonians for their irredentism and alliances with Nazis in the 20th century.
Macedonian grievances erupted publicly this month despite a recent breakthrough to conditionally lift Bulgaria's two-year veto on Skopje's EU accession talks, highlighting ongoing tensions between the Balkan neighbors over identity, language, and shared history.
Lawmakers from the Social Democratic Union (SDSM)-led ruling coalition and the nationalist opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) have proposed bills that would ban provocatively labeled associations, nonprofits, and political parties and target the commemoration of fascist and Nazi allies like Tsar Boris III and Ivan Mihajlov.
North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski urged deputies in the ruling coalition to back the changes, which he said are aimed at preventing an influx of Bulgarian clubs with objectionable names. He and other backers argue such groups incite hatred and promote fascism, Nazism, and intolerance.
The bans would apply retroactively to strip existing groups of their registration and prevent future listings.
Both were unanimously approved on October 17 for shortened procedures in parliament, with final approval still required and possible as of this week.
The measures were spurred by public anger in Macedonia over the registration earlier this year of a club named Vancho Mihajlov in the city of Bitola and the opening this month of a cultural club named after Tsar Boris III in the city of Ohrid, once the capital of the medieval First Bulgarian Empire.
Ivan "Vancho" Mihajlov was a guerrilla leader who collaborated with Axis powers during World War II and whose legacy is still disputed among Bulgarian and Macedonian nationalists and historians. He led the anti-communist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) in the interwar years, a violent progenitor multiple transformations removed from the VMRO-DPMNE, a leading political party in North Macedonia.
Boris III ruled Bulgaria from 1918 until his death in 1943 and used his alliance with Nazi Germany to grab Romanian and Macedonian territory while denying citizenship to Jews amid the Holocaust. Macedonian textbooks refer to him as a "Bulgarian fascist occupier," a label that rankles many Bulgarians.
A demonstration by around 100 people waving Macedonian flags outside the Ohrid club's opening on October 7 escalated into chants of "Fascists!" and "Murderers!" and egg-throwing and skirmishes with police.
Two garlands of balloons decorated the entrance to the club, one the red, white, and green of the Bulgarian national flag and the other the yellow and red of North Macedonia's national flag.
Sofia's ambassador to Skopje, Angel Angelov, cut a red ribbon in a doorway to mark the opening.
Club officials displayed a huge banner of Boris III from a second-floor balcony at one point.
The association behind the Tsar Boris III club was formed in November 2021.
Tome Blazheski, its president, said its namesake "has not been convicted anywhere in any international court" for his actions.
"Tsar Boris has a monument in Tel Aviv, Israel. You can check it out," he added. "If he was against the Jews, there would be no monument to him in Tel Aviv."
Political parties on both sides of the aisle, government officials, and local Jewish groups have condemned the use of Boris III's name for the club or other institutions.
The head of North Macedonia's Jewish Community, Pepo Levi, responded with a photo of Boris III shaking hands with Adolf Hitler and said "fascism must not be allowed back in Macedonia through such a grand entrance."
Bulgaria under Boris III enacted laws to deny citizenship to Jews and otherwise persecute them, with thousands of Macedonian Jews deported to Nazi death camps.
"We have nothing against their determination. Let [the club members] tell each other how they feel," Ohrid resident and protester Ljupcho Popovski told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "But the names [of the clubs] are provocative -- that's why people are outraged."
Five days after the raucous protest outside the club at a shopping center in Ohrid, someone reportedly damaged the sign over the club's door.
Both the VMRO-DPMNE draft law, submitted on October 7, and the ruling SDSM's draft law submitted on October 17 seek to prevent the spread of fascism or Nazism by associations, foundations, or political parties.
Groups that use the name of historical figures would be obliged to obtain the consent of the Justice Ministry.
Existing associations found in violation of the laws would get three months to change their name or otherwise comply before they are struck from the national company register, known as the RSM.
As the legislative efforts proceed, a state advisory body has been formed to issue a recommendation on the use of historical and other figures by such groups.
But the subtext extends beyond the reputations of Nazi-era collaborators.
North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, was forced to abandon its fight to use the unqualified name Macedonia after a decades-long standoff with neighboring Greece in 2019, fueling national resentments.
Since then, EU member Bulgaria and aspiring member North Macedonia continue to spar publicly over their deeply intertwined cultures and identities.
A compromise deal mediated by France was approved by the Bulgarian and Macedonian parliaments in July to allow Skopje's EU accession negotiations to proceed in exchange for concessions and pledges related to minority claims in the Macedonian Constitution and a 2017 Friendship Treaty between the countries.
Critics say it left room for EU member Bulgaria to effectively halt negotiations between Brussels and Skopje in the future.
The co-chairman of a joint Macedonian-Bulgarian commission on historical issues, Angel Dimitrov, issued a statement on October 16 complaining about the prospective bans and accusing officials of seeking to outlaw citizens' feelings of national identity.
He called it "an incredible paradox" that the use of the Mihajlov name could be prohibited even though he once headed the forerunner of the VMRO-DPMNE party, the IMRO.
Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani responded that Dimitrov should stick to history, not politics, and accused him of suggesting North Macedonia was not behaving like a candidate EU country.
Bulgaria's then-prime minister, Kiril Petkov, angered Macedonian nationalists when he attended the opening of the Vancho Mihajlov club in Bitola in April.
In June, the doorway to that club was set on fire in an incident condemned by the leaders of both North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
Singer Lambe Alabakovski later confessed to the act and was given a six-month suspended sentence.
Some demonstrators in Ohrid asserted a direct link between the Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia's EU negotiations -- and even wider problems facing Europe -- and the name dispute among clubs in North Macedonia.
"The revolt is fully justified," said another protester in Ohrid, Slavcho Spirovski. "I think what is happening happens only in fascist countries. And if we allow the constitution to be changed, we will be like Ukraine. So I expect the worst. Europe, the European Union, sees this and remains silent."