MINELRES: Fwd: Three landmark ECHR judgments on freedom of freedom of association and assembly of Macedonians in Bulgaria and Greece

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Mon Oct 31 08:29:23 2005

Original sender: Greek Helsinki Monitor <office@greekhelsinki.gr>

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23 October 2005

Topic: Three landmark ECHR judgments on freedom of association and
assembly of Macedonians in Bulgaria and Greece and on acceptable
separatism in democracies

Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) and Minority Rights Group-Greece (MRG-G) 
welcome the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)’s three landmark 
judgments, published on 20 October 2005, finding Bulgaria and Greece in 
violation of Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The
two countries had violated the freedom of association and assembly of 
Macedonian minority organizations. The judgments are on the Court’s

“UMO Ilinden v. Bulgaria” - application no. 44079/98 [thereafter

“UMO Ilinden  PIRIN v. Bulgaria” - application no. 59489/00
[thereafter “UMO-I-P”]

“Ouranio Toxo v. Greece” - application no. 74989/01 [thereafter “OT”]

GHM and MRG-G consider the judgments of great importance in view of the
fact that Bulgaria and Greece do not recognize the presence of
Macedonian minorities on their territory. The two countries moreover
harass, persecute and prosecute Macedonian activists and organizations.
Finally, Bulgaria and Greece also consider the Macedonians’ activities
contrary to public order and national security, and often call them
provocative or separatists. The importance of the three judgments stems
also from the fact that the Court defined the extent to which
provocative action and even separatist aims are acceptable in
democracies. GHM and MRG-G finally consider the Court’s decision to
publish the three judgments on the same day an important message to
Bulgaria and Greece to finally conform themselves with the prevailing
international democratic norms. The main points of the judgments are
highlighted below.

There are also two previous cases on Macedonians in Bulgaria and Greece, 
referred to in the recent judgments, where Bulgaria and Greece had again 
been found to have violated the freedom of association and assembly of 

“Sidiropoulos et al (‘Home of Macedonian Civilization’) v. Greece”
application no. 26695/95, 10 July 1998, [thereafter “Home”]

“Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden v. Bulgaria”, 
applications no. 29221/95 and 29225/95, 2 October 2001, [thereafter

1. The Court acknowledges the presence of Macedonian minorities in
Greece and Bulgaria, contrary to the two states’ official policy.
Furthermore, it recalls and expands on its case-law (“Home”) that
“mention of the consciousness of belonging to a minority and the
preservation and development of a minority’s culture could not be said
to constitute a threat to ‘democratic society’, even if this may cause
tensions. In fact, the emergence of tensions is an inevitable
consequence of pluralism, that is of the free debate on every political
idea. In such case, the role of the authorities is not to eliminate the
cause of tensions by suppressing pluralism, but to make sure that
competing political groups tolerate each other.” (“OT”).

2. Going even further, the Court “recalls that in a democratic society
based on the rule of law, political ideas which challenge the existing
order and whose realisation is advocated by peaceful means must be
afforded a proper opportunity of expression through the exercise of the right of
assembly, as well as by other lawful means.” (“UMO-I” and “Stankov”).
Such challenging ideas include the advocacy of autonomy and secession:
“The Court reiterates, however, that the fact that a group of persons calls
for autonomy or even requests secession of part of the country’s
territory  thus demanding fundamental constitutional and territorial
changes cannot automatically justify a prohibition of its assemblies.
Demanding territorial changes in speeches and demonstrations does not
automatically amount to a threat to the country’s territorial integrity
and national security.” (“Stankov”). “However shocking and unacceptable
the statements of the applicant party’s leaders and members may appear
to the authorities or the majority of the population and however
illegitimate their demands may be, they do not appear to warrant the
impugned interference [dissolution]. The fact that the applicant party’s
political programme was considered incompatible with the current
principles and structures of the Bulgarian State does not make it
incompatible with the rules and principles of democracy. It is of the
essence of democracy to allow diverse political programmes to be
proposed and debated, even those that call into question the way a State
is currently organised, provided that they do not harm democracy itself…
It thus appears that the Constitutional Court’s holding that the
applicant party’s activity truly ‘imperil[ed] [Bulgaria’s] national
security’ was not based on an acceptable assessment of the relevant
facts.” (“UMO-I-P”).

3. The Court is critical of Greek authorities (town council, police,
public prosecutor, “O.T.”). Instead of “defending and promoting the
values inherent in a democratic system, such as pluralism, tolerance and
social cohesion, … they stirred up confrontational attitudes, … had not
taken adequate measures to avoid or, at least, contain the violence…,
while the public prosecutor had not considered it necessary to start an
investigation in the wake of the incidents to determine responsibility.”
Likewise, it is critical of Bulgarian authorities (“UMO-I): “It is also
noteworthy that on one of the occasions when they did not interfere with
the applicants' freedom of assembly, the authorities appeared somewhat
reluctant to protect the members and followers of Ilinden from a group
of counter demonstrators… The authorities were therefore bound to take
adequate measures to prevent violent acts directed against the
participants in Ilinden's rally, or at least limit their extent.
However, it seems that they, while embarking on certain steps to enable
the organisation's commemorative event to proceed peacefully, did not
take all the appropriate measures which could have reasonably been
expected from them under the circumstances.”

4. In “UMO-I,” which partly concerned bans of the organization’s public
commemorations, “the Court notes with concern that one of the bans was
imposed, with almost identical reasoning, even after similar measures
had been declared contrary to Article 11 in the Court's judgment in
“Stankov”. Bulgaria was in fact cited for insisting on actions contrary
to a previous Court ruling. Should the “Home” case reach the Court again
(as Greece persists in not registering that association), a similar concern
is expected to be made.

5. Finally, the “OT” ruling has a factual mistake. It mentions that the
sign affixed to the “Rainbow (Ouranio Toxo)” party offices “included the
word ‘vino-zito’, written in the ‘Slav alphabet’, which means ‘rainbow’ 
in Macedonian, but was also the rallying cry of forces who had sought to
take the town of Florina during the civil war in Macedonia… The Court
was prepared to accept that the use of the term ‘vino-zito’ had aroused
hostile sentiment among the local population, as its ambiguous
connotations were liable to offend the political or patriotic views of
the majority of the population of Florina.” This was never claimed by
anyone in Greece. In 1994, the newly founded Macedonian party chose the
name of the European Parliament (EP)’s political group of minority
parties “Rainbow,” as it ran in that year’s election to the EP under
their banner. There was another part of the sign that was considered
provocative, as mentioned in the court’s indictment against that party:
“Among other words written therein, there were the words “Lerinski
Komitet” written in a Slavic linguistic idiom. These words, in
combination with the fact that they were written in a foreign language,
in the specific Slavic linguistic idiom, provoked and incited discord
among the area’s citizens. The latter justifiably, besides other things,
identify these words with an old terrorist organization of
Slavic-speaking alien nationals which was active in the area and which,
with genocide crimes, pillages and depredations against the indigenous
Greek population, attempted the annihilation of the Greek element and
the annexation of the greater area of the age-long Greek Macedonia to a
neighboring country, which at the time was Greece’s enemy.” (see GHM and
MRG-G “Greece against its Macedonian minority: the Rainbow trial,” 1998,
available at: http://www.greekhelsinki.gr/pdf/rainbow-english.pdf). The
word “Komitet” has been associated in Greece with pro-Bulgarian forces
in the “Macedonian struggle” in the early 1900s, while the area was
still under Ottoman rule, and also during the Axis occupation of the
area in the Second World War.

GHM and MRG-G background material on the Macedonian minorities available
(through 2004) and http://cm.greekhelsinki.gr/index.php?sec=194&ctg=220 
(from 2005 on)

GHM and MRG-G comprehensive reports on Macedonian in Greece available
http://www.greekhelsinki.gr/bhr/english/articles/the_macedonians.doc and 

GHM and MRG-G comprehensive report on Macedonian in Bulgaria available

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