Bulgarian Football Fan Assault in Skopje Prompts Reactions in Bulgaria

The assault of a group of Bulgarian football fans on Thursday evening, who were in Skopje to attend a match between PFC Levski Sofia and the local FC Shkupi, prompted a series of political reactions in Bulgaria on the following day.

A 29-year-old Bulgarian male was stabbed and hospitalized after the attack.  He was one of four Bulgarians who were assaulted shortly after 6:30 pm on Thursday, according to the Interior Ministry in Skopje, quoted by news media in North Macedonia. The Ministry is working to solve the case. Fifteen Bulgarian citizens were detained by the police.

The incident came at a time when Skopje is showing readiness to amend its Constitution to include Macedonian Bulgarians in it. Sofia and the EU set this as a condition for a start of North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations. Tensions between the two countries have mounted in recent months, including attacks on Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia, that have inflamed rhetoric on both sides of the border.

The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry condemned the Thursday incidents in Skopje in a statement released on Friday. The Bulgarian fan who was injured is currently in a stable but serious condition after undergoing surgery in a hospital in Skopje. Bulgarian Embassy officials are constantly in touch with the man, his relatives and the local health authorities, the Ministry said. The Foreign Ministry deplores the fact that the positive and fair-play spirit of the match between FC Levski Sofia and the local FC Shkupi was marred by acts of aggression off the pitch. The Ministry expects the authorities in North Macedonia to take the necessary steps to bring whoever is responsible to justice. “Yet again we stress the key importance of taking effective measures to prevent such acts of aggression and guarantee the safety of all citizens,” the Ministry says.

Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov commented on the incident, saying that aggression is unacceptable. “These relations are far more deeply rooted. Clearly, all pretexts are being sought. As you can see, even sports that are supposed to bring us together turn out, in this case, to trigger aggression,” he added. “What matters most in this case is that the young man is in stable condition after surgery. Arrangements should be made for his return to Bulgaria for further treatment,” Denkov pointed out.

Denkov also said that he met with the ministers of Interior and of Sports and they have considered an option for the second leg match between PFC Levski Sofia and FC Shkupi to be played in Sofia without audience so as to prevent a new escalation of tensions. The PM said that would be a last resort. “We discussed in advance whether such bans should be imposed, but they are very extreme. Regrettably, it turned out that the arrangements on the other side [of the border] are not sufficiently good, considering that such incidents occurred,” Denkov added.

Vice President Iliana Iotova told bTV that the incident with the fan of the Bulgarian football team Levski in Skopje is “part of a deliberate policy of the Republic of North Macedonia towards Bulgarian citizens”. She added that there are enough forces in North Macedonia that want to prevent Bulgarians from being included in the country’s Constitution. Iotova pointed out that the change in the Constitution is not the only condition for Sofia to admit Skopje to the EU and asked why the regular Bulgarian Government has so far not recapped the implementation so far of the Good-neighbourliness Treaty and the other two protocols signed between the two countries.

Political forces in Parliament also reacted to the incident.

Georg Georgiev MP of GERB-UDF: The Foreign Ministry can summon the Ambassador of the Republic of North Macedonia and serve her with a protest note. The hatred between people is a fact and I cannot say that it is not politically motivated. Unfortunately, this very serious incident is taking place in the context of the consideration of the constitutional changes in the Republic of North Macedonia, which are at stake in the country’s accession to the European Union. The reaction of the authorities in Skopje, who put their efforts into arresting the Bulgarian fans rather than finding out what provoked the crime and how it came about, is very worrying. Intolerance has peaked due to the rhetoric that political representatives use. Our country responded appropriately. Unfortunately, such incidents have become very frequent. With the behavior that the Republic of North Macedonia has demonstrated, its citizens are not ready to join the European Union.

Daniel Lorer MP of Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria: It is absolutely unacceptable for Bulgarian citizens to be attacked anywhere. It has long been known that there would be a football match in Skopje, and the Macedonian authorities should have taken measures to prevent attacks. Sport is one way of building bridges with our closest neighbours, and it is a shame to turn sport into an arena for political clashes. Rather, we should make it a bridge between our two nations to move together and help them towards their European future. Let’s hope this summer they finally find a way to include Macedonian Bulgarians in the Constitution, where they belong, so that all Macedonian people understand that they are equal and there is no room for discrimination.

Tsoncho Ganev MP of Vazrazhdane, Deputy Chair of the National Assembly: This is not football hooliganism. We are talking about the fact that the Bulgarians in the Republic of North Macedonia are persecuted and beaten, their life is threatened, they are assaulted and crushed, not only physically but also mentally.  The Republic of North Macedonia feels impunity, protected by Brussels.  Our Foreign Ministry must react swiftly. Their ambassador must be summoned, the EU Council of Foreign Ministers must be convened, and Bulgaria must demand a halt to any talks with the Republic of North Macedonia.

Kristian Vigenin MP of BSP for Bulgaria: The Republic of North Macedonia should seriously reconsider its behaviour. The injured man should be taken to Bulgaria for medical treatment. Sport cannot be an excuse for violence and hatred. The fact that such things happen is a natural outcome of the overall atmosphere in bilateral relations, but Bulgaria is not to blame for it. For months, intolerance and hatred have been fomented between the two sides. We are concerned about hate speech in the Republic of North Macedonia, which is intensifying – not decreasing. The MPs who last year voted in favour of lifting the veto on the start of Skopje’s EU accession negotiations realize that they made a mistake.

Stanislav Balabanov MP of There Is Such a People: This is another provocation in a country that has no place in the EU at the moment. The political situation in the Republic of North Macedonia encourages this type of provocations. At a wonderful sporting event, which should in principle unite, we see, unfortunately, such ugly scenes targeting Bulgarian citizens. The responsibility for this whole political situation in this region rests with GERB, Continue the Change, Democratic Bulgaria and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, who caved in [to Skopje]. The provocations are likely to continue.

The Sofia City Prosecution Office said Friday that it was launching an investigation following media reports about the stabbed Bulgarian citizen in Skopje. A prosecutor’s case file has been opened on the case and the supervising prosecutor has initiated pre-trial proceedings in connection with attempted homicide.