22nd Mar 2018

Marital row turns into dispute between Skopje and Sofia

A marital dispute between a Macedonian woman, holding Bulgarian citizenship, and her ex-husband is evolving into an international issue. The contestants: Macedonia, former Yugoslav republic turned aspiring EU-member, and member-of-the-club Bulgaria.

At first glance, the issue is the usual battle for custody among divorcees: A provincial court in Macedonia has stripped 25-year-old Spaska Mitrova of custody of her three year-old daughter and awarded it to the child's father, Voijslav Savic. The verdict ended a three-year legal saga, which included a three-month imprisonment of Ms Mitrova last year. Macedonia jailed her for not granting her ex-husband sufficient access to their daughter.

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In the eyes of many Bulgarians, the case shows that Macedonian justice is politically biased. In April 2009, Ms Mitrova obtained Bulgarian citizenship, thereby emphasizing her Bulgarian roots. The Macedonian court decision is seen as a nationalistically motivated punishment for this step.

Macedonia's ambassador Alexander Vasilevski has been summoned to the foreign ministry in Sofia and was handed a protest against what Bulgaria saw as a non-transparent and unfair trial in Mitrova's case on March 11 in the northern town of Gevgelija.

Macedonia, by contrast, is bent on appeasement, saying a civil case must not be blown up into an international dispute. In a note issued after Ms Mitrova was imprisoned last year, the Macedonian Foreign Ministry tried to calm tensions: The two countries should not allow themselves to be taken hostage by individuals trying to resolve their family misunderstandings, it stated.

Undisturbed by this appeal for peace, Bulgaria's 17 deputies in the European Parliament unanimously decided to take the issue to the EU's enlargement chief, Commissioner Stefan Fuele. EU candidate Macedonia, they charged, failed to meet a key precondition for joining the EU: the setting up an independent and fair judiciary respectful of human rights.

The contested custody case was seen behind closed doors despite Bulgaria's insistence to have its representatives monitoring the proceedings. The Gevgelija court motives were not published in due course either. Ms Mitrova said she would appeal before a higher court in Skopje. She has also complained about physical harassment and threats by her ex-husband and his family .

"The trial was held in a very negative public atmosphere including acts of physical violence and long detention (of Mitrova)", Bulgaria's foreign ministry spokeswoman Vesela Cherneva said. "We don't accept Bulgarian embassy representatives being continuously barred from attending the trial."

Bulgaria and Macedonia have long had an acrimonious relationship. It stems from colliding interpretations of their common history, although Sofia was the first to recognize its tiny neighbour when it split from the former Yugoslavia in 1992.

Most ordinary Bulgarians consider Macedonians their kinsmen and refuse to acknowledge the existence of an autonomous Macedonian nation and language, dismissing Skopje's official line on the country's identity. Nationals of the two countries understand each other without translation.

Macedonia in turn insists Bulgaria should recognise a Macedonian minority in its southwest, a demand rejected as preposterous by Sofia. The Bulgarian constitution does not allow for national minorities. The EU Parliament has adopted repeated resolutions urging Skopje to keep good neighbourly relations and avoid "hate speech."

The spat comes as Macedonia is hoping EU member states will give the green light to accession talks, which are supported by the EU's executive Commission and the European Parliament but blocked by Greece. Athens insist Macedonia must first change its name, seen by the Greeks as a claim on northern province, also called „Macedonia".


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