A. Arguments of the parties
1. The applicants
61. The applicants submitted that the ban on meetings organised by them in commemoration of certain historical events, and the attitude of the authorities at the relevant time was aimed at suppressing the free expression of ideas at peaceful gatherings. As such it amounted to an interference with their rights under Article 11 of the Convention, seen against this background as lex specialis in respect of Article 10 of the Convention.
62. They contended that the interference had not been “prescribed by law” as the lack of registration of their association, which had been relied upon by the mayors, was not among the grounds justifying a prohibition of demonstrations under section 12 of the Law on Meetings and Marches.
63. Furthermore, they rejected as groundless the Government’s assertion that the gatherings organised by them had posed a threat. They had been entirely peaceful: their purpose had been to commemorate historical events considered as an important part of the history of the Macedonian people. The gatherings, which normally lasted about three hours, had always commenced with texts being read out, and had proceeded with poems, music and songs.
64. The applicants further questioned the legitimacy of the aims pursued by the bans and their justification.
The aim of the authorities – as the applicants saw it – had been to suppress the dissemination of the idea that a Macedonian minority existed in Bulgaria. It might have been true that the majority of the Bulgarian population considered that there was no Macedonian minority in their country and that the demonstration of the applicants’ ideas could shock and appear offensive to that majority. It was however essential, in a pluralist democratic society, to allow the free expression of minority ideas and it was the duty of the authorities to guarantee the applicants the right to demonstrate peacefully.
65. They further maintained that the prohibitions complained of, albeit limited to certain historical sites and to particular dates, amounted in reality to a general ban on meetings of the applicant association, since not a single meeting organised by it had been authorised. Such an absolute ban was disproportionate.
Nothing in the material submitted by the Government could lead to the conclusion that they were seeking secession from Bulgaria. Even if there was some suspicion in this respect, a total ban on commemorations was a disproportionate reaction.
2. The Government
66. The Government doubted the applicants’ intention to hold “peaceful” demonstrations, there allegedly being evidence that some of the organisation’s members had been armed. Reference was made in this respect to two papers they had submitted (see above paragraphs 42-46). They also referred to evidence allegedly demonstrating that since 1990 the meetings of Ilinden had always been marked by conflict and clashes, both verbal and physical, between supporters of the association and others. That was inevitable because of the provocative anti-Bulgarian statements made at those meetings and the offensive language used.
67. It was further emphasised that members of the applicant association had never been prevented from visiting the historical sites in question provided that they did not carry posters or other material containing threats against the unity of the nation, the country’s territorial integrity or the rights of others. The applicants’ freedom of assembly was thus intact.
68. If it was considered that there had been an interference with the applicants’ rights under Article 11 of the Convention, that interference had been lawful and had been based on unambiguous provisions of the Constitution and the Law on Meetings and Marches.
The Government disputed the applicants’ position that the reasons for the bans had been changing constantly – thus allegedly disclosing the lack of a clear legal basis. The reasons for all the bans had invariably been the unconstitutional activities and statements of the applicant association (which allegedly threatened the country’s territorial integrity and national security) and the risk of incidents endangering public order.
69. With reference to the judgments of the Supreme Court of 1990 and 1991 (see paragraphs 12 and 13 above) and to the judgment of the Constitutional Court of 29 February 2000 (see paragraphs 39-41 above), it was stressed that the applicant association had been dissolved as it had been established that its activities threatened the country’s territorial integrity and had been unconstitutional. “Reliable information” that a gathering might be directed against the territorial integrity of the country was a valid ground for a ban on such a gathering under section 12 § 2 of the Law on Meetings and Marches (see paragraph 49 above). The judgments dissolving Ilinden provided sufficient information in this respect. While an unregistered organisation would undoubtedly be free to organise meetings, the applicant association’s activities had been prohibited. The authorities’ reliance, in their decisions prohibiting the meetings, on the fact that the applicant association had been refused registration had been in conformity with the law.
70. In addition, the measures complained of pursued a number of legitimate aims: the protection of national security and territorial integrity, the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, guaranteeing public order in the local community and the prevention of disorder and crime.
71. In the Government’s view, Ilinden infringed the rights and freedoms of others because it aspired to create a Macedonian nation among people belonging to the Bulgarian nation and demanded the imposition of a Macedonian identity and institutions in the region of Pirin to the exclusion of all Bulgarian institutions. The handful of supporters of those ideas – some 3,000 in a region with a population of about 360,000 – had assumed the right to speak for the people. Most importantly, the applicant association was a separatist group which sought the secession of the region of Pirin from Bulgaria. It posed a direct threat to the national security and territorial integrity of the country.
72. With reference to the historical and current context of Bulgaria and the Balkans (see paragraph 47 above), the Government submitted that the applicant association’s insistence on differentiation and “collective rights”, despite the fact that every person in Bulgaria fully enjoyed all rights and freedoms, including cultural and political rights, disclosed that their genuine goal had been the imposition on the Bulgarian population of an alien national identity. Even if a Macedonian minority existed in Bulgaria – the Government continued – the means and propaganda tools used by Ilinden were not aimed at protecting the rights of such a minority, but at converting the Bulgarian population into a Macedonian one and then separating the region from the country.
73. In the context of the difficult transition from totalitarian regimes to democracy, and due to the attendant economic and political crisis, tensions between cohabiting communities, where they existed in the region, were particularly explosive. The events in former Yugoslavia were an example. The propaganda of separatism in such conditions had rightly been seen by the authorities as a threat to national security and peace in the region.
Moreover, the national authorities were better placed to assess those risks. It was conceivable that the same facts might have different implications in other States, depending on the context. The facts of the present case had to be seen, however, against the background of the difficulties in the region.
74. The time and place chosen by the applicant association for their regular meetings had been inappropriate. They had coincided with traditional, widely attended, ceremonies and fairs, commemorating events of historical importance which had involved sensitive issues. The applicant association’s provocative attitude had caused incidents in the past and had prompted very negative reaction by the population. The authorities had thus adopted the practice of not allowing Ilinden’s meetings at the same time and place as the official celebrations.
Referring to the Commission’s decisions in application no. 8191/78 (Rassemblement Jurassien & Unité jurasienne v. Switzerland, DR 17, p. 93) and application no. 8440/78 (Christians against Racism and Fascism v. the United Kingdom, DR 21 p. 138), the Government submitted that given the State’s margin of appreciation, the prohibition of demonstrations in conditions of public tension and where the authorities could reasonably expect clashes was justified for the preservation of public order.
75. In their submission, the bans complained of were proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued and did not violate Article 11 of the Convention.