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National cultural treasure may be transferred to private hands

The Galicnik Wedding Festival is a key part of the Macedonian cultural heritage, and the old village houses are protected by law and are listed as such by the Ministry of Culture. Yet, there have been attempts to privatize and commercialize these cultural gems. Famously known as the “Groom’s House” — the state-owned “Villa Dosta” — is in danger. In 2016, the agricultural cooperative linked with the house declared bankruptcy and the bankruptcy director moved to put the Villa Dosta up for auction, even though the cooperative was not the rightful owner. Since then the local Galicnik community has been fighting local and national institutions to prevent the sale of this beloved cultural landmark. 

By Lila Karatasheva/Redaction Miranda Spivack/Graphic design: Luka Blazev and Elena Mitrevska Cuckovska

Galicnik is one of the oldest villages in Mijachija, an area in the western part of North Macedonia. Perched atop the steep sides of Mount Bistra, the first village settlements date back as far as the tenth century. Graced with plentiful water and verdant forest by the 19th century Galicnik had grown into a sizable community and economic center. Today, the village has only three permanent residents, but it is a popular weekend place for many others who own second homes. 

At the turn of the 20th century, following the Balkan wars, the first wave of mass emigration began from the village. One of the families who left to seek their fortune elsewhere is the Lonovski family, who settled in Romania. However, deep roots tether them to Galicnik and every once in a while, one family member, Ariton Lonovski, returned to visit his ancestral home. During one of these trips in the 1930s he decided to build a small hospital for his poor countrymen who later helped with the construction. In honor of his wife, Lonovski named the hospital “Villa Dosta.”

“My grandfather gave me a gold coin for the construction. Many other villagers also donated money for all the upgrades. Everyone chipped in,” said Kjimo Chavdar, a law professor originally from Galicnik who teaches at American University College in Skopje.

The main building used for the Galicnik Wedding Festival is known as the. “Groom’s House” or Villa Dosta Photo

The building was finished after World War II, but it was never used as a hospital. But the name — Villa Dosta — remains. Over the years, it became a place where short term visitors to Galicnik could rest and stay the night without having to pay.  And in the early 1960s, the building was transformed into a site for an annual cultural event: the Galicnik Wedding Festival, which every year draws thousands of tourists, foreign dignitaries and government officials for the three-day celebration. 

In 1962, the local community decided the time was right for a regional revival. On July 12, on Petrovden (Feast of Saints Peter and Paul), they started a new tradition – the Galicnik Wedding Festival. Over the years, this event has gained international acclaim and “Vila Dosta” has become a recognizable symbol of the village, along with the firing of three shotguns from the house’s terrace which marks the start of the festival. The groom departs “Villa Dosta” — now known as the “Groom’s House” —accompanied by the sound of zurli, a traditional woodwind instrument,  and drums to seek his beloved’s hand in marriage. 

A view of the mountains of Galicnik, which is not accessible for six months of the year, because the local government has not provided an access road to the natural beauties of the village

At an altitude of 1300 meters, Galicnik is far away from Mavrovo where aggressive urbanization has destroyed the coastline of the Mavrovo Lake and dramatically changed the surrounding landscape. The village itself doesn’t seem to attract the pop stars, businessmen, or  politicians who have been able to buy or build villages overlooking the lake. As a result, the local community in Galicnik never imagined that they would have to fight to preserve the rich history of “Villa Dosta,” now at risk of being sold off in a bankruptcy auction and placed in private ownership. Major questions remain about whether that would be legal, because extensive land records suggest that the building belongs to the government, IRL has found.

“I couldn’t fathom that we had to fight the government to preserve this cultural landmark. But, when I actually think about what sort of country we’re living in, I’m not entirely surprised. If we lose this house, that would be a real defeat for us all,” said Ognen Karagjozovski, the groom who took part in the Galicnik Wedding Festival in 2019. 

“According to the villagers, the house has been registered as state property since 1945. But since someone had to take care of it, the state assigned property rights to the Agricultural Cooperative Bistra,” said Kjimo Chavdar.

(The “Agricultural Cooperative Bistra”was formed in 1974. In 2003, some of its members decided to change its name to “Agricultural Cooperative Rusin.” Shortly after the name change, however, the cooperative began its decline, said  Kata Drenkovska, a former employee. “The property we owned started to fall apart, and the cattle were divided among several of our members,” she said.).

Tradition and Auction 

Organized by a local community association, the Galicnik Wedding Festival is an important part  of Macedonian culture which aims to preserve old customs, folklore, and traditions. The association counts down the days until the big event which takes place annually between July 15 and 17. Association president, Aleksandar Kostic, decided to turn to the journalists at IRL in the hope that alerting the public will stop what he says is a threat to a decades-long public tradition that could do away with public ownership of the “Groom’s House.” 

“If we hadn’t noticed the objects being put up for auction online and if we hadn’t taken drastic measures, they would’ve probably already been sold for cheap money,” said Aleksandar Kostic, the president of the local community association. 

In 2017, Kostic discovered that Villa Dosta was put up for auction online on a state-owned website called “E-auction.” On this website, the government sells property that was privately owned but then seized by the Public Revenue Office. 

No one at the local community association knew about the auction except its former president Miter Azhievski. In March 2016, he submitted the necessary documentation to privatize “Villa Dosta” to the Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe noting that it is a museum. Ten months later, In January 2017, Azhievski signed a statement that transferred ownership to the Agricultural Cooperative Rusin, which had filed for bankruptcy back in 2014. 

The volunteer members of the Galicnik Wedding Festival prepare the chests of clothes for the couple who will get married in a traditional way this year at the annual festival

The regional government on May 15, 2017 issued an order for “Villa Dosta” to be registered under the ownership of the Agricultural Cooperative Rusin. Since the cooperative was already in the midst of a bankruptcy procedure, its property was managed by bankruptcy director Miroslav Anastasievski, who was appointed by Judge Redjep Asani, a local civil court judge  from Gostivar. 

On December 21, 2017, Anastasievski, the bankruptcy director, announced that he was putting Villa Dosta up for auction. Anastasievski listed the building as a 338 square meter residential house whose value was estimated at 63,118 euros. The auction was scheduled a week later. But Аnastasievski said in an email that there were no bids to buy the property.

   Former local community association president Mitre Azhievski told IRL’s journalists that while he is aware of the cultural significance of these houses, he doesn’t believe that Villa Dosta’ was ever publicly owned. Instead, he said, the property belonged to Agricultural Cooperative Bistra whose legal successor is the Agricultural Cooperative Rusin. But documents from government property registrations show the opposite – that the property was, and remains, owned by the government. 

“At first I wanted to legalize it on behalf of the local community association in Galicnik, but pressure from the bankruptcy director Miroslav Anastasievski forced me to register it under the ownership of the Agricultural Cooperative Rusin,” Azhievski said. 

Public advertisement for the electronic sale of property of the bankrupt debtor ZZ Rusin whose ownership of the property is being challenged.

Bankruptcy director denies allegations that he applied pressure 

Bankruptcy director Anastasievski rejected Azhievski’s claim that he pushed to transfer ownership of Villa Dostafrom the government to the Agricultural Cooperative Rusin. 

“As for whether I’ve pressured certain people, as bankruptcy director, I wouldn’t allow myself to comment on someone’s statements that have nothing to do with reality,” said Miroslav Anastasievski in a written statement to IRL.  

According to Anastasievski, a bankruptcy procedure for the Agricultural Cooperative Rusin was initiated at the request of the trustee KJUBI Macedonia, a private insurance company based in Skopje. The board of trustees of the agricultural co-op decided to liquidate the company and in the process sell its property in order to settle its 959,816 euro debt. Key trustees are public institutions such as  the Public Revenue Office and the Pension Insurance Fund.

“No matter the historic significance of the property, I cannot act against the Law on Bankruptcy,” Anastasievski told IRL.

North Macedonia President Stevo Pendarovski, together with the diplomatic corps, the mayor of Mavrovo and Rostushe Medat Kurtovski and Minister of Culture Irena Stefoska watch the Galician wedding ceremony in front of the “Groom’s House”on July 18, 2021; Photo credit: Office of the President of the Republic of North Macedonia.

Those laws, he said, require him to sell the property and recoup the funds. But if the property is owned by the government, what gave him the right to sell it? That remains an essential question about the ownership and proposed sale.

According to the website of the government’s real estate records — the Cadaster — the current owner of “Villa Dosta” is the “Agricultural Cooperative Rusin,” while the land belongs to the state. But in order to track the exact changes of ownership throughout the years, IRL requested the official records from the Cadaster’s local office in Gostivar. These documents show that both the land and “Villa Dosta” have belonged to the state since 1994 and no changes in ownership have been recorded.. While the agricultural co-op had permission to use the house, it never owned it, according to the recordst. 

Medat Kurtovski’s vow of silence 

In 1975, the village of Galicnik received special status from the central government. Many of its buildings were listed as  individual cultural monuments, which are protected by the Law on Significant Cultural Heritage, which says that cultural monuments should be preserved in their original state. Among them is “Villa Dosta,” also known as the “Groom’s House.” 

“The building is in the category of significant cultural heritage,” said Marija Zafirovska, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Culture. 

Besides the cultural designation which gives the buildings certain protections, as state property the house is under the protection of the State Attorney’s Office, the national prosecutor. When the State’s Attorney received notice that the house was put up for auction, State Attorney from Gostivar and Mavrovo Boban Simjanovski told in December 2018  Mavrovo and Rostushe’s Mayor Medat Kurtovski to immediately put a stop to the legalization procedure. But, he refused in a letter to the state attorney.. 

The State Attorney said in email to IRL that he then appealed to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. In April 2020, the ministry ruled in favor of the state and the village government was ordered to stop the sale of Villa Dosta. Since 2020, local government administrators and the mayor, however, have refused to halt the process, and even ignored a direct order from Minister for Transportation and Communications Blagoj Bochvarski, the State Attorney said. 

“On December 22, 2021, complaints were again filed due to the silence of the administration in the municipality, on which occasion the Minister of transport and communications instructed the mayor of Mavrovo and Rostuse to act, but to this date the mayor has not acted and has not made a decision,” State Attorney for Gostivar and Mavrovo Boban Simjanovski wrote in an email. 

The Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe has remained silent. They didn’t respond to IRL’s request for comment which were sent recently to Sadredin Elezovski, via spokesman Fikret Ibraimi, the municipality spokesman.t. 

The Galicnik Wedding Festival in the midst of bankruptcy procedure 

The Museum of the Cultural Heritage of Galicnik is located in the basement of “Villa Dosta.” There are exhibits, photographs, books, original traditional wear, and other items that local residents have preserved over the years. Copies of the literary magazine “Galicnik” which were printed in the 1950s are also kept there. The museum houses the sculpture of famous Macedonian writer Gjorgjija Pulevski, books dedicated to philologist Partenije Zografski, and folklorist Panajot Ginovski and others who have made a mark on the history and tradition of the village.

Much like years prior, North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski is the official patron of the Galicnik Wedding festival. But that is merely a ceremonial title. According to the president’s own staff, he has no say in the sale process, but remains  committed to protecting tradition and culture.

“Regarding the protection of natural and cultural heritage, President Pendarovski believes that responsible work of the competent institutions is needed in order to protect and preserve the natural and cultural heritage of our country,” said Katerina Canevska, a public relations advisor to Pendarovski. 

From July 15 to 17, the Galicnik community will host several thousand local and international guests. Every year, national leaders, honorary guests, and ambassadors attend the festivities. The event is broadcasted by numerous international news outlets. 

The local community, however, has been battling to preserve a piece of this important tradition all alone. 

“We will continue to defend the property of Galicnik, even though we have no support and we are fighting alone,” said the disappointed president of the local community association, Aleksandar Kostic.

One thing is sure: this year the Galicnik Wedding Festival will begin as usual on the terrace of the “Groom’s House.” Three bullets will be fired from the terrace of this national landmark, and the show will go on. 

Mayor Medat Kurtovski said that he wasn’t aware of any irregularities about the ownership of the “Groom’s House” and that he would annul the legalization permits should there be any. But, when IRL pointed out that numerous irregularities had already been found by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications inspectorate and the State Attorney, . Kurtovski said that he would review the matter after the weekend. 

“It’s a mistake on my part that I’ve left these important matters to my staff and they made mistakes for which I take full responsibility. This is a lesson for the future. I don’t want to do any damage. The houses are still there, no one has taken them home. I’ll try my best to annul the legalization permits,” Kurtovski said in a phone interview. 

The decision to legalize “Villa Dosta” was issued during the former Municipality of Mavrovo and Rostushe Mayor Mukrem Memedi’s term. He said that he cannot exactly remember the details of the procedure. 

“I believed that the process was regulated. There are relevant branches in the municipality that were in charge of these issues, and I believed them,” Memedi said in an interview. 

Since he’s no longer in office, Memedi said that he doesn’t plan to comment further but that if insufficiencies were indeed determined that the permits could easily be annulled by those now in office..