A few thousand far-right nationalists from Bulgaria, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other European countries marched in Sofia on February 17 to commemorate a local general who led a pro-Nazi organisation during World War II.
Although not officially supported by the parties in power (or the majority of Bulgarians), the march was staged by the far-right Bulgarian National Union, which is close to VMRO – one of the three members of the United Patriots, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB).
The Lukov March took place despite a municipal ban, which was overturned by a court. Organised for the first time in 2003, it honoured the death of General Hristo Lukov, who led the fascist Union of Bulgarian National Legions.
As the march is strongly condemned by all official institutions and the majority of Bulgarians, the organisers issued very strict rules to its participants. Imposing a military-style discipline, they prohibited the use of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, chewing gum and mobile phones. Marchers were banned from laughing out loud or speaking with journalists too, with only well-briefed organisers authorised to talk to the press.
“There is no power in the world that could prohibit us from honouring a hero, a warrior and a statesman, which undoubtedly General Lukov is,” Zvezdomir Andonov, one of the organisers of the march, told reporters including bne IntelliNews.
Lukov, a supporter of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, was killed in a February 1943 assassination by a communist hit squad and his legionnaires were banned by the Bulgarian government.
Hailing Lukov and chanting against the communists, but without using any offensive words, the participants walked through the streets of downtown Sofia in an orderly fashion, closely watched by police. The aim of the organisers was to imitate a military event and even the commands to participants were issued in military style. A drum gave rhythm to the procession, which was led by a young woman carrying a portrait of Lukov and organisers dressed in military-style clothing.
Participants carried flags and torches, provoking shock and even fear among citizens. However, no provocative actions or words were allowed and the organisers were monitoring the march very strictly to prevent any such action.
The majority of participants were young men supporting neo-Nazi ideas and organisations, but they also included children as young as 10, as well as elderly people who remembered the previous marches.
Although the organisers tried hard to persuade the public they are not anti-Semites and are tolerant, one of them, Galina Lacheva, told reporters that the march gathered people supporting neo-Nazi ideologies and claimed it took place with the blessing of top politicians.
Advocating policies against Jews, the Legionnaires – like other pro-Nazi groups in Bulgaria during the World War II – did not have mass support. Although an ally of Hitler, Bulgaria did not promise to send Bulgarian Jews to the death camps of the Holocaust, thanks to a successful campaign by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, political and civil leaders and ordinary people against the planned deportations.
The majority of Bulgarians did not support the event on February 17 and many strongly opposed it, fearing that it will harm the country’s image of an open, democratic and liberal society. Numbers were relatively low compared to the estimated 45,000-60,000 participants that joined a fascist march in Warsaw in November.
But the event still puts another dark spot on Bulgaria’s EU Council chairmanship that started in January and has been marred by a number of scandals, including a racist outburst by United Patriots leader Valeri Simeonov against a German MEP.
The government, Bulgaria’s biggest political parties and several Jewish organisations including the World Jewish Congress had called in advance for the march to be suspended, while an international petition against it gathered nearly 180,000 signatures.
The US embassy in Sofia issued a statement prior to the event that it was “saddened and troubled to see the display of intolerance represented by the Lukov March”.
“General Hristo Lukov was a Nazi supporter who promoted hate and injustice, and is not someone deserving of veneration,” the embassy said in the statement.
Earlier on February 17, a protest against the Lukov March was held in Sofia, with the theme “No Nazis on our Streets!” The protest was organised by the Bulgarian branch of the antifa movement.
The World Jewish Congress also condemned the march, calling it a disgrace.
“We cannot stand by in silence as neo-Nazis and anti-Semites from across Europe march through the streets of Sofia or any other city, in the same dangerous manifestation of the very anti-Semitic ideology that brought about the near destruction of European Jewry. As marginal as the Lukov march may be, what happened today is a disgrace,” it said in a statement.