Bulgarian Russophiles went ahead with an event to honour Russian soldiers who died during the Second World War on May 9, despite a ban by the local authorities.
The Immortal Regiment marches, initially held only in Russia, glorify the Soviet army’s victory over Germany in World War II. They have taken place in Bulgaria since 2015, but until the Russian invasion of Ukraine did not receive much attention. Now, however, the event is seen as supporting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
In the Bulgarian capital Sofia, dozens of people gathered around a monument to the Soviet army, despite the local authorities deciding not to allow the gathering.
“Participants in the rally state they will carry Russian and Soviet flags, which in the current situation could be seen as a symbol of the support to the Russian war against Ukraine,” said the Sofia municipality in a statement.
Traditionally, participants hold Russian flags and photos of Soviet soldiers who died in World War II.
Among the participants this year was Russia’s controversial ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova, who became notorious for her statements against the pro-Western former government led by Kiril Petkov. Recently, she has once again intervened in Bulgarian political life, saying that if she was able to vote in general elections in the country, she would vote for the far-right pro-Russian Vazrazhdane party.
As the Immortal Regiment march began, dozens of people opposing the march also gathered near the monument, chanting that they want a Bulgarian monument on that site and condemning the Russophile groups in the country. Since 2016, the monument has been the end-point of the Immortal Regiment’s march in Sofia.
The Sofia municipality issued a statement that Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova had ordered the event to be ended to avoid clashes between the two groups.
“In order not to allow confrontation between groups of citizens and violation of the public order, the holding of the uncoordinated march ‘Immortal Regiment’ is being ended,” the statement noted.
However, the march has continued as planned by its organisers, with the participants guarded by the police.
This caused some anger in Sofia, as opponents of the gathering questioned on social media why the police were guarding a banned event instead of stopping it.
The first Immortal Regiment rally was organised in 2012 in Moscow to honour Russia’s victory. Since then they have become a regular event on Victory Day, with Russian President Vladimir Putin taking part in last year’s march. However, this year the Russian authorities cancelled the annual processions, apparently due to security concerns.
Commemorations of WW2 are already controversial in Bulgaria, which was on the side of Germany, but saved thousands of Jews from deportation. After Germany’s defeat, in September 1944, Russia-backed communists took power in the country, until then a monarchy. Thousands of people from the elite were murdered and the King Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, then just six years old, and his sister were sent into exile.
Rallies also took place in Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska and in Serbia.
In Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Srpska, the rally was organised by the authorities from the pro-Russian ruling SNSD party. It was attended by the entity’s president and loyal supporter of Putin, Milorad Dodik, and was declared a public holiday for the entity.
Participants in the rally carried images of their relatives who died in WWII, as well as flags of former Yugoslavia, Republika Srpska and Russian symbols.
Bosnia comprises two autonomous entities – the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. While the Federation is keen to push the country towards EU and Nato membership, the pro-Russian ruling party of Republika Srpska is blocking all attempts at pro-Western reforms and is openly supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In Serbia, where many of the population are pro-Russian, there were marches in several big cities, including the capital Belgrade. People carried Soviet, Russian and Serbian flags. The event was not officially backed by the government.