For many years, Bulgarian politicians have had the habit of boasting of the country’s model of ethnic tolerance. But the country also shows other forms of tolerance that are rather questionable, as we have again seen so recently with the Lukov March and the current visit by the Night Wolves being allowed to go ahead.
The same country that seven decades ago stood up with conspicious courage to prevent the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi death camps, thus standing in the way of Bulgarian Jews meeting the fate of the more than six million murdered in the Holocaust, is showing a bit less backbone these days.
Without delving too deep into the question of the validity of the Bulgarian model of ethnic tolerance, it may be said that it is like the curate’s egg – good in parts. The country has never descended into the kind of conflicts that so tore apart many of its close neighbours, and nor is it ever likely to.
But while that is true, it is equally true that there are unresolved serious issues around ethnic tensions in Bulgaria. Every few months in recent years in Bulgaria, there have conflicts between non-Roma and Roma people in various Bulgarian municipalities. There have been suggestions that these have been deliberately stoked by those who have a political interest in doing so, and local media reports also have made it clear that by the time the matters reach a state parlous enough to make headlines and attract cameras, they have been festering untended for years.
Yet, apart from when such a clash is the headline of the day, the issue is left to recede. Governments revert to self-congratulatory blather about progress in Roma integration. The cameras move on. Until the next time.
Far-right, ultra-nationalist and other extremist political organisations feed on such tensions. The hatred of the Other is the cancer by which they grow. This is well-known to be a problem throughout Europe, and perhaps it is no coincidence that those of far-right views also often oppose all the values – and the very project – that the European Union is meant to embody.
Bulgaria does not have the problems on the same scale of some other European countries in which “nationalist” and so-called “patriotic” groups appear to be flourishing. The longest-standing political project of this kind, the Ataka political party, is descending ever further into bathos, following its leader Volen Siderov. Yet outside Parliament, there are fringe groups, not often seen in public – though some were out in the streets a few years back brandishing their hatred for refugees and migrants – and in recent days, we have seen some of them have taken to ersatz forms of uniforms. Whether any of them genuinely have sought the honour of serving their country in the legal national armed forces is an open question.
Year after year now, every February has seen a Lukov March, honouring a 1930s-1940s Bulgarian general who was a keen advocate of the alliance with Hitler’s Germany and, it is alleged, was an avowed anti-Semite (his supporters deny the latter).
Years after year, some in a form of uniform, many bearing torches – an obvious mimickry of those notorious parades of the Hitler era – they have tramped through the streets of Bulgaria’s capital. And have been allowed to do so, notwithstanding the appeals from various bodies – human rights groups, the embassies of Israel, Russia, the United States, among others – for the march to be banned and stopped.
In 2015, the mayor of Sofia, acting on the advice of intelligence and security services, in fact ordered such a ban. Yet it was defied, and the Lukov Marchers marched anyway. Nothing was heard of such a ban in February 2016. The march went ahead, again. Have Europe’s politicians, national and municipal, learnt nothing from history? And if anyone seeks to defend a Lukov March on the grounds of constitutional rights to expression and assembly, what of those same rights of people who may not want to be on the streets when these crop-headed young men are on the march with their black clothes and their torches?
Now we have the Night Wolves, here in Bulgaria. When the Putin-worshipping motorcycle group embarked on their progress through several Central European countries last year, Poland – for reasons of security, but certainly not unmindful of its history – banned them from entry. The group has made it clear in numerous media statements that it has the ambition to make such excursions through Europe a regular occurence.
Yet Bulgaria let them in. The result: in Bourgas, arrests, following a clash between Bulgarian “nationalist” paramilitaries, on the one side, and a Ukrainian and Bulgarian group of protesters who had turned out with placards to let them know that Bulgaria did not welcome them.
Today, at Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia, there were two arrests, after rival groups of opponents and supporters exchanged threats and insults.
The mayor of Sofia did not heed an appeal the day before, submitted by the Reformist Bloc city councillors and made public by councillor Yvo Bojkov, denouncing the visit by the group as a threat to security, public peace and as a provocation, and calling for the Night Wolves’ events in Sofia to be banned. Not uncharacteristically for people of the type who would support something like the Night Wolves, not only was there waving of the Soviet flag, but also the shouting of homophobic slogans. Is permitting that also part of a Bulgarian model of tolerance?
Meanwhile, will there be continued tolerance for little groups of people who dress up in uniforms to propagate their peculiar brand of patriotism? Will this be allowed to spread? In a country that already, unfortunately, has made headlines abroad for its brand of self-appointed migrant hunters, also not averse to dressing up in camouflage?
Just where do the limits of Bulgarian tolerance lie? Does anyone in a position of authority have a clear idea in their head as to the answer to that question?