A February night in Bulgaria: Of tolerance, and a torchlight march

It was the contrast of light and dark, this February night in Sofia. In one part of the Bulgarian capital city, an event to proclaim the values of acceptance of all, notwithstanding differences, and a rejection of the language of hatred. In another, an annual torchlight march in honour of Second World War fascist leader and pro-Nazi general Hristo Lukov.

At a ceremony in the Cabinet building, entitled “Together for Bulgaria. Together for Europe”, Bulgarian intellectuals, civil society leaders, senior government officials, municipal leaders and diplomats were among those who gathered to show support for the manifesto “Together Against Hate Speech”.

Initially launched in September 2018, the manifesto has gathered widespread support, expressed in video messages of those who support a vision of a Bulgaria that embraces all, irrespective of ethnic, religious or other identity.

Ion Gâlea, the ambassador of Romania, whose country currently holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU, told the gathering that one of the priorities of the Romanian Presidency is to defend European values, including the fight against racism, intolerance, xenophobia, populism and antisemitism.

Roumyana Buchvarova, head of the Prime Minister’s office and who has been named in media reports as Bulgaria’s ambassador-designate to Israel, conveyed PM Boiko Borissov’s support and said that the political battle of today is the battle for truth.

“That is why we say no to hatred, no to xenophobia and no to antisemitism. They prevent us going forward,” Bucharova said.

In remarks to the meeting, US ambassador Eric Rubin and Israeli ambassador Irit Lilian expressed firm support for the values upheld in the manifesto, as – as ambassador Lilian put it – there can be no room for racism, xenophobia and intolerance – “this is the hard battle that is being fought every day and we must not give up”.

From left, US ambassador Eric Rubin, Romanian ambassador Ion Gâlea, Israeli ambassador Irit Lilian, Roumyana Bucharova, deputy head of the Institute for Holocaust Remembrance in Bulgaria Rumyana Christidi, and the president of the Organisation of the Jews in Bulgaria ‘Shalom’ Associate Professor Alexander Oscar.

Bulgaria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev was among those who made direct reference to the fact that the occasion was being held on the evening of the Lukov March, the annual February event in support of the pro-Nazi general.

“We do not need to see in the centre of Sofia torchlight parades to remind us that we are proud Bulgarians,” Georgiev said, saying that the Bulgarian state was asserting that it would not lie about history and would remain a pillar in Europe and in the world against the manifestations of intolerance and extremism that bring societies to ruin.

At the close of the ceremony, participants queued to add their signatures to the manifesto.

The counterpoint to this assertion of tolerance and rejection of the language of hatred was to be found in the boulevards of Sofia on the night of February 16, as for the 16th year, dark-clad participants – joined by neo-Nazis from various parts of Europe who had flown in for the occasion – paid their tribute to Lukov.

“Do not give up on the one who did not give up,” was the motto of the 2019 Lukov March, which took place amid the now-customary considerable police escort. Months ago, Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova declared a ban on the event, and as has happened every year recently, this ban was defeated in court.

The organisers of the march claim that it is not true to claim that Lukov was an antisemite and a pro-Nazi, preferring to paint him as a supposed patriotic icon. The record suggests otherwise. And whatever the historical dispute, and whatever the imagery of a torchlit march in a European city – evoking the darkest time of seven and more decades ago – the Facebook page of the Lukov march is littered with user comments that include antisemitism and Holocaust denial. In the darkness, the only light was from the torches, reminiscent of a Nuremberg parade. Elsewhere, to close where we began, the light that was offered was from those willing to sign their names to a pledge for a future of tolerance, of acceptance of differences, of a European future, and one cleansed of the language of hatred.

(Photos: government.bg, except of the Lukov March: WJC)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.