Sofia, Bulgaria – More than 1,000 far-right supporters have rallied in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, to pay tribute to a fascist general with close ties to Nazi Germany.
“Lukov March” is organised every year by the Bulgarian National Union (BNS) to mark the death of Hristo Lukov, a 1930s defence minister and an ultranationalist leader who was assassinated by a communist group in 1943.
Shouting slogans such as “Freedom or death!” and “All communists to court! Bulgaria is taking a new nationalist path!”, the two-hour procession passed through central Sofia on Saturday amid heavy police presence.
Members of far-right groups from a number of other European countries also joined the rally, including about 50 Germans from the Die Rechte and Junge Nationalisten organisations.
Ten members of the French Jeune Nation group were also in attendance, along with several Swedish supporters of the Nordic Resistance Movement.
Earlier in the day, 200 people gathered in Sofia for a counterprotest under the slogan, “No Nazis in our streets! And no to Fortress Europe!”
In the 1930s and 1940s, Lukov led the Union of Bulgarian National Legions, which is seen as a fascist and anti-Semitic organisation. Its ideological successor, the BNS, has been accused of espousing similar views.
Plamen Dimitrov, a BNS leader, rejected accusations that the march to honour Lukov was anti-Semitic.
“The Jewish community is not a subject of our march so there is no reason to talk about anti-Semitism,” Dimitrov said, claiming that the rally has not violated Bulgarian law throughout its 15-year history.
When asked about the accusations of anti-Semitism against Lukov, Robert Eklund, a member of the Nordic Resistance Movement who attended the march for the third time, said: “Even if he was an anti-Semite, it wouldn’t be a problem for us, not for me anyway.”
Prior to the march, organisers had instructed participants not to engage in provocative behaviour.
BNS minders followed the procession closely, and at least on one occasion sanctioned a marcher who did a Nazi salute.
The rally went on despite efforts by local authorities to block it.
According to Dimitrov, the BNS leader, the Sofia municipality has sought to stop “Lukov March” for the past five years, including issuing a ban last year.
In September 2017, an administrative court struck down the ban, saying it violated the organisers’ constitutional rights.
Various public figures and politicians condemned the march, including Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova from the ruling GERB party.
At a conference titled “Sofia says ‘NO’ to hate speech and extremism” on Thursday, Fandakova said the annual event “has no place in Sofia”.
GERB is currently in coalition with a union of ultranationalist parties. Dimitrov said that representatives of at least one of those parties, VMRO, had previously attended “Lukov March”.
“We don’t have anything to do with this march […] We never supported actions connected with anti-Semitism, xenophobia or any other manifestation of extreme [views],” VMRO spokesperson Ekaterina Aneva told Al Jazeera.
According to Radoslav Stoyanov, an expert at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, the BNS does not break the law by organising the march.
He added, however, that it contributes to popularising xenophobic, Islamophobic and homophobic views, noting that hate crimes have risen in Bulgaria over the past 15 years.
“The reason for this is the pushing of public opinion towards anti-minority attitudes, and that happened gradually through the growth of the ‘yellow press’,” said Stoyanov, referring to publications emphasising sensationalism over facts.
He said the “yellow press” has supported the growth of far-right groups in Bulgaria in recent years by normalising racist and discriminatory speech – as did the presence of ultranationalists parties in positions of power.
“This is very worrying and this tendency will continue,” Stoyanov told Al Jazeera.