Sofia, Bulgaria – Days after at least nine people were killed in Germany in a far-right attack, neo-Nazis from across Europe were stopped from marching in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, as they had done every year since 2003.
Hundreds of far-right activists from across the continent had started arriving in Sofia in advance of the weekend for Saturday’s planned Lukov March to honour a Nazi collaborator, expecting to take part in a torchlit rally.
But on Friday, a higher court ruling upheld Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s ban; in previous years, her attempts to halt the march were overturned.
While anti-fascist activists and observers welcomed the development, they warned that Bulgaria‘s far-right problem goes far beyond a single February march.
In the wake of Wednesday’s massacre in Hanau, which saw white supremacist gunman Tobias Rathjen kill nine people – all of whom had migrant backgrounds – at two shisha lounges, before turning the gun on his mother and himself, German authorities did manage to prevent at least nine people from boarding a plane to Bulgaria to attend the event. Some were subsequently allowed to travel.
But hundreds of others came to participate in the Lukov March, which commemorates a pro-Nazi Bulgarian general and head of a wartime fascist movement.
Hristo Lukov, who had close ties to Nazi German leadership, was assassinated by communist partisans in February 1943.
The march is organised by the Bulgarian National Union (BNS), a fringe far-right organisation that consider themselves heirs of Lukov’s fascists.
But on Friday, the eve of the march, BNS announced it had been informed of the higher court ruling.
The Lukov March has emerged as a key gathering for Europe’s far-right and neo-Nazi fringes.
“This march is a recruitment activity,” Radoslav Stoyanov, an activist with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee rights group, told Al Jazeera.
“Right-wing radicals try to recruit young people into ultra-nationalist ideology through it.”
Because of the court order this year, neo-Nazis were only permitted to gather on Saturday in front of Lukov’s former house in central Sofia to lay wreaths.
Late on Friday, a number of them gathered at a Sofia bar for a concert featuring German neo-Nazi musician Philipp Neumann.
Meanwhile, the only people demonstrating through the capital’s central streets, protected by dozens of police officers, were about 300 activists opposed to the far right, chanting “Sofia is not a Nazi city” under the banner, “No Nazis in our streets!”.
Some activists urged caution, however, and doubted a ban had been issued at all.
“The [Lukov March] is not actually banned,” activist Stoyo Tetevenski told Al Jazeera, adding that Bulgarian authorities have failed to combat racism. “It’s just a legal trick that allows them to protest and gather instead of march. … It’s (the court order) a publicity stunt.”
BNS claimed the court upheld Fandakova’s ban, but Stoyanov said that documentation suggests it was not legally binding.
What Sofia’s mayor gave, Stoyanov said after reviewing court documents, “was not an order but rather a proposal”.
Fandakova proposed to turn Lukov March into a stationary event outside the Nazi collaborator’s former house, Stoyanov explained.
BNS appealed, and the higher court dismissed their motion.
This means, according to Stoyanov, that the mayor’s proposal was toothless – and that had they wanted to, BNS could have attempted to march.
On Saturday, there was a significant police presence in central Sofia, including crowd control barriers and lines of police guarding the park from where the Lukov March was meant to start; the increased security acting as a deterrent.
Bulgarian authorities have recently been turning up the heat on the organisation.
In January, Bulgaria’s general prosecutor announced an investigation into BNS’s activities.
Earlier this month, Sofia prosecutors asked a local court to cancel the far-right group’s registration as an NGO under Bulgarian law.
In Bulgaria, any person who promotes “fascist or another anti-democratic ideology” can be punished under the country’s criminal code.
“Gypsies, Turks, Armenians and Jews are guests in Bulgaria and if they are good guests, they can live peacefully here,” BNS leader Zvezdomir Andronov told a Bulgarian talk show in 2019.
Andronov is now under investigation by Bulgaria’s anti-discrimination body for those comments. BNS claims their activities are in accordance with the law and that they are subject to “repression” from the “Zionist lobby”.
“We are driven not by hate to anyone, but by love for our people and sense of duty to honour our ancestors and our heroes,” a BNS spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
In the wake of the bloodshed in Germany and a growing far-right threat across Europe, observers warned that Bulgaria’s government needs to look closer to home to address its challenges, and adopt a strategy that goes further than cancelling one rally or investigating a single group.
“Appearing to symbolically crack down on neo-Nazis for a one-day event while mainstreaming far-right ideas and embracing stronger far-right parties in government is not the best strategy to deal with the far right,” historian Tom Junes told Al Jazeera.
Three small far-right parties are currently part of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s coalition government
The largest of these, VMRO, is notorious for its anti-Roma rhetoric. Party leader Krasimir Karakachanov is the country’s minister of defence and a deputy prime minister.
Last year, Karakachanov reportedly said: “The truth is that we need to undertake a complete programme for a solution to the Gypsy problem.”
VMRO’s candidate for mayor of Sofia in last year’s elections, Angel Dzhambazki, supported the Lukov March.