As Bulgaria goes on holding the rotating presidency of the EU and the Bulgarian leaders are extra cautious not to do anything that might tarnish their avowedly pro-European image, local as well as international Nazis marched through Sofia to commemorate the day of the assassination of a Bulgarian general, Hristo Lukov, the leader of the ultranationalist Bulgarian National Legions Union, the local war-time equivalent of Nazi Germany's Hitlerjugend.
Who was Gen Lukov? A First World War hero, he was war minister in the 1930s but fell out with the king and retired just prior to the beginning of the Second World War. In 1942 he became the leader of the Bulgarian National Legions Union. He was assassinated by a hit squad of Communists the following year. Under Communism, Hristo Lukov was a non-person. His name was rarely mentioned in the history books because the Communists feared he might be glorified as a symbol of anti-Communism.
However, with the collapse of the regime in 1989, Lukov quickly emerged from the dustbin of history. Like other former East bloc nations, Bulgaria started searching for a new identity in Europe post the Cold War, and like other former East bloc nations many Bulgarians looked into their interwar history for inspiration. Without a doubt Gen Lukov had been a formidable figure, a monster to Communists of all shades and hues, and someone who apparently stood a good chance of rousing the historical pride of the impoverished Bulgaria of the 1990s. His Nazi inclinations and his anti-Semitism did not seem to matter.
Those were the beginnings of the Lukov March. Twenty years later, a number of extremist groupings bearing ominous names such as the Bulgarian National Union, National Resistance, Blood and Honour (banned in a number of European countries), joined by various skinhead and football fan groupings, now hold an annual "Lukov March" through the streets of Sofia. They usually get a sanction for their gathering by the Sofia City Council. In 2018, obviously owing to the EU presidency that is being used for domestic propaganda purposes, the City Council refused to give their blessing, probably under pressure as a variety of local and international organisations, including the World Jewish Congress, protested. But a court overruled and pronounced the rally legal.
It is important to note that Lukov and his ilk are not venerated by unabashed neo-Nazis alone. A motley but vocal group of people, some of them considering themselves to belong to the intellectual elite and many identifying themselves as anti-Communist democrats, genuinely consider Lukov to be a "patriot" rather than a fascist. They are joined by a number of historians of varied competence and political affiliations who produce "evidence" that Lukov and his troops were not anti-Semitic but were mainly concerned with the welfare of Bulgarians, including those in Macedonia.
Even mainstream political parties such as GERB sometimes manifest their anti-Communism by parading nonagenarian former members of the Bulgarian National Legions Union, billing them as true anti-Communist democrats. One of them, who describes Hitler as a "fiery orator" in a video clip circulating the Internet, was even taken to the European Parliament by a GERB MP known for his being an outspoken anti-Communist.
Probably the worst side effect of this kind of rebirth of Bulgarian fascism can be seen in the media. For a variety of reasons many anchors and reporters have served as the mouthpiece of Lukov's champions. In this way they have made Nazism debatable as political opponents argue in TV studios whether Lukov was a fascist or patriot.
The Lukov March is but one indication of the rebirth of Bulgarian fascism. While Boyko Borisov's GERB, which has ruled Bulgaria almost uninterruptedly since 2009, distances itself from the more extremist standpoints of Lukov's supporters, it has nurtured extremism and ultranationalism in their more publicly acceptable forms. In fact, Boyko Borisov's third term in office as prime minister was made possible by his alliance with three extreme nationalist parties: the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, the NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and the notorious Ataka. In fact, this country's deputy prime minister, Valeri Simeonov, is the leader of the NFSB. His language alone dwarfs the whole of the Le Pen family collectively.
Bulgaria in 2018 ticks most of the early warning boxes. Its nationalism has been powerful and continuing. Its disdain for human rights has gained notoriety especially when it comes to people at risk, such as asylum seekers and Gypsies. Sexism is rampant, and so is intolerance to anyone who is different – as displayed by the acrimonious debate preceding the failed ratification of the Istanbul Convention for the Prevention of Violence Against Women. Like never before, the Orthodox Church takes political stands that are predictably pro-Russian and ultraconservative. Cronyism and corruption are rampant. The media are subservient and controlled. Any talk of checks and balances on the unlimited powers of those in power, including the current prime minister, is but a joke. As Antoniy Todorov, a professor of political science, warns, in this climate virulent anti-Communism can easily turn into fascism.
Europe, in the meantime, is looking the other way. Had this been Austria, where the extremist Freedom Party is now part of the governing coalition, there would have been an outrage. But this is Bulgaria. For what it is, the Bulgarians'd better be left to their own devices as long as they host the EU presidency meetings.