In October 2019, England’s national football team played what should have been a humdrum European Championship qualifying match against Bulgaria in Sofia, the country’s capital. But the match soon made headlines for all the wrong reasons, being stopped twice because of racist abuse from a section of Bulgarian fans. What’s more, the match served as an unfortunate window into Bulgaria’s radical right, where the hateful actions of the furthest fringes tend to be tolerated, downplayed or even ignored.
During the match at Sofia’s Vasil Levski Stadium on October 14 – where a large section of the stadium was already closed off after racist incidents in June – a section of Bulgarian supporters made Nazi salutes and hurled monkey chants at black England players. Fans were warned that the match could be abandoned if the behaviour persisted. The apparent culprits left the stadium before halftime, not bothering to stick around and see the Bulgarian side fall to one of their worst-ever home defeats.
The individuals behind the chanting and Nazi salutes were, not surprisingly, linked to Bulgaria’s radical right, neo-Nazi fringes. As journalist Vivek Chaudhary wrote in The Guardian, the perpetrators of the abuse were identified as members of “Lauta Army,” a neo-Nazi hooligan firm associated with Lokomotiv Plovdiv. Lauta Army has connections with other neo-Nazi hooligan firms across Europe; two years ago, Chaudhary reports, Lauta Army “celebrated its 25th anniversary by taking over a Black Sea resort for three days with far-right groups from Italian club Napoli, Spartak Moscow and Bulgarian club Levski Sofia.”
As I myself saw in a video of the spectacle, there were indeed supporters of Levski Sofia in attendance – a club that, as I wrote last year, has a significant neo-Nazi hooligan problem. One of the black-clad hooligans was donning a "SW99" logo, a hooligan firm of Levski Sofia that regularly employs neo-Nazi imagery in its unfortunately common graffiti in the centre of the capital.
As I’ve written before, Bulgaria’s radical right fringes enjoy relatively little popular support for their actions, but are able to operate with relative impunity thanks to the complacency of local and national officials in the country. It’s why an open neo-Nazi march is able to take place in the centre of the capital every year, and why you can find far more neo-Nazi graffiti, including swastikas, in central Sofia than in possibly any other major European city.
The radical right, of course, is not new to Bulgaria’s political scene. In the country’s 2017 parliamentary elections a coalition of three radical right parties, the United Patriots, scored just over nine percent of the vote and found themselves part of centre-right prime minister Boyko Borisov’s coalition government. It tends to escape attention that the radical right has been part of Bulgaria’s government for more than two years; the country’s defence minister is Krasimir Karakachanov, leader of the VMRO-Bulgarian National Movement, a party which has an entire section on its website dedicated to the “Gypsy question.”
But Bulgaria’s radical right fringes haven’t been faring as well recently in the electoral arena. While VMRO won 2 of Bulgaria’s 17 European Parliament seats in May, in local elections in October the party fared less well. VMRO candidate for mayor of Sofia Angel Dzhambazki – a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) with a history of making homophobic, racist statements – scored only 3.9% of the vote, below the 4.9% he scored in the same election in 2015. The United Patriots coalition has itself disbanded because of infighting and personality conflicts between the three party leaders: Karakachankov, National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) leader Valeri Simeonov and Ataka leader and notorious anti-Semite Volen Siderov.
This doesn’t mean Bulgaria’s radical right is on the wane – if anything, the even nastier and outright neo-Nazi fringes seem to be on the march. The annual Lukov March is still held every February in Sofia to honour pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic general Hristo Lukov, despite pleas from international Jewish organisations to stop the march (in fairness, Sofia authorities have tried to ban it in the past, but organizers have won appeals in court). VMRO’s Dzhambazki came out as a supporter of the march during his campaign, calling Lukov a “worthy Bulgarian general.”
The march is organized by a group called the Bulgarian National Union (BNS). The group has been able to organize international neo-Nazi meetups in Bulgaria around the Lukov March; the group has also started to organize other meetups, including an April 2019 conference in Sofia that featured a number of neo-Nazi groups, including a Hungarian group that recently attacked a Jewish community centre in Budapest. BNS also works with the Bulgarian branch of international neo-Nazi network Blood & Honour.
Another group that BNS works closely with calls itself “White Front.” Since September, White Front has started heavily promoting itself on social media, particularly the Telegram social messaging app that is popular with neo-Nazis, and has undertaken postering campaigns in Bulgarian cities. While White Front has had a presence since at least 2017, its more aggressive public presence and alliances appear new.
Telegram posts suggest that White Front is allied with a violent neo-Nazi American group calling itself “Vorherrschaft Division,” who has posted about their “brothers in Bulgaria” and their pleasure to be “in collaboration with” White Front. Vorherrschaft Division’s Telegram channel features extremely violent neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic content, and openly advocates and promotes violence and acts of terror. In October, Vorherrschaft Division members reportedly posted anti-Semitic posters at an American synagogue; one of the posters showed an image of Adolf Hitler with the words "Did you forget about me?" while a second called for a "crusade against Semite led subhumans."
While White Front appears to be a tiny group, the fact that it is linked to an extremely violent fringe of neo-Nazis should be cause for concern. With the next Lukov March scheduled for February 2020, it’s incumbent on Bulgarian authorities to make sure the country’s radical right fringes, whether they’re in football stadiums or advocating terrorism online, aren’t able to act out their hateful fantasies.