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Bulgaria: Concerns over a spike in antisemitic incidents

Mina Kirkova in Sofia
June 28, 2023

After a series of antisemitic incidents in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, Jewish community leaders say a line has been crossed. DW takes a look at what is behind these incidents.

People removing antisemitic symbols from a wall, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2022
Two storefronts in Sofia were recently daubed with antisemitic graffitiImage: BGNES

A six-pointed star and the word "Jude" (German for "Jew") were daubed on the front of the Cosmic Craft Beer store in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, two weeks ago in an act of antisemitic vandalism reminiscent of the way Nazis marked Jewish shopfronts in Nazi Germany. A few days later, a swastika was painted on the window of another storefront.

In mid June, the screening of the movie "Close" at the Sofia Pride Film Fest was interrupted by supporters of the pro-Russian nationalist Vazrazhdane (Revival) party who claimed that the movie was "pedophilia propaganda."

Before the vandalism of the Cosmic Craft Beer store, members of the same party had argued with staff there. The alleged reason for the confrontation was that the Vazrazhdane supporters had demanded that the owners of the store replace the flag of English football club Chelsea in its window with the Bulgarian flag.

After the incident, the store's owners put up a sign that read "We don't serve 'Vazrazhdane' supporters," which quickly went viral on social media. The shop was subsequently bombarded with bad online reviews and inundated by Vazrazhdane supporters — including a member of parliament — demanding to be served.

'Highly disturbing' developments

Antisemitic incidents are not a regular occurrence in Bulgaria, although hate speech on all sorts of issues — including antisemitism — is a problem in Bulgarian society. These recent incidents have sparked concern within the Jewish community, in particular because it took so long for authorities to respond.

Alexander Oscar, chairman of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria "Shalom," told DW that these recent events are "highly disturbing."

Vazrazhdane: Ultranationalist, xenophobic and antisemitic behavior

Vazrazhdane got 14.16% of the vote in Bulgaria's most recent parliamentary election, making it the third largest party in the Bulgarian parliament.

People, including supporters of the Vazrazhdane party who protested against the film "Close," outside a cinema taking part in the Sofia Pride Film Fest, Sofia, Bulgaria, June 11, 2023
The screening of a movie at the Sofia Pride Film Fest was interrupted by supporters of the Vazrazhdane party, who claimed that the movie was "pedophilia propaganda" Image: BGNES

Before becoming leader of Vazrazhdane, politician and historian Kostadin Kostadinov was a member of several nationalist parties. During his time as municipal councilor in the city of Varna, he came to the attention of the wider public in 2016 when he wrote an alternative history book for children in the fourth grade. When asked by media outlets why he had done so, Kostadinov said that it was a response to the national identity of Bulgarian children being replaced.

Two weeks ago, Kostadinov visited the German parliament and met with politicians from Germany's populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Against Ukrainian refugees and homosexuality

In 2022, Vazrazhdane organized a protest in Sofia against Bulgaria "entering the war in Ukraine." During that demonstration, a protester carried a sign with a swastika that read "Zionism = Nazism."

Alexander Oscar, chairman of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria "Shalom"
"Hate speech is much like a flame," says Alexander Oscar, "The same way a flame can become a huge fire, hate speech can become physical violence"Image: BGNES

Vazrazhdane's positions have included threatening to oust all Ukrainian refugees from Bulgaria — even calling them "Ukrainian tourists" and "arrogant Nazis." Kostadinov himself recently proclaimed that if Vazrazhdane came to power, it would "outlaw all homosexual propaganda."

History of antisemitic statements

Antisemitic statements by Vazrazhdane supporters and members are nothing new. In 2021, Elena Guncheva, a former member of parliament and of Vazrazhdane, suggested that Bulgarian politicians of Jewish descent were not Bulgarians and that they were "guests on Bulgarian soil."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, MP Tsoncho Ganev posted a yellow star on his public Facebook profile and compared public health policies that required people to carry proof of vaccination with the Nazi law that forced Jews to attach to their clothes a yellow star of David with the word "Jude." Also known as the "yellow star" or "Jewish badge," this was a key element of the Nazi plan to persecute and eventually murder the Jewish population of Europe.

Elena Guncheva
Elena Guncheva, a former MP and Vazrazhdane member, suggested that Bulgarian politicians of Jewish descent were not Bulgarians, but "guests on Bulgarian soil" Image: BGNES

This comparison was also used by other anti-vaxxer movements around the world. Courts in Germany sentenced several people for making this comparison, stating that it was clearly an incitement to hatred.

Authorities and politicians slow to react

Alexander Oscar said that what concerned him the most initially was the lack of a proper reaction from the authorities and politicians in Bulgaria. "Any other civilized European country, a country that is a member of the European Union, would have a reaction," he told DW.

For a long time, instead of commenting on the worsening antisemitic incidents, officials in the country were "busy spreading the myth that Bulgaria is the only country that saved all its Jews [during the Holocaust]," he said.

During the Second World War, Bulgaria decided not to deport its Jewish population, and has taken pride in this decision ever since. In 1943, however, 11,343 Jews were deported from territories that were under Bulgaria's jurisdiction, including parts of what are now North Macedonia and Greece.

A Vazrazhdane supporter wearing a shirt emblazoned with the letter Z and carrying a Bulgarian flag during a protest in support of Russia and against Bulgaria's membership of NATO and sending weapons to Ukraine outside Parliament Building in Sofia, Bulgaria, April 6, 2022
Vazrazhdane supporters show support for Russia and protest against Bulgaria's membership of NATO and decision to send weapons to Ukraine in 2022Image: Georgi Paleykov/NurPhoto/picture alliance

"We must believe that the situation will get better and we must find a way to demonstrate that we are part of the European family. Europe is based on common values and responsibility. It is important that we, Bulgarians, learn how to take responsibility for our mistakes and for our ancestors' wrongdoings," said Oscar.

Citizens express concern online

In sharp contrast to the slow reaction of Bulgaria's authorities and politicians, there has been a huge reaction to these recent antisemitic incidents on social media, with many people expressing their concern.

Others responded to the sudden flood of bad online reviews for the craft beer store by writing supportive messages. This response seems to reflect the general attitude in Bulgarian society: A survey commissioned by the Diplomatic Institute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bulgaria and conducted in 2022 shows that only 3–4% of Bulgarians hold radically antisemitic attitudes.

Vazrazhdane portrays itself as the victim

Kostadinov also addressed the issue, but instead of apologizing, he claimed that his party and its supporters were the victims. According to Kostadinov, the Cosmic Craft Beer store had discriminated against Vazrazhdane's supporters when it said it wouldn't serve them.

He also accused Oscar of being a Nazi: "You should be glad that we Bulgarians are not Nazis like you are. Because if we were, you would not be here," Kostadinov wrote on his Facebook profile.

Kostadin Kostadinov, leader of the Bulgarian pro-Russian nationalist Vazrazhdane (Revival) party
Kostadin Kostadinov, leader of the Bulgarian pro-Russian nationalist Vazrazhdane (Revival) party, recently accused the chairman of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria "Shalom" of being a NaziImage: BGNES

"This has crossed the line completely," said Oscar, adding: "The only way they can excuse themselves now is to paint themselves as the victim. Everybody else is now a Nazi, a fascist, and they are the only saviors. It's the same as what the Kremlin is doing in Ukraine."

Oscar is concerned that such talk could lead to escalation. "Hate speech is much like a flame. The same way a flame can become a huge fire, hate speech can become physical violence," he said.

The European Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League have all since either issued statements or written to Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov to express their concern at the rise in antisemitism in Bulgaria and shock at Kostadinov's comments.

After the latest escalation in Kostadinov's rhetoric  — when the MP called for part of Bulgarian society to be "destroyed" — Prime Minister Denkov on Tuesday publicly condemned  what he described as "unacceptable" behavior by Vazrazhdane and the party's calls for aggression. Justice Minister Atanas Slavov called on the public prosecutor's office to begin a procedure to ascertain whether Vazrazhdane has incited violence.

Edited by Keno Verseck and Aingeal Flanagan

Portrait of a woman (Mina Kirkova) with dark hair and brown eyes
Mina Kirkova Writer and editor with Deutsche Welle's Bulgarian service