The Lukov March: Neo-Nazis march through the streets of Sofia

The Lukov March - passive anti-Semitism permitted by Bulgaria’s constitutional loophole.

Roy Wexler,

OpEds neo-Nazis

The streets of Bulgaria’s capital city echoed this weekend with a vivid memory of Europe’s darkest times. On February 17, bands of neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Sofia, honoring Hristo Lukov, a notorious Nazi collaborator who actively promoted the deportation and murder of Bulgarian Jews.  

Anticipating the annual Lukov March, the World Jewish Congress and the Bulgarian Jewish community represented by the ‘Shalom’ organization succeeded in drawing 180,000 people from all over to world to sign a petition urging the Bulgarian government to issue an administrative ban against the event and to establish legislative measures under which such rallies could be banned in the future.

WJC CEO Robert Singer delivered this petition to Bulgarian Prime Minister Bokiyo Borissov earlier this month, and some successes were  reached: the rally was moved from evening hours to early afternoon, eliminating the chance for marchers to wield torches as they parade through the streets. But this is not enough. The question here goes further than torches – any legislative measures must first and foremost tackle Bulgaria’s constitutional loophole regarding free speech and the right to protest.

Article 39 of the Bulgarian constitution grants the freedom of speech, however, not without limits. Accordingly, freedom of speech is restricted when the speech: (1) incites to violence; (2) harms other peoples’ reputation; (3) is used to promote crimes, or (4) calls for forcible change of the constitutional order.

Although protests are a form of speech, the freedom to protest is governed by article 43 of the Bulgarian constitution, which states that: “All citizens shall have the right to peaceful and unarmed assembly for meetings and demonstrations”. Unlike the restrictions of article 39, which restricts inciteful and violent speech, the restrictions on the freedom of protest allow for any type of protests to take place, as long as they are peaceful and unarmed.

So where is the loophole? Well, according to the Bulgarian constitution a group of people could assemble, peacefully, and openly call for the extermination of Jews. While each individual participating in these callings may be violating article 39, and his speech could therefore be restricted, said calling does not, by itself, restrict his right to assemble for that purpose. So why allow for the assembly to even take place?

According to the Bulgarian constitution, “The procedure for the organizing and holding of meetings and demonstrations” is established by state law. The Bulgarian law establishes further restrictions on the right to protest, however, these restrictions are meant to protect public order during the protest. The law restricts the participation in protests from those people who are: (1) armed; (2) drunk (3) wear disguises and could therefore not be identified or (4) generally endanger the public. Thus, in Bulgaria, one could assemble for any purpose, even an unlawful one, as long as it is done peacefully.

This is not the case in other places in Europe. For example, article 21 of the European Convention of Civil and Political Rights, and the U.K law, allow for the restriction of the right to protest, if it is enshrined in laws for the interests of morals and the protections of the rights and freedoms of others, among other forms of restrictions. Similarly, the German constitution and laws allow the federal and state governments to restrict the right to protest from a group of people, organizations or parties who: (1) prohibit core civil rights from others; (2) seek to promote the agendas of parties declared by the court as unconstitutional; and (3) were declared as unconstitutional. While these examples may not catch the Lukov March, they at least provide tools to bring forward valid and strong arguments against it.

Bulgaria’s constitutional regime regarding the right to protest should be amended to include further grounds through which inciteful and anti-Semitic protests could be prohibited. Earlier this year Bulgaria, took on the rotating position of the presidency of the Council of the European Union and is now poised to serve as an example to other states in the EU. We urge Bulgaria to take this responsibility to heart and amend its laws to reflect the EU’s uncompromising approach against anti-Semitism.

Roy Wexler is a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps. He is licensed to practice law in Israel and the state of New York, and currently works in the field of international health insurance.