THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN UPDATED. Greece has handed over to the Bulgarian charge d’affaires a.i. (head of the diplomatic mission in absence of an ambassador) a verbal note protesting the new-old monument in Sofia.
The city of Sofia has put down a communist-era monument in proximity with the National Palace of Culture, the Presidency’s main venue, and replaced it with a lion statue dating from the 1930s holding a shield. The problem is that a controversial map of Bulgaria is depicted on the shield.
Greece has expressed dissatisfaction with the return of the lion statue from the Soldier’s Memorial to the National Palace of Culture, which is due to be completely restored. The news came from Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva during her visit to Italy.
“Yesterday, a [foreign ministry] Director has seen the [Greek] ambassador [in Sofia], today my Deputy Minister will see him again”, Zaharieva was quoted as saying.
She further said Greece didn’t file a written position (the update of this article says a verbal note was handed over later). “Greece is our strategic partner, and I deeply doubt that such a thing can affect our wonderful relations. This monument stood in the Military History Museum for many years and in no case does it represent Bulgarian territorial claims”, Zaharieva said.
The lion statue was part of a memorial inaugurated in 1934 by king Boris III in memory of the 3,000 fallen soldiers in foreign lands from the 1st and 6th infantry regiments, during the two Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913) and World War I. The memorial was removed during the construction of the Palace of Culture in the 1970s. Now the Sofia municipality plans to rebuild the memorial, of which the lion is only an element.
The lion holds a shield with the map of “San-Stefano Bulgaria” (3 March 1878), which contains territories from all present-day neighbors of Bulgaria: Romania, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia.
Bad signal ahead of Presidency?
On Thursday, several news outlets in Greece published information from an anonymous source that the authorities in Athens had protested against the map depicted on the shield. It was alleged that Greece sees the return of the lion and the San Stefano map as a provocation and a bad signal ahead of the presidency of the EU Council.
The Greek side has also made reference to the speech of Defence minister Krassimir Karakachanov (from the nationalist coalition, which is a junior partner to the GERB government of Boyko Borissov) at the opening of the memorial. Karakachanov is quoted as saying that if one looks at the shield map, “it will be clear to everyone – even those who are ashamed during national holidays to show their political convictions – what the Bulgarian army was fighting for and for what cause the Bulgarian soldiers perished “.
Karakachanov commented yesterday (10 November) that historical facts should not become a reason for creating artificial conflicts.
“I can give examples of monuments in Greece that directly have names that are offensive to us, but I will not do it in the name of the good relations, for example, in almost every town in Greece there is a street called “Vasilios the killer of Bulgarians” [he refers to Basil II, a Byzantine Emperor from the Macedonian dynasty who reigned from 10 January 976 to 15 December 1025.]
“In the monument in front of the National Palace of Culture there is no hidden context, but a return to historical justice”, Karakachanov said.
The new-old monument replaces a communist-era monument erected in 1981 to mark the 1,300 the anniversary of the Bulgarian state (founded in 681 by Khan Asparuh). Public opinion was divided over the issue of removing the monument, but the Sofia municipality decided that its decrepit state was dangerous for passers-by.