A Sofia district mayor is calling for the removal of a communist-era monument from a public park in the Bulgarian capital commemorating the "Soviet liberators" of Bulgaria in 1944, earning an angry rebuke from Russia.
The controversy comes amid a diplomatic spat between Russia and the Czech Republic over last month’s removal of a controversial statue of a Soviet marshal in Prague.
"I continue to hope that the mayor of Sofia will finally respond to my call for the liberation of our city from the symbols of the totalitarian era," Konstantin Pavlov, the mayor of Sofia’s Lozenets district, wrote in a Facebook post on May 20.
Pavlov was responding to a May 13 letter by Russia’s ambassador to Bulgaria, in which the diplomat expressed "deep indignation" at the Sofia official’s proposal to remove the monument from his district.
Pavlov said he had forwarded Ambassador Anatoly Makarov’s letter to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry and was awaiting its reaction.
During World War II, Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany until September 4, 1944, four days before Soviet forces swept into the Eastern European country. On September 9, a coup brought Bulgaria into the Soviet orbit and the country remained one of Moscow’s most obedient satellites under hard-line communist rule for 45 years.
Bulgaria is now a member of the European Union and NATO.
The monument in question, located in Cherni Vrah Park, includes a bronze sculpture depicting two Soviet soldiers, an inscription reading "Glory to the Soviet liberators," as well as marble reliefs also representing Soviet soldiers.
Pavlov has said that it should be relocated to a museum. In case remains of Soviet soldiers are found under the monument, he said, they should be "buried according to humanitarian law" in one of Sofia’s cemeteries.
In his letter, Ambassador Makarov said that excavating the remains "could be interpreted as an attempt to rehabilitate Nazism."
"I think it is high time we talk calmly about the past 75 years,” Pavlov told RFE/RL on May 21. "I just want us to start gathering the facts and then talk about it -- if we can calmly.”
In a joint statement on May 8, the United States and nine Central and Eastern European foreign ministers denounced Russia’s "regrettable effort to falsify history."
The officials released the statement ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II to honor the victims and "all soldiers who fought to defeat Nazi Germany."
But they also used the occasion to recall that the victory over Nazism "did not bring freedom to all of Europe" as the Soviet Union imposed communist rule in Eastern Europe.
The statement was released by Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the United States.
In September 2019, Bulgaria slammed a Sofia exhibition organized by the Russian Embassy marking “the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazism,” saying the region had instead being subjected to a half century of repression by “Soviet army bayonets.”
And the April removal from a Prague district of a statue of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, whose armies completed Prague’s liberation on May 9, 1945, has strained relations between Russia and the Czech Republic.
The Prague district said the statue would be moved to a museum and a new monument honoring the city's liberation would take its place.
Russia has lashed out angrily over the move, and tensions were heightened further when Czech media reported that Moscow planned to poison the three Prague politicians in retaliation for supporting moves that have irritated Russia, including the removal of Konev's statue.
The three officials -- Prague's mayor and two of the city's district mayors -- along with members of their families have been under police protection since then.
Russia, accused of carrying out numerous attacks on perceived enemies abroad, has dismissed the reports.