The demonstration was one of many against a newly formed Bulgarian government that barely lasted the year.
STRASBOURG, France (CN) — ‘Twas the morning of Christmas 2013, and all through Bulgaria, creatures had been stirring for months over energy prices, poverty and the election of Plamen Oresharski’s left-wing coalition government.
Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria previously held 15 seats in parliament but got no seats from the race on May 12.
Some seven months later, on Christmas Day, someone in Blagoevgrad spray-painted a statue of the town’s namesake red and white to resemble Santa Claus.
The statue of Dimitar Blagoev, founder of what became the modern-day Bulgarian Communist Party, was already controversial. After coming to power in 1946, the Communist Party banned most religious organizations, appropriated most industry and ruthlessly targeted its political opponents — executing an estimated 30,000 without trial.
Hearing reports of the statue’s vandalism, local politician Kaloyan Handzhiyski arrived at the scene and complemented the festive look with the addition of a Santa hat and sack. Police arrested the 42-year-old Handzhiyski, who belonged to Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, later that day.
The Bulgarian government argued that, although they did not suspect Handzhiyski of painting the statue, the placement of the hat and sack mocked Bulgaria’s cultural heritage and violated the 1963 Decree on Combatting Minor Hooliganism.
Within a week, Handzhiyski was found guilty and fined 100 Bulgarian levs ($60).
He later sought relief under the European Convention on Human Rights, which says citizens of the convention’s 47 member states have the right to freedom of expression.
The Rights Court, which was established in 1959, agreed Tuesday that, rather than hooliganism, Handzhiyski’s act was a satirical and political protest — part of a wave that triggered the stepping down of Oresharski’s government in July 2014.
“In the present case, the context clearly suggests that the intention behind the applicant’s act was to protest against the government of the day and the political party which supported it, in the context of a prolonged nationwide protest against that government,” the Strasbourg-based court wrote.
Although the court noted that “public monuments are frequently physically unique and form part of a society’s cultural heritage,” the court’s Fourth Section found that the Blagoev monument for Handzhiyski was “a symbol of the political party that he wished to criticize.”
“It can thus hardly be said that his act was meant to show disdain for deep-seated social values,” the ruling continues.
In particular, the court found that because Handzhiyski did not damage the statue, his act couldn’t be considered hooliganism. “The applicant did not engage in any form of violence and did not physically impair Mr Blagoev’s monument in any way. He merely placed a cap on its head and a sack at its feet; those were removed by municipal workers a short while later,” the seven-judge panel found.
As part of the ruling, Bulgaria must now pay Handzhiyski 4,817.42 euros ($5,500) in damages and expenses.
Blagoevgrad got its name in 1950, and Blagoev’s statue was erected in 1971. After the fall of the communist regime in 1991, several attempts were made to rename the town and remove the statue.