Bulgaria has started taking down a 45-metre monument to the Soviet Union’s army that had dominated the skyline of Sofia for almost 70 years.
Built in 1954, it was generally regarded as a symbol of Russia’s influence in the Balkan country.
The monument, being dismantled from December 14, was a tribute to the 10th anniversary of Bulgaria’s “liberation” by the Soviet Army but many saw it as propaganda for a Communist occupation.
It showed a victorious Soviet soldier holding a machine gun at the top of the edifice, accompanied by a mother with a child and a worker. The base was further adorned with reliefs depicting Second World War scenes.
Since the Russian Communist regime fell in 1989 there have been efforts to have the statue pulled down but previous governments refused to act.
The Russian Embassy in Bulgaria and pro-Russian minority segments of its society frequently exerted pressure against it being removed.
On several occasions, it has been vandalised, most recently when it was painted in Ukrainian flag colours.
Vassil Terziev, a pro-Western tech entrepreneur who was elected mayor of Sofia in July, made getting rid of the edifice one of his primary electoral promises.
A large police force was deployed to secure the vicinity as the demolishment began, to avoid any conflict between supporters and opponents of its removal.
Vyara Todeva, regional governor of Sofia, stated that the monument had not been maintained in 70 years and that severe cracks had emerged.
It will take at least a month to completely remove the whole memorial, she asserted, and the figures topping it will most likely be sent to Sofia’s Museum of Socialist Art.
Socialists and other leftist Russian-minded groups said they wanted a referendum regarding the statue, claiming “similar anti-fascist monuments are standing untouched in many European cities”.
Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) leader Kornelia Ninova said: “Every monument is a piece of history and we erase a piece of history every time we remove a monument.”
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said the dismantling will aggravate relations with Bulgaria.
“We consider the destruction of the monument to our common past as another hostile step by official Sofia, which aggravates the already deadlocked situation in bilateral relations.
“Bulgaria once again chooses the wrong side of history.”