The Bulgarian Difference

Someone opened the suitcase in my hotel room in Sofia while I was out. I found nothing missing—only a suspicious traveler like myself would have noticed that it had been opened, presumably to see if I, as a representative of Helsinki Watch, was carrying anything compromising. Why did I, visiting “postrevolutionary” Bulgaria in February 1990, revert to old habits, and set a trap for an intruder? Because the revolution in Bulgaria is not over: the Communists and, it appears, the secret police are clearly in control.

Bulgaria, the least known of the “dominoes” that fell in Eastern Europe in 1989, is having a revolution unlike any of the others. The pattern of events, however, is familiar. Last October newly formed citizens’ groups, concerned with protesting the regime’s destruction of the environment and its violations of human rights, began organizing public demonstrations. Within a few weeks, on November 10, just one day after the opening of the Berlin Wall, Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s seventy-eight-year-old hard-line Party leader for thirty-five years, resigned under pressure from his colleagues, some say at the prompting of Moscow. Petar Mladenov, the fifty-three-year-old foreign minister under Zhivkov, became the new Party leader; confronted by continuing demonstrations with numbers that rose into the tens and then the hundreds of thousands, his government moved quickly to institute reforms.

On November 17, the article of the penal code that had been used most frequently to arrest political dissidents was abolished and some two hundred prisoners sentenced under that article were reported to have been given amnesty. The government promised to end the monopoly of the Communist party, a promise that was fulfilled on January 15, when the legislature abolished the “leading role” of the Communist party, as stipulated in Article I of the Constitution, and agreed to hold multiparty elections, now scheduled for June 10, with run-offs on June 17. Round-table talks between the Party and the opposition, following the model set by Poland and Hungary, have been taking place intermittently since January.

Yet Bulgaria remains the only one of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe in which the Party has not been reduced to a minority faction or completely discredited. The Bulgarian Communists are attempting to follow the Soviet pattern of change from above, and, thus far at least, they appear to be doing so more successfully than the Soviets. Whereas in the Soviet Union the Party has been forced to make compromise after compromise, always a step or two behind the expectations of the people, in Bulgaria the Communists have tried to anticipate popular demands and have been constantly reforming themselves in order to hang on to power. They even offered the opposition several important posts in the government, which the opposition refused.

There is no agreement in Bulgaria about how strong the Communists really are. Some members of the opposition believe that the Communists would win if the elections were held right now, a view supported by public opinion polls. These opposition members …

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