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. 1 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 point to the large proportion of Party members in Bulgaria: one million out of a total population of nine million. They place considerable weight on the distinctive history of the Bulgarian Communist party (founded in 1891, it is the oldest Communist party in Europe) and on the fact that the Party can claim some economic successes. Bulgaria’s standard of living has, until recently, been relatively high, at least by East European standards. They say that the opposition’s support exists only in Sofia, and that it does not have the resources to conduct an intensive campaign in the countryside where people are fearful of change.

Others in the opposition, however, believe that Bulgarians will join the East European stampede to reject Communism. The Communists themselves seem to see the Party as a liability, as is shown by their decision in early April to change the Party’s name from “Communist” to “Socialist.” Recent revelations about internment, forced labor, and deaths in government-established concentration camps in Bulgaria during the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as about gross corruption among top officials, have further soiled the Communist image.

Since last fall there have been three significant shake-ups of Communist leaders in Bulgaria, beginning with the removal of Todor Zhivkov, who has since been expelled from the Party, charged with corruption and abuse of power. He is now in a Sofia hospital, reportedly too ill to stand trial. Petar Mladenov, who replaced Mr. Zhivkov in November, stepped down as Party leader in early February, but he remained president of the State Council, which functioned as the legislature between the infrequent meetings of the National Assembly. Another prominent Party member, the reform-minded economist Andrei Lukanov, became prime minister at the same time, and Aleksandr Lilov, who was expelled from the Central Committee in 1983 because of “personal differences” with Mr. Zhivkov, became the new Party leader. Many old-line Party members were purged and the Party itself was reorganized, with the eleven-member Politburo replaced by a four-person Presidium. Then, in early April, the State Council formally dissolved itself after electing Mr. Mladenov to a newly created presidency. Mr. Mladenov will remain as president after the June elections, staying until the new four-hundred-person provisional parliament accomplishes its main task of drafting and approving a new constitution.

As in the Soviet Union, the government has thus ensured that there will be a Communist president well after the elections. At the same time, unable to persuade the opposition to join in a coalition, the government is trying to usurp the opposition’s program in order to blur distinctions. The government has adopted constitutional amendments that describe Bulgaria as a democratic, parliamentary state. It has outlawed censorship. It has arrested the eighty-year-old former commander of the recently exposed concentration camps who reportedly ordered that the prisoners be “worked to death.” In February it announced that Department Six, the department of the secret police in charge of dissident surveillance, had been disbanded. The minister of the interior actually signed the following declaration, promising that no eavesdropping devices would be installed in the offices of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the umbrella organization of the opposition:

I, the undersigned Minister of the Interior Atanas Semerdzhiev, declare that the services and organs of the Minister of the Interior did not, do not, and will not engage in wire tapping and recording of any information whatsoever in the buildings located at 134 Rakovski Street and 39 Dondukov Boulevard.

These moves have been greeted with considerable skepticism by Bulgarians, who see them as symbolic rather than meaningful. Discussing the dissolution of Department Six of the secret police, a prominent writer remarked that “the policemen have probably been sent to other departments where they are doing the same thing.” She said that she is no longer aware of being followed by the police, but complained that her international phone calls are still cut off. The security police at the Sheraton Hotel, as far as I could tell, are still on the job. Whoever opened and closed my suitcase was not an amateur.

When the “revolution” began last October, it involved only a small group of activists, mainly intellectuals belonging to an environmental group called EcoGlasnost, which was attempting to bring public attention to an atmosphere that was suffocating, both literally and metaphorically. They asked people on the Sofia streets to sign a petition criticizing the government’s environmental policies—in particular two schemes for diverting rivers, which threatened the ecological balance of the Rila mountains, and a project to build a nuclear power station on Belene Island, an earthquake zone. While gathering signatures, they were roughed up by the police and taken away in vans. Now, however, independent publications posted on the walls of buildings describe not only environmental problems but political problems as well, and small crowds gather throughout the day to read them. One activist, exaggerating to make a point, claimed that “every day two new newspapers appear.” Last October I watched as would-be demonstrators were banished to Sofia’s South Park, where they were kept under surveillance by the police. Now the park has become the Hyde Park Corner of Sofia, where many groups and individuals gather openly to lecture and debate. A new independent publishing house has been formed and plans, among other things, to publish the work of Bulgarian émigré writers, including that of Georgi Markov, who died a bizarre death in London in 1978 after being jabbed in the leg with a poisoned umbrella tip by agents of the Bulgarian secret police.

Perhaps the most startling changes I witnessed in Bulgaria in February were in the attitudes of the activists themselves. When I first met Emil Koshlukov last October, in a dark cafe near Sofia University, he seemed exceptionally tense; his thin face, drawn with anxiety, wore the pallor of imprisonment. His first questions were: “Are you alone? Were you followed?” While he was still in high school, Emil, who is now twenty-four, served three years and eight months of a six-year sentence for circulating a book comparing communism to fascism, written by the dissident scholar Zhelyu Zhelev, now the leader of the Union of Democratic Forces. After his release from prison in December 1988, Emil Koshlukov constantly feared that he would be arrested again, yet he felt he had to alert the world to the fate of his friends who were still in prison, in particular several leaders of Bulgaria’s persecuted Turkish minority.

Four months later, when I saw Emil again, he was the head of the Union of Independent Student Societies, a movement uniting between five thousand and six thousand students. His prison haircut had grown out and his face was less drawn. “I am so happy,” he told me. “The dream has happened…. Now I can say I don’t like the Communists and no one gives a damn.” Emil’s group is active in the election campaign. “The Communists may win the elections,” he told me. “They are very strong. That’s our job, to make them weak.”

When I first met Ivan K. last October he was hiding in a barn in a little village high in the Pirin mountains of southern, Bulgaria. Ivan is a thirty-one-year-old leader of the Bulgarian Muslim minority known as the Pomaks. Disguised as a woman, his head and face wrapped in a chador, he left by a back window when a police jeep drove up and began revving its engine outside the barn door. He never got to say much to me or to my two colleagues before the police arrived, and we found ourselves inadvertently “covering” his escape. But in February I ran into him again, this time in Sofia at a meeting in the central mosque attended by some forty Turkish and Pomak leaders from throughout Bulgaria. Ivan, who wants now to be known by his Muslim name of Ibrahim, was wearing a three-piece gray suit and a yellow tie. He was not nervous about being interviewed by us in a public place. Although the Muslim minorities in Bulgaria are still deprived of most of their rights, Ivan told me, police control of his mountain village had eased considerably.

Most of the activists whom I first met in October were academics or other professionals and belonged to newly formed groups such as Eco-Glasnost, the Discussion Club for Glasnost and Perestroika, the Independent Society for Human Rights, and Podkrepa (a trade union organization). Many of these groups have since split apart (some Eco-Glasnost members have formed a Green party). Others have changed their goals (the Discussion Club is now the Discussion Club for Glasnost and Democracy), and many new groups and parties have formed. They are now organized under the Union of Democratic Forces, the loosely knit opposition group which includes five political parties and eight independent groups.2 The UDF has been allowed to rent two six-story office buildings and is taking part in the round-table talks. It is also publishing its own newspaper, Democratzia, although it receives about one tenth the amount of newsprint that is allotted to the Party papers. The lively, bustling atmosphere in the UDF buildings is remarkable in a country where there has been no history of political activism, no human rights movement, no samizdat.

The UDF plans to have both a common platform and a common list of candidates in the June elections. The groups have put aside some of their differing economic and political perspectives and have agreed on a basic program including democratic rights, environmental protection, and the establishment of a market economy. But there is some dispute about whether the platform should be openly anti-Communist. Many believe that it is bad politics in Bulgaria to be explicitly opposed to the Communists. A sociologist told me that 60 percent of university graduates and 40 percent of high school graduates are Party members, and that in certain professions—law, economics, sociology—90 percent are Communists. Some UDF activists themselves remain members of the Party, although the impetus among such people to leave the Party becomes stronger each day.

The lingering hold of the Party on Bulgarian intellectuals was explained to me by the philosopher Dimitrina Petrova as deriving from the absence of an independent political tradition and of a democratic, liberal intelligentsia in modern Bulgarian history. After King Boris III allied Bulgaria with the Nazis during World War II, “the intellectuals were polarized,” according to Dimitrina. Some collaborated with the Nazis and others became part of a pro-Soviet resistance. When the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria in 1944, pro-Allied forces seized power in Bulgaria, and welcomed the Soviet forces in September. By 1946 a Communist government had been established under Georgi Dimitrov, and, Dimitrina said, “the progressive intellectuals joined the Communists…or they were destroyed [in extensive purges] between 1944 and 1950.”

Petko Simeonov, a sociologist whom I had met in October 1989, tried to explain why so many of the activists at that time, members of the Discussion Club and of Eco-Glasnost, still carried Party cards. Dissociating such people from Zhivkov and his entourage, he claimed that he and his friends had joined the Party for idealistic reasons, “as a form of participation in political life. It is very different from [elsewhere in] Eastern Europe,” he maintained. A few months later, when Petko became one of the growing group that had left the Party, it was not without a difficult internal struggle. He seemed to be referring to his own defection when he told me that

Until a few years ago the majority of people saw communism as representing equality, brotherhood, freedom, democracy. It was a pure concept. It is only in the past few years that I have begun to see people shedding their illusions.

Sometimes I hurt all over for my parents, who sacrificed their lives for this ideal,” he said. “I shiver when I think what they used to believe. They thought they were doing something kind and aiming toward something good.” He did not specifically mention either the concentration camps, where thousands of dissenters suffered and died, or the widespread corruption involving millions of dollars in secret foreign accounts, of which Zhivkov and other top leaders have recently been accused. But it was clear that he had been confronting such revelations.

The special role of the Party in Bulgarian society may also derive in part from the historically close relations between Bulgarians and Russians. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, communism is seen not only as an alien ideology but as one imposed by the Russian occupiers. Bulgarians, however, have longstanding linguistic, cultural, and religious ties with Russians—over a quarter of the population still belongs to the Orthodox Church—and many Bulgarians see them not as oppressors but as liberators, a perception deriving from the 1870s when the Russians joined the Bulgarians and helped to free them from five centuries of what is still generally referred to as “the Turkish yoke.”

That intervention led to the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano, which gave Bulgarians a degree of independence from Turkish rule and, ultimately, to the establishment in 1908 of the Kingdom of Bulgaria under Prince Ferdinand, father of King Boris III. Popular sympathy for the Russians (and antipathy toward Turks) remained strong throughout the years, so much so that Bulgaria chose neutrality toward the USSR during World War II, while declaring war on the United States and Britain. Some say that when the Soviet army entered Bulgaria in 1944, it was seen as a “second liberation.” A statue of Tsar Alexander II, his name removed from the pedestal by the Communists, still dominates one of the central squares in Sofia.

Until Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary, Bulgaria was praised by the Soviets as a model Communist state that toed the Soviet line in both its domestic and foreign policies. But the Zhivkov government balked at Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. During the winter of 1984–1985, just as Gorbachev was coming to power, the Bulgarian government embarked on a ruthless and violent campaign of forcibly assimilating Bulgaria’s large Turkish minority, more than one tenth of the population. Although there had been previous campaigns against the Turks (in 1951 some 155,000 were expelled to Turkey), the 1984 attack came without warning and was apparently related to the Zhivkov government’s desire to appear as a one-nationality state in a census that was being conducted at that time, as well as to fears that the fast-multiplying Turkish population would outnumber Bulgarians in the not too distant future.

Government troops systematically attempted to force the Turks, at gunpoint if necessary, to change their Muslim names to Slavic ones and to give up their language and the Islamic religion, customs, and traditions. When the Turks protested, hundreds of them were killed. The Bulgarian government was not inclined to join Gorbachev in a program of political liberalization at a time when, because of its own repressive policies, its largest minority, the Turks, was in an angry mood, its prisons were full of ethnic Turkish prisoners, and its Turkish-populated villages were under stringent police controls, off-limits to foreigners.

Although some Bulgarian officials paid lip service to the new Soviet line, resistance to Gorbachev’s policies continued until last November. In October I was told by officials that Bulgaria will implement “economic perestroika, not political perestroika.” Blagovest Sendov, chairman of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, complained to me at that time: “When we were close to the Soviet Union, people said, ‘Why are you so close?’ Now they say, ‘Why aren’t you closer?’ ”

All this changed when Zhivkov was replaced in November and made the scapegoat for past abuses, including the violence against the Turks. Bulgarian leaders now sometimes boast that they have moved ahead of the Soviet Union in protecting rights. “We’re not being guided by what’s happening in Moscow,” a member of a semi-official human rights group assured me in February. “We are not following. In a sense, Gorbachev will be following us.” A prominent official in the Foreign Ministry said: “The Soviet Union could have been a model a year ago. Now we are two steps ahead.” But he acknowledged that “without Gorbachev’s moral and political courage, we would not have been able to do what we have done.”

Some Bulgarian intellectuals, however, see a danger in Bulgaria’s continuing ties to the Russians. “If Gorbachev were to fail,” a political scientist told me, “this would be bad for Bulgaria. The rest of Eastern Europe has gone too far [to turn back], but Bulgaria has not.”


The persecution of a Turkish minority of more than one million people took on new proportions in May 1989 when the Turks in Bulgaria demonstrated for their rights and were violently suppressed by the Zhivkov government. Several thousand ethnic Turkish activists were expelled to Turkey, and within a month or so more than 300,000 Bulgarian Turks, some voluntarily and some under pressure, sought refuge there. Bulgarian advocates of human rights took up their cause: as one of them explained it, the Turkish demonstrations of May 1989 represented “the first mass popular movement against the regime since the war” and were a major factor in the creation of a Bulgarian movement for human rights and democracy, which contributed to the fall of Mr. Zhivkov.

While Zhivkov was in power, Bulgarian officials simply denied that there were any Turks in Bulgaria, and referred to them as “Bulgarian Muslims.” They took the position that the Turks had changed their names voluntarily because “they did not want to be different.” The new Party leaders who replaced Zhivkov, however, faced continuing demonstrations by the Turkish and Pomak minorities, who were now being supported by a growing number of Bulgarian human rights activists. These officials sought a solution and announced on December 29 that “everyone in Bulgaria will be able to choose his name, religion, and language freely.”

But the anti-Turkish propaganda fostered by the Zhivkov regime has had a lasting effect. Rumors spread that if there were more than one million Turks in Bulgaria, they would have the “international right” to form an autonomous region. In early January, thousands of Bulgarian nationalists, encouraged by Party functionaries who are determined to hold on to power in the predominantly Turkish regions, demonstrated in Sofia against the Turks for more than a week. Only in March did the government, after considerable prodding by the opposition, pass laws providing for the freedom of religion and the freedom to choose one’s name. No one can be sure that these guarantees will be carried out, and in any case the legislation falls far short of guaranteeing full cultural and ethnic rights.

Under the new law, however, Turkish citizens whose Muslim names were changed to Slavic ones must appeal to a court to change them back. If the appeal is made before the end of the year, the change can be made in a relatively short time. After that, applicants will have to pay legal fees and go through a more complicated and lengthy process. Since the short-term procedures are just being set in place, relatively few Turks can be expected to take advantage of them before the end of the year. Moreover, many Turks will undoubtedly hold back because they are mistrustful and will want to see what happens to those who attempt to use the new law. The deadlines and complexities of the new process serve to underline the fact that it is at best a grudging concession of elementary rights that should be granted automatically.

The new legislation, moreover, deals only with name-changing and religion and does not legalize the use of the Turkish language in schools or in newspapers or radio broadcasts; nor does it provide for reopening Turkish cemeteries that were closed during the anti-Turkish campaign, or allow for ritual circumcision outside of hospitals. If the new government is to reverse the repressive policies of the Zhivkov years, it will first have to promulgate a new and more tolerant set of regulations and then to enforce them in the ethnic Turkish villages where they are most likely to be disregarded.

The restoration of the rights of the Turkish and other Muslim minorities in Bulgaria will be a major issue for the opposition in the forthcoming elections. This and other problems that must be addressed in Bulgaria are similar to those being faced elsewhere in Eastern Europe: environmental pollution of frightening proportions; a growing economic crisis; the lethargy of workers who, as the saying goes, “pretend to have a job while the government pretends to pay them.”

Bulgaria’s bucolic landscape has been ravaged by a program of rapid industrialization without even rudimentary safeguards for the protection of workers or the preservation of a healthy environment. The foul-smelling, yellowish haze that obscures one’s view of the snow-capped mountains surrounding Sofia is the fallout from the unending clouds of black smoke belching from the stacks of two giant steel plants outside the city, which reportedly deposit some twenty thousand tons of grime on Sofia each year. A Party report says that almost 60 percent of the arable land in Bulgaria has been “damaged” by misuse, pesticides, and industrial pollution. Not only Sofia but at least ten other cities have serious pollution problems, including toxic air and poisoned water. These are the results of an ill-conceived, short-sighted policy that has rapidly turned Bulgaria from a rural society of small villages into one that now has almost twice as many people employed in industry as in agriculture. Of a labor force of 4.3 million people, only .84 million remain in agricultural regions, while 1.42 million are directly employed in industries producing such things as steel, basic chemicals, manufactured goods, and agricultural commodities for export primarily to the Soviet Union and third world countries.

Bulgaria is in deep economic trouble. It is importing more than it is exporting. Among the imports of this once fertile country is food; the shortages that have resulted from government policy have been compounded by the departure of three hundred thousand ethnic Turks, most of them farmers. Bulgaria’s gross national debt, according to figures compiled by the Washington-based PlanEcon consulting firm, has risen dramatically from 3.7 billion current US dollars in 1985 to a projected 8.8 billion in 1989. It can no longer honor some of its long-term debts and wants to postpone all debt repayments for up to two years. A period of economic hardship seems unavoidable. The myth of prosperity that has helped the Communists remain in power is coming to an end.

For the opposition to carry on an effective campaign, it needs access to information about the economy, the environment, and other conditions within the society. It needs to document charges of corruption against the Zhivkov government, including the periodic allegations that the government had a part in drug traffic and illegal arms sales. But the Communists are in control of such information. They also control distribution of newsprint and the use of television and radio time, and they have a network of Party committees throughout the country. The opposition, by contrast, is loosely organized, and its members lack experience; many of them had their first taste of politics in this year’s round-table negotations. In March the UDF organized a demonstration to obtain more newsprint for its daily paper, Democratzia, which had been allowed to print only 70,000 copies. After a rally of about 150,000 protesters, the government gave permission for 100,000 copies to be printed; but the Party newspaper Rabotnichesko Delo has a circulation of 700,000. In view of the Communists’ advantages, a UDF victory in the June elections seemed doubtful to many of the Bulgarians with whom I spoke.

Yet this has been a time of miracles in Eastern Europe. While people have demonstrated in the streets and at the polls their desire for democracy and their rejection of everything associated with communism, Bulgaria has been on the sidelines, virtually unnoticed as attention has been concentrated on the better-known countries of the former Socialist bloc. The June elections will decide whether the country will join its neighbors in rejecting the Communist past or whether Bulgaria will be the only Eastern European country to choose to live under Communist rule.

April 19, 1990

  1. 1

    I have visited Bulgaria twice in recent months, each time accompanied by Ted Zang, a lawyer who works as a consultant in Bulgaria to Helsinki Watch.

  2. 2

    They include the Green Party, Social Democrats (Marxist), Agrarian Party (Nikola Petkov), Democratic Party, Radical Democratic Party, Society for the Protection of Human Rights, Committee for Religious Rights, Discussion Club for the Support of Glasnost and Democracy, Eco-Glasnost, Citizens Initiative, Podkrepa (“Support,” the Independent Trade Union Federation), Club of the Repressed After 1945, and the Students Union.