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Bulgaria's "Unnoticed Transition"

By Jordan Baev

The unnoticed transition in Bulgaria

Table of Contents


Though induced by similar social and economic conditions, the political changes in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 had different historical, psychological and functional characteristics in each country. Against the background, or rather the foreground, of the succession of reforms in Poland and Hungary, the dramatic changes in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and the bloodstained epilogue of the Romanian dictatorship, the events taking place in Sofia that November passed by barely noticed by the international community.

The process of Bulgarian transition to pluralist democracy is still largely unknown in the West. There were three main internal political factors which brought about the change in the Bulgarian political system: first, behind-the-scene political ambitions and infighting within the ruling elite; second, the ethnic conflict in the eastern part of the country; and, finally, the increasingly open social discontent, expressed predominantly within intellectual circles. All three factors have foreign analogues but they differ in their peculiar Bulgarian origins. Just as in some other Eastern European countries, the first challenge to authority in Bulgaria came, not from traditional opposition organizations, but from newly-formed ecological and human rights groups, inspired to some extent by the example of the “green” movements in the West. The independent trade union “Podkrepa” [Support] was created as a Bulgarian analogue of the Polish “Solidarity.” In Romania, an important cause of the internal conflict was the oppression of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Similarly, in Bulgaria the treatment of the Bulgarian Turks by the authorities after 1984 had turned into a peculiar “detonator.” In combination with the worsened economic situation, this issue played an important part in the heightening of social tensions. Moreover, the Soviet embassy in Sofia, following Mikhail Gorbachev’s unambiguous instructions, played an important role in changing who ruled in the Bulgarian capital.

The overthrow of Todor Zhivkov, the longest ruling communist leader in Eastern Europe, was the result of joint behind-the-scene efforts by communist party reformers and senior Soviet diplomats in Bulgaria. No authentic documents on the events preceding Zhivkov’s “resignation” on November 10, 1989 are thus far available. Various memoirs offer contradictory information and prejudiced attempts to mythologize or demonize key persons and events. Many of the participants crucial to Zhivkov’s ouster when interviewed later demonstrated a lack of clear and definite answers to the key issues. Among those interviewed were former Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov, Todor Zhivkov’s successor as political leader and head of state in November 1989; the late ex-prime ministers Stanko Todorov and Andrey Lukanov; Dimiter Stanishev, former Secretary of the Central Committee [CC] of the Bulgarian Communist Party [BCP] in charge of international relations during the period 1977–1990; Gen. Dobri Dzhurov and Gen. Atanas Semerjiev, the defense minister and chief of staff, respectively, each with the longest service of any in a Warsaw Pact country. Analysis of the decision-making process requires careful reading “between the lines” of the available information and a critical comparison of the existing fragmentary articles.

A specific characteristic of Cold War Bulgaria was the lack of strong anti-communist opposition, not to mention the lack of influence on the part of traditional bourgeois parties in the political life of the country before November 1989. Individual acts by some intellectuals (many of whom either had a communist background, or were connected in some way with the ruling elite) as well as feeble efforts to create dissident groups (inspired mainly by the Czechoslovak and Polish examples), did not draw much public response until the mid-eighties. The strongest challenges Todor Zhivkov had ever faced had come many years earlier from reformist or Stalinist circles within his own party. Hence, one of Zhivkov’s favored measures since 1956 had been to reshuffle the hierarchy periodically, thus rendering potential rivals harmless and keeping the remaining members of the leadership in check.

In 1987-88 several “informal” ecological, human rights and reformist groups came into existence in Bulgaria – groups in which communist intellectuals took an active part as well. In most cases, however, these groups did not call for a change of the political system, but for its reform. The secret services were shocked when they discovered that among the leaders of these groups were BCP CC members. Following Zhivkov’s personal instructions, the authorities retaliated with repressive measures which, however, proved counterproductive. At the same time, Zhivkov conducted his regular reshuffling of his favorites and opponents. The appointment of Zhivkov’s son to one of the leading positions in the arena of Bulgarian culture aroused particularly strong resentment among many Bulgarians. It triggered protests even within the circle of Zhivkov’s closest associates, including Defense Minister Dzhurov.

Among those expelled from the Communist Party for participation in an “informal” group was Sonya Bakish, the wife of Stanko Todorov, the former prime minister and then chairman of the Bulgarian parliament. As a result Todorov submitted his letter of resignation from his position in July 1988. Although his resignation was not accepted, the episode for many was one of the first indications that the anti-Zhivkov opposition had reached into the top echelon of power. The second half of 1988 was most likely the time when certain Politburo members began to consider seriously their chances of changing the status quo in the long run and toppling Todor Zhivkov. That became a reality a year later when the regime became internationally isolated (owing to the persecution of the Bulgarian Turks), when the country sank further into economic recession, and the growing controversies within the Eastern European system aggravated the situation in Bulgaria.

The key factor in the events of November 10, 1989 in Bulgaria, however, was the Kremlin’s position. Gorbachev’s increasingly cool attitude toward Zhivkov—outward expressions of “fraternal friendship” notwithstanding— was something of a public secret. Recently, a number of new facts regarding the energetic activities by the Soviet embassy in Sofia (mainly on the part of Ambassador Victor Sharapov and of Counselor Valentin Terechov) have become well known. Sharapov and Terechov’s purpose was to unite the efforts of some members of the party and state leadership to oust Zhivkov. Rather significant is the fact that even the KGB representative in Bulgaria, Gen. Vladilen Fyodorov, was kept in the dark about these efforts until the very last moment for fear of a “leak.” The evidence seems to suggest that the embassy’s efforts in Sofia were known only to Gorbachev’s closest associates, amongst whom figured Alexander Yakovlev, a key figure in the policy arena. As far as the evidence indicates, the main role in the events was assigned to Moscow-born Andrey Lukanov, whose grandfather had been held in Stalin’s prisons as a “rightist opportunist” and whose father had been Bulgarian Foreign Minister in late 1950s. While closely linked to influential circles in Moscow, Lukanov maintained at the same time good contacts with Western politicians and financial magnates, such as Robert Maxwell. Two things served as catalysts for the action against Zhivkov– Petar Mladenov’s October 24, 1989 letter to the BCP CC Politburo, and the replacement of Communist Party leader Erich Honecker in East Germany.

Participants in the events between October 24 and November 9, 1989 give conflicting accounts of their sequence. All of them, however, agree that the action to depose Zhivkov was carried out under central direction and conspiratorially in order to succeed even under an enormously repressive system and to secure Moscow’s discreet logistic support. All of this made possible Todor Zhivkov’s acceptance of his ouster without any visible resistance at a Politburo session on the evening of November 9. The acceptance of the resignation of the BCP CC Secretary General at the plenary session of the Central Committee on the following day was a mere formality.

Zhivkov’s overthrow was engineered so smoothly that neither the US ambassador in Sofia, Sol Polansky, nor top Washington officials responsible for Eastern Europe, such as Robert Hutchings and Condoleezza Rice, knew anything in advance. Not until a month later did US Secretary of State James Baker inform his deputy Lawrence S. Eagleburger that he had received reliable information on the role that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had played in Zhivkov’s ouster. Shevardnadze himself still keeps silent on the matter.

The actions of the new party-government team in Bulgaria after November 10, 1989 were intended to preserve the political system through reforms and by changes to its outward appearance. Much of the blame was laid on Todor Zhivkov personally plus a few of his closest associates. In order to secure the survival of the authors of the “coup” as leading political figures in the future political system, some of them used their political influence and contacts to move into decisive economic positions. That was the main reason for the “duel” between Andrey Lukanov and Ognyan Doynov, who was the other party leader, specialized in foreign trade, and also known for his connections with financial and business circles in the West. In the course of the following months another “recipe,” recommended earlier by the authors of the Soviet Perestroika, was used—the sharing of the responsibilities of power with the newly established political opposition. Initially, during the spring of 1990, the Polish-Hungarian “round table” model was applied. Several months later the outbreak of a political crisis was overcome through the formula “your President– our Government.” A year later, a “coalition government” was also tried. The anticommunist opposition responded to the requests with the reply “all power forever” and with demands for the prohibition of the former Communist Party (renamed in the spring 1990 as the Socialist Party). The bi-polar model of fierce confrontation was typical during the first few years of political transition to a multiparty system following 1989.

''The text is adapted from Jordan Baev’s "1989: Bulgarian Transition to Pluralist Democracy," CWIHP Bulletin No. 12/13, Winter 2001, pp. 165-167.