Bulgaria Table of Contents

Todor Zhivkov was the dominant figure in Bulgarian government for about thirty-five years, during which time the political scene remained remarkably stable. In the context of post-Stalinist communist statecraft, Zhivkov was a masterful politician. In the context of popular demands for meaningful reform, he was an anachronism whose removal symbolized the beginning of a new approach to governance.

The Rise of Zhivkov

The Chervenkov era firmly established Bulgarian reliance on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) for policy leadership and resolution of domestic party rivalries. Just as Stalin's condemnation had doomed Kostov, so condemnation of the cult of personality by Stalin's successors doomed Chervenkov and prepared the way for his successor, Todor Zhivkov. Zhivkov, who began his political career in the party youth organization and worked his way to the party Central Committee in 1948, became party chief when Chervenkov resigned that position in 1954. Both the Moscow authorities who ultimately chose new Bulgarian leaders and the BCP leaders in Sofia approved Zhivkov's flexibility, youth (he was forty-two when selected), and lack of powerful friends and enemies.

In 1956 Bulgarian politics again felt the influence of the Soviet Union. When Nikita S. Khrushchev became leader of the CPSU, he began a new phase of de-Stalinization and party reform that echoed strongly in Bulgaria. This left Chervenkov without support outside Bulgaria. Then, in 1956 the April Plenum of the BCP Central Committee began a broad party liberalization policy that caused Chervenkov to resign as prime minister. Rather than break completely with the past, however, the party retained Chervenkov as a member of a de facto ruling triumvirate that included Zhivkov and longtime party leader and purge participant Anton Yugov, who became prime minister. Although party liberalization was stalled by 1956 uprisings in Hungary and Poland, the April Plenum identified Zhivkov as the leader of the Politburo. In doing so, it also shifted power conclusively to the "home" branch of the BCP, more attuned to Bulgarian issues and less to total obedience to the Soviet line.

Zhivkov Takes Control

By the end of 1961, a new wave of Soviet anti-Stalinism gave Zhivkov the support he needed to oust Chervenkov and Yugov. Zhivkov's political position had deteriorated because his grandiose, failed plans for industrialization and agricultural collectivization had evoked strong social protests between 1959 and 1961, but he succeeded Yugov as prime minister in 1962. Khrushchev formally endorsed Zhivkov with a state visit to Bulgaria in 1962. Although no additional changes occurred in the party or the government until 1971, Zhivkov began introducing a new generation of leaders in the mid-1960s, and political repression eased noticeably. The old guard of officials remaining from the 1944 revolution remained a powerful party element with important Soviet connections; therefore, Zhivkov provided that group enough Politburo positions to ensure its support. Meanwhile, Zhivkov selectively purged officials throughout the early period to prevent development of alternative power centers in the party. In 1964 Zhivkov earned peasant support by appointing Georgi Traikov, chief of the nominally independent BANU, head of state and by pardoning comrades of the executed BANU leader Petkov.

In 1966 a strong resurgence of the conservative wing of the BCP at the Ninth Party Congress curtailed Bulgarian diplomatic and economic overtures to the West and to its Balkan neighbors. The new conservatism also tightened government control over the media and the arts, and the government resumed anti-Western propaganda to protect Bulgarian society from bourgeois influences. As was the case in the 1956 invasion of Hungary, Bulgarian support for the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia brought tighter party control of all social organizations, and reaffirmation of "democratic centralism" within the party--all with the goal of reassuring the Soviet Union that Bulgaria would not follow in the heretical footsteps of the Czechs.

The Constitution of 1971

A later echo of the events of 1968 was the drafting of a new constitution at the Tenth Party Congress in 1971. Unlike the Dimitrov Constitution, the new document specified the role of the BCP as "the leading force in society and the state," and the role of BANU as its collaborator within the Fatherland Front. The 1971 constitution also defined Bulgaria as a socialist state with membership in the international socialist community. As before, broad citizen rights were guaranteed but limited by the requirement that they be exercised only in the interest of the state. Citizen obligations included working according to one's ability to build the foundation of the socialist state and defend the state, compulsory military service, and paying taxes. Most of the governmental structure specified in the Dimitrov Constitution remained, but a new body, the State Council, replaced the Presidium as supreme organ of state power. This council consisted of twentytwo members and a chairman who was de facto head of state. The State Council was more powerful than the Presidium because it could initiate as well as approve legislation, and because it exercised some of the non-governmental supervision normally delegated to ruling parties in East European communist states of that period. Council members, nominally elected by the National Assembly, were members of the BCP or other mass organizations.

In 1971 Zhivkov resigned as prime minister to become chairman of the State Council. The National Assembly, traditional center of political power in Bulgaria until the 1947 constitution stripped it of power, received some new responsibilities. Permanent commissions were to supervise the work of ministries, and legislation could now be submitted by labor and youth groups (all of which were partycontrolled ). In practice, however, the National Assembly still rubber-stamped legislation and nominations for the State Council, Supreme Court, and Council of Ministers. As a follow-up to the constitution's prescription of private property rights, the 1973 Law on Citizens' Property virtually abolished private ownership of means of production, confining such ownership to "items for personal use."

The Tenth Party Congress also devised a new BCP program to coincide with the new constitutional description of party power. The program specified an orthodox hierarchical party structure of democratic centralism, each level responsible to the level above. The lowest-level party organizations were to be based in workplaces; all other levels would be determined by territorial divisions. Loyalty to the CPSU was reiterated. The BCP goal was described as building an advanced socialist society lacking differentiation by property and social standing--at that point, all of society was to be a single working class. Science and technology were to receive special attention by the party, to improve production that would make possible the next jump from advanced socialism to the first stage of communism.

After a decade of political calm and only occasional purges of party officials by Zhivkov, social unrest stirred in the mid-1970s and alarmed the Zhivkov government. International events such as the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the growth of Eurocommunism in the 1970s, and the 1973 oil crisis stimulated hope for liberalization and discontent with the domestic economy. Zhivkov responded in 1977 by purging Politburo member Boris Velchev and 38,500 party members--the largest such change since the early 1960s. Provincial party organizations also were substantially reorganized. In May 1978, the Bulgarian government acknowledged for the first time that an antigovernment demonstration had occurred-- indicating that the 1977 measures had not quelled domestic discontent.

The Last Zhivkov Decade

The period between 1978 and 1988 was one of political calm. With minor exceptions, the structure and operations of the government and the BCP remained unchanged. But the avoidance of meaningful change, despite cosmetic adjustments in the Zhivkov government, assumed that Bulgarian governance was the same uncomplicated procedure it had been in the 1970s and early 1980s--a major miscalculation.

Celebration of the 1,300th anniversary of the Bulgarian state in 1981 brought official liberalization and rehabilitation for some segments of Bulgarian society. Bourgeois political factions that had opposed the BCP before World War II were exonerated and described as comrades in the fight for Bulgarian democracy. Zhivkov also raised the official status of the Orthodox Church to codefender of the Bulgarian nationality, and restrictions on religious observances were eased.

By the second half of the 1980s, substantial maneuvering and speculation centered on identifying the successor to the seventyfour -year-old Zhivkov, who was increasingly isolated from everyday governance. Four younger politicians divided most of the key responsibilities of government and party in 1986. Although speculation grew that Zhivkov had become a figurehead or was preparing to resign, in the late 1980s he was still able to divide the power of his rivals and avoid naming a single successor.

The BCP maintained complete control over all major programs and policies in the Bulgarian government, although the role of the party in specific instances was not clear. In 1987, facing a budding opposition movement and pressure from the Soviet Union, the BCP began planning for multiple-candidate (not multiparty) regional elections to end citizen apathy toward both government and the party. Although some reforms were made in the nomination process, local electoral commissions retained control over final lists of nominees.

By February 1989, at least nine independent political groups had emerged. Spurred by the liberalized domestic policies of Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, such groups demanded similar concessions from the Bulgarian government. Given Bulgaria's long record of mimicking Soviet policy changes, this was a natural expectation. In fact, the 1987 BCP Central Committee plenum had endorsed officially perestroika and glasnost, the cornerstones of the Gorbachev reform program. The plenum also substantially reduced official state ceremonies, rituals, personal awards, and propaganda, explaining that such formalities alienated the people.

In the three years following the 1987 plenum, however, the Bulgarian government and the BCP gave lip service to Soviet reforms, while quietly taking a more hard-line approach to many issues. During this period, reform in the BCP and the government apparatus was confined to reshuffling ministries, departments, and personnel as a gesture of solidarity with perestroika. At the same time, dissident groups were harrassed, put under surveillance, and accused of unpatriotic activities.

Issues of Dissent

In the late 1980s, official repression of the Turkish minority was the most visible domestic issue in Bulgaria. By 1989 this policy had brought harsh international condemnation and provided a human rights issue for the domestic opposition. A total of 310,000 ethnic Turks were expelled or emigrated voluntarily in 1989, and the Bulgarian economy suffered greatly from this depletion of its work force.

In July 1989, more than a hundred well-known Bulgarian intellectuals petitioned the National Assembly to restore rights to the ethnic Turks suffering forced emigration. Bulgarian Turks formed the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, advocating a wide range of government reforms besides the Turkish issue. The regime responded by accusing Turkish agents of fomenting ethnic strife, denying the existence of a Turkish minority in Bulgaria, and fanning the racial animosity of Bulgarians toward Turks.

In addition to the ethnic and political problems, in the late 1980s Bulgaria faced the need for strenuous economic reforms to improve efficiency, technology, and product quality. Between 1987 and 1989, the Zhivkov regime promised expansion of trade and joint ventures with the West, banking reform, currency convertability, and decentralized planning. In actuality, however, the thirty-five- year-old regime lacked the political will and energy to press drastic economic reform. The economic stagnation that began in the early 1980s, with which Zhivkov had become identified, continued unchallenged and became another major cause of political discontent.

The Removal of Zhivkov

Despite the appeareance of numerous opposition groupsa in the preceding year, the Zhivkov regime was unprepared for the successive fall of communist regimes across Eastern Europe in late 1989. In October an all-European environmental conference, Ecoforum, was held in Sofia under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This event focused world attention on Bulgaria's history of repressing environmental activism and stimulated open demonstrations by human rights advocates and the Bulgarian Ekoglasnost environmental group. Although some demonstrators were beaten and detained, direct communication with the West inspired them to greater self-expression. This activity culminated in a mass demonstration in Sofia on November 3. Meanwhile, in a speech to a plenum of the BCP in late October, Zhivkov admitted that his latest restructuring program, begun in 1987 to achieve "fundamental renewal" of society, politics, and the economy, had been a failure. He unveiled a new, detailed program to counteract "alienation of the people from the government and the production process." Other party spokesmen increasingly noted recent drastic reforms in other socialist states and pointed to Bulgaria's failure to keep pace. Then, at the regular plenary meeting of the BCP Central Committee in November, Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov announced Zhivkov's resignation.

Although the resignation appeared voluntary, Western observers agreed that top party figures, increasingly dissatisfied with Zhivkov's refusal to recognize problems and deal with public protests, had exerted substantial pressure on him. The leaders of the movement to remove Zhivkov--Atanasov, Foreign Minister Petur Mladenov (who became head of state), and Defense Minister Dobri Dzhurov--had received the advance blessing of Moscow and the majority of the Bulgarian Politburo. Soviet leader Gorbachev apparently approved the change because Zhivkov had not heeded warnings that cosmetic reform was insufficient given the drastic restructuring sought by Gorbachev. Within a month of his resignation, Zhivkov was expelled from the BCP, accused of abuse of power, and arrested. Mladenov became chairman of the State Council and chief of the BCP.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress