UPS & DOWNS OF COMMUNISM

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UNSUCCESSFUL SELF-SUSTAINMENT

When a democratic society suffers a crisis, the government makes changes to solve the problem. When a non-democratic society is in crisis, the main goal of change is to disguise the fact that there is a problem.

In the 1970s Bulgaria's economy was clearly in trouble. The Communists responded with a strange set of reforms officially known as the Politika na samozadovolyavane or the Policy of Self-Sustainment. Agricultural enterprises were expanded and linked to corresponding concerns within the manufacturing industry. To make up for shortages of potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, flour, apples and other foods on the market, Bulgarians were given the right to have small farms to produce the necessary products.

The Communists opened some of the Bulgarian economy to the world, founding commercial enterprises with foreign partners. Instead of serving as the engine driving the country's economy, however, they provided certain members of the establishment with a channel to export Bulgarian capital abroad.

Lyudmila ZhivkovaLyudmila Zhivkova

Changes during the 1970s also affected culture, which Zhivkov's daughter had taken under her wing. As the head of the Committee for Culture, Lyudmila Zhivkova trotted the globe spreading propaganda about Bulgaria's unique history and art - hype that was sometimes justified, sometimes not. She organised massive exhibits of Bulgarian cultural artefacts abroad, while in 1981 celebrations marking the 1,300th Anniversary of Bulgaria's founding swallowed up millions of leva. Th is earned her powerful opponents among conservatives at home as well as in Moscow - rumours blame the KGB for her mysterious death in 1981.

TO GO TO ROME AND NOT TO SHOOT THE POPE

On 13 May 1981 Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turk, opened fire on Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Square and almost succeeded in killing him. In the following days, the would-be assassin revealed that his fellow conspirators included two Bulgarians and that the Bulgarian military attaché in Rome had coordinated the whole operation. At that time, though, only one of the Bulgarians - Sergey Antonov, an employee of Balkan, the Bulgarian national airline - was in Italy. He was arrested in 1982, but released four years later due to lack of evidence. A year after the assassination attempt, journalist Claire Sterling discovered that the Bulgarian DS had ordered the hit. The agency was most likely acting on orders from the KGB, which wanted to get rid of the powerful Polish pope who played a decisive role in founding the Solidarity movement in his native country.

The Bulgarians and their government, however, to this day denounce the “Bulgarian Connection” in the plot against the pope as “defamatory anti-Bulgarian propaganda”.



Todor Zhivkov was on friendly terms with the kind of guys you wouldn't want for dinner: Colonel Al-Qadhafi of LybiaTodor Zhivkov was on friendly terms with the kind of guys you wouldn't want for dinner: Colonel Al-Qadhafi of Lybia

FRIENDS OF THE THIRD WORLD

At the height of the petrol crisis in the 1970s, Bulgarian Communists realised that the easiest way to make money was to sell weapons to whoever wanted them. There were a lot of takers - especially in the Third World.

Bulgaria became one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of weapons, which were sold without any compunction to countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. These exports were spiced up with added bonuses such as low-quality Bulgarian machinery, construction engineers, doctors and nurses. Not surprisingly, Todor Zhivkov met regularly with leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qadhafi. Bulgaria's profit, however, was as fleeting as its scruples.

Kim Sung II of North KoreaKim Sung II of North Korea

Despite the fact that in 1985 the country supposedly raked in $1 billion from weapons alone, the vast majority of this cash never made it into the treasury, since the goods were purchased with loans.

The Ceausescus of RomaniaThe Ceausescus of Romania


UNDER THE RED SUN


Sofia in the 1970s. The two obvious changes now is the different coat-of-arms on the National Assembly building and the Soviet Ladas, Volgas and Moskviches. Oh, and the bus line turning in front of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has been discontinued.

sofia in the 1970s


A rare photograph of a Communist-era policeman guard inside Sofia Central Prison A rare photograph of a Communist-era policeman guard inside Sofia Central Prison

SCAPEGOATS

If you want to distract the public's attention from rising prices and energy rationing, find a scapegoat. In the mid-1980s the Bulgarian Communists stuck to this tried-and-tested formula, making the Bulgarian Turks their scapegoats. In December 1984 the government launched a massive campaign to force Turks to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Propaganda dubbed this initiative the “Revival Process” and announced that Bulgarian Turks were in fact the descendents of Bulgarians “forcibly converted to Islam by the Ottomans”. The time has come, the BKP proclaimed, for them to “revive” their Bulgarian roots.

The process affected nearly 850,000 people. Those who refused to submit were sent to the newly reopened labour camps.

The “Revived Bulgarians,” however, organised mass protests, which were brutally crushed, resulting in casualties. On 29 May 1989 Zhivkov gave Turks “the right” to leave the country - or more precisely, he chased them out. During the summer as part of the so-called Great Excursion, more than 300,000 Bulgarian Turks left the country, creating Europe's largest wave of emigration since the end of the Second World War.


LONG-AWAITED PROTESTS
It was not a thirst for democracy, or solidarity with Bulgarian Turks, but instead a Romanian chlorine factory that finally provoked Bulgarians into creating the first dissident organisation. A chlorine factory in Giurgiu across the Danube from Ruse continually polluted the Bulgarian city, yet the government's apathy caused even some of the darlings of the regime to found the Committee for the Protection of the City of Ruse in January 1988. Prominent participants included artist Svetlin Rusev, rhythmic gymnastics coach Neshka Robeva and journalist Sonya Bakish, wife of then speaker of parliament and Politburo member Stanko Todorov.

As Misha Glenny put it in his Rebirth of History, the Bulgarians soon discovered they had little to replace their hatred of the Zhivkov regime with As Misha Glenny put it in his Rebirth of History, the Bulgarians soon discovered they had little to replace their hatred of the Zhivkov regime with

More than a year later the independent association Ekoglasnost was created to warn Bulgarians about ecological damage caused by the factories considered the crown jewels of Socialist industry - the copper works between Zlatitsa and Pirdop, the lead-zinc factory near Plovdiv, and the chemical plants in Devnya, Stara Zagora and Dimitrovgrad.

In the meantime, the first dissident political organisation appeared. On 3 November 1988 at Sofia University a group of long-time BKP members created the Club to Support Glasnost and Perestroika in Bulgaria. Th e founders also included prominent opponents of the regime such as writer Blaga Dimitrova and philosopher Zhelyu Zhelev.

Former dissident Zhelyu Zhelev (pictured here on his first visit to Britain where he was invited by Margaret Thatcher to attend a Conservative conference) became Bulgaria's first democratic president in 1990Former dissident Zhelyu Zhelev (pictured here on his first visit to Britain where he was invited by Margaret Thatcher to attend a Conservative conference) became Bulgaria's first democratic president in 1990

The authorities reacted harshly to this appearance of pluralism and did everything in their power to crush the organisation. This turned out to be a difficult task, however. 1944 was already ancient history and the USSR just wasn't what it used to be. The time had come for a “gentle revolution”. Or had it?

TIMELINE

1979 Ayatollah Khomeini establishes an Islamic republic in Iran

Margaret Thatcher becomes prime minister

1980 Yugoslavia's President Tito dies

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back debuts in cinemas

1981
The AIDS virus is isolated for the first time

1982
The Falklands War

1983
The bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut kills nearly 300 people

1984 The first Apple Macintosh appears in stores

1985
Live Aid concerts raise £50 million to fight hunger in Ethiopia

1986
The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all seven crew members

1987 West German pilot Mathias Rust lands in Moscow's Red Square

1988
Mikhail Gorbachev formally begins Perestroika in the USSR
Mordechai Vanunu is sentenced to 18 years in prison for revealing classified information about Israel's nuclear weapons programme
270 people die in the Lockerbie bombing

1989 The Berlin Wall collapses on 9 November

In Bulgaria Todor Zhivkov is removed from power on 10 November
The Soviet army withdraws from Afghanistan
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena are executed on Christmas Day

Read 9153 times Last modified on Thursday, 24 March 2016 14:00

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