In fact, the Bulgarian Communists were as – or more – brutal, ruthless and callous towards dissidents as any other dictatorship.
From the very first days of the Communist coup of 9 September 1944, special groups hunted down, captured and killed members of the previous administrations, whom they branded "enemies of the people," as a rule without trial. One such group was led by Mircho Spasov, a close associate of Todor Zhivkov. Later, he would organise and run the gruesome labour camps near Lovech and Skravena. Spasov masterminded smuggling rings and, during the 1970s, oversaw the unlawful spending of millions of leva from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Foreign Ministry, directed by Todor Zhivkov's daughter Lyudmila.
Nobody knows the exact number of those killed in the first months after 9 September. The figure varies between 20,000 and 40,000. Around 2,000 missing persons have never been accounted for.
The massacre of the "people's rule" was given legality with the establishment, in October 1944, of the so-called People's Court. Propagated at the time as Bulgaria's version of Nuremberg, that court was nothing but the implementation of Stalinist justice upon an occupied state. The politicians who had been in power between 1941 and 1944 were defined as "fascist" and prosecuted by the People's Court. The court was active from November 1944 until April 1945, its judges being appointed by the Fatherland Front, or OF, and the minister of justice. 21,024 people stood trial and 10,897 were convicted. Of them, 2,730 were sentenced to death, including the regents of King Simeon II, then still a minor, his uncle Prince Cyril and most government ministers and MPs.
Between 1993 and 1998 the Supreme Court of the newly democratic Republic of Bulgaria revoked most of the decisions of the People's Court. But it based its judgements on individual pleas by victims or their relatives without examining the indictments, and repealed the sentences because of "procedural breaches."
The People's Court was just the beginning. From 1946 until 1953 the Communists did away with any opposition, be it political, military, religious or the intelligentsia. The prosecutors stood no nonsense. Confessions were extorted using torture, under the supervision of Soviet advisers responsible directly to the head of the NKVD, or the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria.
The main weapon of the Communists was State Security, or DS. It would change its name and its targets over the years, but not its methods. In the beginning, the so-called "enemy elements" were Trotskyites, Orthodox priests and the followers of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, or BZNS. In 1947 were added the coalition partners of the Bulgarian Communist Party, or BKP, in the Fatherland Front, former police and army officers and any young people, intellectuals, clergymen and officials who were not supporters of the BKP. One of the best-known victims of the regime was Nikola Petkov, leader of the opposition BZNS, who was hanged on 23 September 1947.
Once it had the Orthodox Church under control, the BKP directed its repressions against the Catholics. In 1952, 54 priests were tried for espionage. Four of them, including Bishop Yevgeny Bosilkov, were sentenced to death. In 1998, he would be beatified by Pope John Paul II.
BKP membership did not confer immunity. The first purges of the "enemies with a Party card" began in 1949, with the execution of Deputy Prime Minister Traycho Kostov. The witch hunt continued until 1953 and even included the DS, all of whose officers had been replaced by 1956. Stefan Bogdanov, an NKVD agent who had set up the network of Soviet spies in Bulgaria and headed the counterintelligence agency immediately after 9 September 1944, was among the victims. He was arrested in 1949 and tortured until he "confessed" that he was Traycho Kostov's mole.
The figures speak for themselves: over 22,000 people were arrested between 1949 and 1956, and nearly 25,000 were forcibly resettled from 1944 onwards.
This number does not include those interned in the so-called "labour correctional facilities." The DS received written permission to detain communism 37 anybody it considered a threat as early as December 1944. The first camp appeared in January 1945 in Sveti Vrach, near presentday spa town Sandanski. It functioned only until March, the first of a sinister series of camps where dissenters would be sent. They included the one near Stanke Dimitrov (present-day Dupnitsa), the Rositsa Reservoir and the Kutsiyan Mine near Pernik. There were also camps in the villages of Bobov Dol near Pernik, Nikolaevo near Kazanlak and Nozharevo near Silistra. There were women's camps in a monastery near Veliko Tarnovo and the village of Bosna in the Strandzha. The secret "S" camp near Pazardzhik functioned from 1947 until 1949. When it was closed down, most of the internees were sent to another camp that soon became the epitome of Communist brutality: Belene.
The main camp for political prisoners was set up on a Danube island near Belene by the Council of Ministers in 1949. By 1952, Belene housed 2,323 inmates, 144 of whom were common criminals. The camp was closed in 1953, but began functioning again after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. In August 1959 the Politburo released most of the prisoners, but 166 of them, dubbed "incorrigible," were moved to a labour camp by the stone quarry near Lovech. The proposal of Interior Minister Georgi Tsankov was approved by Todor Zhivkov, though there is no written evidence of who devised the sadistic regime in the camp, where 155 out of 1,501 prisoners died in a very short time. When in the early 1990s the Military Prosecutor's Office began an investigation, all questioned former officers of the Lovech camp claimed they had acted on verbal orders given by Deputy Interior Minister Mircho Spasov.
The Central Committee of the BKP closed down the camp in 1962, when two internees managed to escape. They were captured and told the investigating officers of the horrors they had experienced. The commission appointed by the Central Committee to examine the facts confirmed the fugitives' story. Zhivkov interceded for Spasov and he only received an "party reprimand."
The Military Prosecutor's Office began to deal with the deaths in the camps only after 10 November 1989, focusing mainly on those near Lovech and Skravena, due to a lack of detailed documentation. And then something rather revealing happened. In April 1990, the Bulgarian parliament, which at the time was in the hands of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the BKP's successor), extended the statute of limitations for the murder of two or more people from 20 to 35 years, but "forgot" to include a retroactive clause in the law.
Nevertheless, Prosecutor General Martin Gunev continued the investigation and asked the Grand National Assembly (1990- 1991) for an interpretation of the limitations issue. Neither the National Assembly nor the Supreme Court bothered to answer. His successor in office, Ivan Tatarchev, reopened the case with evidence of 14 premeditated murders. Some former camp chief officers and guards were arrested. Zhivkov was among the accused but a few months later the charges against him were dropped. Tatarchev pleaded with the Military Department of the Supreme Court for the death sentence for all defendants. He got none. In August 1993 Spasov died while still under house arrest. The court dropped the case. It was next sent to the military court in Pleven, then sent back to the Supreme Court where it came to a halt because parliament did not elect a jury until 1999. When the jury was finally appointed, the trial was terminated in 2002 because of the statute of limitations.
An official propaganda poster with Leonid Brezhnev
The only punishment that Mircho Spasov ever received was from the BSP: he was expelled from the party in 1990.
In Bulgaria, the Communists persecuted "enemy émigrés" too, and with the same vehemence. It was the family left behind that usually suffered the most. Emigrants' relatives could not travel abroad, their post was censored and their children were often barred from higher education.
When an émigré's voice became too loud, the DS would shut him up – for good. In 1974, 59-year-old Boris Arsov, leader of the emigrants' Union of Bulgarian Revolutionary Committees, was kidnapped in Denmark. The plan to assassinate him (preserved in the DS archives) did not succeed only because of the agent's hesitation. Arsov was abducted and sentenced to 15 years in prison because he refused to collaborate with the DS. Three days after he entered the jail in Pazardzhik, he was found hanged on three neckties which had not been in his possession. The investigation into his death began only in 1992 and has not yet been concluded.
On 7 September 1978, Todor Zhivkov's birthday, a pellet full of poison was fired into the leg of writer Georgi Markov in London. The most outspoken critic of Communist Bulgaria died on 11 September. A week earlier, a similar, though unsuccessful, attempt was made on the life of journalist Vladimir Kostov in Paris.
The investigation into Georgi Markov's murder encountered many obstacles after 1989. The DS dossier on the writer was destroyed in January 1990. Three years later, the investigation found that the agent who had "neutralised" Markov lived in Denmark. He was questioned by the Scotland Yard and the Danish police. However, the Danish authorities never received the documents proving that the arrested man was a Bulgarian secret agent. A month after the interrogation he disappeared. Oleg Kalugin, a former chief of counterintelligence in the KGB, stated several times that Zhivkov had asked the KGB for assistance against Markov. Nevertheless, the only Bulgarian With Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu With Libya's Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi An official propaganda poster with Leonid Brezhnev 38 co mmunism president to request the agency's documents relating to Bulgaria was Zhelyu Zhelev.
In 1999, a journalistic investigation in the Interior Ministry archives came up with documents previously unknown to the prosecution which proved that the DS had wanted Markov dead. But after the retirement in 1999 of Bogdan Karayotov, the official investigator, the case was more or less dropped.
The DS didn't only murder people abroad. In the 1980s, for example, journalist Georgi Zarkin and tour guide Volodya Nakov, who were convicted of expressing "public discontent" with the system, were killed. The two were beaten to death by fellow prisoners, whose sentences were repealed afterwards.
One of the most infamous crimes of Todor Zhivkov's regime was the forcible changing of the names of Bulgarian Turks in 1984- 1985. The military prosecutor's indictment of 1993 quotes Zhivkov's proposal of 1984 that the "Bulgarian Turks" be forced to speak the Bulgarian language and the most vehement nationalists be deported "within hours." On 10 December 1984 Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov and Interior Minister Dimitar Stoyanov received instructions for the implementation of the so-called Revival Process. Stoyanov gave orders for the namechanging campaign to begin in all regions with a distinct Turkish population and for "serious" measures to be taken to crush all resistance.
With North Korea's Kim Il Sung in 1975
At the end of December 1989, the BKP renounced the Revival Process in an attempt to end the international isolation that Bulgaria had fallen into. In 1991, the Military Prosecutor's Office pressed charges against five people, including Dimitar Stoyanov, Todor Zhivkov and Georgi Atanasov. The Supreme Court would repeatedly adjourn the case for further investigation. The formal reason given was that several thousand statements of migrants were missing.
In 1963, inspired by the enthusiastic approval his policy received at a secret plenum of the Central Committee of the BKP, Todor Zhivkov suggested to Nikita Krushchev that Bulgaria become the 16th republic of the USSR. Krushchev refused because, in his opinion, such an act would do more harm than good internationally. This was the only reason why Bulgaria remained a sovereign country. Zhivkov repeated his proposal to Leonid Brezhnev during his visit in Bulgaria in 1973. The exact nature of their agreement is still secret, but it never became a reality, especially when Mikhail Gorbachev, who was not particularly fond of Zhivkov, came to power in 1985. In his first interview as a prosecutor general of Bulgaria, Ivan Tatarchev stated that he would take action against those guilty of this national betrayal. By the time his term of office ended in 1999, he had done nothing.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Bulgaria followed Russia's policy of exporting revolutions to Third World countries, and gratuitously supported various leftist regimes with arms, ammunition and equipment. By secret acts, it granted "aid" to rogue governments in Algeria, Cuba, Syria, Yemen, Congo, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Guatemala, Angola, Mozambique, Laos, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. The 1993 trial of 22 people accused of involvement in this ended without a single conviction. One of the defendants, Andrey Lukanov, even won an European Court of Human Rights case against Bulgaria for his detention during the investigation.
With Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu
Communist Bulgaria also supported international terrorists, such as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, or Carlos the Jackal. A file entitled The Lynxes in the Interior Ministry archive reveals that in the early 1980s the Jackal and some of his men visited Bulgaria a number of times with the tacit consent of the regime, even though he was carrying arms and explosives for his attacks in the West.
One of the causes célèbres that the Prosecutor General's office began in 1990 was against the economic crimes of the Communist regime. For example, Zhivkov was accused of misappropriating 22,500,000 leva, which he had sent to an account in Moscow over 30 years to fund Communist movements. The case never made it to the courtroom.
From 1968 the Council of Ministers secretly began to allocate funds to senior party and government officials in breach of the state budget. The funds were not subject to taxation and the recipients were not accountable. The only effective sentence dates to 1993, when the Supreme Court sentenced former Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov and Minister of the Economy Stoyan Ovcharov to 10 and 9 years' imprisonment respectively because they had doled out 210,000 leva to Communist Party functionaries to "finish their flats."
Zhivkov also received a sentence in the notorious trial No 1/1990 – well, almost. It was for things such as the unlawful purchase of Western cars, handing out 125 flats to cronies and having round-the-clock bodyguards for his family. The Zhivkovs had spent 1 million leva of taxpayers' money between 1985 and 1989. The dictator was convicted and received seven years in prison, but the sentence was revoked in 1995 because as a head of state Zhivkov had immunity from prosecution while in office.
Prosecutors then tried to establish the exact outflow of funds from the country to companies registered abroad, an operation carried out by the intelligence services in the last years of Zhivkov's reign, but without much success. The estimated amount was approximately $20 billion – twice as much as Bulgaria's foreign debt at the end of the Communist rule. These cases never made it to court either.
There were even more serious offences, however. From 1978 the Bulgarian state was involved in arms trafficking carried out by the Kintex state-owned trading company and the Interior Ministry. From that time on, the main activity of the DS was dealing in contraband goods, drugs and arms.
The last big crime of the Communists was the destruction of their secret files, thus sweeping away the traces of decades of crime and eradicating the identities of their agents. As a result, even to this day Bulgaria has clandestine nests of power that exert influence on its economic and political life.
On 24 January 1989, at a meeting attended by General Vladilen Fyodorov, the KGB station chief in Bulgaria, the top brass of the Interior Ministry decided to form a committee to examine its archives and suggest which parts of it should be "cleaned up." On 29 January, Interior Minister General Atanas Semerdzhiev ordered his deputy General Stoyan Savov to begin the cleansing. Within a few days, 40 percent of the archive material had been destroyed.
The DS began cleaning up its archive as early as 8 January. By 15 January at least 20,000 of its files had been incinerated in the furnaces of the Lenin (present-day Stomana Pernik) metallurgical plant.
There has been no proper investigation into the destruction of these archives. In 2002 General Semerdzhiev and the former chief of the DS archive General Nanka Serkedzhieva were sentenced to four and a half and two years imprisonment respectively, but that ruling was revoked in 2003 and the case was sent back for further investigation.
Obviously, it was nothing but a disgrace, but how did this happen?
On the one hand, neither the lawyers nor the laws of the country were prepared for such a task. The case of the statute of limitations is still pending. Many indictments were too complex to prove in court and since 1999, when Nikola Filchev was elected prosecutor general, cases involving the crimes of Communism have not been a priority.
The politics of the day has also played an important role. No parliamentary majority has had the political will to punish the guilty. On the other hand, the courts take too long to pass rulings, and these rulings tend to be influenced by the political party in power.
One of the most important reasons is the lack of a lustration law to limit the participation of former members of the regime and their agents in positions of power. Unlike Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, there is no such law in Bulgaria. In 1991-1992 the Union of Democratic Forces, or SDS, government restricted the participation of former Communist apparatchiks in the management of banks, universities and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. In 1995, however, the BSP exempted academic circles from these measures. The United Democratic Forces, or ODS, also made attempts to pass lustration edicts in 1998 and 2000. The first was revoked by the Supreme Court and the second remains an empty declaration. The Access to Documents of the Former State Security Service Act passed in 1997 was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. The list of DS collaborators could not be revealed. This is why only a small number of agents, mainly from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, and the BSP, have been named. Ivan Kostov's government also failed to comply with the requirements of its own act and did not hand over the documents of the DS to the State Archive. At the beginning of 2001, a few months before the general election, a Commission for Access to the DS Documents was set up, although the president, Petar Stoyanov, who had been elected with the votes of SDS supporters, was opposed to it.
The current law for access to the DS archives dates back to 2006. It has no lustration powers, and in keeping with it a "truth commission" has been set up to shed light on former agents who are now members of the political, judiciary and media establishments. Findings of the commission have revealed that President Georgi Parvanov himself was a stooge for State Security (codename "Gotse"), and so has incumbent Minister for Bulgarians Abroad Bozhidar Dimitrov, a historian. Senior editors of most large media have been associated with the DS, all parliaments since 1989 have had dozens of former agents as MPs, and there is hardly anyone in Bulgaria's big business who has not had links, paid or voluntary, with the feared Communistera secret services. The courts, including the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Judiciary Council, also have their share of former DS agents.
The findings of the commission have not resulted in any dismissals, nor has any former DS agent stepped down voluntarily. The standard explanation given by the former stooges, which – interestingly – is being accepted by many Bulgarians, is that they acted to defend "national interests."