STILL WEDDED TO MOSCOW?

by Milen Radev; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Eastern Europe gets entangled in monumental turmoil with its erstwhile Big Brother. Predictably, Bulgaria stays out

red army monument.jpg

Recent events remind us yet again that Bulgaria can't free itself from the grip of its former Communist era ally. We only have to compare Sofia to Estonia's capital, Tallinn. Until a few months ago both cities had prominent monuments to the Soviet Army.

But now the two capitals look very different. The Estonian government dismantled the monument and moved it - together with the remains of 12 Soviet soldiers buried in its base - to a military cemetery.

You see, most Estonians never actually believed Soviet propaganda, which referred to their country's invasion as "liberation" from Nazi Germany. So the monument was removed despite the Kremlin's official protests and, admittedly, some unrest in Tallinn itself.

By sharp contrast, the 50-metre, (164 feet), monument in central Sofia, in which a Soviet soldier holds a submachine gun aloft, is still very much intact. Talk of its removal is taboo. Why is this? It would be an overstatement to say that all Bulgarians like the memorial - if only because it spoils their view of beautiful Mount Vitosha. And the only people using the 2,000 square metre (21,500 square feet) complex are Sofia's roller-skaters and nostalgically-minded pensioners.

But, inexplicably perhaps to outsiders, the monument is still popular in some political quarters. Supporters of the former Communist Party, now rechristened the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the biggest party in the current coalition, lay flowers there twice a year. The first commemoration is on 9 May, Victory Day as celebrated in the Soviet Union, and the second is 9 September - the anniversary of the 1944 Communist coup perpetrated with the Red Army's assistance.

Vienna

Vienna

This may seem odd. But even stranger events happened in 1993, when Sofia's municipal council decided to dismantle the monument. You would not think the plan so controversial. After all, not a single Soviet soldier had died on Bulgarian soil. And Bulgaria's allegiance to its former Cold War ally had already become history. However, the then Interior Minister Viktor Mihaylov gave an order halting the demolition on 14 April 1993.

A decade later, a group of intellectuals tried to raise a petition calling for the monument's demolition. But they met with the same inglorious fate. The mass media ignored or ridiculed the campaign and Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History and a leading BSP member, referred to the organisers as "politically marginal" and the "rotten eggs of surviving fascists".

Yet it seems there are a lot of "fascists' rotten eggs". After all, Hungarian authorities removed the statue of the Soviet soldier astride Budapest's Gellert Hill. Czech leaders tore down the Russian T-34 tank in Prague's centre. The Polish culture minister also drafted a bill calling for the removal of all monuments and street names "praising the Nazi and Communist dictatorships".

True, the monuments to the Soviet Army in Germany are still intact and well maintained. But a clause in the 1990 agreement regarding Germany's unification explains why. The Russians agreed to remove their troops from Germany as long as the Germans agreed to preserve Soviet memorials for posterity. Perhaps the 340,000 real Soviet soldiers on its territory, who only withdrew in 1993, also provided a sharp stimulus for Germany to accept these terms.

A public debate also rages in the Czech and Baltic republics about Soviet monuments. Some call for a more diplomatic approach to Russia in the light of the latter's acute sensitivity on the issue. But the subservience and silence in Bulgaria is extraordinary. Bulgaria has signed no agreements with Russia about the preservation of monuments. And yet they are not even a matter for public debate.

During his recent visit to Moscow, Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, son of a former top official in the Bulgarian Communist Party, took pains to assure his hosts as well as journalists that Bulgaria would always cherish and preserve its Soviet monuments. Stanishev offered these guarantees without even being pressed on the issue.

However, an interesting rumour has been circulating recently. Apparently several powerful building contractors have agreed that the cast iron monument occupies too much space in Sofia's city centre. It's also rumoured that they have divided the site into lots to share among themselves.

Will there be a shopping centre on the site of the monument 10 years from now and how will the Kremlin react to it?

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