by Anthony Georgieff

General dissatisfaction, little optimism mark anniversary of fall of Bulgarian Communism

In previous years the 10th of November, the date when Bulgaria's Communist strongman, Todor Zhivkov, was toppled from power in an internal party coup, was a low key affair. Few newspapers wrote about it, and Bulgarians, usually glued to the morning shows and evening soaps on TV, did not seem to care.

In 2014, the picture is different. The current establishment, spearheaded by President Rosen Plevneliev, organised a campaign entitled 25 Years of Free Bulgaria to generate the much needed and long overdue debate about Communism's legacies in what remains the EU's least developed country.

If opinion polls are to be trusted, 94 percent of Bulgaria's youth aged 16-30 know "next to nothing" about the period between 1944, when Communism came to Bulgaria, and 1989. 40 percent are unaware whether Communism's collapse was marked symbolically by the fall of the Berlin, Moscow, Sofia or China wall. 92 percent do not know which countries belonged to the former East bloc. The majority of Bulgarians know little or nothing about the events at the end of the 1980s and the main players that took part in them. These include, but are not limited to, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.

These are the findings of an opinion poll conducted by Alpha Research, a major polling agency in Sofia.

Interestingly, public perceptions of Todor Zhivkov have shifted significantly. While two years after the dictator's downfall up to 76 percent of the Bulgarians had a negative attitude to him, in 2014 about 55 percent are in fact approving of his policies and of him as a leader.

Half of those polled consider the "Transition Period," the years immediately after the abolition of Orthodox Communism, a failure, with only 10 percent responding it was a success. The five most important areas where people expected change in the aftermath of Communism were free travel (30 percent), higher incomes (27 percent), market economy and new employment opportunities (20 percent), human rights (19 percent), restitution of private property (18 percent), and free elections (15 percent).

All of these have been accomplished now Bulgaria is both a member of NATO and the EU. Yet, people are discontent as only 2 percent think that these achievements have brought about supremacy of the rule of law.

Bulgarians are not alone in feeling nostalgia for Communism. A few years ago, the US-based Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project conducted a survey in post-Communist countries inquiring whether ordinary people fared better in democracy than they did under Communism. The majority of the respondents in all countries, with the exception of the Czech Republic, answered in the negative. Bulgaria was rock bottom, faring behind even Russia.

The reasons for the current Bulgarian attitude to Communism are many and varied, but they are easily seized by politicians who see people with strong longing for the past are an easy prey for their current agendas.

Traditionally, the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party - the renamed Communists, has downplayed the political repressions of the past, instead maintaining that Communism's supposed "accomplishments" such as universal health care, free education, job stability and heavy industry plants should have been preserved. But the BSP is far from being alone in haloing Communism. Extremist groupings and parties have repeatedly praised violent policies of the Communist-era such as the mid-1980s forcible renaming of Bulgaria's ethnic Turks. Newcomers to the political scene, such as former TV anchor Nikolay Barekov, have called for the reintroduction of the military draft and the reinstitution of the word "People's" in the official name of the Republic of Bulgaria.

Even political players who want to appear pro-Western have on many occasions toyed with the Communist trumpcard.

During his first term in office, Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's current prime minister, praised Todor Zhivkov (to whom he was a bodyguard in the 1990s). "It would be a tremendous success for any government to achieve one percent of what Zhivkov has built for Bulgaria... and achieve the economic growth of the state at that time," Borisov said in a televised interview, in 2010. This was the first time that a democratically elected Bulgarian politician had such strong words of praise for the times that Bulgarians had been so eager to put behind themselves in 1989.

In fact, it would not be farfetched to explain Boyko Borisov's continuing popularity with the legacy of his former employer. For anyone with a direct experience of both Zhivkov's and Borisov's rule it is easy to see that the similarities in fact outnumber the differences. Both played out as "simple people" albeit belonging to different generations. Zhivkov liked to pass round jokes in the characteristically uncouth Bulgarian peasant manner, thus ramming home the impression that he was "one of the people." Years later, Borisov would do the same: "You are simple people and I am simple man. That's why we understand each other," he told a group of protesting workers in Kardzhali in the early 2010s. While Zhivkov's charisma lay in the fact that he was a village man who made good, Borisov's is that he was a disenfranchised suburban youth who played football and made easy money, left the police force when it was "depoliticised" in the early 1990s because he wanted to retain his membership of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and became a millionaire through activities that remain a matter of speculation.

Not all similarities, however, are so innocuous. For 35 years while he was in power Zhivkov stood legally unchallenged. There was no parliamentary opposition and whoever in his retinue dared contradict him was given the sack - or worse. Yet Zhivkov never blatantly broke any existing laws as he was concerned with Communist decorum more than he was with personal welfare. Anyone who has experienced Borisov's rule in 2009-2013 will be able to see that the similarities and differences do not always compare favourably with him.

In 2014, the 25 Years of Free Bulgaria campaign organised debates, discussions, film screenings and art exhibitions to mark the anniversary. Despite its obvious deficiencies, it was a small, yet valuable step to make Bulgarians know their recent past better. But will they be able to come to terms with it?

Viewed critically, the campaign appeared designed, at least to some extent, to deflect the public attention from the unpleasant issues of the day while focusing on events and personalities that were over 25 years ago. When Communism collapsed, Bulgaria remained for years the only East European country that failed to state clearly and unequivocally that the totalitarian system was bad. Bulgaria never implemented lustration to ban former Communists from taking up senior state jobs, and it never properly dealt with the heirloom of its former secret services. A quarter of a century later, discussing whether sausages were better under Communism or whether there were shortages of toilet paper and suitcases, and pitching real and imaginary Communist-era apparatchiks against the newly-fledged "democrats" may be interpreted as an attempt to use the Communist-era crimes and atrocities to conceal all the excesses of the post-Communist era in which many members of the current establishment were at least accomplices in.

Then, of course, there is the issue of authenticity. As if to illustrate how perilous the quicksands of history and remembrance may be, speaking at the opening of a conference about the legacies of Communism President Rosen Plevneliev produced a recollection of what he was doing on 10 November 1989, the day the announcement of Todor Zhivkov's downfall was made. For more, please turn to this month's Joke of the month.


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