SHAME!

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria emerges as the only former East bloc country to celebrate a Communist leader

Todor Zhivkov monument, Pravets

Imagine erecting a statue of Erich Honecker somewhere near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Or setting up a pageant to celebrate Gustav Husak in the Czech Republic. Or holding a mass rally to mark the anniversary of Enver Hoxha in Albania. Or hanging a Communist-era banner from the balcony where Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu gave his last speech before he fled in a helicopter from the roof.

Impossible, don't you think? Digging up the bones of greater or lesser Communist dictators in the former Warsaw Pact is rightly seen as both incongruous and irrelevant in these times of NATO and the EU. The citizens of Hungary, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Albania, Romania and what used to be East Germany would be thoroughly disgusted if any current politician even remotely endorsed the policies or personalities of the Communist leaders, whose stern, unsmiling faces used to decorate every office and public building this side of the Iron Curtain. In fact, the names of few of them are remembered at all, as they have all been correctly confined to the dustbin of history.

Not so in Bulgaria. Pravets, the home town of Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998), Bulgaria's communist ruler for 33 years, witnessed a rally to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The rally was organised by Zhivkov's family, notably the grand-daughter whom he at one stage legally adopted as his daughter, Evgeniya Zhivkova, and his grandson Todor Zhivkov Jr. Zhivkova is a Sofia-based fashion designer and a former MP for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, while Zhivkov Jr made headlines in the early 1990s for his alleged role in a gang rape.

The citizens of Pravets cheered and joined in the inevitable horo, so much loved by Zhivkov himself when he was alive and was a frequent visitor to his old hometown.

Pravets, some might argue, is a special case in Bulgaria. The former village about 70 kilometres northeast of Sofia was one of the few places in Bulgaria to indisputably benefit from the fact that the head of Party and state had been born there. Zhivkov took particular care to urbanise the village, and even installed a few factories; most notably, Bulgaria's now non-existent manufacturer of computers. Even in 2011 Pravets, probably because the people in charge are closely related to Valentin Zlatev, the CEO of LUKoil and reportedly one of the richest people in the country, looks significantly better than many other places in the Bulgarian provinces. The streets are paved, most of the houses have a proper sewage system, the stray dogs are fewer than anywhere else, and the secondor third-hand Fords and Opels seem to outnumber the Ladas.

Of course, the central square of Pravets is now called after Todor Zhivkov. Once you step onto the pedestrianised main street you will notice its name: Todor Zhivkov Boulevard. It leads to ‒ you've guessed it! ‒ the statue of Todor Zhivkov, situated in a small but wellkept park.

Those in search of Communist-era memorabilia won't be surprised to find that Todor Zhivkov's house has been turned into a museum. A nearby building, erected by Zhivkov to hold his parties, now displays some of the presents he received from foreign dignitaries from an assortment of countries including the United States, the UK, West Germany, Iraq, North Korea and India.

There is, of course, no mention of Todor Zhivkov's darker side. The Communists, whom he successfully led for 33 years, were responsible for more Bulgarian deaths, without the benefit of proper trials, than the grand total of Bulgarians who fell in all the 20th Century wars. Zhivkov is believed to have personally ordered the 1978 assassination in London of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov. Zhivkov's economic policies led to the collapse of the state economy on two occasions: in the 1960s and the late 1980s. His campaign to Bulgarianise this country's ethnic Turks in the 1980s led to the greatest forced movement of people in post-war Europe.

The people gathered in Pravets paid little heed to these events. Some top state officials currently in office were invited, and agreed to attend, but cancelled at the very last minute, sensing the huge scandal that would ensue. So did the Bulgarian National Guard brass band. Instead, a local band played Communist-era tunes.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who in his previous career as a bodyguard had personally protected Zhivkov, spoke favourably of the man. But the last word, probably, was had by Todor Zhivkov Jr. He said his grandfather's legacy would only be fully appreciated when a statue of him was erected in the centre of Sofia. The way the sentiment of the general public in Bulgaria seems to be going at the moment, we will probably not have to wait too long for that.

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