20 November 2009

Berlin Wall Series: Bulgaria

By contrast to Czechoslovakia, it would be fair to say Bulgaria is for many a “far off country of which we know little”. Today it is a member of NATO and the EU, which would have been almost impossible to conceive 20 years ago.

However, Bulgaria’s importance is underestimated, being one of those countries on the “frontline” of the Iron Curtain bordering Greece and therefore NATO. Bulgaria isn’t known for having had any high profile attempts at resistance and liberalisation, like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It isn’t the centre of Europe like Germany, and it did not have quite the megalomaniac like Romania.

Bulgaria’s status in World War 2 owes a lot to Tsar Boris III. He took the Bulgarian throne in 1918 after his father abdicated due to Bulgaria being on the losing side of World War 1. Bulgaria had faced reparations and loss of territory as a result. During the period of his reign Bulgaria swung between coups and plots from communists and militarists, culminating in a military coup in 1934 by the Zveno group. It established an authoritarian state abolishing political parties and trade unions, and attempting a corporatist economy. In other words state direction of private enterprise. The coup reduced Tsar Boris’s role to one of a figurehead, which he did not tolerate so he staged a monarchist counter coup in 1935. He appointed allies to be Prime Ministers, and in 1939 Bulgaria was neutral in the war, but within a year Boris III had allied himself with the Axis powers. Anti-Semitic laws were introduced barring Jews from intermarriage, government employment and from certain geographical areas. However, even the pro-German regime successfully resisted attempts to deport Bulgarian Jews en-masse.

The Bulgarian shift in favour of the Axis was in part due to the Axis offering to return land to Bulgaria that had been ceded to Romania and Yugoslavia. German troops used Bulgaria as a transit point, but Bulgaria notably never declared war on the USSR even after the German invasion. However in 1943, Boris died suddenly, and as his eldest son was only a child, governance effectively swung to a pro-German regency council.

The effect of the alliance with the Germans was to bolster support for a resistance movement, which the communists and the agrarian movement led. By 1944 both a lack of popular support and losses by the Axis, saw Ivan Bagrianov, a pro-Western politician, appointed by the Regency Council to seek peace with the Allies. However, neighbouring Romania, which had been with the Axis powers as well, turned towards the USSR, as the Red Army marched on. In early 1944 a new government was set up under the Fatherland Front, comprising communists, the authoritarian Zveno movement and anti-Nazi supporters, but this did not stem the Red Army from invading. The Fatherland Front government told the army to not resist and it allied itself with the USSR against Germany. Bulgaria fought with the Red Army to recapture what is now known as Yugoslav Macedonia and Serbia all the way to Hungary.

Following the end of the war, with Soviet backing, the communists in the government arrested many politicians and officials charging them of war crimes. The government was purged of past supporters of alliance with Germany, and an ally of Stalin, Georgi Dimitrov was appointed Prime Minister. A plebiscite was held to abolish the monarchy, which apparently got a 95% vote for such an abolition, and rigged elections were held in 1946. The agrarians and other anti-Nazi parties boycotted the elections in disgust. The young Tsar Simeon II was forced to flee, and a pro-communist government was installed before the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was established on Stalinist lines.

The early leaders, Dimitrov and Kolarov had died by 1950 and so leadership was effectively taken by Vulko Chervenkov who sought to rapidly industrialise the country. He attacked the Orthodox Church, put dissidents in labour camps, and imposed strict rule upon the country. He established a personality cult, and introduced free compulsory education and a public healthcare system. However, he had little support within the party so that once Stalin died, he was replaced as General Secretary and subsequently Prime Minister. He was replaced by the man who would dominate communist Bulgaria to the very end, Todor Zhivkov (that's his official website).

Zhivkov was previously a member of the resistance against the alliance with Germany, and subsequently a member of the Stalinist faction in the party, responsible for the forcible collectivisation of farms in a region he was in charge of. Over the subsequent years from 1954 to 1971 he consolidated rule around himself. He rejected Stalinism, allowing a nationalist view of Bulgaria, although he ceded claims to Slavic Macedonia to Yugoslavia. He bent with the wind, having been pro-Khrushchev, before becoming more hard line again under Brezhnev. He even strengthened relations with China in the late 1950s starting a brief and abortive “Great Leap Forward”. The Sino-Soviet split saw Zhivkov align himself with the USSR more, and he fended off a Stalinist coup.

However, this sort of leadership would mean Bulgarians would pay a price of uncertainty. As Czechoslovakia started a new economic policy, so would Bulgaria, under the Prague Spring saw central planning reasserted, and all those involved in running companies on a market basis would be arrested and purged. He closed down labour camps in the early 1960s, but changed the focus to having a Police state to arrest, frighten and monitor the public. However, unlike his neighbour Ceausescu he resisted having a personality cult, but he did establish a complex system of privileges of luxury goods and service for the elite and supporters to enjoy.

In the 1970s Zhivkov remained closely aligned with the USSR, and gained much material support as being at a frontline of the Cold War. Bulgaria made much foreign exchange by gaining cheap Soviet crude oil to refine and export at global market prices. Apparently Zhivkov even asked the USSR if Bulgaria could be a republic of the USSR, but Brezhnev rejected the request.

Zhivkov’s regime did not tolerate dissent, although in the field of the arts, as long as no political messages were given, his daughter Lyudmila promoted openness. Her sudden death at age 38 affected Zhivkov, and he took it out on ethnic Turks, banning the Turkish language and forcing all Bulgarian Turks to adopt Bulgarian names. His reputation dropped, and by the time Gorbachev had taken over Moscow, Zhivkov was elderly and more resistant to change. He had poured money into defence, increasing the size of the armed forces to be a loyal servant of Moscow.

Little had happened by 1989, but news of change in other eastern European states came through to Bulgarians via Radio Free Europe, BBC World Service and Voice of America, so Bulgarians became brave enough to hold protests in Sofia, ostensibly on environmental issues. The Communist Party sensing the need for change, overthrew Zhivkov on November 10 1989. He was replaced by Petar Mladenov who only distinguished himself by delaying the surrender of the communist monopoly on power by a few months. In June 1990 free elections were held, which were won by the reformed communists who had rejected authoritarian rule and had purged Zhivkov. Zhivkov was arrested and convicted of embezzling public funds, and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. He was put under house arrest, but was acquitted in his old age two years before his death in 1998.

Meanwhile Bulgaria slowly reformed its economy, as the Socialist Party (former communists) did not take dramatic steps to confront what needed to change, beyond political freedoms. In 1992 the government changed to the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces which engaged in mass privatisation by giving shares in government enterprises to citizens, which had mixed results, primarily as so many government enterprises were grossly underproductive, inefficient and so closed down. High unemployment in the 1990s saw governments change at every election, but eventually some stability ensued. Political freedoms were high, so Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007. Most interestingly, the child Tsar, Simeon II, who was expelled by the communists in 1946, was elected in 2001, with his party winning many seats. The Tsar returned, Bulgaria became a new magnet for European property investors, and the poor forgotten land was never to turn east again.


Anonymous said...

Glad you have time for this

Anonymous said...


bathmate said...

great posting.. that's a really good