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The Curtain Rises: Eastern Europe, 1989 : CHAPTER 8 BULGARIA : A 'Mafia Chieftain' Falls From Power : Todor Zhivkov ruled for 35 years. But the region's wave of reform sweeps him away too.

December 17, 1989

On Nov. 9, the same night the Berlin Wall opened, the ax fell on Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, the longest-serving leader in the Warsaw Pact.

Zhivkov, 78, stocky and balding, with a wedge-shaped face and a temperament to match, had run Bulgaria like a Mafia chieftain. His immediate circle of aides and confidants--the innermost councils of security, party and government--were drawn from his old wartime Communist partisan group, the Chavdar Brigade, and linked by a code of loyalty to their old commander. Zhivkov, since 1954, stood unchallenged as head of the Bulgarian Communist Party. In 35 years, he had outlived four Soviet leaders; his fondest hope was to outlast the fifth.

Zhivkov, befitting a leader steely enough to rise through Balkan Communist politics in Stalin's wake, was an unforgiving master. His agents once assassinated a dissident writer, Georgi Markov, on a London street by stabbing him with a poisoned umbrella tip. Loyalists were rewarded with Swiss bank accounts, luxury villas and power. In June, 1988, Zhivkov tried to have his son, Vladimir, 37, whose major adult achievement was believed to be his gambling debt, appointed as minister of culture. To Zhivkov's astonishment, the Politburo refused to ratify the appointment.

The refusal seemed at first a small matter, but it signaled a growing alliance in the Politburo between Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov and Defense Minister Dobri Dzhurov.

They would soon be joined by Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov and the government's chief of foreign economic relations, Andrey Lukanov. Both realized that Bulgaria's economy was in deep trouble. Its debt had jumped from $3 billion to $8 billion since 1980. Despite Zhivkov's lengthy speeches on the virtues of economic restructuring, his reshuffling of ministries and departments was a charade: Any serious restructuring would require explanations exposing the corruption and failure in the system. Bulgaria, already the least developed nation in the Warsaw Pact, was sliding farther into the backwater.

Mladenov, for his part, saw any hope of economic assistance from the West precluded by Zhivkov's harsh human rights policies. When he returned from the Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe last January, he told his Foreign Ministry aides, he was determined that Bulgaria would conform to the documents he had signed.

But in May, just as Mladenov was pressing the Interior Ministry to revise Bulgaria's retrograde travel laws, Zhivkov decided, as a political maneuver, to launch a campaign to expel ethnic Turks from Bulgaria. Over the summer, nearly 200,000 Turks, officially referred to as Muslim Bulgarians, were given passports and shown the way to the border.

The consequences, by late summer harvest time, were dire. Predominantly farmers, the Turks left their tobacco plots, flocks of sheep and farms, with the produce rotting in fields. Zhivkov mobilized brigades of students to join the harvest. But shortages were quickly apparent. In a country with more sheep than people, the shops were barren of cheese. Meat was scarce. Industry was also hit, as scores of factories lost as much as 10% of their work force. Zhivkov's scheme to milk public support from a xenophobic peasant population that had always disliked Turks backfired badly.

The Turkish government was enraged. Zhivkov rejected offers from the Soviet ambassador in Ankara to mediate in the affair, and the Soviets, anxious to forestall a dispute between a Warsaw Pact ally and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were clearly displeased.

The next disaster for Zhivkov was a direct outgrowth of the Vienna conference. As a public relations gesture, he had wanted to host the 35-nation follow-up meeting on the environment in Sofia. Mladenov had wanted it also, but because he saw it as opening Bulgaria's door to the West.

In July, Zhivkov succeeded in getting his son, Vladimir, appointed as the Central Committee's cultural czar. Mladanov and his allies kept their silence, but by September, they had formed a clear quartet committed to toppling Zhivkov. Defense Minister Dzhurov, quietly, set out to neutralize any opposition in the army. Mladenov prepared for the environmental conference.

As he expected, it was an embarrassment for Bulgaria. For a year, the small community of Bulgarian dissidents had been finding its voice, emboldened by daily broadcasts of liberalized Soviet television, with news and opinions Zhivkov could hardly censor. A new group, calling itself Eco-Glasnost, was a star attraction for the European diplomats and experts who assembled in October for the conference. Enlivened by the attention, 5,000 to 6,000 Eco-Glasnost supporters held a protest march. They were clubbed by riot police.

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