WHEN reporting on the death of the late Todor Zhivkov back in 1998, the BBC commented that he had gained a reputation as one of the most authoritarian of East European communist leaders. Even if this is true, it is hard to believe when compared with figures such as Nikolae Ceausescu of Romania. Besides, Todor Zhivkov was always quite a controversial figure. Some people described him as a simple peasant, who was a bad politician. On the contrary, others were sure that there was wisdom behind his every move.
Born in the town of Pravets, near Botevgrad, in Northwest Bulgaria, Zhivkov was First Secretary of the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP)'s Central Committee (1954-89) and president of Bulgaria (1971-89). His 35 years as Bulgaria's ruler made him the longest-serving leader in any of the Soviet-bloc nations of Eastern Europe.
The son of poor peasants, Zhivkov drifted to Sofia in his youth and, in the late 1920s, joined Komsomol, the youth league of the outlawed Communist Party. He rose in the party and during World War 2 helped organise the resistance movement known as the People's Liberation Insurgent Army.
After the war and the institution of a Soviet-sponsored communist government in Bulgaria, Zhivkov held increasingly important posts, including the command of the People's Militia, which arrested thousands of political opponents. He became a full member of the Politburo in 1951.
Vulko Chervenkov, then number one in the party and the state, underestimated Zhivkov's abilities and his prospects for a career in the party. In 1956 Bulgarian politics again felt the strong influence of the Soviet Union. When Nikita Khrushchev became leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), he began a new phase of de-Stalinisation and party reform that echoed strongly in Bulgaria. This left Chervenkov without support outside Bulgaria and, in 1956, the April Plenum of the BCP Central Committee began a broad party liberalisation policy that caused Chervenkov to resign as prime minister. Rather than break completely with the past, however, the party retained Chervenkov as a member of a de facto ruling triumvirate that included Zhivkov and long-time party leader and purge participant Anton Yugov, who became prime minister.
Although party liberalisation was stalled by 1956 uprisings in Hungary and Poland, the April Plenum identified Zhivkov as the leader of the Politburo. In doing so, it also shifted power conclusively to the "home" branch of the BCP, more attuned to Bulgarian issues and less to total obedience to the Soviet line.
By the end of 1961, a new wave of Soviet anti-Stalinism gave Zhivkov the support he needed to oust Chervenkov and Yugov. Zhivkov's political position had deteriorated because his grandiose, failed plans for industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation had evoked strong social protests between 1959 and 1961, but he succeeded Yugov as prime minister in 1962.
Zhivkov selectively purged officials throughout the early period to prevent development of alternative power centres in the party. In 1964 Zhivkov earned peasant support by appointing Georgi Traikov, chief of the nominally independent Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU), head of state and by pardoning comrades of the executed BANU leader Nikola Petkov.
In 1966 a strong resurgence of the conservative wing of the BCP at the Ninth Party Congress curtailed Bulgarian diplomatic and economic overtures to the West and to its Balkan neighbours. The new conservatism also tightened government control over the media and the arts, and the government resumed anti-Western propaganda to protect Bulgarian society from bourgeois influences.
As was the case in the 1956 invasion of Hungary, Bulgarian support for the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia brought tighter party control of all social organisations, and reaffirmation of "democratic centralism" within the party - all with the goal of reassuring the Soviet Union that Bulgaria would not follow in the heretical footsteps of the Czechs.
A later echo of the events of 1968 was the drafting of a new constitution at the Tenth Party Congress in 1971. The new document specified the role of the BCP as "the leading force in society and the state", and the role of BANU as its collaborator within the Fatherland Front.
The 1971 constitution also defined Bulgaria as a socialist state with membership of the international socialist community. As before, broad citizen rights were guaranteed but limited by the requirement that they be exercised only in the interest of the state. A new body, the State Council was established as supreme organ of state power. This council consisted of 22 members and a chairman who was de facto head of state.
In 1971 Zhivkov resigned as prime minister to become chairman of the State Council. The National Assembly, traditional centre of political power in Bulgaria until the 1947 constitution stripped it of power, received some new responsibilities. Permanent commissions were to supervise the work of ministries, and legislation could now be submitted by labour and youth groups (all of which were party-controlled).
Despite the appearance of numerous opposition groups in the preceding year, the Zhivkov regime was unprepared for the successive fall of communist regimes across Eastern Europe in late 1989. In October an all-European environmental conference, Ecoforum, was held in Sofia under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. This event focused world attention on Bulgaria's history of repressing environmental activism and stimulated open demonstrations by human rights advocates and the Bulgarian Ekoglasnost environmental group.
Although some demonstrators were beaten and detained, direct communication with the West inspired them to greater self-expression. This activity culminated in a mass demonstration in Sofia on November 3. Meanwhile, in a speech to a plenum of the BCP in late October, Zhivkov admitted that his latest restructuring program, begun in 1987 to achieve "fundamental renewal" of society, politics, and the economy, had been a failure. He unveiled a new, detailed program to counteract "alienation of the people from the government and the production process". Other party spokespeople increasingly noted recent drastic reforms in other socialist states and pointed to Bulgaria's failure to keep pace. Then, at the regular plenary meeting of the BCP Central Committee on November 10, Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov announced Zhivkov's resignation.
Although the resignation appeared voluntary, Western observers agreed that top party figures, increasingly dissatisfied with Zhivkov's refusal to recognise problems and deal with public protests, had exerted substantial pressure on him. The leaders of the movement to remove Zhivkov - Atanasov, Foreign Minister Petur Mladenov (who became head of state), and Defence Minister Dobri Dzhurov - had received the advance blessing of Moscow and the majority of the Bulgarian Politburo.
Soviet leader Gorbachev apparently approved the change because Zhivkov had not heeded warnings that cosmetic reform was insufficient given the drastic restructuring sought by Gorbachev. Within a month of his resignation, Zhivkov was expelled from the BCP, accused of abuse of power, and arrested. Mladenov became chairman of the State Council and chief of the BCP.