They made quite a pair, the peasant from Pravets and the megalomaniac who had made his way from a tent somewhere near Sirte. When Bulgaria’s communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and Libya’s tyrant Muammar Gaddafi sat down together, the results were bound to be interesting, even if only in a somewhat bizarre way.
Both would stay in power a very long time, Zhivkov for more than three decades, Gaddafi for more than 40 years. Officially discredited and publicly humiliated, Zhivkov’s career would end with a trial for embezzlement and detention at home; at this writing, Gaddafi is still at large, while international justice awaits him.
The topical point, however, is not just that two dictators met, which after all is an event which hardly uncommonplace. Nor is it simply that both had pseudo-intellectual pretensions (communists reinforce each other’s self-delusion about being Great Thinkers; the codswallop produced by Gaddafi is not his greatest sin, but may be counted among them). Nor is the animosity shared by Gaddafi and Zhivkov towards the West. The fascination is in what the two discussed – the dynamics of change in the Arab World.
Here and there From official Bulgarian memoranda of the meetings between the two in 1976 and in 1980, Gaddafi’s ambitions to control the Arab world are apparent, although the times of the Cold War dictate a difference.
Gaddafi seeks to use Zhivkov as a channel to the Kremlin, well-knowing Zhivkov’s capacity for staying in with whoever had premier place on Lenin’s tomb. Zhivkov, going by the record, treats Gaddafi more or less as a guru on all things Arab; and, presumably mindful of the well-concealed but very real problems of Bulgaria’s domestic economy, is in the role of supplicant for a loan. Here they are on December 25 1976 (no bar on working because neither would be celebrating Christmas), Zhivkov then in his 20th year in power, Gaddafi then only for seven.
Gaddafi has a shopping list of issues on which he wants Moscow’s help (as noted, anyone reading the Bulgarian-language transcript but deprived of the name would swear the Brother Leader is in conversation with the Soviet ambassador).
Gaddafi speaks of the huge campaign by the West to implant suspicion of the Soviet Union in the Arab World and says that Saudi Arabia is behind this discrediting campaign, underlining that Saudi Arabia is trying to "buy the conscience of the Arab World", as he says it had done in 1972 and now was trying to do with Syria. The 1972 reference, presumably, is to then-president Anwar Sadat’s expulsion of Soviet "advisers" that year and his re-orientation of Egypt towards Washington and the West. The Syrian reference is more obscure but may refer to the regime’s battle with the Muslim Brotherhood or to Syria’s engagement in Lebanon. Either way, Gaddafi tells Zhivkov that Libya is alone in standing against "imperialist pressure" in Lebanon.
Again with Saudi Arabia as his bete noire, Gaddafi speaks about how he is supporting the forces in southern Yemen against Saudi Arabia’s attempts to "suffocate" this revolutionary force – and wants Soviet help in the form of the Kremlin agreeing to sell weapons.
"We don’t need anything else because we have sufficient financial capacity," Gaddafi tells Zhivkov. He asks for Zhivkov’s intervention with the "Soviet comrades" so that they agree to an arms deal.
"Whatever you give us, we will pay for," Gaddafi says, according to the Bulgarian record, underlining that he is asking for Zhivkov’s help because of his good standing with the Kremlin. But Zhivkov’s answer is confined to one sentence; that he will pass on the request.
Dimpled Chad Gaddafi also wants the socialist bloc’s help in Chad, where, as he describes, three armies are at the borders, fighting the "reactionary fascist government" in power.
(Libya would tangle with Chad’s regime several times; backed by France, Chad – also with some help from the United States, Egypt and Sudan – would eventually, in the second half of the 1980s, rout Gaddafi’s forces.)
Gaddafi’s most notable ally in the conflict was the Muslim-led National Liberation Front of Chad, while – he assures Zhivkov on that Christmas day in 1976 – the northern part of Chad was populated by Libyan tribes who were preparing "very soon" to declare their accession to Libya.
Gaddafi also raises with Zhivkov the issue of Polisario, the movement seeking Western Sahara’s secession from Morocco. Gaddafi refers to Polisario as something that "we created in 1972", an assertion belied by history; in fact founded as a student movement, its beginnings received only lukewarm support from Libya.
Helping Polisario, Gaddafi says, "is a very big burden on Algeria and on us" and again he wants the help of the socialist countries. But Zhivkov responds that what is required is a political solution, although Polisario should be supported so that it has a strong place in this political solution; "we’ll work through you," Zhivkov says. A military solution, Zhivkov says, is not possible, because the Moroccan army is very well organised and even with Libya’s help, Algeria could not beat Morocco’s army.
Oman is on the agenda too. Gaddafi tells Zhivkov that his Libya has trained 5000 people and given them weapons, but Libya cannot stand on its own against Iran and Saudi Arabia, given that, as he tells it, Iran and Saudi Arabia were offering military assistance to the Sultan of Oman.
"We would like the socialist countries and USSR to pressure Iran into withdrawing its military forces from Oman," Gaddafi says, adding that he believes that if this happens, the Sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, would fall from power.
It never happened; the Sultan, in power from July 1970, still is.
In Iran Iran, Gaddafi says, is doing a lot to stockpile weapons. There are thousands of American advisers there and they are buying submarines and aircraft, he tells Zhivkov (at the time of this conversation, the street protests that heralded the Islamic revolution in Iran were just more than a year away; the Shah fled in January 1979).
Zhivkov concedes that the stockpiling of weapons in Iran was a source of worry although he says that "countries that have a border with the Soviet Union and pile up weapons are not dangerous". He tells Gaddafi that he had discussed the situation with Indira Gandhi during a visit to India, and she was worried too. But, on the other hand, Bulgaria has good relations with Iran: "They even gave us a loan of $150 million". (A rough calculation puts that at about $570 million in today’s money.)
Zhivkov tells Gaddafi that even as they speak, the Bulgarian prime minister of the time, Stanko Todorov, is in Iran. At the same time, however, the communist dictator tells the Brother Leader, Sofia is helping Iran’s communists by hosting a radio station broadcasting their messages against the Shah. "The Shah knows but says nothing about it," Zhivkov says.
Gaddafi asks Zhivkov to ask the Soviet Union to put pressure on Iran.
Power and money Gaddafi tells Zhivkov that Libya is developing its economic ties with the USSR and had agreed to build a nuclear power station and chemical plants, but this would require a lot of investment and take some time.
Zhivkov (in a candid moment, allowing for the fact that the manuscript notes of the meeting were not intended for the light of day) concedes that the Soviet Union lacks energy capacity, which was why the other socialist countries were told to build nuclear plants.
Bulgaria, he says, so far has one nuclear power station, which it hoped to enlarge and then to add two more. "We’re producing most of the equipment for them," Zhivkov says.
The Bulgarian then gets in some salesmanship, telling the Libyan that Bulgarian industry has big potential and has come up with "discoveries" (from the transcript, it remains unclear what these are), to which Gaddafi says that Libya is "ready to try them". Zhivkov says that it will be necessary to send specialists to Libya.
Zhivkov then raises the delicate matter of a loan.
By the mid-1970s, however mightily Bulgarian officialdom lied in the country’s official statistics, the socialist command economy was already under serious strain, caught in a saga of failed attempts at reform, economic inefficiency, poor quality manufactured goods, oil shortages and a constant struggle for hard currency.
Zhivkov adds that Bulgaria’s request to Libya for a loan was for one that would be "on friendly terms". Gaddafi responds that the relevant body would deal with the matter but that the matter would be "looked on with favour".
Then, the meeting approaches a close with a tantalising if unexplained reference.
Gaddafi says to Zhivkov: "I was told about the sending of some of your people to study in our religious schools. How many of them are you sending?"
Zhivkov replies: "We shall look into our needs and we shall inform you in good time".
The Eighties March 1980 finds US president Jimmy Carter about to announce a boycott of the Olympics in Moscow, a consequence of the Soviet troops that invaded Afghanistan three months before; the Ayatollah Khomeini in power in Iran; Robert Mugabe inaugurated as prime minister of Zimbabwe; Libya at odds with Tunisia, Chad, Egypt, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s Yasser Arafat; and, once again, Gaddafi and Zhivkov in face-to-face conversation.
Libya was completely surrounded and could easily become an imperialist target of provocation, the Brother Leader tells Bai Tosho.
Gaddafi complains at length about the French (the gift of foresight would have allowed him some idea of just how much he would have to complain about the French 31 years later; at the time of the March 1980 meeting, Nicolas Sarkozy, about whom Gaddafi would be saying so much later, was a 24-year-old student at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris).
Gaddafi expresses his thanks to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria for their solidarity against all anti-Libyan imperialist actions (in 2011, there was no such sympathy from Bulgaria; the stance taken by leaders in Sofia against the bloodstained and discredited Gaddafi regime would be much different, from President Georgi Purvanov, who at the time of the March 1980 meeting was 23; Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, who then was 21, and Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov, who then was all of eight years old).
For this support, Gaddafi told Zhivkov that spring day in Tripoli, "all Libyan citizens considered Bulgaria a true and sincere friend and ally" (this would not remain true at the time of the Bulgarian medics’ HIV trial in a Libyan kangaroo court).
Arafat on the agenda Gaddafi underlines his misgivings about the Camp David agreements, which he described as creating a "complicated situation"; he has special condemnation for Arafat, whom he sees as "taking the road of Sadat" and preparing to take the Palestinian movement away from the armed struggle. Gaddafi tells Zhivkov that Libya has cut off aid to the PLO. Gaddafi alleges that people close to Arafat have links to the CIA and several Western intelligence agencies. Unless there was a change in the PLO leadership soon, Gaddafi says, he will "unmask" Arafat. Inter alia, to summarise the harangue, Gaddafi also alleges that Arafat is working with Saudi Arabia to increase its control over the Palestinian movement.
It was only the warm feelings of the Palestinian people towards the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union’s influence that were stopping Arafat "openly crossing into the hostile camp". Zhivkov is asked to respond.
At this point, it may be noted that a response from the Bulgarian cannot have been easy; not only for being asked to respond to a conspiracy theory that Arafat was, in effect, on the verge of declaring his allegiance to Israel, but also given that Zhivkov was close to Arafat; not easy stuff to be talking about in a tent in Tripoli at the time.
But Zhivkov also has been asked to respond to Gaddafi’s views on Tunisia, and the Bulgarian dictator embarks on a prolonged monologue emphasing the need for a united anti-Imperialist front to strengthen what he calls progressive forces in the Arab World.
He says that for the present, "it is necessary to push aside all secondary contradictions and solve them later, after the main danger for Middle East of the imperialist positions and the strengthening of the US military presence in the region is liquidated".
Zhivkov says the Palestinian movement is predetermined to have an important role in an anti-Imperialist front in the Arab World.
"We well understand the attempts of Arafat to maneoeuvre and try to win one-sided benefits from co-operation with our states," but, Zhivkov tells Gaddafi, "irrespective of the political direction he tends towards, at present he is the PLO leader and we should have in mind his influence, which does not mean that we do not understand his future intentions.
"What is important is not to allow the PLO and Arafat openly to pass over to the capitulator’s camp, which would complicate even more the Near East situation," Zhivkov says.
The two dictators also discuss Iran, at Zhivkov’s request, but Gaddafi describes the situation there as "not very clear".
It was not the last time that Gaddafi would fail to understand a situation, notwithstanding his self-proclaimed prowess as a political analyst. There is anecdotal evidence that when Zhivkov was swept away after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gaddafi was nonplussed as to why the Bulgarian people were prepared to let such a great man go. But then, this is the same Gaddafi who, in one radio broadcast after another from wherever he is hiding, continues to portray the campaign against him as solely the work of outsiders, and not of the people of Libya themselves.
* This article draws with gratitude on material made available by the Cold War History Project.
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