Reuniting Europe

Was Zhivkov a good leader?

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bulgaria’s communist leader Todor Zhivkov, who has been on power from 1956 to 10 September 1989. He died in 1998.

In his home town of Pravetz, a beautiful place I know well and where I have a summer house, there is a huge celebration today, and a second Zhivkov monument is being inaugurated.

Zhivkov was hated by many in 1989, but now, he seems to have more supporters than ever. The reason is of course the difficult Bulgarian transition and the fact that many people believe their life under Zhivkov was better than it is now.

Even the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who is the leader of GERB, a party affiliated to EPP, told a Russian TV channel that Zhivkov had done a lot to make the life of Bulgarioans better, and had avoided bloodsheds such as in Hungary.

I expect EPP to criticise what they may see as a rehabilitation of a communist dictator. It’s a bit tricky that they would need to criticize Borissov too.

Borissov by the way has learned a lot from Zhivkov. He has been his bodyguard when the former leader was in house arrest in the early 90s. Today many analysts find him similar to Zhivkov in many ways. Both were not really educated, but possess a high degree of natural intelligence and a real talent to speak to ordinary people. Borissov is seen as authoritarian much in the same way as Zhivkov, but many Bulgarians believe that given the bad economic and social situation, an authoritarian leader is precisely what the country needs.

I have personal memories of Zhivkov and mixed feelings about him. He lived modestly, unlike Ceausescu from whom I also have some memories. He pretended he was the best friend of the Russians, but was skilled enough to cheat Brezhnev most of the time and get cheap Russian oil, which the country re-exported for foreign currency. People saw nepotism in having his daughter Lyudmila appointed as culture miniter. But Lyudmila Zhivkova did a great job in this capacity, as she had the power to project the Bulgarian cultural contribution in Europe, to the distaste of the Soviet Union. Nobody except her would dare such a thing. I personally admire Lyudmila Zhivkova for her work. She died in mysterious circumstances in 1981 at the age of 39.

Zhivkov also launched the so-called “Renaissance process”, by changing the names of the ethnic Turkish and Muslim Bulgarian population. This resulted in the “big excursion” in 1989, when 360.000 Bulgarian citizens left Bulgaria for Turkey. This was in fact ethnic cleansing. There has been some violence, but thanks god, not much. Today some of those people have returned, but the vast majority visits for holidays and for elections.

Zhivkov also ordered the murder of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov, who had escaped to the UK, where he was working as a commentator for Radio Free Europe. Markov was assasinated in a London street on 7 September 1978, on Zhivkov’s birthday. Some say Markov was an agent of the Bulgarian secret services, therefore his defection has been high treason and he was sentenced to dead accordingly. It’s a pity there is no clear picture around this murder yet.

Those celebrating in Pravetz do not think about Markov, or the “big excursion”. For them, under Zhivkov, there was no unemployment, health care was free, medicine cost peanuts, education was free, pensions were sufficient for a decent life, all went to holiday at the Black Sea, which is now accessible for the relatively wealthy. It was not possible to travel to the West, but going to Budapest or Prague already gave them a feeling of liberty. For them, Zhivkov is the best leader Bulgaria has ever had.

For many other Bulgarians the lives of which changed for the best, all this sounds ridiculous and a bit shameful for the country.

I am not going to answer the question in the title. It’s mixed record, it’s difficult times, it’s also about comparing Zhivkov to other communist leaders. By far, he was not the worst.

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