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The Ferment of 1988-90


Demonstrators outside parliament building in Sofia demand resignation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party government, November 1990.
Courtesy Charles Sudetic

In late 1987, dissatisfaction with government corruption, pollution, the Turkish issue, and repeated failure of economic reform programs began to stimulate open political dissent. By that time, a younger generation had matured, unimpressed by communist doctrine and disinclined to blind obedience. In November 1987, the Federation of Clubs for Glasnost and Democracy (originally the Discussion Club for Support of Glasnost and Perestroika) was founded by communist intellectuals to promote openness in Bulgarian society. In early 1988, the appearance of the Independent Association for Defense of Human Rights in Bulgaria publicized the repression of the regime. Meanwhile, the fragmented intellectual community had been galvanized by a single issue: environmental degradation. In the winter of 1987-88, an ecological exhibition in Ruse, one of the most seriously polluted industrial centers in Bulgaria, received national media attention. The communist regime's failure to protect its people from such dangers became a symbol for the general aura of incompetence that surrounded Zhivkov in the late 1980s.

In mid-1988 Zhivkov responded to the new opposition by purging two high pro-glasnost party officials, signaling that the party would permit glasnost only on its own terms. The BCP also tried to preempt environmental opposition by forming the Movement for Environmental Protection and Restoration amid promises for stiffer environmental regulation.

In late 1988 and early 1989, many leaders of independent Bulgarian groups were deported or harrassed. Nevertheless, by mid1989 at least thirteen independent associations and committees had been founded for the defense of human rights and the environment. Then in 1989, communism was discredited by successful freedom movements in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. By that time, glasnost had stimulated political dialog in the Soviet Union, which was still the model for Bulgarian political behavior. Under these new conditions, government intimidation failed. Although Zhivkov sought reconciliation with the intelligentsia by proclaiming a "new cultural revolution" in early 1989, the unions of writers, journalists, and artists leveled strong criticism on the environment and other issues. When Ekoglasnost was formed that year, it made a formidable public appeal for an accounting of economic policies that harmed the environment (see Other Political Organizations , this ch.).

In 1989 the Federation of Clubs backed the National Assembly petition against Turkish assimilation by characterizing the policy as against the best traditions of the Bulgarian nation. According to one theory, the Zhivkov policy toward the Turks was calculated to alienate the intelligentsia from the ethnocentric Bulgarian majority by forcing the former to take sides with the Turks; whatever its purpose, the policy failed amid the massive Turkish exodus of 1989. Leaders of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, deported for defending the Turks, were welcomed at a session of the CSCE, severely damaging Zhivkov's image in Europe. In the fall of 1989, dissident groups received further validation at the CSCE Conference on the Environment in Sofia, where they held public meetings and were received by Western delegates. The mass demonstrations that followed convinced the BCP that the Zhivkov regime could not survive.

Dramatic expression of public discontent continued after the Zhivkov ouster. In mid-1990 tent-city demonstrations in Sofia continued for several weeks, encountering no effective official resistance. Patterned after peaceful antigovernment protests of the 1960s in the West, the Sofia campsite of over 100 tents near the BSP headquarters building began as a protest against communist retention of power in the national elections of June 1990. The protest eventually included demonstrators of many political viewpoints. Besides election fraud by the BSP, issues targeted were the Chernobyl' coverup, corruption among former and present BCP/BSP officials, Bulgaria's role in the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and past actions of present government officials such as Lukanov and Interior Minister Atanas Semerdzhiev. The tent city played an important role in publicizing reform issues as a new national government was being formed.

Data as of June 1992

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