By Ron Synovitz
The regime of Bulgaria’s totalitarian ruler Todor Zhivkov collapsed just one day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz looks at the enormous exodus of ethnic Turks and other factors that contributed to a “revolution” that was actually a coup within the Communist Party.
Prague, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) — The so-called “palace revolution” that ended Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov’s regime on November 10, 1989, was unlike the popular revolts that brought down communist rulers in other parts of Europe.
While opposition dissidents led the mass demonstrations in Poland and Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria’s “revolution” was a coup within the Communist Party itself. The issue that divided the party was, quite simply, whether or not to implement perestroika-style reforms.
Zhivkov headed one of the most staunch, hardline communist regimes in Eastern Europe for 35 years. Bulgaria’s anti-communists had been forced into emigration or terrorized into silence during the 1950s and early 1960s. So the Bulgaria inherited by Zhivkov did not have the opposition tradition of other Central and East European states.
The first democratic opposition movements started to emerge only in 1988, in the form of environmental and human rights groups. They enjoyed tacit support from many Bulgarians, but failed to mobilize large sections of the public or to galvanize intellectual opinion. That left the reformists within the Communist Party as the only group capable of toppling Zhivkov.
In 1987, after Gorbachev introduced the policy of perestroika, or “rebuilding,” Zhivkov quickly outlined his own reform program, but did not intend to carry them out. His opponents in the Politburo used his failure to implement perestroika as grounds to remove him.
Krassen Stanchev, director of an independent think-tank in Sofia called the Institute for Market Economics, experienced the coup as a leader of Ecoglasnost, one of Bulgaria’s emerging opposition groups. Stanchev told RFE/RL:
“Gorbachev didn’t care about Bulgaria. He had different priorities. Domestic opposition [within the Communist Party] knew that there was no possible backing for Zhivkov on the Gorbachev side. But there might be a possible backing on their side if they borrowed the proper rhetoric from the perestroika vocabulary of Gorbachev.”
Zhivkov was stripped of his post as Communist Party secretary-general by the Central Committee on November 10, 1989 — just one day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was replaced by Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov, who had successfully organized the coup by mobilizing the anti-Zhivkov sentiment within the Communist Party.
Stanchev was attending a conference with some of the members of the Central Committee later that day. He says the coup took most committee members completely by surprise.
“Their first reaction was shock — shock that it was so unexpected by everybody. It was some sort of very well articulated hypocrisy within the Communist Central Committee. Virtually everybody who was not informed [of the coup], besides a small group of four or five, was informed immediately before the key debate. Zhivkov himself was told just a couple of minutes before the official statement on his resignation.”
Mladenov’s influential backers in the Central Committee had strong ties to Moscow. According to some reports, Mladenov briefed the Soviet leadership on the planned coup during a stop in Moscow shortly before Zhivkov’s ouster.
A week after the fateful Central Committee meeting, Bulgaria’s Communist-dominated parliament voted unanimously to oust Zhivkov as head of state and elect Mladenov as the new president. Zhivkov supporters were removed from the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the State Council.
What brought about such a split? One key issue that alienated Zhivkov from Mladenov and other reformist members of the party was his decision in the spring of 1989 to speed an assimilation program for Bulgaria’s ethnic-Turkish population. The decision resulted in a mass exodus of Turks from Bulgaria, which Mladenov, as foreign minister, was forced to explain to international leaders — including those in the Kremlin.
The assimilation program, already five years old, aimed to “restore” Bulgarian names to families the government said had been Islamicized during 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule (that ended in the 1870s). Zhivkov’s regime denied the existence of a Turkish minority in eastern and southern Bulgaria, referring to them as “Bulgarian Muslims.”
For the ethnic Turks, assimilation was a program of massive repression. It meant a ban on Islamic religious practices and cultural traditions. Some who refused to accept a Slavic name were beaten by police and had their identification documents confiscated — which meant they could not leave their villages. As assimilation continued, some were even forced at gunpoint to sign name-change petitions. Severe fines were imposed for speaking Turkish in public.
When public protests broke out at the beginning of the program in 1984 and 1985, Zhivkov responded by sealing off the ethnic Turkish areas to outsiders. Bulgarian officials and state-controlled media insisted that the name-change program was a unanimous, spontaneous and voluntary act by the country’s Muslims.
But ethnic Turks interviewed by Western reporters in 1989 on condition of anonymity told a different tale:
“We all listen to radio broadcasts and I’ve started to make conclusions. We understand that only in Bulgaria is there such a thing as changing the names by force. They’ve changed our names under rifles, under automatic guns, and then they tell us we have changed our names voluntarily.”
Ethnic Turks reacted with riots and demonstrations in the early summer of 1989. Police and militia fired on the crowds and reportedly killed dozens of people — provoking a diplomatic crisis with Ankara and a potentially explosive situation within Bulgaria.
Zhivkov first deported thousands of alleged ring-leaders and then gave ethnic Turks the right to emigrate to Turkey. The exodus quickly developed into the largest human migration in Europe since the Second World War. Ankara estimates that more than 300,000 entered Turkey — although some 50,000 later returned to Bulgaria after receiving little support from Turkish authorities.
More important for Zhivkov’s regime, the debacle raised anti-Zhivkov feelings within the Bulgarian Communist Party and the Kremlin. His refusal to consult the Politburo before accelerating assimilation contributed to his eventual downfall.