Bulgaria, People’s Republic Of

Bulgaria, People’s Republic Of
   With heavy assistance from the Soviet Union’s Red Army, a coup d’état in September 1944 saw the installation of a communist government in Bulgaria. The regime was to last until 1989, and was one of the most loyal to the Soviet line of thinking throughout its tenure. From 1945 Bulgaria entered into a period of Sovietization. To establish a monopoly of political power “class enemies” were executed and exiled, and in November dubious elections were held that saw a 90 percent vote for the Bulgarian National Front, in reality an orthodox communist party. Further elections in October 1946 gave the communists an absolute majority in the national assembly, and left Stalinists Georgy Dimitrov and Vulko Chervenkov as prime minister and party general secretary respectively. To ensure absolute political dominance, by August 1948 they had forced the Social Democratic party into a merger in order to create the all-encompassing Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP).
   Throughout the latter half of the 1940s and into the 1950s, the BCP proceeded with a rapid Stalinization of the country. Industry, commerce and economic institutions were breathlessly nationalized, central- planning organs introduced, foreign trade appropriated and diverted only to Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union, and a brutal collectivization program heralded. Political institutions were overhauled and remodeled along Soviet lines, with the dominance of the BCP over the Bulgarian state enshrined, and the centralization of power guaranteed, both measures allowing for the emergence of an all-powerful, cult worshiped general secretary. The education system was heavily infiltrated and became an ideological breeding ground for the BCP. Repression grew commonplace with high profile show trials and the introduction of concentration camps. Victims of this repression included intellectual and cultural figures as the government sought to introduce “socialist realism” as the only appropriate art form in revolutionary Bulgaria. In 1955 Bulgaria pledged its allegiance to the Warsaw Pact, confirming its status as an adherent of Moscow-led MarxismLeninism, and formally recognizing the complete subservience of Bulgarian foreign policy to the direction and rule of the Soviet government.
   Progress toward complete Stalinization had begun to stutter following the death of its father ideologue, Josef Stalin, in 1953. The BCP began to grow weary of General Secretary Chervenkov’s Stalinist orthodoxy, and erred toward a system of collective leadership like that under construction in Moscow after Stalin perished. Chervenkov was soon ousted, and Todor Zhivkov emerged to take his place as general secretary for the next 35 years. As elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, the 1956 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had a galvanizing effect on Bulgaria, with Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement of the excesses of Stalin’s rule providing a license for reform. As such, at its 1956 April Plenum the BCP offered a number of liberalizing measures, and even allowed the resumption of trade with the capitalist West. The Plenum’s decrees led to a relaxation of the BCP stranglehold on the arts and intellectual life, allowed for self-management units within nationalized industry similar to those in Yugoslavia, and legalized the underground private economy. These reforms, though, in reality amounted to a strengthening of the BCP’s grip on power, and allowed Zhivkov, as the man widely associated with diverting Bulgaria away from the orthodoxy of Chervenkov, to gain increased legitimacy and infallibility as leader.
   In essence, little changed except party and leader had been seen to offer reform, in turn increasing their popularity. No matter what management initiatives were promoted on the ground, the state remained in formidable control of the economy through its ownership of the national bank and emphasis on centralized planning. The BCP continued to be as committed to regime self-preservation as it was to a policy of absolute fidelity to the whims of the Soviet Union, and as if to further emphasize the lack of devotion to genuine reform, the communists responded to the 1956 Polish and Hungarian Uprisings with full support for Warsaw Pact intervention and a tightening of domestic societal control. The BCP’s reformist façade had been abandoned fully by 1964, with the death of Khrushchev signaling a return to ideological orthodoxy, a state heightened following the events of the 1968 Prague Spring. But with living standards generally and gradually rising, the Bulgarian people were near content to live under repressive conditions; it was when an economic downturn occurred as in the 1980s that opposition manifested itself.
   The return to Stalinist orthodoxy began to slow toward the middle of the 1970s, with the catalyst coming in the surprising form of the chair of the Committee for Science and Culture, Lyudmila Zhivkova. In loosening party control of science and the arts, Zhivkova was able to improve relations with Western Europe, the United States, India and Japan through cultural connections. This encouraged the BCP to reap the gains of (albeit modest) liberalization, and by the time Zhivkova died in 1981 Bulgarians had gained a number of civil liberties previously unheard of, such as the right to travel abroad, which stood to further legitimize Zhivkov and his party’s hold on power. Economic reforms had also been attempted by the regime, as poor performance toward the conclusion of the 1970s led to the announcement of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM), a system restructuring elements of the economy and even introducing free market principles. However, the reforms offered by the NEM were consistently curtailed owing to Bulgaria’s ever-increasing budget deficit, and whether offering cultural, civil, or economic changes, the BCP stopped short of allowing anything leading to political alteration.
   The death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and his eventual succession in 1985 by the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev undermined the position of orthodox leaders such as Zhivkov across the Eastern Bloc. Faced with a legitimization crisis, the deteriorating Bulgarian economy and awkward international relations, the BCP resolved that the creation of a common enemy would rally the population behind it and mask its perilous position. The “regeneration campaign” declared by the government in 1984 used Bulgarian nationalism to facilitate widespread hostility toward the country’s one million strong Turkish population. By 1989 310,000 Turks had been forced to flee the country, with those who stayed left to inhabit a landscape of prejudice or hope to go unnoticed by changing their names to Bulgarian sounding ones. The party leadership, for a time, had ensured the regime’s survival by uniting even oppositional factions in the cause against the invented Turkish “threat.” Though ap- pearing in public to follow Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms, there was anger at Moscow’s reluctance to supply raw materials until commitment to its change programs became tangible, and the BCP began to disassociate itself from the Soviet Union for the first time in its history.
   With such isolation the Bulgarian economy was left at breaking point, and it was no surprise that the clamor for widespread reform intensified. Perceived liberalization in surrounding communist countries led Bulgarians to demand civil liberties and found independent groups that stood to undermine the legitimacy of the BCP. A succession of anti-government protests broke out, with the issue of nuclear power in particular uniting the Bulgarian people following the 1985 Chernobyl disaster. The final push for regime change was stimulated by the publication of the July Theses in 1987, a document that laid down principles of economic reform along the lines of glasnost and perestroika, and called for a “new model of socialism” that contravened the entire ethos of Zhivkov’s reign. In the spring of 1989, intellectual opponents of the BCP added to the air of mutiny by defiantly voting against party candidates in academic and cultural congresses. Finally, in November 1989 a peaceful “palace coup” put an end to Zhivkov’s staunchly orthodox period of rule, as he was replaced, apparently with the acquiescence of Moscow, by Petúr Mladenov.
   Mladenov inherited all the problems of and animosity toward the BCP, and unable to steer party and state away from their legitimacy problem, he was replaced in February 1990 as general secretary by Alexander Lilov. The communist regime had already begun to accept that Bulgaria would inevitably become a free market country, and in April, faced with the realization that it could no longer maintain political monopoly and ideological orthodoxy, renamed and remodeled itself as the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The party had finally embraced the constituent principles and ideas of glasnost and perestroika. Multi-party elections in June 1990 perhaps surprisingly returned the BSP to office, but it was to be only a matter of time before the party was defeated in October 1991 the Bulgarian people voted in the oppositional Union of Democratic Forces, ending the communist experiment begun in 1944.
   The Marxism embraced and promulgated by the Bulgarian communist regime was hugely loyal, until the Gorbachev era, to whatever course the Soviet Union pursued. The BCP initially followed the rapid Stalinist route to communism, before halting to offer piecemeal reform subsequent to the death of Khrushchev, and then stiffening control through the Brezhnev era. Reform slowly reappeared on the agenda until the rise to power of Gorbachev when Zhivkov pursued an increasingly nationalist form of Marxism in order to remain in power. There always remained a strong ideological commitment to MarxistLeninist tenets and to a strong leader at the head of a party totally in control of government and state espousing ideas and initiatives from the center. Ultimately the regional tide of change proved uncontainable, and as it had done throughout most of its existence, communist Bulgaria followed the Soviet Union, only this time into extinction.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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