The Belated Bulgarian Dissidence: The Emergence and Development of Dissident Movements in Bulgaria
© © © Maya Dimitrova, web presentation © Omda Publishing House ISBN
©The Belated Bulgarian Dissidence: The Emergence and Development of Dissident Movements in Bulgaria /a dissertation/
©Victor Petroff, author
© Maya Dimitrova, web presentation
© Omda Publishing House
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: What is a dissident?
Chapter 2: Emergence: External Factors
Gorbachev and Soviet developments
Chapter 3: Emergence: Domestic Factors
Decay of the socialist economy
Chapter 4: Development and Significance
“The most dangerous time for a bad government is when it starts to reform itself”
- Alexis De Tocqueville
In 1688 the Catholic population of Chiprovtsi in north-western Bulgaria rose against the rule of the Ottomans. The Christian notables in the area had retained most of their authority in the region as key parts of the Empire were left to the old administration for practical reasons. Their impetus came from the capture of Belgrade by the Habsburgs in the same year, which bode well for many aristocrats who sought to restore the Bulgarian tsardom with the help of Catholic Europe. Families such as that of Peter Parchevich had a strong presence in Venice and were still part of the European tradition. However, the Austrians signed a peace treaty with the Turks and the uprising failed as other Bulgarian rebellions did during the Ottoman “yoke”. At that time the star of Peter the Great was rising in the East…
It might appear strange to start an investigation into the Bulgarian dissident movement with a foray far back into history, but the episode reveals a few things about the nation’s cultural isolation. In the heart of the Balkans, cocooned between nations that had a direct link to the West, Bulgaria’s only window was across the Black Sea, to the north– the great expanse of Russia and the Soviet Union. Some Bulgarian authors have pointed out, sometimes with anger, that neighbours such as Greece and Serbia isolated the nation from Western European developments with their sheer physical presence, even though these states were often conduits of Western influence. To state this is not to say that it was within the nature of an abstract Bulgarian “national consciousness” to develop its own dissident movements late on in the period of communist rule in Eastern. However, the factor of isolation does have a bearing on this question and is one of the many facets of the emergence of the Bulgarian dissident movements.
The title states that such dissidence is belated. This was true – the first real dissident organisations that one can talk of in Bulgaria were formed in 1988: 16th January saw the birth of the Nezavisimoto Druzhestvo za Zashtita Pravata na Choveka (Independent Association for the Protection of Human Rights) and the short-lived Obshtestveniya Komitet za Ekologichna Zashtita na gr.Ruse (Public Committee for the Ecological Defence of Ruse) came into existence on the 8th March. This belated appearance has not been adequately studied, with the dissidents receiving scant attention in the discourse of the revolutions of 1989. The question of dissidence in the whole of Eastern Europe has not been properly discussed, as Barbara Falk points out:
1989 was a political milestone equal in scope and importance to both the French and American Revolutions, yet unlike these two previous watersheds which had sparked much debate among political thinkers, and indeed to some extent been provoked by them, the reaction of the professional mainstream has been minimal.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
But compared to the examples of Poland or Czechoslovakia, Bulgarian dissidence remains a blank spot in Western literature, with its development skipped over as inconsequential, while its late emergence is taken for granted – the origins, dynamics and ideology of the movement are never reconstructed, and subsequently its role in 1989 and significance in challenging the system are never examined. This is not only a Western phenomenon - debate in Bulgaria is largely absent, unlike coverage in the print media. On the fortieth anniversary of the Prague Spring, a number of writers clashed on the pages of the Novinar and Dnevnik newspapers, discussing whether 1968 ever happened in the country. If there was a conclusion, it was that 1968 - the watershed for the rest of Eastern Europe – had no such significance in Bulgaria. Despite hosting the World Youth Festival, Sofia didn’t experience the same level of rebellion and activism as Prague. If for the rest of Eastern Europe 1968 marked the beginning of more organised resistance and dissent i, the turning point for Bulgaria was 11th March 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the position of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
The following pages will investigate the internal and external factors that catalysed the Bulgarian dissident movement. The theme of isolation is one of the threads that run through the chapters – isolation at the individual level as in any totalitarian state; and concerning the country as a whole, a feature that has shaped Bulgaria’s political and social life. The atomisation of society that totalitarianism relied on was never complete and the story of dissidence reveals that society was molecularised, allowing for the emergence of parastatal, autonomous elements. The other theme is that of reform and what this meant for a socialist state. The changes introduced by Gorbachev and, begrudgingly, also by Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, had a wide-reaching impact on not only economic, but more importantly mental life of Bulgarian citizens. It is this restructuring and its effects that is the other thread investigated in this thesis – the search for a sphere separate from the state, where civil society can take root. The nature of dissident organisations was as an attempt to reclaim a “living area” for society that had been dominated by the state for so long. The non-political nature of some organisations is an actual attempt to decouple certain areas of life away from the party, to in fact de-politicise life – a very political act in a socialist environment. Arato and Vajda articulate this concept when the say that:
While the goal of traditional Marxists…remains the negative Utopia of the politicization of the whole of society, the immense bulk of Eastern European dissidents seeks the creation or recreation of civil society.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The very challenge to the discourse of communism was an inherent part of the dissidents’ significance. The very use of language that wasn’t part of official nomenclature – that of the primacy of the party – dissidents eroded the hegemonic political culture in Bulgaria.
The close inter-connectedness of external stimuli and internal developments will thus show that the question of dissidence in any country is more complex. In a relatively closed bloc such as that in the East, developments in the centre could have a profound effect in the peripheries, as glasnost ultimately did, arming movements with the powerful notion of legitimacy, helped by Bulgarian imitations of this policy. The manner of the birth of the dissident movement in Bulgaria also influenced its development and so the gradual growth of the organisations, culminating in their coming together in the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and their subsequent aims during the Round Table talks with the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) in early 1990, will also be examined. The belated Bulgarian dissidence influenced many aspects of UDF policy in these crucial talks and thus on the subsequent political and constitutional structure of the nation.
The historiographical evidence on the period is scant. Approaching this from a grassroots, bottom-up perspective, it is not the bountiful official documentation on the subject that is of interest, but the experience of Bulgaria’s dissidents. The official reports of the BCP and its secret police – Darzhavna Sigurnost (DS) - are useful in revealing the developments of the movement, but not its origins. Likewise, many interviews conducted during the period as well as afterwards reveal more about the path the organisations took once they were formed, rather than what spurred them on. Thus, personal interviews with some of the key participants in the movement will be the primary source when considering why the dissident movement in Bulgaria emerged late. Official records, such as those of the 6th Department of the DS or the Round Table talks, gain importance once we consider the development of the organisations. As the events are recent and many of the participants are still in the public eye or in positions of power, much of the literature dealing with the dissident movement is either of a biographical nature and has to be read carefully, or of journalistic calibre with obvious biases and influenced by the subsequent developments in democratic Bulgaria. Scholarly works on dissidents in the nation are rare and some are collated works, concentrating on interviews rather than trying to explain the stunted growth of dissidence in the country explicitly. However, country-specific works by Iskra Baeva or Richard Crampton, as well as monographs about the wider Eastern European context such as those by Barbara Falk and George Schöpflin allow for a triangulation of all data collated, counteracting the problematic nature of oral and memorial sources. I will fist examine the notion of dissidence and what it meant, before going on to inspect the factors leading to its emergence in Bulgaria, and subsequently will meditate on their development and significance for the downfall of communism in the country.
What is a dissident?
Dissident and dissidence are contentious terms. Broadly, a dissident is anyone who opposes a certain policy or regime. The word has been used to describe even those who privately disagree with the nature of the society they live in. It is activism, however, that shows real dissidence, as ketman – the act of paying lip service to authority while holding differing views in private – was a coping mechanism for many citizens of communist Europe. Polish dissident writer Czesław Miłosz explores this in The Captive Mind:
He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Such thoughts are not a challenge to the regime and are confined to the private world of what has sometimes been termed “kitchen democracy”. A dissident has to make this challenge to the institution in question public, through the media and other open forums. The first such form of dissident thought was the language of Aesopian allusions, a safer form of opposition due to its many layers. Georgi Mishev recognizes this: “in Bulgaria, the most widespread form of dissidence was the Aesopian, e.g. the indirect, veiled form of resistance against the existing system”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The relative liberalisation of cultural life that came with de-Stalinisation in 1956 allowed some critics to make themselves publicly known through print, such as poet Radoi Ralin and cartoonist Boris Dimovski. Their critiques were often in the forms of epigrams or caricatures, with Ralin becoming well-known for his concise, cutting aphorisms on political life. The hidden language was not lost on the audience, which packed out speeches by the writer for precisely that reason, and overall the public supported all pieces of art that put the attack on the regime before artistic quality such as the plays Form and Likeness by Yordan Radichkov. The requirement for publicity meant that most dissidents were intellectuals who had easier access to channels of mass communication, and dissident organisations were often intellectual-based. This has a bearing on the significance of the dissident movements, which is examined later.
Such dissidents, however, never opposed the ideology itself, saving the attacks for the regime – Ralin himself had been a party activist in the era of “monarcho-fascism” pre-1944. This raises another question – can communists be dissidents? The original dissident in Eastern Europe – Milovan Djilas in Yugoslavia – was a partisan leader in Tito’s inner circle. In Bulgaria too, many of the members of the Klub za podkrepa na glasnosta i preustroistvoto (Club for the Support of Glasnost and Perestroika) were Active Fighters against Fascism and Capitalism (AFAFC) and high-ranking party members. Figures such as the writer Blaga Dimitrova stand out as an example of the “communist dissident”. Their actions and thoughts constituted dissent as the struggle for democratic socialism required a pluralism at odds with the authoritarian regime’s orthodoxy. Djilas lambasted the bureaucratisation of the socialism, much like many Western leftist intellectuals – from George Orwell to Arthur Köstler - as well as the emergence of a privileged ‘new class’ of apparatchiks. After 1990 some of these dissidents joined the reformed communist party, possibly ruling them out as “real” dissidents. However, this does not stand up to scrutiny as their defection happened only after the road to pluralist democracy has been taken. They were thus part of a wider current in Central and Eastern Europe where many of the chief dissidents were critical Marxist intellectuals such as Leszek Kolakowski in Poland, and Zhelyu Zhelev too started off from a Marxist perspective. The events of 1968 are the culmination of the ideal of “socialism with a human face” but the crushing of the Prague Spring does not constitute the destruction of the idea itself. Many socialists in Bulgaria continued to see the alternative to the domestic regime as resting in precisely those Marxian ideas and their dissent was encapsulated in their preference for civil society and pluralism, in contrast to an outright rejection of the overarching ideological foundations of the regime while seeking another discursive anchor such as Catholicism in Poland.
What makes a dissident then? The self-perception of the actors themselves is important as dissidence is a factor of individual agency and definition. Zhelyu Zhelev defines dissidence as such:
It is public disagreement with the regime which has to be, firstly – disagreement; secondly - publicly expressed; and thirdly - for democratisation of the regime, [change] in a democratic way.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
It is only the third point that is problematic. “Democratisation” is a dangerous term in this context as it can play an exclusive role, relegating non-democratic opposition to illegitimacy. An example is the first dissident organisation in Bulgaria, the Independent Association. Created by political prisoners and other citizens repressed by the regime, many of the members had been legionnaires – members of far-right organisations in the 1930s and 40s, dubbed “fascists” by the socialist regime. The dynamo behind the organisation, Iliya Minev, was one and thus the organisation would not fit the “democratic” label of Zhelev’s description in the first instance. However, the Independent Association’s program itself clearly states that the organisation is for “a peaceful transition of the country towards a natural democratic, political and syndicate pluralism”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. This would put the organisation in the “dissident” category that Zhelev proposes. The eventual amalgamation of dissidents organisations into UDF on the 7th December 1989 allows us to examine another aspect of this self-definition: “fascists, Stalinists, racists, chauvinists and revanchists cannot seek membership in the Union.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
This supports the Zhelev definition. However, the problematic concept of what standing for “democratisation” actually means can be explained when examining the political structure of the societies in which they operated. The foundational Leninist concept of politics was based on the assumption that there is no distinction between society and state – the totalitarian model of discourse. Despite the fact that this totality was never achieved, the advancing of politics that were not about power but representation had to be rejected by a regime that assumed that articulation of specific interests by a social group automatically implied a claim for control of the state. The regime strived towards totalitarianism in its administration and language – thus a challenge in discourse was a challenge to the whole fabric of the regime and its vision of the future. Attempts to uncouple areas of society from the state machinery aimed for the creation of domains of representation and autonomy, which by their very essence contradicted the legitimate prerogatives of a central administrative apparatus. The politicisation of all society meant that an attack on any issue was an attack on the centre. Thus even ecological groupings such as the Ruse Committee and Ekoglasnost were profoundly anti-regime in their essence as the solutions they were seeking were widely political, not challenging a single policy alone. The discourse of “civil society” was a strategically powerful weapon against the regime even if it meant different things to different groups. Ultimately, “democratisation” can be taken to mean any change in a regime that was totalitarian in its discourse and practice. The fundamental issues of human rights presuppose “democratisation” of some sort, by allowing a civil society to exist.
A way to sum up dissidence is through a 1950s CIA report, which defines the phenomenon as: “a state of mind that leads to disillusionment or discontent with the regime”; resistance as “dissidence going into action”; organised resistance as “resistance, led by a group of individuals that have accepted a common goal…working in contact with one another”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. As discussed above, however, dissidence should replace resistance in this terminology, as the state of mind can remain private and is then not dissidence. While dissidence is an individual act in the beginning, individuals eventually organise themselves in their public opposition to the regime. Structured opposition, by the virtue of the central civil society ideal, usually takes the form of calls for democratisation of the system.
What emerges from this discussion on terms is that Bulgaria was not belated in its dissidence – it had dissidents from as early as the 1960s when de-Stalinisation allowed Aesopian language to flourish. What was late was the organised form. As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, this transition from individual to public strongly depended on Soviet policy. Thus, the activity of Bulgarian dissidents as organisations is as important as that of other nations’ groups, which could only achieve their aims once Gorbachev had shaken up the order in the region with glasnost, perestroika and the Sinatra doctrine: as Zhelev points out “With us it happened that organised opposition was “dissident” because the processes had already reached a developed stage.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The concept of dissidence above would exclude political parties. The dissidents did not have ready political programs and their struggle was one for the de-politicisation of society and pluralism. This heterodoxy allowed Marxists and liberals as well as rightist legionnaires to co-exist and co-ordinate, ultimately uniting in the UDF. The changes of 1989 saw the re-emergence of pre-1948 political parties such as the Bulgarian Workers’ Social Democratic Party and the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union – Nikola Petkov. These did join the UDF but they had not been active in the dissident movement and actually utilised the social response to other dissident organisations to re-emerge – both parties only become active in November 1989. All dissidents were political opponents of the regime, but not all political opponents were dissidents.
A final problem to consider is the post-fact ascribing of “dissident” status to people. In post-communist Bulgaria the status of a dissident does carry connotations such as opposition and non-collusion with the regime – given all the more weight by current controversies with DS files on collaborators, a common issue for Eastern Europe. Petar Slabakov encapsulates the problem by saying:
“Who is a dissident…why are people interested in that? Because people can gain something from it. The Kristal incident is very funny. I have had…hundreds of people coming to me so I can sign a note saying that they were among those arrested...“What for?” “It can come in useful.” They weren’t there but they want me to sign.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
As the emergence of organised dissidence is in question, however, one needs to consider the declarations, programmes and actions of whole groups. These organisations are both sufficiently small in number to be easy to examine which self-proclaimed member was an actual participant in the events of the late 80s by cross-checking interviews from the period with lists the organisations themselves maintained. While dissidence is an individual act it has to be public – and making it public leaves a trace that can contradict the claims of later “dissidents” as those mentioned by Slabakov.
Now that we have defined dissidence, let us see what factors shaped it.
Emergence: External Factors
Gorbachev and Soviet developments
The factors of isolation and reform come together when the influence of the USSR on Bulgarian developments is examined. As the main channel of information and change, the Soviet link was important for the regime and nurtured by Zhivkov throughout his years in power, especially during the Brezhnev era. The provision of subsidized Soviet resources which were later resold at world market prices and the guarantee of the Soviet home market, no matter how poor the quality of exported good, were a lifeline for the Bulgarian economy. The country was not only economically dependent on Moscow, however, as the regime had to take its cues from the Soviet capital too – cultural and political reform of any sort was dictated in Moscow. Bulgarian de-Stalinization and the overthrow of Zhivkov’s predecessor – Chervenkov – were, for example, started only after the XX Congress of the CPSU in February 1956 and the subsequent April Plenum of the BCP of the same year.
It was no surprise then that when Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the CPSU, the BCP and Zhivkov personally would have to follow whatever lead Moscow gave. The impetus given by the new secretary with his policies of glasnost and perestroika had a momentous impact on Bulgarian cultural and political life. The values inherent in these programs were revolutionary for the closed system of the bloc, but it is glasnost that was the more significant. In February 1987 Gorbachev’ speech marking the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution inaugurated one of the most exciting parts of this policy – the revisiting of the Soviet past, and by implication, that of all satellite countries. The General Secretary’s words were radical:
There should not be any blank pages in either our history or our literature…history has to be seen as it is. There was everything: there were mistakes, it was hard, but the country moved forward.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
This was in sharp contrast to Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in 1956, which was a selective criticism confined to the so-called personality cult and party purges, never questioning the basic principles of party policies themselves. By 1988, however, Gorbachev’s criticism had turned into a blanket attack on all Soviet history post-1928. This was revolutionary as even the years of Brezhnev were now under scrutiny, termed the period of zastoi (stagnation). Glasnost entailed not just freedom of speech, which is unquestionably a monumental factor for a totalitarian society in itself, but more importantly an attack on the history and the legitimation of socialist regimes everywhere. Gorbachev had challenged the founding myths of each leadership, the Bulgarian one included. These regimes had inherent contradictions of legitimation, apparent after Khrushchev but even more after 1985. The first arena was in the failure of planned economies to deliver according to their promises, which provided the most telling test of the regime’s vision – glasnost allowed people to ask the question whether perestroika was needed not just because the system hit difficulties but because it was flawed at its base.
The impact on Bulgarian individuals who already had dissenting thoughts was central to the development of organised dissident movements. Petko Simeonov sums it up:
…Gorbachev had an effect, because he created the possibility to talk about changes based on what was happening in the Soviet Union, in the CPSU, and what the leader had said – ‘see, he is saying it, not me’! There was someone to hide behind. This was exceptionally important.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The name of one of the main organisations – the Club – reflects the umbrella that glasnost provided for dissidents. In a closed society where the state had the power to crush any resistance, there was now a higher power to “appeal” to in an ideological sense – Moscow. Bulgaria was peripheral in political authority and weight, so Gorbachev – the main figure in the Eastern Bloc due to his position – was the ideal protector of dissident thought. Glasnost was not just a strategic weapon – it was a value that was central to the dissidents’ own political understanding of civil society and pluralism. The freer discussions on history and politics that it allowed were already the kernels of the future society. However, this creation of the values of civil society could not begin in the elements that were to constitute this society, but had to originate in the totalitarian state - Simeonov continues on to say that:
…the spirit of change was in the air, Gorbachev just embodied it. The totalitarian system was such that there was no other way for it to change. It had to begin from above. This is a society that has the resources to flatten any resistance that comes from below.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Zhivkov did try to imitate the Soviet developments and this will be examined in the next chapter. However, there were other important aspects of the Soviet factor that need to be mentioned. Above all, Bulgaria was extremely susceptible to changes in the USSR due to strong cultural links between the two countries. The course of Bulgarian history and sustained propaganda made the citizens, on the whole, Russophiles. Russia had liberated Bulgaria in the 1877/8 Russo-Turkish war, while medieval Bulgarian literature had influenced the development of Kievan Rus. King Boris III had resisted the despatch of Bulgarian troops to the Eastern Front, in contrast to other Nazi allies in South East Europe as Romania. These historical links were only reinforced through the education system after 1944 and coupled with the compulsory study of Russian meant that Bulgarian citizens were very open to developments in the USSR. The state itself helped in other ways – every Friday Soviet TV and most importantly news round-ups were broadcast live into Bulgarian homes. This was a stabilizing influence during the Brezhnev era, but once glasnost, represented by political talk shows such as Vzgliad (The Look) reached Soviet and Bulgarian TV, the party conservatives who found the idea very alarming could do nothing – transmissions could not be stopped. The new policy also resulted in the end of all jamming of Western transmissions, something that had been agreed under the 1975 Helsinki Accords but not properly implemented yet. Soviet newspapers (Literaturnaia Gazeta) were another way into the Bulgarians’ minds. Magazines such as Ogonyok and other publications were always available in major towns and were in fact cheaper than the domestic press. The sales of such newspapers exploded after 1987 as people readily informed themselves about Soviet political developments, as Zhelyu Zhelev points out:
…our traditional Russophile ways, which usually played a reactionary role in our history, had a progressive function…everyone read Russian– Ogonyok etc – this was the main thing in the perestroika. There could be no perestroika – that was an illusion. But what was important was the glasnost. That was the real factor that undermined communism – morally, politically, and ideologically – and spiritually prepared people for change<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
That was the precise impact of glasnost – the undermining of the domestic regime by comparing it to the Moscow developments. The half-hearted reforms under Zhivkov were readily contrasted to Gorbachev’s practice and the questioning of domestic stagnation was, in turn, defended by those very same policies from above. Glasnost was the weapon that allowed dissidents to organise themselves and take the battle to the field of discourse.
The final part of Gorbachev’s reforms was the “Sinatra Doctrine”. First employed by government spokesperson Genadii Gerasimov in 1987<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, this meant the regimes of Eastern Europe would now have to find their own paths to socialism, in contrast to the Brezhnev doctrine that had led to the crushing of the Prague Spring. In July 1988, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze had spoken of a policy reliant “on such principles as non-aggression, respect for sovereignty and national independence, non-interference in internal affairs.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> After the formation of a coalition government in Poland headed by non-communist Mazowiecky in August 1989, it was clear that Soviet tanks would not intervene to prop up regimes – the promises were kept. This foreign policy development was extremely important for dissidents who were now not only armed with Soviet glasnost, but also immune from Soviet force in the case of victory. The doctrine is a clear illustration of the importance of Soviet policy – while organised dissent was crushed in 1956 and 1968, it was now tolerated, even to the extent it achieve political power.
Democratic contamination: the influence of Central Europe
Developments in other parts of the Eastern Bloc were also important for the Bulgarian dissident movement’s genesis. The events of 1968 infused many Bulgarian intellectuals with the ideas of “socialism with a human face” and that idea was still the one held by some of the socialist dissidents in 1989. Despite state attempts to curtail any information about the events, DS reports point to the fact that many citizens were in fact well informed of the happenings in Czechoslovakia through informal channels as well as leaks from BCP forums. The seeds of reformist socialism were planted– Emil Manov’s 1967 article in “Literaturen Front” divided communists into retrogrades such as Stalinists and Maoists; conformists, the majority of the party; and democrats: “for us the contemporary communist, carrier of progressive development, is the communist-democrat. He, I believe, is the hero of our time.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
1968, however, also saw the death of this democratic socialist idea. The language of “brotherhood” was now empty as the attempt to forge a truly popular socialist society was crushed by the Warsaw Pact. 1968 can thus be seen as both an energising event, giving impetus to criticism and thought and showing that a different form of socialism was possible and as the death-knell of any belief in the system. The citizenry of the East has often been portrayed as a monolithic bloc, which is untrue – there were as many nuances as in Western societies. Thus, 1968’s dual meaning reflected on both main groups in Bulgaria too – those who believed in socialism and those who opposed it. The former were shown that there was an alternative ideal to the current regime, while the latter were convinced that socialism and reform were incompatible. Members of both currents would collude to create the organised dissident movements in the late 80s.
The organisations themselves reflect the influence of other Eastern dissidents. Solidarity, the Polish trade-union, was the single most powerful such formation in the East and it impacted on Bulgaria too. As mentioned above, it was their unprecedented victory in the 1989 Polish elections and their formation of a coalition in August that showed the rest of the Bloc that opposition movements could achieve power and begin to dismantle the system under the ideals of pluralism and consensus. The example of a mass movement based around a single issue – from which it grew – can be traced both in the nature of Ekoglasnost, where dissidents organised around the very political issue of ecology and in Podkrepa, the independent trade union formed in February 1989. In an interview broadcast on Radio Free Europe (RFE) on the 26th August 1989, Veselin Donkov states that his disillusionment started with events he had witnessed in Poland in the period between 1980 and 1981, including the realisation that Solidarity presented a workable and powerful model<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. It wasn’t just in organisational methods that other organisations influenced the Bulgarian dissidents, but in theory and ideas too. Havel’s ideas, envisioning a civil society that combined the best aspects of socialist and capitalist morals and behaviour was a revolutionary and unconventional view which found a disciple in Lyubomir Sobadzhiev, founder of the Dvizhenie Grazhdanska Initsiativa (Civil Initiative Movement) and Committee 273. The founding program of CIM states the movement’s aims as “popularisation among society of the ideas of democracy and freedom through the defence of constitutional rights of citizens, aiming at achieving a wider communal consensus on the solution to the main problems of state and society.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The Ruse Committee and Ekoglasnost also had precedents such as the Polish Ecology Club founded in 1981 and the Hungarian Danube Club, established in 1983. The experiences of other Eastern intellectuals thus widened both the organisational and theoretical thinking of Bulgarian dissidents, creating a richer tapestry of ideas in the movement, beyond vague talk of pluralism and liberty.
Contamination from other Eastern European countries was taken very seriously by the state. Rumyana Bachvarova recounts how her cousin was held for nine hours by DS and asked to sign a blank page after a trip to Poland at the time of the strikes in 1980, and all “because of Poland.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She escaped such treatment by virtue of her status (as did members of the Ruse Committee such as Sonia Bakish), but the episode is a demonstration of the state’s evaluation of the incendiary nature of the Polish example, as even non-political students on holidays were now seen as a potential route for importing radicalism into the country. The experience of other Bloc countries was a motivational factor for Bulgarian dissidence as it showed the importance and possibilities of individual agency and did play both a practical and inspirational role. Combined with the successes achieved due to new Soviet policies, it was one of the catalysts for the emergence of organised resistance in the country.
The importance of Western radio broadcasts has been controversial, with some holding that it was one of the key weapons of the Cold War, while others try to belittle their importance. While the broadcasts of stations such as RFE, the BBC World Service, Voice of America (VOA) and Deutsche Welle (DW) were not as important for Bulgaria as they were for the more insular Romania, radios did play an important role. The RFE especially has to be singled out as a broadcast service with the purpose of changing governments in foreign nations by airing news not about the country of broadcast but aimed at the target nations. A Polish dissident, Marcin Krol, sums up the importance of radio stations in a totalitarian system:
Everyone felt [lonely] and cut off from the greater tradition of Western learning and thought…listening to RFE created for a vast number of Poles the perhaps artificial but nevertheless essential sense that one was living in a larger company.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Petko Simeonov agrees: “There were some broadcasts, a few Western radio stations, which were jammed - that’s the only contact with the world”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The power of these radio stations was not just to provide another critical view of the system people were living under, but to provide a Bulgarian view of the system. Georgi Markov’s powerful Zadochni reportazhi of were broadcast over RFE in the 70s and gave people the chance to confirm their suspicions about the nomenclature, while the interviews that Rumyana Uzunova took on the same station were a powerful legitimating and informative tool for dissidents, as discussed below.
The importance of the radio broadcasts took off after the Chernobyl disaster and the ending of jamming under Gorbachev. The state mouthpiece Rabotnichesko Delo denied reports of a leak in Chernobyl on the 3rd May 1986, attributing them to Western propaganda<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. However, this lateness of any information even acknowledging the event was at odds with broadcasts on RFE and BBC as the incident happened. The Chernobyl incident was perhaps the radio stations’ greatest triumph, as they broadcast practical advice on decontamination of food and clothes, while the regime was quiet. A rough estimate puts the adult population of the country that had access to the radio stations as around 50% in 1986<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, a number which doesn’t take into account word of mouth, other informal channels as well as Yugoslav radio which was available in the Western parts of the country and was also accessible due to closeness of the language at a time when the number of foreign languages speakers, apart from Russian, were limited. After 1988, virtually everyone could tune in, and by that time Chernobyl had cemented the centrality of these stations.
Perhaps the most important function such services offered was communication between the dissidents and the public. The history of the organised Bulgarian dissident movement is also a history of problems of registration and legitimation. Letters and declarations to official channels such as Bulgarian newspapers were ignored, and the courts refused the registration of these organisations until after Zhivkov’s fall, even though they were allowed under the 1987 July Concept discussed later. Thus, it was the interviews taken by Western radio stations and especially journalist Rumyana Uzunova that allowed dissidents to make their presence known. The hundreds of interviews that each organisation’s representatives gave were immediately played back to listeners, recounting all actions and principles that the movements stood for. Members of the organisations were quick to recognise that fact too, and Georgi Velichkov and Evgeniia Ivanova stated as much in a 10th February 1989 interview with Uzunova: “in this period [November 1988 – February 1989] the only ones who acknowledged our Glasnost Program were radio stations abroad, including RFE”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The power of such interviews was only increased by the circumstances – the organisations sprung up in 1988 and 1989, when jamming had already ceased. The stations also had an international aspect - messages of dissent and protest promoted the idea that acts in Krakow had an important implication for listeners in Sofia and vice versa. The denial of communist monopoly in the media thus allowed Bulgarian dissidents to find a tribune from which to announce their presence.
Similarly to the Soviet influence, the international agreements that the Bulgarian regime had signed to gave dissidents weapons with which to challenge the system. The 1975 Helsinki Act was signed by the Eastern Bloc as it usefully guaranteed the inviolability of frontiers – however, it also included a third basket on human rights. The respect for fundamental freedoms such as freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief (Basket 1, Principle VII) was evidently absent in the region even after the act, but combined with other international agreements such as the UN Charter it allowed dissidents to again question the disparity between promises and reality. Even though it is difficult to argue that the Helsinki Accords achieved anything concrete in the East by themselves, in the realm of discourse they were important – one of the most significant public acts of the fledgling dissident movement was the presence of three members of the Club at the Paris conference on human rights in May 1989. Hristofor Subev, leader of the Komitet za Zashtita na Religioznite Prava, Svoboda na Suvesta i Duhovnite Tsenosti (Committee for the Defence of Religious Rights, Freedom of Conscience and Spiritual Values), defended the founding of the Committee using those exact accords in a RFE interview on the 30th March 1989<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Ultimately, it was a meeting of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in Sofia in October 1989 that gave Bulgarian dissidence its first major public incident: the heavy-handed and widely reported repression of Ekoglasnost activists collecting signatures in the Kristal garden during the CSCE meeting on the Protection of the Environment. The importance of such international forums and agreements will become clearer later on when the discourse battle is discussed, but there were other practical manifestations of the importance of the international factors – for example, the support given to hunger strikes by writers and poets such as Petar Manolov and Nikolai Kolev by the International PEN clubs, giving the dissident movement more exposure internationally and domestically.
Emergence: Domestic Factors
The decay of the socialist economy
The 1980s brought the end of the progressive betterment of living standards that the region and Bulgaria had experienced since the 50s. As opposed to the high growth rates of earlier years, by 1989 the Bulgarian economy was actually contracting, by -0.4% -down from 5.5% three years earlier<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. This was brought about by a number of factors, amongst which were the chronic mismanagement of the economy and the end of cheap Soviet oil subsidies. The high-end niche that Bulgaria had managed to carve out for itself by creating a relatively powerful computer industry for the area was also subsidised by foreign loans and by 1990 the foreign debt stood at $10 billion<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov recognised this: “Since 1986 we have found ourselves empty-handed – we had nothing to export in order to get hard currency”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>.
However, the impact of this went beyond comparisons with the West – people across the Soviet bloc had been aware of the living standards in the capitalist world for quite some time. The communist system was tolerable as long as it promised progress, even if it was at a slower speed than abroad. This was especially prominent amongst the older generation who had not seen such living standards under the pre-communist regime – Bulgarians in the 1980s were better off than they had ever been. Yet the newer generations that communism itself had created through urbanisation and mass education had a different approach. Younger technocrats knew that the Western system had more to offer and no amount of restructuring under a socialist framework would be able to offset the fundamental troubles of the system. More broadly, young urban dwellers had little or no memory of a period before communism and were used to constant progress – they had nothing personal against which to evaluate their experience.
This general discontent allowed organisations such as Ekoglasnost and Podkrepa to become mass movements – the latter was still weak in December 1989 when it tried to organise a nationwide general strike, but by early 1990 was a powerful force, allowing the UDF to have a street presence during the Round Table talks. Compared to Poland, the Bulgarian mobilisation of 1988 and 1989 was not en masse. The economic situation had impacted the intelligentsia more, as they saw the possibility to address a concrete problem as well as realised the new situation meant that the urban population was becoming more critical. The Club formed a section to deal with the economy right from its inception, reflecting this. To talk about support amongst the peasantry would also be illusionary, as the election results of 1990 showed – the dissidents were confined to Sofia and the major cities. However, the problems of the economy exacerbated the crisis of legitimacy of the regime and ideology and gave the dissidents another arena in which to fight.
The “revival” campaign started on the 24th/25th December 1984 and by January 18th the names of 310,000 people in Bulgaria had been changed. Politburo files show the first discussions about the subject taking place on the 18th January 1985, so they could only accept the fait accompli of Zhivkov’s personal decision<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The reasons for the revival process are beyond the scope of this thesis, but the regime had already carried out similar campaigns against the Pomaks (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims) in the 1970s. The campaign had the effect of isolating Bulgaria and creating a powerful Turkish rights movement, with a high profile through hunger strikes.
The revival process was a direct violation of human rights and was a strong unifying factor for all dissident movements. The Independent Association, from its inception, stated that it stood for:
…co-existence and acceptance of the different religious communities, as well as constant action to rebuild the trust between the believers and their patrons…the healing of the wounds of ethnic minorities, inflicted on them with criminal lack of judgement by the regime<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Here was a direct violation of the supposed freedoms that the socialist regime stood for, all in the name of the “Bulgarian nation”. Glasnost had changed the rules, however, and this battle for human rights could be taken up by the dissidents. On the 29th May 1989 Zhivkov stated in a televised address that the borders with Turkey were open and this led to the “Great Excursion”, when over 300,000 Turks left with tourist visas and passports obtained in line with international agreements. All dissident organisations rallied against this, unified by the common understanding that Father Dimitar Ambarev articulates when he says:
We didn’t defend Turks or Turkish interests; we defended the shattered human rights and freedoms of Bulgarian citizens with a foreign ethnic root and Islamic faith…That was within the limits of the law. We were defending Bulgarian citizens.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Earlier in May, a declaration on behalf of the Club and other intellectuals in support of the Turkish minority had been repressed, leading to arrests of figures such as Zhelev, and to nationalist rallies throughout the month and into June – the declaration was eventually released at the end of July. The dissidents were branded national traitors at these events, opposing an action that was historically justified in the regime’s eyes. The activity of the dissident organisations around these events and the actions taken against them reflects the importance of the issue and the danger for the regime of a vocal and ethnically Bulgarian opposition uniting with the Turkish movement. Zhivkov’s actions had a bearing for the party itself, and after his fall and after much pressure from the newly formed UDF, the BCP repealed the naming law on the 29th December 1989 in what was the first major political victory of the dissident organisations.
Ecology was one of the most powerful dynamos behind organised dissidence. One of the first organisations – the Ruse Committee – was founded with the question in mind, and subsequently 1989 saw the formation of the powerful Ekoglasnost, carrying on the same tradition. The handling of the Chernobyl issue by the government was only compounded by failure on part of the regime to address the plight of Ruse, a city on the Danube which was regularly gassed by Romanian chemical plants across the river in Giurgiu. While in 1975 only 969 out of 100,000 in Ruse had some form of lung disease; by 1985 number was up to 17.386<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. This caused a mobilisation of the intelligentsia with the filming of a documentary called Dishai! (Breathe!), which captured mothers protesting in the town. The 8th March 1988 formation of the Committee “electrified” Bulgaria’s intelligentsia, formed connections between different sections of the activist community, defined the rules of the dissident game and exposed the fractures at the very top of the party state structure. Despite its quick dismantling, it allowed many dissidents to become acquainted with each other and the Club, for example, can trace its origins to this date.
Ecology also had other advantages. Dimitrina Petrova states that: “Ecological activity was the only permitted form of action….environmentalism was the only way to express civil disobedience without being arrested”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Ecology was a single issue that was political in its solutions, especially in a totalitarian state. Cvetana Galabova recounts some of the organisation’s campaigns with a political edge: “Ekoglasnost wanted purifying stations for the factories. The law was to be that until you didn’t get permission for an ecologically-safe construction you couldn’t build.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
In a system where the state was responsible for everything, the “innocent” issue of ecology was political charged and a suitable objective to rally around, not least because it had a direct bearing on many people in a country that had undergone rapid, polluting industrialisation. The first mass democratic protest in Bulgaria after 1944 was precisely about ecology when four thousand people under the Ekoglasnost banner marched to the National Assembly carrying the signatures that had been collected in front of the Kristal Cafe in downtown Sofia and had resulted in police clampdown. Ecology had thus both provided a possibility to link up amongst the dissidents and an issue where anti-politics could become politics – the regime could breed only such opposition where the vaguer and broader ideals of “civil society” or “ecological justice” unified people rather than more basic, economic issues.
The lead given by Gorbachev was followed by Zhivkov’s own regime. Perestroika and glasnost had to at least be imitated in order for the Soviet Union to continue supporting the hard-liners. The 1987 July Plenum gave birth to the July Concept which furnished dissidents with a rhetorical weapon alike glasnost. The extended economic mechanism and the new Labour Code meant that democracy was to be expanded in labour relations by allowing collectives to become the managers of property, while in his speech Zhivkov called for the organisations of clubs, forums, associations and movements. A British journalist remarked that Bulgarians had been given freedoms that would make Solidarity jealous<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>.
This gave dissidents the ability to form themselves into groups that were now backed in official proclamations. The names of the organisations reflect this – many were “Clubs” or “Committees”. Zhelyu Zhelev admits that the reformist guise of these organisations was just a screen: “We used this demagoguery decision of the July Plenum and we used it in that demagoguery manner. We told them in the declaration ‘Well, we are ready for this. Why are you not doing it?’”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Again, there was official sanction to organised resistance – the weapons of the July Concept and Gorbachev meant that it was harder to destroy these organisations outright. These promises of reform had another impact, as the failure of the regime to carry them out disillusioned the urban population and allowed dissidents to ask the question of why the regime was not delivering. Political decentralisation was short lived and in the notionally competitive elections for mayors and regional councillors on 28th February 1988, electoral commissions disqualified all but the official candidates in 80% of electoral districts<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>.
The 1971 Constitution too was another document systematically ignored by the regime. Article 54 guaranteed “Freedom of speech, assembly etc” and Article 35 had four sub-clauses: “1 ) All citizens are equal before the law 2 ) No privileges or limitations based on nationality, religion etc allowed 3 ) The state guarantees equality 4 ) All propagation of hate (including that based on religion) is criminal”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. In the discursive battles, which will be examined in Chapter 4, this was another point in favour of the dissidents. Moreover, both the July Concept and the constitution allowed dissidents to present themselves to the public as lawful and thus combat the regime’s proclamations that these groups were saboteurs and traitors– by using constitutional language, they could in fact turn this back at the state and accuse them of treason. From their very inception, Bulgarian dissident movements were ready to defend their existence in the language of politics and to exploit all government proclamations to their full advantage.
What is very important…is 6th Department [of the DS], as we are talking about the intelligentsia, and the dissidents were that department’s duty. Created in 1967…1968 sees our intelligentsia faced with a prepared structure. Chronologically speaking, State Security is faster than the event.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Historian Momchil Metodiev highlights an important aspect of the Bulgarian case that is the strength of DS. Organised Bulgarian dissidence was hampered by a very active secret police infiltrating intellectual circles. It was difficult for dissidents to establish contacts with each other and thus opposition remained a collection of lone voices. The grip of the DS was so strong that it took official decisions by Moscow and Sofia itself for dissidents to be able to co-operate, taking advantage of governmental decisions. Without political developments, the prepared DS would have remained the chief weapon with which to handle dissidents, but the post-1985 conditions required a more nuanced touch, to which the state was unaccustomed. The power of DS is still discussed today, with a continuing fight to open all secret files, but the strength of the organisation has to be also seen in the light of the close connections between the intellectuals and the regime.
The relative docility of Bulgarian intellectuals – the main source of dissidents – before the 1980s can be explained when their conditions and relationship with the system are examined. Georgi Markov, as a member of the intellectual circle, was well placed to comment on the life of Bulgarian writers and other artists. The Union of Bulgarian writers, for example, was extremely rich in comparison to the Polish one:
If a normal citizen had to fight tooth and claw to get a somewhat decent job, as a writer I had the choice of a dozen good editorial posts with an official four-hour working day…while the common citizens who wanted to buy a car had to wait for two years while depositing money at the beginning (the interests of which were stolen by the state), I and many of my colleagues received our cars only after a few days.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Historically, the intelligentsia is a challenge to power of the traditional elite, yet the co-option system relied heavily on the high value of traditional status deployed as an instrument of legitimation by the elite. Intellectuals were in effect bribed into accepting an upper-class lifestyle in return for loyalty. The Bulgarian intelligentsia was quiescent as it was composed of a great number of recent recruits from a low-status background who felt they owed their loyalty to the regime and no great dissatisfaction with the politically determined nature of their functions yet existed, because, during the period of industrialisation and economic improvement, the intelligentsia largely accepted regime goals of high mobilisation and discipline and was less concerned with questions of freedom and autonomy. However, the solidification of the social structure with later socialism suddenly blocked the roads of promotion open in the 50s and 60s. The advent of “nomenklatura” meant that younger professionals lacking access to personal networks of patronage could not advance in accordance with their perceived abilities. The model was one of complete social instability, with no independent control over one’s position. Status was given and could be taken away at any one moment by an outside power: while (in Max Weber’s terms) the technical aspect of their position might not change, their positional aspect would. Botyo Angelov describes how he had to write a biographical piece about a police commander who recounted the story of how he shot “class enemies” soon after 1944, and despite disgust he painted the picture of a positive character:
But of course I exaggerated it so he would like what he saw. The biography was put in the book. I got first prize. A newspaper printed it. And so with that shameful act I received around 800 levs, nearly a ministerial salary.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
This wooing of the intellectuals made it difficult for them to break out of collusion with the regime, but glasnost energised their ranks and DS estimated that by 1989 over 95% of the strata were opposed to the regime<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The explosion came in early 1989 when the congresses of the various creative unions sharply criticised the regime and called for actual reform and voted out old leaders in favour of outspoken critics of the regime. The activity of even members of the Central Committee of the BCP such as artist Svetlin Rusev even earlier created much confusion for Zhivkov, who had cultivated a special relationship with the so-called tvorcheska inteligentsiya (creative intelligentsia). Suddenly, another legitimating factor was slipping away as the intelligentsia, a potential source of organised opposition, was stirring. One of the main legitimating factors of the regime had always been that it had the support of the most progressive members of society, the “voices” of the public. It had wooed them sufficiently over the years on a personal basis in order to buy their loyalty. However, at the same time it had structurally impeded the progress of many other potential members of the stratum – membership of a creative union was more a matter of loyalty than talent, and this was a hindrance for many young authors and film makers who saw their efforts to advance professionally blocked by the old “dinosaurs” who were suitable for the regime. The regime had not always been successful in co-opting the intellectuals – Angelov points out that Zhelev’s controversial Fascism could have been officially sanctioned and then it would have sunk without a trace<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. In the period of glasnost it again proved unable to reform its cultural policy. It got the worst of both worlds – it allowed sufficient degree of pluralism so that critical voices could be heard in the press while at the same time it didn’t go far enough in this policy or in reforming its social ladder and thus was open to harsh criticism by the valued intelligentsia. The combination of glasnost and the intellectual thus gave the impetus behind the Bulgarian dissident movements after 1988.
Development and significance
After looking at the forces, factors and origins of the movement, we need to examine its development and implications in the downfall of communism. Domestic regimes fell because of a Soviet refusal to intervene, but the absence of an alternative voice inside the countries would have made the transitions in the bloc very different. The gradual change that the BCP wanted with its removal of Zhivkov had to be abandoned when a united dissident movement challenged the discourse of the regime with arguments “endorsed” by Soviet publications and discussions. Dissidence could not have brought down the regime on its own as it needed the ability to make itself public given by Gorbachev and the July Concept. However, once it was public, its arguments undermined the reforming regime. The factors examined throughout the thesis came together when the force of one individual in the USSR created changes in the centre of socialism. This interplayed with the economic crisis and social decay of the peripheral nations such as Bulgaria, where people were feeling the slowdown in economic progress (made worse by Gorbachev’s cutting off of economic aid in various forms), while the solidification of the nomenklatura created discontent amongst the upwardly mobile new professionals. On the one hand all this led to a political crisis within the regime, with reformists (Petar Mladenov) lining up against hard-liners (Zhivkov), while also inducing dissent in the masses. The ideological opening up of the region after de-Stalinisation created many heterodox beliefs – ranging from Havel’s and Sobadzhiev’s utopian views to glasnost – which both informed this fermenting mass dissent as well as individuals like Zhelev. Western communications penetration only intensified the feelings of comparative economic and political disadvantage and the coming together of all these domestic social factors led to the creation of autonomous organisational groups – the dissident movements. Their role was to further intensify the country’s political crisis, pushing for reform and thus having an impact on the regime’s internal battles of hard-liners versus reformists and then further pressurising the new regime to take changes to their ultimate conclusion.
Totalitarianism aims at the atomisation of society and the breaking of parastatal bonds between people and thus precludes the formation of groups. The Bulgarian totalitarian model, like all totalitarian models, however, succeeded only in molecularising society – a certain minimal level of societal autonomy and self-organisation that weakened the regime’s legitimacy and capacity to act. The individual never became isolated and the state organisations were never the single link with the community. The nature of life under a socialist system, with its deficit goods and communal language, meant that there was both the economic incentive to keep links with others in the form of the black market and to retain informal friendship networks. The very name of the dissident organisations employed by commentators – non-formal organisations – reveals their real role as an alternative.
This molecuralisation allowed intellectuals to remain in contact with each other and form opposition on a number of issues – an early example is the number of professors who defended Zhelev during his controversial thesis defence in the 1960s. With the advent of glasnost and the appearance of pressing problems, the Ruse Committee appeared as the first non-formal organisation of intellectuals – the Independent Association was formed by political prisoners. The short experiment allowed these informal links to solidify and also revealed that organisation is possible, albeit with modifications. The lessons of the Ruse Committee led to organisations such as the Club picking its founders as AFAFC and high-ranking party individuals such as Dimitrova. The mass party was a weapon against itself as the mass became distant from the regime and the critical potential of Marxism is admitted even by democrats such as Zhelev. The non-formal organisations arose from the individual dissent in thinking, shared through informal friendship groups and then finally organised in a movement that could be present as lawful. The lessons of the break-up of such an organisation enabled latter groups to be more successful and harder to break up, forcing the way for organisations such as the Independent Association, which were heavily repressed due to their lack of party connections.
The dissident organisations were boosted by their recognition in the West first by President Francois Mitterrand who met twelve dissidents at a working breakfast at the French Embassy during his visit to Sofia in February 1989 and subsequently by the presence of three members of the movement in Paris in May of the same year. With the events in Poland it was becoming clear that the dissident organisations had a role to play as the regime was looking more and more uncertain and the culmination was the formation of the UDF on the 7th December 1989. The formation of an organised opposition, an umbrella organisation for all non-formal groups was the natural climax of the striving for a dialogue with the BCP. The Round Table model adopted in Poland was employed by the UDF too, and on March 30th 1990 an agreement was signed agreeing on constitutional changes and setting the dates for the elections for a Grand National Assembly (GNA).
What this rapid development reveals is the role that the dissidents had created for themselves. Their significance in the overthrow of Zhivkov on the 10th November 1989 is harder to argue as this was a palace coup by the BCP itself. However, the leaders of internal party opposition such as Mladenov used the dissident groups as a weapon against Zhivkov, showing that the ageing leader was incapable of dealing with the new stirrings of the public. The very existence of a dissident movement called the regime into action, and its failure to act in a more nuanced manner – as shown in the Kristal clampdown – was a strong argument for change if the regime was to survive.
This dissident achievement in the discursive battle is where their real significance lay. Once the hard-liner was removed, the BCP set out on a course of reform but not the reform that most expected. The popularity of these movements meant that the regime couldn’t just change its facade in order to prop itself up. The UDF as opposition took shape at the first mass rally on the 18th November. It was a force to be reckoned with by the 14th December protest outside the National Assembly, which showed BCP that the fall of Zhivkov wasn’t enough, as the crowd chanted “Down with Article One!” – the part of the constitution that guaranteed the party the leading role within the state structures. This demonstration was the point where certain journalists hold that Bulgaria could have had a “velvet revolution” and overthrown the communists. However, the UDF leaders – which were at this point still a collection of different organisations’ leaders – calmed the crowd down and set the opposition on a peaceful road, congruent with its aims.
The language of communism was the “software” of party-state-society nexus, allowing it to reproduce and make sense of itself. Doubts in this language could destroy the system, as Simeonov and Zhelev both hold<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. By the end of the 80s the ideology was just a formality and a ritual allowing the regime to have legitimacy before society as well as a language for internal consumption. The utopian side of the regime allowed dissidents to build part of their strategy on the discovery of the growing gap between the ideal and the practical state of society. This is where the employment of the tactical weapons of glasnost, the July Concept and the Constitution gave the dissidents the powerful ability to fight the regime on its own ground. The regime itself recognised this and was highly critical of the space that state-controlled Fatherland Front (FF) organisations gave for the dissident organisations to act. DS reports discussed at the Politburo reveal the significance of the Ruse Committee – the leaders accuses the local party committee of being slow with the formation of an ecology organisations in the local FF<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The Club also elicited suggestions to create formations in FF that can represent democracy and pluralism from the party’s position before a plenum of the organisation<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. The monopoly on discourse was challenged by dissidents who were presenting an alternative to the regime – the most heated discussion in the Politburo was not on how to break up these organisations but how to create state parallels to destroy the social basis for such formations.
The language of the dissidents was of “civil society”. This was a disparate term, but the aim was always to create the space for parastatal organisations, based on voluntary links. The fight for pluralism and democracy was thus implicit in any non-political issue – the totalising nature of the system politicised every issue. The reforms undertaken by the regime could only fail as the regime did not want to create a subject of these reforms: the autonomous, independent individual. It was impossible for such a subject to emerge as he would be dangerous for the system, as he would be independent of it. The dissidents were such individuals – autonomous thought that led to action and organisation. The language they used had to take its cue from the state as it was both a defensive tactic and a revealing one – the basis for reform was already present and had to be carried out. The utopian language of “civil society” was natural in such a structure because the Soviet-type system was concerned with the concentration of power and the permeation of all spheres of society by politics. The opposition thus tended to develop an aversion to power as such and to place its faith in a qualitative re-evaluation of life in which power would be so diffused that political life in the conventional sense would be unnecessary. The dissident organisations were not a political party – the UDF had as its aims the creation of an atmosphere where independent ideas could exist. The Round Table talks achieved just that – they removed Article One, de-politicised the army, judiciary and the economy by starting the process of abolishing embedded party committees, and ultimately secured elections where a plurality of ideas could be presented.
The opposition breached the information monopoly of the party even before November 1989 which was of considerable significance in systems relying on the appearance of unanimity. The struggles of legitimation through official channels by getting these organisations registered in courts or having their letters published in newspapers reveals how much importance the state placed on discourse. The role of these organisations was to push for the dismantling of the system and to show the official regime that only such a move would be acceptable - without a dissident movement and the formation of the UDF, Zhivkov’s fall might have been enough for the BCP to carry out cosmetic changes only. The dissidents, however, were well placed to create a dialogue where they would be equal partners to the BCP and negotiate a new system. The Round Table thus succeeded in both dismantling the system’s core by removing the party from the state and society and in legitimising the oppositional movement, who were now poised to participate in the new political life of the country. The aftermath of these talks are not the subject of discussion here – the subversion of the ideas does not take away from the fact that organised dissidence allowed civil society and pluralism to take root and to introduce a new discourse in Bulgarian intellectual life.
Dissidents in Bulgaria existed since the period of de-Stalinisation when public opposition could be voiced. Organised dissidence, however, only came when changes in Moscow opened a channel for reform. Bulgaria was a country isolated from Western developments, unlike a Central European nation such as the Poland, much less the GDR. Non-Soviet Bloc Balkan neighbours such as Yugoslavia were proxy channels for Western ideas, but due to the historical and political circumstances, Bulgaria retained its strong link with Russia and the USSR. What was a reinforcement of the socialist status quo suddenly turned into a dynamo for change in 1985. Only when the Soviet channel started “transmitting” with glasnost (quite literally in the case of TV) did organised resistance become plausible and helped break the domestic advantages of the regime such as the wooing of the intellectuals and repressive DS action.
The regime had already given the dissidents the weapons with which to fight it – reforms and more importantly promises of reforms; a dead-letter constitution and its signature to the Helsinki Act. As a totalising system the fight was also in the field of ideas as they had a bearing on the legitimacy and structure of society. An attack on any one part of society was an attack on the whole system and ecology, minority rights and religious freedoms were just some of the spheres that were used for that purpose. The Leninist model was an attempt to put an end to politics as contestation, but in turn it created a system where everything was politicised through the mobilisation of the masses in conjunction with the state. All ideologically derived systems place great emphasis on conformity because any deviation from that threatens one of the central legitimating myths of the system as a whole. In the late 80s, a leadership which no longer felt that it is in power to achieve anything ideologically sound was ill placed to resist changes pushed for by an idealist opposition which was trying to take reforms to their logical conclusion. 1989 is a confirmation of Tocqueville’s maxim quoted in the introduction.
The dissidents thus started organising when they found an opportunity and tactically used glasnost and the July Concept voiced by the BCP in response to Gorbachev. The link with the outside world allowed the dissidents to point out discrepancies between reforms in USSR and in Bulgaria and this was a powerful catalyst. They presented a democratic alternative and fought throughout the period of change, using their symbolic power to make the regime understand that it had to deepen reforms rather than just implement cosmetic changes – Gorbachev was still talking of democratic socialism only. Thus, the dissident movement did succeed in forcing the dismantling of totalitarianism through the Round Table talks. It achieved its goal of creating the space in which civil society could take route. The pluralism that was one of their main discourse weapons was a means to an end and is not a paradox when compared to the wish for civil society – it was the one way to destroy the one-party state by allowing a plurality of ideas, a prerequisite for the social idea held by dissidents.
Despite being late, the Bulgarian dissident movement did play an important role in the final years of totalitarianism. Without it, the changes could have been bloodier and slower as in Romania, where there was no longer-standing opposition with constitutional reform in mind. By organising, the dissidents were ready to take action when the regime started shaking in November – tremors that they had helped bring about through their battle over the previous two years. There is some truth in Zhelev’s exaggerated assertion that 1989 saw only two countries with organised resistance: Poland and Bulgaria<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. However, the Bulgarian movement did not become mass until November-December 1989 and its main significance lay in the ideological battle it undertook. The sluggishness of the transition shouldn’t be blamed on the dissidents and their activities in opposition but on the society they helped create – the plurality of ideas and options they aimed for didn’t mean that the “best” ideas would triumph. Their social impact was the creation of the possibility for civil society – the implication being that the dissidents themselves could now be political opponents, with many socialist figures in the non-formal organisations joining the Bulgarian Socialist Party (formerly BCP) after 1990. What was important now, though, was that party operated under the paradigm of democracy rather than totalitarianism – the real goal of Bulgarian dissidence that it had helped bring about.
Ambarev, Dimitar – Son of a “fascist” father with connections to the previous regime. Priest since 1972. Arrested in 1975 for allegedly conspiring to blow up a statue in Plovdiv, judicially rehabilitated in 1984. Member of the Independent Association since 1989. Had links with Committee for the Defence of Religious Rights, but never a member. Currently a priest in the St. Petka church in Sofia
Angelov, Botyo – a writer and editor of a number of magazines, including Zhenata Dnes (The Woman Today). Was involved in the publishing of Zhelev’s controversial Fascism. Retired.
Atanasov, Georgi – Born in 1933. Prime Minister from 1986 to 1990. Sentenced to 10 years in jail in 1992 for fraud, but pardoned by the President in 1994.
Bachvarova, Rumyana – Sociologist. Daughter of Otechestven Front (Fatherland Front) editor Gencho Bachvarov and by virtue a member of the nomenklatura. Currently head of a marketing firm.
Bakish, Sonia – Born in 1925. Wife of Stanko Todorov, the longest-serving Prime Minister of Bulgaria. Journalist and editor of Zhenata Dnes magazine for more than 22 years, a founding member of the Ruse Committee, for which she was expelled from the BCP (a move that led to her husband resigning in protest).
Dimitrova, Blaga – Born in 1922, famous writer and poetess. Her novel Litse (Face) was banned by the regime. Founding member of both the Ruse Committee and the Club. Vice-President of the country between 1992 and 1993. Died in 2003.
Dimovski, Boris – Born in 1925. Acclaimed graphic artist and caricaturist, for which he was awarded numerous times. Illustrated Ralin’s Lyuti Chushki, including a controversial drawing of a pig’s tail that imitated Zhivkov’s signature. Died in 2007.
Donkov, Veselin – Philosopher and journalist for Uchitelsko Delo. Member of Podkrepa.
Galabova, Cvetana – Theatrical and cinematic actor. Founding member of Ekoglasnost. Wife of Petar Slabakov.
Ivanova, Evgeniia – Born in 1952, academic. Founder of the Club, participated in the writing of most of its declarations, for which she was held by DS on numerous occasions. Worked in the UDF’s press centre in 1990. Currently a lecturer in New Bulgarian University.
Markov, Georgi – Born in 1929, writer and playwright. Popular in the 60s, he was a valued intellectual and participated in Zhivkov’s hunting trips. Defected to Italy in 1969 after a few of his plays are pulled off the stage, and later went on to the UK. Worked as a journalist in the Bulgarian section of the BBC and corresponded for RFE and DW too. His Zadochni Reportazhi – a series of reports on life in Bulgaria – were broadcast between 1975 and 1978. Assassinated in London in 1978, most probably by DS with KGB assistance.
Metodiev, Momchil – Historian, specialising in the history of DS. Currently working on a history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the communist regime as part of the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past.
Minev, Iliya – Born in 1917. Member of the Union of Bulgarian National Legions and its national leadership. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1946, later commuted to 20 years. Overall he spent 28 years in prison, making him the longest serving political prisoner in Europe. Founder of the Independent Association in 1988. Died in 2000.
Mishev, Georgi – Born in 1935, author and screenplay writer. Author of the screenplays of many of the most popular Bulgarian films. President of the Ruse Committee and founding member of the Club. MP in the Grand National Assembly, signed the new constitution.
Mladenov, Petar – Born 1936. Member of the Politburo and the longest-serving Foreign Minister, from 1971 and 1989. Led the BCP revolt against Zhivkov. Secretary of the BCP from 10th November 1989 to April 1990 and Head of State from December 1989 until 1990 when he was removed after social protests over a video recording of him contemplating calling in tanks to break up the protest on the 14th December 1989. Died in 2000.
Petrova, Dimitrina – Member of the Ruse Committee and subsequently the Club. Also a founding member of Ekoglasnost.
Radichkov, Yordan – Born in 1929. Famous Bulgarian author, theatrical and screenplay writer. Vice-President of the Union of Bulgarian Writers from 1986 to 1989. Died in 2004.
Ralin, Radoi – Born in 1923. Famous Bulgarian writer. Arrested for anti-government propaganda in 1942, responsible for partisan agitation in the Sliven region in 1944. Popular satirist, his Lyuti Chushki (Hot Pepper) – a collection of epigrams and aphorisms – was burned in 1968. Died in 2004.
Rusev, Svetlin – Born in 1933. Artist and President of the Union of Bulgarian Artists between 1973 and 1985. Author of a controversial 1987 exhibition in Ruse, supporting the plight of the citizens. MP for the BSP in the 1990 Grand National Assembly.
Simeonov, Petko – Born in 1942. Sociologist. Member of the Institute of Sociology since 1969 and author of articles and studies on the subject. Founding member of the Club in 1988 and later the UDF in 1989. Participated in the Round Table talks in 1990, MP for UDF in the Grand National Assembly, campaign manager for the UDF in the elections. Currently a lecturer in Plovdiv University.
Slabakov, Petar - Born in 1923. Served during the Second World War, studied economics after the conflict. Popular Bulgarian theatrical and cinematic actor, he had his debut in 1957, with over 120 film roles in his career. Formed Ekoglasnost in February 1989; ex-MP for both the Union of Democratic Forces and the Bulgarian Socialist Party after 1990. Married to fellow actor and Ekoglasnost activist Cvetana Galabova.
Sobadzhiev, Lyubomir – Born in 1944. Twice sentenced for anti-state activity before 1989. Founder of the Civil Initiative Movement and Committee 273 (taking its name from the constitutional article on political crimes). Founding member of the UDF and participant in the Round Table talks. Died in 2002.
Subev, Hristofor – Born in 1946. Nuclear physicist turned monk in 1985. Founder of the Committee for the Defence of Religious Rights, Freedom of Conscience and Spiritual Values in 1988, for which he was arrested numerous times in 1988 and 1989. Participated in the Round Table talks and an MP for UDF from 1990 to 1992. Since 1995 has been living in the USA for part of the year.
Uzunova, Rumyana – Born in 1936. Journalist who emigrated to France in 1980; worked in RFE since 1982. With hundreds of interviews and reports throughout 1988 and 1989 she was one of the catalysts of the political processes in the country. Died in 1995.
Velichkov, Georgi – Born in 1938. Worked as a lawyer, journalist, playwright and newspaper editor. Founding member of the Club; MP from 1990 to 1991. He is currently still writing.
Zhelev, Zhelyu – Born in 1935. Studied philosophy in Sofia, where he caused a stir with his thesis that disproved Lenin’s philosophical work. The defence of the thesis turned into a loud debate, drawing in a number of academics. Wrote Fascism in 1967, which drew implicit parallels between that ideology and the communist regime, but the book was not published until 1982. Three weeks later it was banned and pulled off the shelves due to its content. Member of the BCP from 1960 to 1965, when he was expelled as an anti-materialist and anti-Marxist. Founding member of the Club and UDF. President of Bulgaria from 1990 to 1997. Since then he works with his foundation and the Balkan Political Club.
Zhivkov, Todor – Born in 1911. Partisan member before 1944. Head of BCP since April 1956. De-facto uncontested leader of the country from 1962 until his overthrow on the 10th November 1989. Died in 1998.
Weekly Reach of Western Radios in Bulgaria: 1962-1988
Source: Report on a Conference organized by the Hoover Institution and the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at Stanford University, 13-16th October 2004
Link: www.wilsoncenter.org/news/docs/Broadcastingconfreport052105.doc (Last accessed: 4th March 2009)
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Interviews (transcripts available on request)
Botyo Angelov interview, 29th July 2008
Cvetana Galabova & Petar Slabakov interview, 3rd August 2008
Dimitar Ambarev interview, 29th December 2008
Momchil Metdoiev interview, 31st July 2008
Rumyana Bachvarova interview, 30th July 2008
Petko Simeonov interview, 31st July 2008
Zhelyu Zhelev interview, 29th December 2008
Unpublished Printed Sources
Angelov, B Skok vav vremeto, unpublished memoirs kindly presented to me by the author
www.wilsoncenter.org/news/docs/Broadcastingconfreport052105.doc (Last accessed: 4th March 2009) - Report on a Conference organized by the Hoover Institution and the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at Stanford University, 13-16th October 2004
www.omda.bg (Last accessed: 4th March 2009) – Biographical information, copies of youth magazines and Politburo minutes
http://www.1968bg.org (Last accessed: 4th March 2009) – Documents concerning the Bulgarian reaction to 1968
http://www.weblearn.ox.ac.uk/site/colleges/sant/esc/crp/ (Requires University access; Last accessed: 4th March 2009) – Draft papers from the Conference on Civil Resistance and Power Politics (St. Anthony’s College, Oxford; 15-18th March 2007); papers used - Civil Resistance and Civil Society: Lessons from the Collapse of the German Democratic Republic (Charles S. Maier); Civil Resistance and Power: The Questions (Adam Roberts); Civil Resistance in Czechoslovakia 1968-89 (Kieran Williams); Non-Violent Civil Resistance in the Baltic: Explaining the Intersection of Ethnic Nationalism with People-Power Tactics (Mark Beissinger); Soviet Responses to Civil Resistance within the Bloc, 1968-1991 (Mark Kramer)
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> B. J. Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings (Budapest 2003), pp. xvi
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> See Appendix A for biographical sketches of all Bulgarian figures
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> A. Arato & M. Vajda, “The limits of Leninist opposition”, New German Critique, 19 (1980), pp.167
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> G. Stokes, From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe since 1945 (New York 1996), pp. 51
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> E. Kalinova & I. Baeva, Bulgarskite Prehodi 1939-2005 (Sofia 2006), pp. 232
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Zhelyu Zhelev interview, 29th December 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> K. Yosifov (ed), Nachaloto: SDS – Politicheski Obzor i Hronologiya (Sofia 2008), pp. 271
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> P. Simeonov, Golyamata Promyana 1989 – 1990: Opit za dokument (Sofia 2005), pp. 785
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Quoted in N. Hristova, Spetsifika na Bulgarskoto Disidentstvo: Vlast i Inteligentsiya 1956-1989 (Plovdiv 2005), pp. 29
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Zhelyu Zhelev interview, 29th December 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Petar Slabakov & Cvetana Galabova interview, 3rd August 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> B. Williams, Lenin (Harlow 2000), pp. 1
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Petko Simeonov interview, 31st July 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Zhelyu Zhelev interview, 29th December 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>J. Wilton & R. Rodda, Causes of the 1989 Revolutions in Eastern Europe and Theories of Revolution (Plymouth 1997), pp. 5
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ibid., pp.12
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> V. Migev, Prazhkata Prolet’68 i Balgariya (Sofia 2005), pp. 59
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> L. Alexandrova (ed), Nyakoga, v 89-ta: interviewta i reportazhi ot arhiva na zhurnaliskata ot radio “Svobodna Evropa” Rumyana Uzunova (Sofia 2007), pp. 119
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> K. Yosfiov (ed), Nachaloto, pp. 368
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Rumyana Bachvarova interview, 30th July 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> A. Puddington, Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (Kentucky 2000), pp. 312
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Petko Simeonov interview, 31st July 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> M. Tejada, A History of Bulgaria’s Environmental Movement (Oxford DPhil thesis, 2006), pp. 79
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> See Appendix B
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> L. Alexandrova, Nyakoga, pp. 144
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ibid., pp. 206
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> J. Batt, “The Politics of Economic Transition” in White, Batt & Lewis (eds) Developments in East European Politics (Basingstoke 1993), pp. 212
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> H. Hristov, Taynite Faliti na Komunizma (Sofia 2007), pp. 32
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ibid., pp. 28
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> V. Dimitrov, “In Search of a Homogenous Nation” Journal of Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 1 (2000), pp. 13
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> M. Gruev & A. Kalyonski Vuzroditelniyat Protses: Myusulmaskite Obshtnosti i Komunichesticheskiyat Rezhim (Sofia 2008), pp.177
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Dimitar Ambarev interview, 29th December 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Tejada, Bulgaria’s Environmental Movement, pp. 96
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ibid., pp. 77
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Cvetana Galabova & Petar Slabakov interview, 3rd August 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Quoted in R. Crampton, “Stumbling and Dusting Off”, East European Politics & Societies 2 (1988), pp. 354
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Zhelyu Zhelev interview, 29th December 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> J.D.Bell, “Bulgaria”, White, Batt & Lewis (eds) Developments in East European Politics (Basingstoke 1993), pp. 84
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> V. Metodiev & L. Stoyanov (eds), Balgarskite konstitucii i konstitucioni proekti (Sofia 1990), pp.62-64
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Momchil Metodiev interview, 31st July 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> G. Markov, Zadochni Reportazhi za Balgariya (Sofia 2005), pp. 221
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> B.Angelov, Skok vav vremeto, unpublished memoirs kindly given to me by the author
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Bell, “Bulgaria”, pp. 84
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Botyo Angelov interview, 29th July 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Petko Simeonov interview, 31st July 2008; Zhelyu Zhelev interview, 29th December 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Quoted in S. Doinov (ed), Shesto Upravlenie sreshtu neformalnite organizatsii v Balgaria 1988-1989 g. (Sofia 1999), pp. 36
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ibid., pp. 92
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Zhelyu Zhelev interview, 29th December 2008
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