The Bulgarian Socialist Party



Many analysts agree that the movement towards democracy in Bulgaria was stimulated, and to a certain extent, rationalized, by Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika. It culminated in the resignation of Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, on 10 November 1989 after 35 years in power.

Unlike the "velvet revolution" of dissidents in Czechoslovakia which overthrew the Communist government and its leader, or the round-table road to democracy undertaken by Solidarity in concert with the Communists in Poland, the ouster of Zhivkov was a palace revolution, a coup d'état from within the ranks of a Communist Party which had come to the realization that reform was necessary for survival.

Within one month of the ouster, a coalition of opposition parties and interest groups was set up. The formation of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), with its potential to provide a viable alternative to the government in power, gave added incentive to those factions within the Communist Party which wanted to move from a totalitarian ideology to a more democratic one. Pressure to democratize increased after free elections were announced for June 1990.


After Zhivkov's fall, the Communist Party, under Aleksander Lilov and Andrei Lukanov, began the process of internal transformation. Old-line Party members were purged and leadership was vested in the Supreme Council which replaced the Central Committee.

The reformist faction of the Communist Party immediately pressed for greater democratization in an effort to co-opt the opposition forces. Advocating the introduction of market-oriented economic reforms and amending the Constitution to remove references to the "socialist" character of Bulgaria, it relinquished the Party's monopoly on political power, the constitutional right to the "leading role" in society, and agreed to dissolve party cells in the workplace. Censorship was abolished and round-table discussions with opposition representatives led eventually to free elections.

In order to underscore the break with the past, and to rid itself of the liability of the Communist Party label, the BCP changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) on 3 April 1990. Only 64 percent of the membership voted in favour of the name change--an indication of the growing rift within the party between conservative and reformist factions (RFE 13 July 1990, 7).


The BSP campaigned on a platform of democracy and socialism, declaring that the latter was not incompatible with a market economy. Throughout the campaign, the BSP proclaimed its intention to form a coalition government with opposition members.

On 10 and 17 June 1990, Bulgaria became the only country in Eastern Europe to give a majority of the votes to the former Communist party in free, multiparty elections. The BSP won 211 of the 400 parliamentary seats; the UDF, only 144.

The UDF derived its electoral strength from the young, urbanized intellectuals. For example, it won 24 of 26 seats in Sofia, all eight seats in each of the two next largest cities, and several seats in other cities (RFE 13 July 1990, 7). The BSP won overwhelmingly in the rural areas and amongst the older voters, many of whom apparently voted for the BSP in order to retain their pensions and because the BSP advocated gradual economic reforms rather than "shock treatment" (RFE 21 Sept. 1990, 2).

The general consensus of foreign observers is that the elections were fair, at least in the first round (EIU 1990c 3: 24). The International Human Rights Law Group, however, expressed its concern that the BSP was using its control over the government and patronage to unfairly intimidate voters (International Human Rights Law Group 31 May 1990, 27). In order to keep the party together until after the elections, the BSP did not carry through on its promise of "renewal"; i.e., to distance itself from the Communist Party, and thus the Zhivkovite nomenklatura remained in place, especially in the provinces (RFE 29 June 1990, 3). Its continued presence served to keep the local population "as fearful of the authorities as ever" (Ibid.). The UDF claimed that persons were dismissed from their jobs because of UDF activities, that food was redirected to villages to prove the largesse of the BSP, that people were promised apartments in return for voting for the BSP, and that the BSP was intimidating people by publishing material which threatened reprisals by the UDF if elected (Law Group 31 May 1990, 27). There were also reports that local mayors and party secretaries "used direct threats and even bribes, in addition to their mere presence, to influence voters" (RFE 29 June 1990, 3). Many of these reports were not substantiated, but the Human Rights Law Group was sufficiently impressed by their proliferation that it felt there might have been "a centrally directed campaign of intimidation" (Law Group 31 May 1990, 27).

Another factor in the BSP victory may be found in Bulgarian history. Bulgaria's Communist Party was the oldest in Europe and that fact, combined with the country's historic closeness to Russia, accounts for much of its acceptance in Bulgaria. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, Bulgarians did not regard communism as an alien-imposed ideology (The New York Review 17 May 1990, 35). There had never been an independent political tradition in Bulgaria and most of the intelligentsia had either been co-opted by the Communists or destroyed in purges. Nor was there a viable dissident movement. Thus, many people genuinely believed in the idealism of communism. According to one sociologist, until recently "the majority of people saw communism as representing equality, brotherhood, freedom, democracy. It was a pure concept" (Ibid.). Sixty percent of university graduates and 40 percent of high school graduates were Party members; 90 percent of lawyers, economists and sociologists were Communists. Many UDF activists retained their Party memberships for some time after joining the opposition (Ibid.).


Despite its overwhelming majority, the BSP determined to form a government of national unity "with a broad power base and comprising well-qualified people" (RFE 13 July 1990, 8). The UDF, not willing to share responsibility for solving the economic and political crises which it believed inevitable, refused, however, to join in a coalition. Instead of a government of national unity, the country had no effective government at all.

Student supporters of the UDF protested alleged irregularities in the voting procedures and began a series of summer-long demonstrations and sit-ins. President Mladenov resigned on 6 July when videotapes of him advocating the use of tanks during demonstrations in December 1989 were found to be authentic and not "doctored" by his opponents as he had claimed. The resignation did not placate the protestors and hundreds of people began to camp out in tent cities called "cities of truth," demanding further reforms. Labour organizations threatened nationwide strikes if effective remedies for the economic situation were not put in place by 23 July.

On 1 August, the first step toward reconciliation was taken when the UDF candidate, dissident Zhelyu Zhelev, was elected President by 284 of the 392 deputies (EIU 1990c, 3: 25). On 7 August, Lukanov's government resigned. On 26 August, the political tension erupted and led to the burning of the BSP headquarters. It is not yet known who was responsible for the fire but it is generally conceded that those who participated in the vandalism were encouraged by bystanders while the police stood passively by (RFE 28 Sept. 1990, 8,9).

On 30 August, President Zhelev asked outgoing Prime Minister Lukanov to form the new government. Lukanov accepted and once again tried to form a government with non-socialist members but the UDF refused to cooperate. Lukanov was re-elected Prime Minister with an all-BSP cabinet on 19 September.


The BSP managed to paper over the differences within its ranks in order to present a relatively united party during the elections. The glue which held the party together is, however, fast disintegrating and a number of factions are emerging on both the conservative and reform sides. This split was evident during the BSP congress which was held from 22 September to 25 September. Most of the delegates, 70 percent of whom came from the provinces, generally opposed rapid changes (RFE 26 Oct. 1990a, 5). The leaders of four of five of the reformist factions were not elected to the Supreme Council, the majority of whose members come from the provincial areas (Ibid., 7).

The most active radical faction is the Alternative Socialist Party which was accepted, on 18 October, into a social democratic bloc with the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, a member of the UDF (RFE 26 Oct. 1990b). Another group of factions is the Movement for Radical Reforms (MRR) which has called for a new congress of the BSP (RFE 12 Oct. 1990). If other reformist groups should also break away, "the BSP will indeed become the party of the old guard and the conservatives" (RFE 26 Oct. 1990a, 8).


Bulgaria's failure to make a clean break with its Communist past continues to destabilize the political situation and to contribute to the erosion of the economy. While Lukanov is generally considered to be sympathetic to the reformist wing, his government is considered to be conservative and resistant to quick changes in the economy. As Agence France Presse has noted, "Lukanov will find it very difficult to apply the rules of a market economy 'in a quick and efficient manner' as long as the BSP remains in power" (RFE 26 Oct. 1990a, 8). The UDF believes that a majority of the voters would now support it were the government to fall (The New York Times 4 Nov. 1990).

Bulgaria's political future, like its historical past, is dependent on events in the Soviet Union to a much greater extent than that of other former satellites. It is generally agreed that the BSP will succeed if Gorbachev succeeds, or fail if Gorbachev fails. At the same time, the situation in Bulgaria is similar to that developing in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and, above all, Romania: once the euphoria of democratization has dissipated, the reality of a neglected and inefficient economy and a disaffected society comes to light. In some ways the Bulgarians may be better prepared to deal with the new democracy than their recent comrades. Their former Communist leaders are seasoned politicians unlike the former dissidents farther west and the nomenklatura remains in place, providing an experienced, albeit tainted, bureaucracy.

The situation in Bulgaria is summarized in a Radio Free Europe report of 21 September 1990:

The nation is adrift. The Grand National Assembly has failed to establish a successful program for solving Bulgaria's problems. People are demoralized and frightened, and some are obviously angry. Divisiveness is evident everywhere -- within the BSP, the UDF, the militia and the armed forces. Divisiveness, coupled with ethnic and religious prejudices, pits Christians and Moslems against each other. A collective loathing of the past and its injustices is also apparent everywhere, but because the government has failed to introduce a viable plan for the future that would help people put aside memories of the past, frustration and anger may have gotten the best of some people.

... Zhelev and others have expressed concern that there may be an outbreak of violence, even civil war. ... the frustration of the Bulgarian people may soon lead to tragedy (RFE 21 Sept. 1990).

On 3 November 1990, Bulgarians staged their largest protest in months, calling for the government to resign before giving Lukanov's austere economic proposals a chance to succeed. Reports on continuing demonstrations state that the opposition believes it may be possible to force the BSP from office by refusing to establish a national consensus on the economy (The New York Times 4 Nov. 1990). Winter is coming and the queues in Bulgaria are lengthening. Should Lukanov be forced to resign, a major crisis may well ensue, the outcome of which is uncertain.


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