Bulgaria, 1990; Albania, 1991: Teaching communists what democracy is all about
For American anti-communist cold-warriors, for Bulgarian anti-communist cold-warriors, it couldn’t have looked more promising.
The cold war was over. The forces of Western Civilization, Capitalism and Goodness had won. The Soviet Union was on the verge of falling apart. The Communist Party of Bulgaria was in disgrace. Its dictatorial leader of 35 years was being prosecuted for abuses of power. The party had changed its name, but that wouldn’t fool anybody. And the country was holding its first multiparty election in 45 years.
Then, the communists proceeded to win the election.
For the anti-communists the pain was unbearable. Surely some monstrous cosmic mistake had been made, a mistake which should not be allowed to stand. It should not, and it would not.
Washington had expressed its interest early. In February, Secretary of State James Baker became the most senior American official to visit Bulgaria since World War II. His official schedule said he was in Bulgaria to “meet with opposition leaders as well as Government officials”. Usually, the New York Times noted, “it is listed the other way around”. Baker became deeply involved in his talks with the opposition about political strategies and how to organize for an election. He also addressed a street rally organized by opposition groups, praising and encouraging the crowd. On the State Department profile of Bulgaria handed to reporters traveling with Baker, under the heading “Type of Government”, was written “In transition”. 1
In May, three weeks before election day, a row broke out over assertions by the leader of the main opposition group. Petar Beron, secretary of the Union of Democratic Forces, a coalition of 16 parties and movements, said that during UDF’s visits to Europe and the United States, many politicians pledged that they would not provide financial assistance to a socialist Bulgaria. This would apply even if the Bulgarian Socialist Party – the renamed Communist Party – won the elections fairly. Beron stated that:
Western leaders want lasting contacts with governments which are building Western-style democracy and economies. The British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, was particularly categorical. He said he was drawing up a declaration to go before the European Community to refuse help for the remaining socialist governments in Eastern Europe. 2
Meanwhile, the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington’s specially created stand-in for the CIA (see Nicaragua chapter), with funding in this case primarily from the Agency for International Development, was pouring some $2 million into Bulgaria to influence the outcome of the election, a process the NED calls promoting democracy. This was equivalent to a foreign power injecting more than $50 million into an American electoral campaign. One major recipient of this largesse was the newspaper of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces, Demokratzia, which received $233,000 of newsprint, “to allow it to increase its size and circulation for the period leading up to the national elections”. The UDF itself received another $615,000 of American taxpayer money for “infrastructure support and party training” … “material and technical support” … and “post-electoral assistance for the UDF’s party building program”. 3
The United States made little attempt to mask its partisanship. On June 9, the day before election day, the US ambassador to Bulgaria, Sol Polansky, appeared on the platform of a UDF rally. 4 Polansky, whose early government career involved intelligence research, was a man who had had more than a passing acquaintance with the CIA. Moreover, several days earlier, the State Department had taken the unusual step of publicly criticizing the Bulgarian government for what it called the inequitable distribution of resources for news outlets, especially newsprint for opposition newspapers, as if this was not a fact of life for genuine opposition forces in the United States and every other country in the world. The Bulgarian government responded that the opposition had received newsprint and access to the broadcast outlets in accordance with an agreement between the parties, adding that many of the Socialist Party’s advantages, especially its financial reserves, resulted from the party’s membership of one million, about a ninth of Bulgaria’s population. The government had further provided the printing plant to publish the UDF newspaper and had given the opposition coalition the building from which to run its operations. 5
The Socialists’ lead in the polls in the face of a crumbling economy perplexed the UDF, but the Bulgarian Socialist Party drew most of its support from among pensioners, farm-workers, and the industrial workforce, together representing well over half the voting population. 6 These sectors tended to associate the BSP with stability, and the party capitalized on this, pointing to the disastrous results – particularly the unemployment and inflation – of “shock therapy” free enterprise in Russia. 7 Although the three main parties all proposed moving toward a market economy, the Socialists insisted that the changes had to be carefully controlled. How this would be manifested in practice if the BSP were in charge and had to live in an extremely capitalist world, could not be predicted. What was certain, however, was that there was no way a party named “Socialist”, née “Communist”, recently married to the Soviet Union, could win the trust and support of the West.
As it turned out after the second round of voting, the Socialists had won about 47 percent of the vote and 211 seats in the 400-seat parliament (the Grand National Assembly), to the UDF’s 36 percent and 144 seats. Immediately following the first round, the opposition took to the streets with accusations of fraud, chanting “Socialist Mafia!” and “We won’t work for the Reds!” However, the European election observers had contrary views. “The results … will reflect the will of the people,” said the leader of a British observer delegation. “If I wanted to fix an election, it would be easier to do it in England than in Bulgaria.”
“If the opposition denounces the results as manipulated, it doesn’t fit in with what we’ve seen,” a Council of Europe delegate declared.
Another West European observer rejected the opposition claims as “sour grapes”. 8
“Utter rot” was the term chosen by a conservative English MP to describe allegations of serious fraud. He asserted that “The conduct of the poll was scrupulously fair. There were just minor incidents that were exaggerated.”
“The opposition appear to be rather bad losers,” concluded one Western diplomat. 9
These opinions were shared by the many hundreds of observers, diplomats and parliamentarians from Western Europe. Nonetheless, most of the American observers were not very happy, saying that fear and intimidation arising from “the legacy of 45 years of totalitarian rule” had produced “psychological” pressures on Bulgarian voters. “Off the record, I have real problems with this,” said one of the Americans. Asked if his team’s report would have been as critical had the opposition won, he replied: “That’s a good question.” 10
Members of the British parliamentary observer group dismissed reports that voting was marred by intimidation and other malpractices. Most complaints were either “trivial” or impossible to substantiate, they said. “When we asked where intimidation had taken place, it was always in the next village,” said Lord Tordoff. 11
Before the election, Socialist Prime Minister Lukanov had called for a coalition with opposition parties if his Bulgarian Socialist Party won the election. “The new government,” he said, “needs the broadest possible measure of public support if we are to carry through the necessary changes.” 12 Now victorious, he repeated the call for a coalition. But the UDF rejected the offer. 11 There were, however, elements within the BSP which were equally opposed to a coalition.
The opposition refused to accept the outcome of the voting. They were at war with the government. Street demonstrations became a daily occurrence as UDF supporters, backed by large numbers of students, built barricades and blocked traffic, and students launched a wave of strikes and sit-ins. Many of the students were acting as part of the Federation of Independent Student Societies (or Associations), which had been formed before the election. The chairman of the student group, Aptanas Kirchev, asserted that the organization had documentation on electoral abuses which would shortly be made public. But this does not appear to have taken place. 14
The student movements were amongst the recipients of National Endowment for Democracy grants, to the tune of $100,000 “to provide infrastructure support to the Federation of Independent Student Associations of Bulgaria to improve its outreach capacity in preparation for the national elections”. The students received “faxes, video and copying equipment, loudspeakers, printing equipment and low-cost printing techniques”, as well as the help of various Polish advisers, American legal advisers, and other experts – the best that NED money could buy. 15
The first victory for the protest movement came on 6 July, less than a month after the election, when President Mladenov was forced to resign after a week of protests – including a hunger strike outside of Parliament – over his actions during an anti-governmental demonstration the previous December. His resignation came after the UDF released a videotape showing Mladenov talking to his colleagues and appearing to say: “Shouldn’t we bring in the tanks?” Said a UDF official of the resignation, “We are rather happy about all this. It has thrown the Socialists into chaos.” 16
The demonstrations, the protests, the agitation continued on a daily basis during July. A “City of Freedom” consisting of more than 60 tents was set up in the center of Sofia, occupied by people who said they would stay there until all senior Bulgarian politicians who served under the old communist regime were removed. When they were denied what they considered adequate access to the media, the protesters added to their demands the resignation of the head of Bulgarian television. 17 At one point, a huge ceremonial pyre was built in the street in which text books from the communist era were burnt, as well as party cards and flags. 18
The next head to fall was that of the interior minister, Atanas Smerdjiev, who resigned in a dispute over the extent to which the questioning of former dictator Todor Zhivkov should be public or behind closed doors. The Bulgarian people indeed had a lot to protest about; primarily a rapidly declining standard of living and a government without a president which seemed paralyzed and unable to enact desperately-needed reforms. But the question posed by some MPs – as thousands of hostile demonstrators surrounded the parliament building during the Smerdjiev affair – was “Are we going to be dictated to by the street?” “The problem,” said Prime Minister Lukanov, “is whether parliament is a sovereign body or whether we are going to be forced to make decisions under pressure.” His car was attacked as he left the building. 19 Finally, on 1 August the head of the UDF, Zhelyu Zhelev, was elected unopposed by Parliament as the new president.
A few weeks later, another demand of the protesters was met. The government began to remove communist symbols, such as red stars and hammer-and-sickles, from buildings in Sofia. Yet, two days later, the headquarters of the Socialist Party was set afire as 10,000 people swarmed around it. Many of them broke into the building and ransacked it before it wound up a gutted and charred shell. 20
The protest movement in Bulgaria was beginning to feel and smell like the general strike in British Guiana to topple Cheddi Jagan in 1962, and the campaign to undermine Salvador Allende in Chile in the early ’70s – both operations of the CIA – where as soon as one demand was met, newer ones were raised, putting the government virtually under siege, hoping it would over-react, and making normal governing impossible. In Bulgaria, women demonstrated by banging pots and pans to signify the lack of food in the shops, 21 just as women had dramatically done in Chile, and in Jamaica and Nicaragua as well, where the CIA had also financed anti-government demonstrations.
In British Guiana, the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade had come down from the US to spread the gospel and money, and similar groups had set up shop in Jamaica. In Bulgaria in August, representatives of the Free Congress Foundation, an American right-wing organization with lots of money and lots of anti-communist and religious ideology, met with about one-third of the opposition members in Parliament and President Zhelev’s chief political adviser. Zhelev himself visited the FCF’s Washington office the following month. The FCF – which has received money from the National Endowment for Democracy at times – had visited the Soviet Union and most of the Eastern European countries in 1989 and 1990, imparting good ol’ American know-how in electoral and political techniques and for shaping public policy, as well as holding seminars on the multiple charms of free enterprise. It is not known whether any of the students were aware of the fact that one of the FCF’s chief Eastern European program directors, Laszlo Pasztor, was a man with genuine Nazi credentials. 22
By October, a group of American financial experts and economists, under the auspices of the US Chamber of Commerce, had drawn up a detailed plan for transforming Bulgaria into a supply-side free-market economy, complete with timetables for implementing the plan. President Zhelev said he was confident the Bulgarian government would accept virtually all the recommendations, even though the BSP held a majority in Parliament. “They will be eager to proceed,” he said, “because otherwise the government will fall.” 23
Witnesses and police claimed that Konstantin Trenchev, a fierce anti-communist who was a senior figure in the UDF and the leader of the Podkrepa independent trade union, had called on a group of hardcore demonstrators to storm the BSP building during the fire. He had also called for the dissolution of Parliament and presidential rule, “tantamount to a coup d’etat” declared the Socialist Party. Trenchev went into hiding. 24
Trenchev’s Podkrepa union was also being financed by the NED – $327 thousand had been allocated “to provide material and technical support to Bulgaria’s independent trade union movement Podkrepa” and “to help Podkrepa organize a voter education campaign for the local elections”. There were computers and fax machines, and there were advisers to help the union “get organized and gain strength”, according to Podkrepa’s vice president. The assistance had reached Podkrepa via the Free Trade Union Institute, 25 set up by the AFL-CIO in 1977 as the successor to the Free Trade Union Committee, which had been formed in the 1940s to combat left-wing trade unionism in Europe. Both the FTUC and the FTUI had long had an intimate relationship with the CIA. 26
In the first week of November, several hundred students occupied Sofia University once again, demanding now the prosecution, not merely the removal, of leading figures in the former communist regime, as well as the nationalization of the Socialist Party’s assets. The prime minister’s rule was shaky. Lukanov had threatened to step down unless he gained opposition support in Parliament for his program of economic reform. The UDF, on the other hand, was now demanding that it be allowed to dominate a new coalition government, taking the premiership and most key portfolios. Although open to a coalition, the BSP would not agree to surrender the prime minister’s position; the other cabinet posts, however, were open to negotiation. 27
The movement to topple Lukanov was accelerating. Thousands marched and called for his resignation. University students held rallies, sit-ins, strikes and protest fasts, now demanding the publication of the names of all former secret police informers in the university. They proclaimed their complete distrust in the ability of the government to cope with Bulgaria’s political and economic crisis, and called for “an end to one-party rule”, a strange request in light of the desire of Lukanov to form a coalition government. 28 In June The Guardian of London had described Lukanov as “Bulgaria’s impressive Prime minister … a skilled politician who impresses business executives, bankers and conservative Western politicians, while maintaining popular support at home, even among the opposition.” 6
On the 23rd of November, Lukanov (barely) survived a no-confidence motion, leading the UDF to storm out of Parliament, announcing that they would not return for “an indefinite period”. Three days later, the Podkrepa labor organization instituted a “general strike”, albeit not with a majority of the nation’s workers. 30
Meanwhile, the student protests continued, although some of their demands had already been partly met. The Socialist Party had agreed to restore to the state 57 percent of its assets, corresponding to subsidies received from the state budget under the previous regime. And the former party leader, Todor Zhivkov, was already facing trial.
Some opposition leaders were not happy with the seemingly boundless student protest movement. UDF leader Petar Beron urged that since Bulgaria had embarked on the road to parliamentary democracy, the students should give democracy a chance and not resort to sit-ins. And a UDF MP added that “The socialists should leave the political arena in a legal manner. They should not be forced into doing it through revolution.” Student leaders dismissed these remarks out of hand. 31
The end for Andrei Lukanov came on 29 November, as the strike spread to members of the media, and thousands of doctors, nurses and teachers staged demonstrations. He announced that since his proposed economic program had not received the broad support he had asked for, he had decided that it was “useless to continue in office”. A caretaker coalition would be set up that would lead to new general elections. 32
Throughout the period of protest and turmoil, the United States continued to give financial assistance to various opposition forces and “whispered advice on how to apply pressure to the elected leaders”. The vice president of the Podkrepa union, referring to American diplomats, said: “They wanted to help us and have helped with advice and strategy.” This solidarity gave rise to hopes of future American aid. Konstantin Trenchev, the head of Podkrepa, apparently out of hiding now, confirmed that opposition activists had been assured of more US assistance if they managed to wrest power from the former communists. 4
These hopes may have had as much to do with naiveté as with American support for the UDF. The Bulgarians, like other Eastern Europeans and Soviet citizens, had led very sheltered political and intellectual lives. In 1990, their ideological sophistication was scarcely above the equation: if the communist government was bad, it must have been all bad; if it was all bad, its principal enemy must have been all good. They believed such things as: American government leaders could not stay in office if they lied to the people, and that reports of homelessness and the absence of national health insurance in the United States were just “communist propaganda”.
However, the new American ambassador, H. Kenneth Hill, said that Washington officials had made it clear to Bulgarian politicians that future aid depended on democratic reform and development of an economic recovery plan acceptable to Western lenders, the same terms laid down all over Eastern Europe.
The Bulgarian Socialists, while not doubting Washington’s commitment to exporting capitalism, did complain that the United States had at times violated democratic principles in working against the leadership chosen by the Bulgarian people. One reform- minded Socialist government official contended that Americans had reacted to his party’s victory as if it represented a failure of US policy. “The U.S. government people have not been the most clean, moral defenders of democracy here,” he said. “What cannot be done at home can be gotten away with in this dark, backward Balkan state.” 34
In the years since, the Bulgarian people, particularly the students, may have learned something, as the country has gone through the now-familiar pattern of freely-rising prices, the scrapping of subsidies on basic goods and utilities, shortages of all kinds, and IMF and World Bank demands to tighten the belts even further. Politically, there’s been chaos. The UDF came to power in the next elections (with the BSP a very close second) but, due to the failing economy, lost a confidence vote in Parliament, saw its entire cabinet resign, then the vice president, who warned that the nation was heading for dictatorship. Finally, in July 1993, protesters prevented the president from entering his office for a month and demanded his resignation.
By 1994, we could read in the Los Angeles Times, by their most anti-communist foreign correspondent:
Living conditions are so much worse in the reform era that Bulgarians look back fondly on communism’s “good old days,” when the hand of the state crushed personal freedom but ensured that people were housed, employed and had enough to eat. 35
But for Washington policy makers, the important thing, the ideological bottom line, was that the Bulgarian Socialist Party could not, and would not, be given the chance to prove that a democratic, socialist-oriented mixed economy could succeed in Eastern Europe while the capitalist model was failing all around it.
Nor, apparently, would it be allowed in nearby Albania. On 31 March 1991, a Communist government won overwhelming endorsement in elections there. This was followed immediately by two months of widespread unrest, including street demonstrations and a general strike lasting three weeks, which finally led to the collapse of the new regime by June. 36 The National Endowment for Democracy had been there also, providing $80,000 to the labor movement and $23,000 “to support party training and civic education programs”. 37
- New York Times, 11 February 1990, p. 20.
- The Guardian (London), 21 May 1990, p. 6.
- National Endowment for Democracy, Washington, D.C., Annual Report, 1990 (October 1, 1989 - September 30, 1990), pp. 23-4. The NED grants also included $111 thousand for an international election observation team.
- Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1990, p. 13.
- New York Times, 6 June 1990, p. 10; 11 February 1990, p. 20.
- The Guardian (London), 9 June 1990, p. 6.
- Luan Troxel, “Socialist Persistence in the Bulgarian Elections of 1990-1991”, East European Quarterly (Boulder, CO), January 1993, pp. 412-14.
- Los Angeles Times, 12 June 1990.
- The Guardian (London), 12 June 1990, p. 7.
- Los Angeles Times, 12 June 1990; The Times (London), 12 June 1990, p. 15;* The Guardian* (London), 12 June 1990, p. 7.
- The Times (London), 20 June 1990, p. 10.
- The Guardian (London), 28 May 1990, p. 6.
- The Times (London), 20 June 1990, p. 10.
- *The Times Higher Educational Supplement *(London), 29 June 1990, p. 11.
- NED Annual Report, 1990, op. cit., pp. 6-7, 23.
- The Times (London), 7 July 1990, p. 11.
- The Times Higher Educational Supplement (London), 13 July 1990, p. 9.
- The Guardian (London), 12 July 1990, p. 10; The Times (London), 20 July 1990, p. 10.
- The Times (London), 28 July 1990, p. 8; 30 July, p. 6.
- Ibid., 27 August 1990, p. 8.
- The Times Higher Education Supplement (London), 14 December 1990, p. 8.
- Russ Bellant and Louis Wolf, “The Free Congress Foundation Goes East”, Covert Action Information Bulletin, Fall 1990, No. 35, pp. 29-32, based substantially on Free Congress Foundation publications.
- New York Times, 9 October 1990, p. D20.
- The Guardian (London), 29, 30 August 1990, both p. 8.
- NED Annual Report, 1990, op. cit., p. 23; Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1990, p. 13.
- Howard Frazier, editor, Uncloaking the CIA (The Free Press/Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1978) pp. 241-8.
- The Guardian (London), 7 November 1990, p. 10.
- The Times Higher Educational Supplement (London), 16 November 1990, p. 11.
- The Guardian (London), 9 June 1990, p. 6.
- The Times (London), 24 November 1990, p. 10; 27 November, p. 16.
- The Times Higher Educational Supplement (London), 30 November 1990, p. 8.
- The Guardian (London), 30 November 1990, p. 9; The Times (London), 30 November 1990, p. 10.
- Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1990, p. 13.
- Ibid., 6 February 1994, article by Carol J. Williams.
- Ibid., 13 June 1991, p. 14.
- National Endowment for Democracy, Washington, D.C., Annual Report, 1991 (October 1, 1990 - September 30, 1991), p. 42.
This is a chapter from Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II by William Blum.