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Balkan Strongmen: Bulgaria's Zhivkov

Simon Malley interview with Todor Shivkov - Bulgaria extends a friendly hand - 1982 - Booklet by Bulgarian regime
Cover of a special booklet published by the Bulgarian government
in 1982. It featured an interview by Simon Malley with Todor Shivkov:
"Bulgaria extends a friendly hand". Photo: CAMERA

Bernd J. Fischer is one of the foremost historians of Albania writing in English. However the book which we have chosen here and which was published in 2007 is one which he edited and contributed to. It is a collection of essays and profiles of the dictators and strongmen who dominated the Balkans in the last century. Divided into two parts the first takes in Zog of Albania, King Aleksandar of Yugoslavia, King Carol of Romania, Boris of Bulgaria, Ataturk of Turkey, Metaxas of Greece and Ante Pavelic, the fascist quisling leader of wartime Croatia. The second part covers the post 1945 period: Enver Hoxha of Albania, Tito of Yugoslavia, Ceausescu of Romania, Zhivkov of Bulgaria, Papadopoulos and the Greek colonels and finally Serbia's Milosevic. For this extract we have chosen an assessment of Todor Zhivkov, the Bulgarian communist leader who dominated the country for almost all of the communist period. The chapter was written by Stefan Krause a specialist in modern Balkan politics. Zhivkov was born in 1907, the son of peasants, became a Marxist in the early 1930s, became a member of the Politburo in 1954, assumed full control in 1962, was overthrown in 1989 and died in 1998. Above all argues Krause, Zhivkov was a master tactician.

He made his way to the top as a compromise figure underestimated by almost everybody else in the leadership of Communist Bulgaria. Once he got to the top, he managed to strengthen his position by forming temporary tactical alliances with one strong figure against another. In this way he eliminated one competitor after another until he was the undisputed leader of his party and country. Once in power, his political acumen continued to serve him well. He would routinely build up a "crown prince" only to get rid of him after a few years and establish a new one. Thus Zhivkov insured that nobody became strong enough to threaten his own position. At the same time he managed for over thirty years to secure the backing of the party leader in Moscow. It was only when Gorbachev set out on the path of Perestroika, while the situation in Bulgaria was deteriorating significantly, that his recipe failed. As his subordinates in Sofia realized that they needed to remove him in order to save the system, Zhivkov found himself without a sponsor in Moscow who could keep him in power. In the end his personal regime fell apart in just a few months, only to be followed by the collapse of the system he had worked all his life to implement and perpetuate.

The dilemma of Zhivkov and his legacy is manifold: during the forty-five years of Communism Bulgaria was propelled from an agrarian country into the industrial age, but at the same time the command economy that was built under Communism was ineffective and proved unable to cope with new requirements. The population of Bulgaria in 1989 was much better educated than it had been in 1944 and on average enjoyed a much higher standard of living; at the same time most people had been deprived of political participation for about half a century, and the cost of building a civil society was enormous and is still substantial. Political culture, political participation, media and the economy – everything had to be rebuilt almost from scratch and at a high material and social cost. In this respect Bulgaria still feels the consequences of Zhivkov's rule years after his removal.

Balkan Strongmen: Dictators and Authoritarian Rulers of South Eastern Europe. Ed: Bernd J. Fischer. 2007.
[pp.  390-91 / Hurst]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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