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Bulgaria's road to freedom

The Independent Association in Defence of Human Rights

In the Fifties and Sixties, unlike in other countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, in Bulgaria there was practically no organized opposition to the Communist regime. Similarly, the Seventies and Eighties were barren years in terms dissident cultural productions or publications – there was not even the samizdat that had emerged in the USSR. There was there no organized system in place to defend people persecuted for political reasons either, although Bulgaria did see some forms of moral resistance to the regime. Persecution, however, was rife and the figures speak for themselves: a lot of material has been destroyed but the security service archives still hold 450,000 files on people regularly spied on by the secret police. According to former officials, files were kept on a total of approximately one and a half million people, out of a population at the time of some eight million. This means that the authorities had developed a vast and structured surveillance system to keep check on ordinary people’s lives. On top of these, there were the “extreme cases” involving scores of forced labour camps where, especially in the immediate aftermath of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians were detained.

The early post-war years
From 20 December 1944 to 29 April 1945 numerous show trials were held in Sofia, and in the country’s other main cities. The victims were the pre-war cultural and political élite, whose ranks were decimated by no fewer than 2720 executions and 1120 life sentences, while tens of thousands of others were deported or imprisoned in the so-called “correction colonies”, including the notorious Belen island camp, on the Danube. This effectively wiped out all the democratic organizations present before the war. In spite of this, however, there were still small pockets of underground political resistance, organized in groups with just a few members. In the post-1989 political scenario this circumstance enabled the parties to get themselves up and re-organized fast. Up until 1952 there had also been a form of armed resistance in the mountains, fighting against the sovietization of Bulgaria.

From 1956 to 1968
In 1956, after the repression of the Hungarian uprising, student protests broke out in the universities and a poem entitled “Cry for Freedom” began to circulate anonymously. The poem was by Jordan Ruskov, who was only identified and tried in 1959, but the protests led to the arrest and repression of hundreds of “enemies of the people”, and to the reopening of the infamous camp on Belen island, which had been closed down after Stalin’s death. In February 1957 some 250 people were imprisoned there for “counter-revolutionary activities”. Numerous labour camps were re-opened and new ones built. According to the latest available data, between 1944 and 1962 the overall number of prisoners in Bulgaria’s 44 concentration camps was 285,000, including many intellectuals. 40,000 of these detainees were either executed or died of un-specified causes.
In the second half of the Seventies, especially during the Prague Spring, public initiatives in defence of human rights became more frequent. The photoreporter and poet Georgi Zarkin, in prison since 1966 for anti-communist activities, was sentenced again for going on a hunger strike in solidarity with the people of Czechoslovakia. He was later assassinated by a common criminal at the instigation of the security services. The Bulgarian intellectuals’ support of the Prague Spring provoked numerous arrests and prison sentences.

Repression against the Turkish minority
Ethnic minorities in Bulgaria were hard hit by the repression. In 1964 and in 1971 protests against the forced conversion of surnames of Turkish origin into Bulgarian were brutally repressed. As a consequence of this forced “Bulgarization”, in 1985 an underground organization was set up in northern Bulgaria to defend human rights. Known as the “National Turkish Liberation Movement”, it was openly anti-communist and was led by Ahmed Dogan, who was to remain in prison until 1990. On his release, along with other leaders of the movement, he set up the “Freedom and Rights Movement”, which became an important player in post-Communist parliamentary life. Between 1988 and 1989 numerous Bulgarian intellectuals joined the protests of the Turkish minority, lending their voices to the cause also on the occasion of international meetings.

Bulgaria’s Charter ’77
In May 1977 a group of intellectuals wrote a Bulgarian “Charter ’77”, broadcast clandestinely in the West and read in Belgrade during the meeting of the States that had signed the Helsinki Agreements. Following his release from jail, and with the help of Lubomir Sobadzijev, Nikola Popov, one of the signatories of the “Charter”, sent a message to Francois Mitterand denouncing the human rights violations in his country; the message was published by “Le Monde”. In the same way, between 1980 and 1983 Volodia Nakov sent numerous letters of denunciation to Amnesty International and to the UNO. As a result, Nakov was arrested in 1985, declared insane and interned in a camp, where he was beaten to death. In 1986 Grigor Bozilov sent an Open letter in defence of human rights to the Conference of Vienna, signed, among others, by Ilija Minev and Eduard Genov. In January 1988 these two people formed the first legal ”Independent Association in Defence of Human Rights”, chaired by Minev himself.

Culture and science
Among the initiatives promoted by dissidents (or anyway those the regime considered as such), the cultural and scientific activities of certain intellectuals are worth mentioning. In 1968 a collection of epigrams entitled Hot pepper, by the satirical writer Radoj Ralin, became very popular. Ralin’s caricatures played an important role in orienting public opinion in the subsequent decades, despite the relevant publications having been partly withdrawn and destroyed. In December 1978 in London, the writer Georgi Markov was assassinated, pierced by an umbrella with a poisoned tip. Markov had emigrated several years earlier and his broadcasts on Radio Free Europe had a huge following. Today we know that his murder was commissioned by the secretary of the party and prime minister, Todor Zivkov. In 1981 Blaga Dimitrova’s story The Face came out; it was fiercely criticized as being contrary to communist ideology and rapidly confiscated. 1982 saw the publication of Zelu Zelev’s book Fascism, written a few decades earlier and soon interpreted by the security services as a description of the communist system. Although confiscated and withdrawn from the market, the text continued to circulate underground. Zelev was also one of the founders of the “Glasnost and Perestrojka Club”, formed on 3 November 1988. The club brought together and coordinated all the protests and actions in defence of human rights right through to the fall of the regime. Zelev became the first chairman of the “Coalition of Democratic Forces” and then the first democratically elected president of the Bulgarian Republic.

1988 - 1989
Between 1988 and 1989 – the dying years of the regime – protests multiplied with ever- increasing numbers of the population taking part. Attempts at repression by the Party and the security services only helped to reinforce the opposition, which was by now expressing itself openly. In 1988 the underground literary and social magazines “Most” and “Glas” started to circulate. When the secret police searched the apartment of the poet and secretary of the ”Independent Association in Defence of Human Rights” Petyr Manolov and confiscated his archive, Manolov and Minev went on a hunger strike. Public reaction to their gesture was enormous: the authorities received hundreds of protest letters, numerous demonstrations were staged in their support and hundreds of intellectuals spoke out in their defence. On 8 February 1988, in Plovdiv, the first independent trade union organization was set up, led by Konstantin Trencev. In the summer of the same year half a million Bulgarians of Turkish origin were forcibly ousted from the country, victims of the so-called “process of re-birth” of Bulgarian identity, and this too led to numerous protests. In October 1988 Sofia hosted a major international ecology conference, in which representatives of human rights organizations and opponents of the regime took part, despite sporadic brutal attacks by the police. On 3 November 1989 in front of St. Alessandro Nevskij’s cathedral, the first mass non-Communist demonstration took place, during which participants spontaneously took up a patriotic hymn and chanted “Freedom, Democracy, Down with the first article” (referring to the first article of the Constitution, which established the leading role of the Party).
On 10 November, Zivkov lost the confidence of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and the proceedings of the Round Table between the government and the opposition led by Zelev got underway. On 26 November, after forty years’ silence, the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Party rose again from the ashes.
Two months earlier, on 11 September, the Bulgarian parliament had rehabilitated 1000 victims of Stalinist terror.
On 14 December, the Parliament building was surrounded by tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding democracy for Bulgaria. It was the final curtain for one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive regimes.

Exemplary figures
Blaga Dimitrova
Ahmed Demir Dogan
Radoj Ralin
Zelu Zelev

The Republic of Bulgaria's Transition to Democracy, political and social implications
The belated Bulgarian dissidence, the emergence and development of dissident movements in Bulgaria
Reclaiming a memory, an inquiry into the Bulgarian camp past

I. Bajewa
Bibliografical handbook of bulgarian authors, red. K.L. Black, Ohaio, 1981.

R. Detrez
Historical dictionary of Bulgaria, Lanham-London, 1997

F. Foscolo
Réconstruction ou récupération, “La Nouvelle Alternative”, 1988, n.12
Intellectual life and the first crisis of state socialisme in East Central Europe 1953- 1956, red. G. Péteri, “Trondheim Studies on East European Cultures & Societies”, 2001, n.6

K. Panov
Patronage, personal networks and the Party-State. Everyday life in the cultural sphere in Communist Russia and East Central Europe, red. G. Péeteri, Trondheim Studies on East European Cultures & Societies”, 2004, n.13
Pourquoi je suis radical et determine. Interview de Peter Manolov, “La Nouvelle Alternative” 1989, n.13

G. Schopflin
Politics in Eastern Europe 1945 – 1992, Oxford 1993

T. Todorov
Au nom du people, Paris 1992

By the Editorial Staff with the contribution of Annalia Guglielmi

3 November 2009

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Eastern Europe dissent

the truth against the lies of totalitarianism

The so called dissent in Eastern European communist regimes cannot be downplayed to a simple connotation of "opposition" as its definition would suggest, but must be viewed above all as the attempt to build a parallel polis based on every citizen's responsibility and aimed at occupying the spaces of cultural, social and human freedom wrought from the totalitarian regime into the social fabric.  The members of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakya and Solidarnosc in Poland, like Vaclav Havel, Radim Palous, Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik, have always underlined that "the power of the powerless" consists in defeating fear through the strength created by coilectively assuming one's responsibilities, as proven by the exhortation to "live the truth" in a society based on lie. Their "dissent" has very often consisted in calling for the enforcement of the laws, such as the one about freedom of conscience, and the international accords subscribed by their countries, such as the Helsinki Accords
These stances have given rise to a broad movement which was able to condition the behaviour and mentality of the public opinion, up to the point in which - except in Romania - the totalitarian system was overturned in a peaceful way, without shedding blood, by a new leading class recognized by the majority of the population which is ready to take up the responsibility for public affairs.


The power of the powerless

Not only dissent - the "parallel polis" in Eastern Europe

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