EU flags for Balkan tyrant and ethnic cleanser
EU flags are present for another year as Todor Zhivkov’s birth is celebrated in Pravets.
On September 7th 2019, in his hometown of Pravets, near the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, the 108th anniversary of Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998) was lavishly celebrated. He was the Stalinist and nationalist tyrant who ruled communist Bulgaria for three and a half decades. In 1962 and 1973, Zhivkov applied for Bulgaria’s membership in the Soviet Union twice. By the turn of the 1970s, he had liquidated the last vestiges of the cultural autonomy for a tenth of Bulgarians, who happened to be Turks and Muslims. In the brutal militarised forced assimilation campaign, the “Islamo-Arabic” names of 1 million Turks were replaced with “Slavo-Bulgarian” ones in the winter of 1984 and 1985. About a hundred protestors were killed, while thousands were thrown into the hastily built concentration camps. After 1985, the existence of Turks or any other ethnic minorities was officially denied.
Encouraged by the reforms in the Soviet Union, in May 1989, desperate Turks and Muslims staged the first-ever mass protests in communist Bulgaria, which involved 60,000 people. These May Protests triggered a series of events, which led to the collapse of communism in the country. First, incensed Zhivkov ordered the expulsion of half of Bulgaria’s Turks. In the summer of 1989, 360,000 people (4 per cent of the population) were expelled across the Iron Curtain to Turkey, a NATO member. It was the largest ethnic cleansing in Cold War Europe. Subsequently, the Bulgarian economy collapsed. Zhivkov’s colleagues removed him from office in November and placed the dictator under house arrest. They vowed to reform the economy, and allowed expellees to come back. However, the communist leadership did not return civil and political rights to Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims until December 31st 1989. In response, anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim demonstrations with 1 million participants engulfed Sofia and the entire country in January 1990.
Zhivkov’s program of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing united communist and anti-communist ethnic (that is, Slavophone and Orthodox) Bulgarians. Protests lasted through 1991. Luckily, a Yugoslav-style ethnic civil war and a potential breakup of the country was narrowly avoided. Bulgaria’s Turks and their party were grudgingly accepted. Meanwhile, the uncharismatic apparatchik Zhivkov became a celebrity. Despite his arrest, Zhivkov widely toured Bulgaria. The difficulties of the systemic transition enabled the coalescence of an unprecedented post-communist cult of personality for this communist dictator and ethnic cleanser. The personality cult continues to this day.
The incumbent Bulgarian PM, Boyko Borisov, has almost continuously held this high office since 2009. He entered politics on the strength of having worked as Zhivkov’s personal body guard from 1990 until the dictator’s death in 1998. Borisov openly praises Zhivkov the ethnic cleanser as “our Great Daddy [of the Bulgarian nation].” The Prime Minister never enrolled at a university, but likes emphasising that “Zhivkov was his university”.
On September 7th 2001, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Zhivkov’s birth, the communist-era statue of the dictator was returned from storage to Pravets. Borisov attended this event. Shortly after he became Prime Minister for the first time, the initial celebrations of Zhivkov’s birth took place in Pravets in 2010. Beginning with the 2012 celebrations, EU flags were employed to decorate the Zhivkov monument. Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. However, if anti-European and anti-western Zhivkov was still in power, he would have rather opted to apply for his country’s membership in autocratic Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
Brussels worries that rule of law and democracy continues to be dismantled in Hungary and Poland, and is endangered in Britain, the Czech Republic and Romania. At the same time, Borisov continues on his path in Bulgaria and goes a step further, staking his repeated electoral success on Zhivkov-style, anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish and anti-Roma nationalism. The blatant abuse of EU flags at the monument of the ethnic cleanser is a clear sign of this malaise, which so far, no one has noticed outside Bulgaria. Soon it may be too late.
Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge.