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Bulgarians campaign for democratic reforms and multi-party rule, 1989-90
By 1989, Bulgaria’s Communist Party Leader Todor Zhivkov had ruled the country for 35 years through a constitutionally sanctioned single-party government. Zhivkov and the communist Politburo, had always quickly repressed any opposition and independent unions or organizations were illegal in the country. In the late 1980s Zhivkov and his regime had also begun an assimilation program for Muslims and ethnic Turks, which had forced nearly 300,000 Turks to leave Bulgaria in 1989 to avoid persecution. At the same time, however, reforms were sweeping through Eastern Europe as protestors forced regime changes in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. However, the ruling party was slow to follow these reforms, continuing to repress any opposition even as Gorbachev in the Soviet Union promoted “openness” and “restructuring.”
However, an international environmental conference in October 1989 offered the first opportunity for more open protest because the presence of foreign diplomats in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia made the police forces less likely to violently repress its own citizens. The opposition environmental group, Ecoglasnost, began the first organized protests calling for more environmental openness as they held small protests and gathered signatures on a petition throughout the international conference from October 16 to October 26. The group received international attention when police forces beat and arrested 24 Ecoglasnost activists in front of foreign diplomats. A few days later President Zhivkov announced that the government would begin reforms following the trend throughout Eastern Europe.
Following these actions by Ecoglasnost, further opposition groups began to form, including a human rights watch group and the Intellectual Club for the Support of Perestroika and Glasnost. While the international conference continued in Sofia, Zhivkov allowed dissidents who had been sent out of the city to return. Ecoglasnost held a march and rally to present its petitions to the National Assembly on November 3 with 4,000 people attending. Amidst singing of the national anthem and folk songs, people at the rally also began to call for democracy and greater political reforms.
Due to continued outside pressure from foreign governments the Communist Party overthrew Zhivkov from the inside on November 10, replacing him with former Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov. Mladenov then began focus on changing the Communist leadership, ousting many of Zhivkov’s supporters and replacing them with reformist leaders in the Politburo. However, he was not making reforms quickly enough for the emergent opposition groups in Bulgaria.
On November 16 Mladenov met with leaders of the Intellectual Club for the Support of Perestroika and Glasnost and promised reforms in the future. At a state-sponsored rally after the official ousting of Zhivkov the next day, citizens began to call for greater and faster reforms. Additionally, the formerly communist-allied Agrarian Party began to demand a referendum on continued Communist Party rule.
On Saturday, November 18, opposition groups took their campaign for democratic reforms to the streets as 50,000 gathered at a cathedral in central Sofia to attend a rally sponsored by various human rights groups and Ecoglasnost. The crowd shouted “Gorbachev” and “democracy” and burned portraits of former President Zhivkov. Fifteen opposition leaders gave speeches and called for a new constitution and the beginning of a multi-party democracy, two central demands which would continue throughout the democracy campaign.
The next day, the same opposition groups organized a smaller rally of 2,000 people in Sofia’s South Park. Speakers from the crowd supported Mladenov’s reformist path, but demanded clear changes more quickly. These protestors also signed petitions from Ecoglasnost calling for everything from the release of political prisoners to the closing of Bulgaria’s nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, the Agrarian Party held a special conference as it continued to separate itself from the Communist Party, students called for an independent student union to represent them, and separate dissidents organized the Civic Initiative, a small, pro-democracy umbrella group.
Although the government had allowed the weekend’s rallies, the next week they warned that they would crackdown on protests that were overly critical. That same week, however, the government set December 11 as the date to begin a plenum to discuss further reforms of the Communist Party. Furthermore, the government disbanded the police squad that specifically targeted oppositional protests.
On November 29, pro-democracy leaders held a mass meeting and called openly for the end to single-party rule. Around the same time, President Mladenov was introducing new legislation, which would protect public demonstrations from prosecution, to be voted on at a December 14 National Assembly meeting. Several days later Mladenov also said that an end to single-party rule was up for discussion at further meetings for reform. While the communist party was promising some reforms, they were not making them fast enough for the campaigners.
During the following weekend, citizens held meetings in cities and towns throughout the country. At these meetings, the people supported the changes Mladenov had already made, but called for further reforms, a clear end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and the indictment of former leaders.
On December 7, at least twelve opposition groups came together to form the Union for Democratic Forces (UDF) to further push for a new constitution and a multi-party system. This new umbrella organization included the Independent Society for Human Rights, Ecoglasnost, the trade union Podkrepa, the Society for Religious Freedoms, the Club of the Prosecuted, the Independent Society of Students, the Civic Initiative, the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, and the agrarian group Nikola Pet-kov. Their other demands included freedom of the press, separation of police and army from the Communist Party, and the end of the assimilation program for ethnic minorities.
While these groups were focusing mainly on democratic issues, other groups also began to hold open protests calling for greater religious freedom. Meanwhile, Mladenov continued to remove conservative party leaders who had been loyal to Zhivkov.
On Sunday, December 10, independent opposition groups held another rally attended by 50,000 people in Sofia. This time, many of the attendees also came from towns outside of the capital. At the rally, people continued to shout slogans and hold banners calling for democracy. At the end of the rally, a speaker read a letter that the campaigners would later deliver to the National Assembly (Parliament) demanding quicker reforms and reiterating many of the demands held by the UDF. The entire group also voted by show of hands for the Communist Party to resign. Nearly 1,000 ethnic Turks at the protest also shouted for the end of the assimilation program.
While the Communist Party Central Committee began their plenum to discuss further reforms on Monday December 11, between 5,000 and 10,000 people, holding candles and Bulgarian flags, stood for an hour-long vigil outside of the Party headquarters to symbolize that the citizens were watching the Party’s work. That night and the next 15,000 people gathered at 9 September Square in Sofia to hold candlelight vigils for democracy and greater reforms. The organizers of these vigils (which may or may not have been led by the UDF) also said that they would surround the Parliament building with a human chain on December 14 as the National Assembly voted on reforms including free elections and the abolition of Article 1 of the constitution, which guaranteed Communist Party single-party rule.
Early in that week of meetings Mladenov had proposed free elections for May 1990 and proposed the elimination of Article 1 from the constitution. He also announced a special Communist Party in March 1990 to organize a new constitution. In addition, the Supreme Court officially recognized Ecoglasnost as the first independent organization in the country. Despite these announcements, however, the newly emergent political opposition wanted quicker reforms and participation in the changes.
On December 14, when the National Assembly was supposed to vote on the proposed reforms, including the elimination of single-party rule, between 20,000 and 50,000 students, workers, and other citizens gathered outside of the parliament building. Some formed a human chain around the building as they waited to hear the outcome of the vote. While protesters chanted and held signs and banners, opposition leaders urged them to remain peaceful. When the Assembly announced that they were delaying the vote for a month because the law required it, the protestors grew angry, but remained peaceful as leaders continued to urge them not to storm the building. Several people gave speeches and Zheliu Zhelev, a leader of the UDF, delivered a resolution that had been approved at the mass rally on the previous Sunday. President Mladenov also attempted to address the citizens, but they drowned him out with their chants. Finally, Zhelev called on the demonstrators to disperse peacefully and return the next day.
The next day, the government granted amnesty to all political prisoners and ended the law that punished people for anti-government activity. Following Zhelev’s call to return to protests that day, 15,000 people gathered outside of the Parliament building and national TV headquarters chanting such slogans as “We are the people.” In response to the upset crowd the previous day, the government leaders also broadcast on public television a vote assuring they would address the issue of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power at their next meeting in January. Government leaders also met some opposition leaders that day and agreed to begin an open dialogue with them in the future.
Despite the governments assurance of future reforms in January, the pro-democracy groups wanted fast reforms and, additionally, to take part in the reform process to assure a true, multi-party democracy. In the last two weeks of December, the independent trade union Podkrepa, which was a member of the UDF, called on workers to begin a limited strike on December 27 and then a general strike on December 28 to convince the government to begin open discussions with opposition groups. At least 75 different industries participated in the 2-hour protest strike on December 27. In order to prevent the general strike, the government met with the UDF and planned the beginning of roundtable discussions the next week. In response, Podkrepa called off the general strike.
While the country waited for the beginning of these roundtable talks, people in Sofia and throughout the country continued small rallies. More conservative groups also went into the streets to protest against the government’s decision to stop the assimilation of ethnic Turks, creating an ethnic division in the country that would continue throughout the talks.
Despite these protests, the UDF, the Agrarian Party, and the Communist Party began roundtable discussions for two days on January 3 and 4, 1990. On January 14 the UDF organized the largest rally yet, which 100,000 people attended. This huge group chanted throughout and continued to call for more rapid reforms. Speakers addressed the crowd and condemned the protests against the ethnic Turks because they risked slowing down reforms. This group also adopted another resolution demanding the end to single-party rule.
On January 15 the National Assembly officially abolished the section of Article 1 that guaranteed the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. In addition, they allowed freedom of religion and eliminated the programs for the persecution of ethnic Turks. The next day the roundtable discussions continued and during these talks in the following weeks, the government continued to grant the demands of the protesters. They lifted the Communist Party’s control of the military and police on January 27. In June 1990, citizens voted in open, multi-party elections for a Grand National Assembly that would create a new constitution for the country and Bulgaria continued to move towards a more democratic and open government.