The Bulgarian 1987 – Todor Zhivkov's july conception. Iskra Baeva

Iskra Baeva




The long-awaited changes in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe as a whole happened in the middle of 1980s. They led to the collapse of the entire system of Soviet type state socialism. The turning point was March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became a leader of the Communist Party in the USSR. Nevertheless, during the two years that followed, the changes remained within the frames of the economic reforms of the 1960s. Real changes started in 1987 - the third year of the reforms. Gorbachev called for “glasnost” (that is, freedom of speech) thus seeking acceleration of the transformations through public support. As it is well-known, everything that happened in the Soviet Union was obligatory for Bulgaria and thus 1987 became a turning point in Bulgarian policy too, although in a different way.

What was Bulgaria like in the beginning of the “perestroika”? Thanks to Todor Zhivkov, the Communist party permanent leader since 1954, Bulgaria was labeled as the most faithful Soviet satellite. Nevertheless, the economic hardships in the beginning of 1980s pushed Communist leaders towards reforms, which started even before Gorbachev came to power. They aimed at economic acceleration, establishing close relations with Western Germany and Japan and orientating foreign policy towards solving economic problems. In the end of 1984 and the beginning of 1985 Bulgarian Communist party undertook a very significant political step, changing forcefully the names of 850 thousand Bulgarian Turks with Slavonic ones. This attempt at “Bulgarization”, which the authorities called “Revival Process”, even today is hard to explain beyond the frames of the common process of escalating nationalism on the Balkans. “The Revival Process” created important difficulties in Bulgarian international relations and increased her dependence on the Soviet Union. Still, I have to stress the fact that “the Revival Process” started when in Kremlin was in power the old and very sick Konstantin Chernenko, while Gorbachev from the very beginning of his rule expressed doubts about this policy. During his first official meeting with Zhivkov, Gorbachev promised Soviet help for Bulgaria’s relations with Turkey, but he did this very reluctantly. The relations between Zhivkov and Gorbachev were rendered even more difficult by Zhivkov attempt to play the role of doyen in the Eastern bloc, who tried to advise the young Soviet leader how to carry out reforms. On the other hand, it was only natural that Gorbachev wanted to bring to the fore younger Bulgarian politicians, in whose potential for reforms he trusted more. The growing tension and distrust between the two leaders Zhivkov and Gorbachev, marked strongly the Bulgarian 1987.

The 1987 January plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the USSR was a very important event for the East European socialist states. The plenum decisions forced the rest of the ruling Communist parties to express their attitude towards the “perestroika”. Politburo of Bulgarian Communist Party discussed these decisions three days - on 6, 10 and 17 February 1987. The whole atmosphere was well-known from previous periods and can be summarized in the statement that “we have never had so many reasons to agree absolutely and totally with the CPSS and the USSR, as we have now[1]. Still, there is certain Bulgarian nuance in this support for the Soviet policy and it can be noticed in the statement that “in the main conclusions and suggestions in Mikhail Gorbachev report, and also in the Plenum decisions, there are certain ideas, which have been in the center of our party work for quite a long time and we have already started their realization”. Bulgarian Communist leaders even proclaimed that “our Party and comrade Zhivkov contributed to the Plenum, as they clarified a number of fundamental questions about the further development of the Soviet economy and the relations of production in the Soviet Union, as we all very well know what an active work lately comrade Zhivkov personally carried out through personal contacts with comrade Gorbachev; letters, written on many important theoretical problems of real socialism[2]; speeches of comrade Zhivkov before the Political Committee of the Warsaw Treaty and before high level meetings in Moscow last year[3].

Thus, in the beginning of 1987 Bulgarian Communist Party gave support to Gorbachev’s decisions and even went away from the Communist parties of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Rumania, which expressed critical attitude towards the “perestroika”. This Bulgarian position fitted into Zhivkov’s pattern always to back the political line of the Soviet leadership towards Eastern Europe. At the same time, the closing speech of Zhivkov at the February Plenum of Bulgarian Communist Party revealed the beginning of the withdrawal. This speech described the historical development of Soviet-Bulgarian relations and underlined those Bulgarian initiatives, which have been criticized by the Soviet leaders, mostly by Khrushchev. Among these initiatives were the moderate destalinization, the consolidation of the cooperative farms, and the creation of the Agrarian-Industrial Complexes. Zhivkov explained that he personally preferred never to express disagreement with Soviet critical remarks and silently waited the Soviet leaders to realize that they were wrong and to accept that the Bulgarian initiatives were right. Zhivkov declared: “First, we cannot in any form declare ourselves against the Soviet Union – we cannot do that either in our press and in our party organizations, or on international level, or anywhere. We can express our internal views and disagreement with the Soviet Union, but we cannot openly declare ourselves against the Soviet Union”. He mentioned that Gorbachev’s report at the January Plenum was translated and published in Bulgaria, but warned that the new political line of the Communist leadership in Moscow, directed towards liberalization, would lead to “certain events also in GDR, in Czechoslovakia and in Hungary[4].

The first indirect critics of Gorbachev’s policy Zhivkov formulated from traditional Communist positions, that is from left positions. But he immediately explained that Bulgarian line was not a dogmatic one. Zhivkov stressed that “May be we are the only party… that opened itself towards the West through our culture, cultural exchange and so on… It must be clear, that we follow a new strategic course and in many aspects we are obliged to estimate certain things in a different way. And this is even more necessary, because our socialist countries detained the development, while in 1960s a new growth in means of production started in the world. In the capitalist countries it went on for about ten years… and during the second half of 1970s and the beginning of 1980s they made an enormous step forward… We detained in every possible way the technical progress, and the present form of the Comecon, which is presented as something ideal... The capitalists create supranational structures, while we are not able to raise our electronics, chemistry, biotechnology and new materials production, thus frying in our own grease[5]. It was not for the first time that Zhivkov underlined the advantages of the capitalist West – before Bulgarian Communist Party he often spoke about the necessity to follow the Japanese economic model. But it was for the first time that he mentioned this in the context of discussing the Soviet policy. In other words, already in the beginning of 1987 Zhivkov started criticizing Gorbachev politically from left communist positions, but in the sphere of economy he did this from right, pro capitalist positions. This duality in Zhivkov’s behavior appeared in 1987 and lasted till the end of his rule.

In the middle of 1987, in order to prove his reformist potential, Zhivkov prepared and proposed a plan for deep changes in Bulgarian social and political system. This happened at a session of the Communist Party Central Committee, held in July, so the plan was called “July Conception”. It envisaged transformation of political system by limitation of Communist Party role, which had to exchange its total power with the position of “a level in power”. Another step was the augmentation of the rights of the Parliament, which had to become “a direct body of the people, elected directly by the people[6]. Public control had to be strengthened; Constitutional court to be created; conditions for political pluralism to be prepared; new Constitution to be adopted and market mechanisms to be implemented in economic life[7]. The envisaged changes were obviously more profound and large-scale in comparison with Gorbachev proposals[8].

Unlike earlier plans, the July Conception did not remain only on paper. Its realization began as early as August 1987, when the National Assembly voted a number of laws, which led to closure of a number of ministries; the twenty-eight districts were replaced by nine regions with quite contested regional centers (for instance, such important towns as Veliko Turnovo, Stara Zagora, Pleven, Vidin and Shumen were not defined as centers); local self-government was transformed; a commission for preparation of a new Constitution was created; most of the traditional rituals of the Communist power such as manifestations, obligatory portraits of party leaders on state buildings and monuments of important Communists were repealed, cancelled and removed[9]. Foreign observers regarded the July Conception as another Bulgarian attempt at “great leap forward”, but in fact Zhivkov tried to demonstrate abroad his inexhaustible energy to struggle for his personal power[10]. Meanwhile, in Bulgaria the transformation of administration system and the rest of the reforms caused additional chaos in state government[11].

Regardless of Zhivkov personal intentions, the July Conception led to his first direct clash with Gorbachev. Their meeting in Kremlin on 16 October 1987 started with the well-known statements of friendship and cooperation. Still, when two of them began discussions on the reforms, Gorbachev made three critical remarks. The first was about the speed of changes that Zhivkov undertook to democratize Bulgaria. Gorbachev said: “We can abolish the old with one blow, but with one blow we cannot construct the new. Such an approach will cause vacuum and significant difficulties especially in the sphere of economy… If we abolish everything, we will totally destroy government[12].

The second remark revealed Gorbachev’s greatest fears, concerning “the Party” and Zhivkov’s thesis that it would not be “the main actor in power[13]. Gorbachev admitted: “We are very much worried by the appeal power to be taken away from the ruling party, thus changing the basic thesis about the leading role of the Party[14]. The Secretary General of the Soviet Union Communist Party estimated as truly heretical Zhivkov’s approach to this postulate, because Leninist theory considered the question about the leading role of the Communist party as fundamental one. In fact, Zhivkov himself had no intention to give up power, exercised through Bulgarian Communist Party. Rather, he wanted to mask this power with pseudo democratic garments.

The third critical remark of Gorbachev demonstrated the subordination in the Eastern bloc. He stated: “Information came to us, that there are people in Todor Zhivkov close circle, who want to turn Bulgaria into “mini-Federal Republic of Germany” and “mini-Japan”… We are worried to hear such things. Around you there are people, orientated to the West… They are convinced that technological resources should be delivered from FRG (West Germany) and the West. Such talks and orientation worry us. And if there are such people around you, who dare even to think about “mini-FRG” and “mini-Japan”, you should not keep them around you. Because all the answers to the questions and all the solutions of the tasks, that have been set, must be sought nowhere else, but in socialism and its dynamic development. This is the road to their right solution[15]. Bulgarian transformations alarmed Gorbachev, because they could lead Bulgaria out of Soviet sphere of control and influence. Actually, these fears were ungrounded. Numerous statements and speeches, made by Zhivkov at that time and later, until the collapse of the system, show that he continued to rely upon the Soviet economic and political help, but he tried to change the foundations of socialism in order to prevent its crash.

The July Conception intended to replace gradually the economic model of socialism with market economy and there were certain steps in that direction. Measures, more or less vigorous, were taken because of the negative economic results, which made Zhivkov admit: “We lost the competition with capitalism[16]. As a result of this, he sought a way out of the crisis in the transformation of economy according to the principles of market economy. The liberalization of economic sphere began with Decree 56, voted in January 1989[17]. It created the necessary basis for introducing new forms of economic organization – the so called firms and companies, and permitted the development of private economic activity. Neither time, nor Zhivkov’s resources allowed more significant results. In the summer of 1989 the situation in the country deteriorated and in the autumn Zhivkov was removed from power and a little later the Soviet type socialism in Bulgaria finally collapsed.

In 1987 Bulgarian-Soviet relations preserved their formal friendly appearance, but it was obvious that they began to chill and gradually reached their lowest level since the end of the Second World War. The deterioration of the economic relations was caused by the deprivation of Bulgaria from the opportunities to receive Soviet subsidies, to profit from the Soviet raw materials and to make use of the Soviet market for selling profitably her low-quality goods. In Bulgarian post war history the Soviet “card” continued to play an important role, but gradually it was transformed into a “trump-card” in the course of the struggle against Zhivkov inside the Communist party itself.


[1] From words of Stoyan Michaylov – the secretary of Central Committee of Bulgarian Communist Party. – Central State Archives (CSA), F. 1B, op.. 68, a.f. 2662, p. 64.

[2] Zhivkov criticized real socialism and even wrote a letter to Gorbachev with advices in 1985, but did not received an answer. - Чакъров, К. Втория етаж. София, 1990, 128-129.

[3] CSA, f. 1B, оp. 68, а.f. 2662, p. 2-3.

[4] From the speech of Todor Zhivkov. – Ibidem, p. 155–158.

[5] Ibidem, p. 159–160, 171.

[6] Ibidem, а.f. 3052B, p. 19.

[7] Живков, Т. Мемоари. София, 1998, 349-353; Яхиел, Н. Тодор Живков и личната власт. София, 1997, 336-346.

[8] Gorbachev also regarded the Bulgarian Reform as an attempt of Zhivkov to outstrip Soviet Reform from the Left. - Горбачев, М. Жизнь и реформы. Кн. 2, Москва, 1995, с. 370.

[9] The decisions were taken on the meeting of Politburo of CC of BCP. - CSA, f. 1B, оp. 68, а.f. 3142, p. 1-116

[10] That was the opinion of British historian Richard Crampton. – Crampton, R. A Concise History of Bulgaria. Cambridge UP, 2000, p. 306.

[11] Чакъров, К. Втория..., с. 174.

[12] CSА, f. 1B, оp. 68, а.f. 3272, p. 34.

[13] Ibidem, p. 35.

[14] Ibidem, p. 36.

[15] Ibidem, p. 36–37.

[16] Rakowski, M. F. Jak sie to stalo. Warszawa, 1991, s. 259.

[17] Работническо дело, 11 January 1989.

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