America is the land of “move on.” That’s the name of the organization whose original mission was to persuade the U.S. electorate to move on from the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. But it could also be the name of President Barack Obama’s approach to the crimes and misdemeanors of the preceding Bush administration: America needs to turn its back on the problems of the past and face forward to the future.
Western Europe, meanwhile, has often presented itself as the land that has solved the history problem. The different factions in Northern Ireland submitted to protracted negotiations. France and West Germany settled their differences through economic and geopolitical cooperation. West Germany offered apologies and reparations to the victims of the Holocaust. History, in other words, has been tamed. It has been relegated to the safe confines of the textbook and the museum.
Only in the eastern stretches of Europe, according to this presumptuous interpretation, does history remain a problem. The countries to the East, accordingly, show an unhealthy fixation on the past, whether Serbia and the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 or Hungary and the resentments of the Trianon Treaty of 1920. Moreover, East-Central Europe faces the twin challenges of totalitarianism by failing to come to terms with either fascism or Communism.
There are plenty of people in East-Central Europe who would prefer the idealized American or the West European approach to the history of the last 100 years. They’d like to face forward and move on. Or they’d like to presume that their countries, too, have solved the history problem by drawing a thick line between themselves and the past by way of the ruptures of 1989.
But that’s not how Vasil Kadrinov feels. A former political prisoner in Bulgaria, he has worked tirelessly to engage the horrors of the past – in his own country as well as other countries in the region. He has worked to open the files of the Bulgarian secret service and to prevent former officers from participating in politics. He has lobbied to reduce the state pensions of Communist-era functionaries and intelligence officers. He is a founding member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.
What motivates him, in part, is not only his own experience as a political prisoner but the experiences of those who served much longer terms. When he was imprisoned in the 1980s, he met Lazar, an old man who was in his 17th year as a political prisoner. Lazar formed a choir and kept up the spirits of his fellow inmates through music and humor.
“I keep coming back to these stories, especially with the memorial project that I’ve been doing over the last three or four years,” Vasil Kadrinov told me as we sat in an outdoor café in Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, last September. “The problem is that such people like Lazar are dying. Our duty is to preserve the memory of them. But every year I grow more disappointed because so few people are active on this topic.”
Vasil Kadrinov is not selective in his approach to history. He doesn’t focus exclusively on the crimes of the Communist era. “One big problem we have with the past is the time before the Communists came to power,” he said. “What kind of society was there in Bulgaria? There is a myth that before the bad Communists came along with the bad Soviet army, it was the very good kingdom of Bulgaria.” For Kadrinov, in other words, the confrontation with Bulgarian history doesn’t just start in 1945.
In our conversation, which continued from an earlier interview about minority issues from five years earlier (reproduced below), we discussed the “history problems” that have plagued Bulgaria for the last century, problems that are not unique to East-Central Europe. Accountability with the past is a challenge for all of Europe and the United States as well.
Do you remember where you were when you heard the news about the fall of the Berlin Wall and what were you thinking? And did you think about the impact and influence it would have on Bulgaria?
I remember very well. My mother died in 1984. My father, in 1989, was a doctor in a village about 20 kilometers away from Plovdiv. On that day in 1989, I went to visit him. We were listening to the radio. That was what I did in those days: listen to Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle. And that’s how we heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a very emotional moment for us. I felt that this would be the beginning of important changes in Europe. I’d been following the situation in Poland, the developments in the Soviet Union. This was possible because of these radio stations. It was clear that all these developments would have an impact on Bulgaria. And soon came the replacement of Todor Zhivkov at the top of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
After that I was very deep engaged in the establishing of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) here in Plovdiv. With my wife I participated in the great meeting of November 18 in Sofia. And the next two years I was very engaged in establishing the UDF, the organization of the first elections, demonstrations, and so on.
You were obviously very hopeful after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was there a point when your hopes decreased and you became disappointed in what was happening?
Yes, I remember. There were two moments. One was during my participation as a representative of the Club for Democracy in Plovdiv, at the Coordination Council of the UDF. Our club was part of the UDF in Plovdiv, and this moment of disappointment came in the autumn of 1990, after the first elections. Until the elections I was very optimistic. So many people came to our UDF meetings and demonstrations. And we clearly won the first elections in Plovdiv with more than 60% of the votes.
But in the autumn a decision was made at the national level, in the parliament, that local elections would not be happening soon and instead there would be provisional local authorities. The composition of these local authorities would be proportional to the results of the parliamentary elections. That meant the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the former Communist Party), the UDF, and the other parties here that received significant results in the parliamentary elections. Because the UDF won more than 60%, we could have five or so members of this local provisional council. In the UDF, there was a discussion in the Coordination Council about how to elect people to run.
At that moment, I saw that some of the members of this Coordination Council are just careerists. They were not well educated. They were only thinking about the future and the possibilities of corruption. So, this was the first moment of disappointment. I followed their careers over the years and I see that I’d been quite realistic in my disappointment, because those people became more and more corrupt.
The second moment was around the discussion concerning what to do next. There was too much focus on replacing the bad communists and no serious plan for what kind of reforms had to be done. This was the problem at the national level with the UDF, and this was the reason why I left the UDF the following summer. The UDF split. One part was led by the former Social Democrats and Petar Dertliev. Another was the UDF liberals. My political orientation until now was centrist, and I decided to go with the UDF liberals. They included our democratic clubs, supported by the Bulgarian president at that time, Zheliu Zhelev. There was also the Green Party. With this small coalition we ran in the elections, and during the elections I was a candidate. My duty was to manage the election office of our coalition in Plovdiv.
That’s when my next moment of disappointment came. In the middle of the election campaign, I saw that the internal selection process for candidates was not democratic. It was all decided in Sofia by the heads of this coalition. At that time the election law was such that the government provided money for each party participating in election. It was a standard sum provided by the government for every candidate list. At the top of the list in Plovdiv was a woman candidate. The decision for this was taken in Sofia. She came here with her husband to participate in the election. As manager of the election office, I organized some people to work on the campaign. There were some expenses for cars, for gas. At one moment I asked for reimbursement. But she said to me, “You will not receive this money. This money is for us.” She meant her and her husband. I knew, and this was officially declared later, that her husband, as a journalist with the national radio station, was an officer of the Communist State Security. She, too, was a journalist with the national radio. I went to Sofia, to the central office of this coalition and I showed them the receipts for the expenses and said, “Please pay this, this, and this.” They paid everything. And I said goodbye. I left them totally.
Those are two important moments: your anticipation of corruption and the actual corruption itself.
Yes. And the role of the former state security.
I want to go back to the early 1980s. You’ve told me that you were quite young when you went to political prison: only 26 years old. How long were you in prison?
The sentence was prison for 18 months. And I was in prison for 13 months. For every day of work you did in prison, they took a day off your stay. This was for everybody, not special for me. So I spent 13 months in Stara Zagora prison.
What did they accuse you of doing?
It was in a court in Plovdiv. I was accused of disseminating “false” information about society — books critical of society — and providing “difficulties for the people’s republic”. For that people were sentenced to five years in prison. I’d been giving out the book of Aleksandar Solzhenitsen, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to my college students.
A Bulgarian translation of it, or in Russian?
This translation was made at the beginning of the 1960s, and a friend of mine gave it to me. At this time the book was not in the library, but it had been printed in Bulgaria during the rule of Khrushchev in the Soviet Union.
It won an award in the Soviet Union when it was published. It was also published in a journal …
Right. But then of course Solzhenitsen fell out of favor.
Another problem was that I talked against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and I supported the Solidarnosc movement in Poland. The judges decided that I provided difficulties to another country of the workers, namely the Soviet Union.
So you provided difficulties to a lot of people.
Do you remember a point when you were young when you began thinking of yourself as a dissident?
My parents didn’t speak with me about the Communist system. They were not Communists. They were not in favor of this system. My father had many difficulties, because his father was declared a kulak in the 1950s. But my parents decided not to talk about this until I went to the army. In the army, I was sent to the border guard military units. I was not exactly on the border, but I was in this unit. My duty was radio telegraphing. Hundreds of young men were brought there to maintain the border with Turkey. Our main aim was to prevent the escape of people from the country, whether Bulgarians or Germans or Poles. We were near the Black Sea coast and the mountain town of Malko Tarnovo. I stayed there two years. None of the political officers could explain why we were there, who were the enemies, who were these deserters who wanted to cross the border. The political education at that time consisted of only one question: who are the members of the Politburo of the Communist Party. This was, for me, quite profound.
Before going into the army, I was a candidate in sociology at the University of Sofia. I did my exams in Bulgarian literature and history, and I won a place at university. This was 1978. Returning to Sofia from the army in 1980, I remember that the Komsomol at the university made an appeal for donations to the people of Poland to send them food and so on. My father at that time was a doctor in Libya. It was very difficult for him to get approval to go there to earn more money, because doctors received poor salaries here in Bulgaria. He sent us money and we bought two good radios, one for me and one for my mother in Plovdiv. For the first time, I began to listen to Radio BBC, Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle, and so on. And I started to follow the developments in Poland. In the border guard forces I didn’t receive any information. But the moment I got back to Sofia, I began to understand that everything they were telling us was false. During those two or three months, I realized that everything was a great lie.
When was that?
In the late autumn of 1980.
Just after Solidarity began in August 1980.
Yes, in August. I came from the army in September and went to Sofia in October. The Komsomol was collecting these donations for Christmas or the new year. Around the same time, my mother, who was working in an agricultural high school near Plovdiv, brought home some students from Afghanistan. About 20 people from Afghanistan had come to Bulgaria to study agriculture. They were not that young, maybe from 20 to 30 years old. They were brought here as some kind of support to the “Communist revolution” in Afghanistan. But really, only a very small number of them believed in Communist ideology. They came to us very often, because my mother was appointed by the director to work with them. They became friends. They came to us and discussed what was happening in Afghanistan, with Nur Muhammed Taraki and so on. These stories brought our home much closer to the developments around the world, in the Soviet Union, in Poland.
Later, when you gave the copy of Solzenitsen’s book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to other students, did it occur to you that what you were doing was a political risk?
It was not so clear. I was not alone. We were a group of friends, one from Plovdiv, one from Varna, and it wasn’t only this book. The next book that we disseminated was Fascism by Zhelyu Zhelev. I bought Fascism at the bookshop. And my mother borrowed this book from the library of her school. I didn’t think about the risks. We were young. We didn’t think about it up until the day when the state security came to my home and arrested me. Later we supposed that there had been informants. But we were just doing this among friends. We hadn’t gone to the next stage, of organizing demonstrations and so on.
Did any of your other friends get arrested?
Yes, two others were arrested, and three were charged. In 1984, my mother died of cancer. One month before my mother’s death, I got married to my wife. And three months after that, I was arrested. So the state security investigated my wife too. She was very young, only 21 years old. They investigated the wives of my other two friends. But they decided only to charge the men since we formed one group of friends.
At the time, did you know very much about the political camp system?
No. I didn’t have relatives in my family who had been in prison or the camp system. Only my grandfather had been repressed as kulak. He was not so rich, but he had not supported the Communists. I didn’t have anyone from my family to tell me about the prison camps.
The first place I was taken after my arrest by the state security in Sofia was Razvigor 1. This was the name of the street where the main investigation unit of the Communist state security was located, and I was there for two months. After that I was in the Sofia central prison for two months. After I was sentenced, I was sent to Stara Zagora prison. There were many Turks there at that time, because our arrests coincided with a big repression campaign against the Bulgarian Turks. So I have many friends from this group until today who were together in Razvigor 1, the central prison, and the Stara Zagora prison. In Stara Zagora, there were other political prisoners, but there were many Turks.
Were there also common criminals there as well?
Yes. In Stara Zagora, they were mixed. And a great number of them were informants for the prison administration. Also at Stara Zagora was one of my friends from our original group. And another friend was in a different section of the prison. We developed a coded language to talk with one another. At that time the other big issue was the death of Konstantin Chernenko and the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. And that began to influence the situation in Bulgaria. The repression at this time was not so hard. I also believe that some people in the regime were beginning to prepare to become the first capitalists, especially those in the state security. They were sending money to foreign bank accounts and preparing for the privatization process.
Before you went to prison, did you know anything about the situation of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria?
No. I never had contact with Turks, because I was living in Plovdiv. I never visited the Turkish areas. The Turks who were in the prison, especially in Sofia and in Stara Zagora, were from areas where there had been resistance. For example, I have many friends from Momchilgrad, where seven people were killed. The Turks who organized the demonstration against forced assimilation received nine, ten, twelve-year sentences. They were in prison until 1989. They spent four years there.
Before you met with ethnic Turks for the first time, did you have certain preconceptions of ethnic Turks?
I don’t think so. For example, my mother was a pedagogue, and at this school she was responsible for 90 young girls living in a building on campus. Some of them were Turks. And my father was a doctor mostly in villages, so he helped very different peoples: Gypsies, Turks. So there was a lot of tolerance in my family and no stereotypes. In my first contacts with Turks in the prison, I found them to be very friendly, intelligent, honest, and courageous. I was impressed at that time, and it really helped me in my own situation of being imprisoned. I became more courageous because of these people.
What did they tell you about the name-change campaign, and were you shocked?
It was difficult for Western radio stations to collect information about what actually happened in 1984. In August 1984, there was a bombing attempt at the railway station in Plovdiv, close to where we were living. At that time my mother was very ill from cancer, and my father had come home, and we all were at home. My father took a leave from the hospital to be with my mother. He told us one day that the central railway station was surrounded by the militia. So something had happened. But what had happened? This was the first information for me that something was happening with the Turks. Until now, it’s not clear who organized this attempt. Later, they charged three Turks and executed them. Interestingly, they’ve been identified as collaborationists with the state security. This remains a murky story until now. It’s not clear if the Communist state security organized this attempt in order to begin their campaign against the Turks or whether it was really organized by the Turks. I was not in contact with the organizers when I was in prison. They were charged later, in 1986 or 1987.
My Turkish friends told me different stories about their villages, about what happened in Momchilgrad, for instance. There was an elderly man from the village of Yablanovo. We were together in a cell in the Razvigor prison. He was very ill. He had high blood pressure and didn’t have his medicine, so he was not in good condition. He told me the story of the tanks that came to the Yablanovo. After that, I heard that they organized resistance in Yablanovo. It is near Sliven, in the Balkan Mountains. The Turks told us that everything happened very quickly. The Red Berets, the internal forces of the Ministry of Interior, arrived. The Turks were beaten. Some were killed. There were spontaneous demonstrations, and everything happened in two or three days: the arrival of state security, the counter-demonstration, the killings, the arrests. The machinery of the state was brought to bear on their village.
What was the actual condition of your life in Stara Zagora? How many people were in the cell?
We were four people in the cell. It was a small cell, the beds stacked on top of each other. Between the beds was about 70 centimeters so that we could stand. Every evening the guards came to check on us, and we stood in a line, four men one behind the other. The conditions in the central prison were very bad because it was an old prison. There was very little food. On the other side of the corridor were people who were sentenced to death. They were executing people, so some of them were crying. It was a very bad atmosphere.
Last year I went back for the first time, with a documentary film crew from the German television station RTL. I was researching stories of young people from the GDR who escaped to Turkey and Greece through Bulgaria. There were two editors on this documentary, and one of them, Freya Klier, had been a young girl who tried to escape the GDR to Sweden. We researched different stories about young people from the GDR who escaped, some of whom had been killed. In the documentary, we talked about two boys who were killed on the Greek border. Another one, Thomas Müller, had his foot amputated in the Burgas hospital. Other deserters such as a brother and sister from Dresden were brought to the central prison in Sofia.
We went with the film crew to the section I’d been in and took pictures. I didn’t find many changes. There was only a new primitive toilet in the cell. I looked into my neighbor’s cell, because at that time nobody was being held there. I said to the guard, “I was here about 25 years ago, and there aren’t many changes.” He said to me, “You were here for only a short time and you have forgotten what it was like here. And you are not doing enough to change these conditions.” And there was nothing I could say to this man in reply. In 2006, a delegation of members from the Green group of the European Parliament came to Bulgaria. I was an assistant to this group. This was before the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union in 2006. We had a meeting in the Ministry of Justice with the deputy minister responsible for prisons. He asked the Greens to lobby for money from the EU for new prisons in Bulgaria. Until now, there have been no new prisons.
In Stara Zagora, you said you did work to take time off your sentence. What kind of work was it?
In the prison was a factory for furniture. We made beds for small children, bureaus for writings, and so on. About 100 prisoners worked in this factory.
How was the work?
It wasn’t such hard work. I think it was similar to what workers were doing in regular factories. It was the prison that was the problem, not the work in this factory. Maybe it even helped make the time go more quickly. Because if you stay in a cell all day…
You go crazy.
Did you have access to reading material?
There was a library with some books and newspapers like Rabotnichesko Delo and Narodna Mladej. On Sundays, we could watch Bulgarian national television in the afternoon. There was a show Vsiaka Nedelia (Every Sunday). On this show was a Pink Panther cartoon that I liked very much because it was humorous.
Did anything change very much for you, from the first day you were at Stara Zagora to the last day you were in prison? Or did you come into Stara Zagora the same person that you left Stara Zagora?
I think not. In our cells was an elderly man, Lazar, who was in this prison for the third time. It was his 17th year. He’d been in the Belene camp for six or seven years. He’d been charged under the same statute as me – creating difficulties for the People’s Republic. When I was in Stara Zagora, he was arrested for the third time. And there had been no sentence this time. He’d been let out in 1962 under an amnesty. But he continued to speak out against the Party, so they arrested him again and told him he had to finish his sentence from the 1950s. What I learned from Lazar was to have a sense of humor. He had a good sense of humor. He also organized a choir. He taught us to sing, and we all sang songs together. He kept up his spirit. I also learned from him that these Communists are small people, careerists, corrupt. They are liars. They were strong at that time, stronger than us, but we never lost our courage and spirit and humor.
Another moment was when I was in the central prison of Sofia. One of the prisoners had some magazines and newspapers. One of these magazines was a literary magazine with a short story by Heinrich Böll. In this story Böll wrote that he was a soldier in the Wehrmacht up to the end of the Second World War. He described a central order from the Nazi military that if one German soldier met another German soldier who was obviously deserting, the first soldier had to kill the second soldier. But if they were both in an area away from the battle, they were both deserting and they therefore had to kill each other! I remember this story because it showed how stupid the totalitarian societies are. And it gave me courage, this story.
I have such great respect for those people who spent more time in prison than I did.
Did Lazar ever make it out of prison?
Yes, he was released. I didn’t see him after that. I asked my friend from Varna some years later, and he told me, “Yes, Lazar is alive.” But later I heard that he died. I keep coming back to these stories, especially with the memorial project that I’ve been doing over the last three or four years. The problem is that such people like Lazar are dying. Our duty is to preserve the memory of them. But every year I grow more disappointed because so few people are active on this topic.
I am a founding member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. In the other countries, for example in the Czech Republic, there is an institute for the study of totalitarian regimes. There’s full access to the archives, and there are memorial places, such as former camps and prisons. In the former GDR, there are many such Gedenkstätten (memorial places, in German). I was just in Bucharest where there was a conference on the teaching of the history of communism as an opportunity to teach human rights. There were people from 13 countries. The situation today in Bulgaria is better than in Albania, but everywhere else is better than here. So it’s no wonder that in Bulgaria the communist oligarchy could again take power in recent years. Yesterday, Sergei Stanishev was elected to the chair of the party of the European Socialists. This man was Bulgaria’s prime minister in 2009. He has said, “What normal man could be interested in the archives?” So, obviously we are not normal!
In 2006, I organized with the Greens an effort to put pressure on the European Parliament to open the archives here. They’d been closed by the government of Tsar Simeon. The tsar, you see, was brought here by the Communists in 2001 to manage the country through him as prime minister. He became corrupt. He was interested again in acquiring the ownership of some forests, and they doubled his holdings. The Communists have in fact controlled the entire political spectrum. For example, there are seven social democratic parties and four Green parties. Three of the Green parties are managed by the former Communists, and there are no real Social Democratic parties in the country.
Even the one founded by Petar Dertliev?
We are in need of such a party. But the party of Dertliev is declining. It has no representation in parliament.
Is it still the case that you have no access to the archives?
We have access, but it will be last many years before full access will be possible. In other countries, like the Czech Republic, the archives were not moved to another building. It’s the same with the GDR. I was in Berlin last July when I worked for 20 days in the archives of the Stasi. It’s in the same building where it was. In Bulgaria, however, the law is to establish a new archive and construct a new building for this archive. But they haven’t organized the proper registration.
If you go to the archives today, there are only five places in the reading room, and the head of this archive is a former officer of the militia. In 2006, he was a member of the parliament representing the former Communist Party, and he proposed at that time that the archives should be closed for 120 years. So now he says, “We are following the law.” Until now they have published, I think, 7,000 names of people in public positions. And they usually publish the names of collaborators. But they haven’t published all the names of the officers, because usually the officers are not now in public positions. And, according to the propaganda slogan, these officers worked on behalf of national state security, just like in all other countries, and therefore they are patriots.
With a small group of people, we’ve undertaken a few actions including a campaign for a clean parliament in 2007. A “clean parliament” means that former agents cannot become members of parliament. We received some small funding from Romania of about $4,000 that I think originally came from the National Endowment for Democracy. With this $4,000, we made and disseminated posters. On these posters were pictures of candidates that had been agents, and we urged voters not to vote for these candidates.
In 2009, I worked with some former prisoners, the Anna Politkovskaya Association, and another center for the support of victims of torture, which is a group of psychologists. We organized a public pledge for parties entering the elections that they would not field any former agents on their lists. Thirteen parties signed. But GERB did not. Nor did BSP or the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the Turkish party. Only the small parties signed.
In 2010, I went with GERB representatives to the European parliament. One member of this European parliament, Andrei Kovachev representing GERB, invited about 30 former prisoners, very elderly people. After that there was meeting with others from Stara Zagora. I heard that the goal was to get them to support GERB for the presidential and local elections. They got the support of a 90-year-old man, Dyanko Markov, who had been a pilot during World War II who fought against U.S. bombers over Sofia. After that, he spent many years in prison. He was this nationalistic officer. Now he made a speech saying, “GERB is our hope! They will dismiss every Communist!” I do not believe this. GERB is mostly former Communists and militiamen. The problem in Bulgaria is that there are no real democratic parties. The mainstream parties are created by the former Communists or security agents. To establish a new, real, democratic party is difficult because of the monopoly the former Communists have over the media and because of the four-percent barrier in the election law.
I spoke about three times at hearings in the European parliament, organized by mainly this EPP (European People’s Party) group. There’s also a group of members of the European parliament coming from the Baltics who are really anti-totalitarianism-oriented: Sandra Kalniete from Latvia (who was born in a concentration camp in Siberia), Vytautas Landsbergis (the former head of state of Lithuania), Tunne Kelam from Estonia, Laszlo Tokes from Romania, and a younger member from Slovenia, Milan Zver. They are lobbying in the European parliament for to memorialize the Communist crimes. But aside from them, there are not so many people who are against Communism in the West, who understand that this was the same as Nazism, that this legacy is a big problem for Europe.
What do I see now in Bulgaria? I see that one million active people have left Bulgaria, and many of the people who are still here voted for GERB. They continue to hope for a leader, a tsar, a cowboy, a sheriff who will solve anything. This is very close to totalitarian mass thinking. So, this totalitarianism not only comes from evil leaders—Hitler, Stalin, or Lenin—it also comes from the masses.
In 2010, I organized a petition to the parliament to reduce the pensions of the former communist functionaries and state security officers. But the problem was that it’s difficult to organize people to collect signatures on the street or organize demonstrations. Some of the former political prisoners are disappointed. Some have become apathetic. This petition on the pensions was discussed in the petition committee of the national parliament. The chairperson of this committee was from the UDF—Yordan Bakalov—and he said it is too late for this. Why too late? They are now receiving these pensions. And other people receive very low pensions. I collected 1100 signatures, mostly through the Internet. It was hard to ask our political prisoners, who are really ill people and quite old, to stand on the street. In the end, the petition was sent to the committee for social policy. After two years: nothing.
We’ve had some victories. We make protests at the embassies where the Bulgarian ambassadors are former state security: Netherlands, Greece, Serbia. And the government replaced these people – 35 in all – so that is some reform. Last year, the granddaughter of Todor Zhivkov decided to officially celebrate the 100th birthday of her grandfather in Pravets. The government of GERB decided to send the orchestra of the national Bulgarian army. With the Anna Politkovskaya Association along with three other groups, we quickly decided to send an open letter to Angela Merkel because she had met with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. And this is funny but after only three or four hours, they decided not to send the orchestra. So this too was actually a victory.
In the autumn of 2009, we protested the choice of Rumiana Zheleva as Bulgaria’s nominee to the European Commission. The interesting thing is that she was an owner of one of the firms of the former state security, and her husband is engaged in this business group from Varna that includes former officers of the military intelligence. He is one of the richest people in Bulgaria. Zheleva was forced to step down, and Kristalina Georgieva was appointed in her place. So this is some progress.
In Prague last year, we were discussing the statutes of our platform, the Platform of European Memory and Conscience (PEMC). Vytautas Landsbergis and I proposed that nobody involved with this platform should be an organization that have been headed by former members of the repressive forces. And in December 2012, a member of this panel seeking reelection, Ekaterina Boncheva, proposed the Bulgarian panel handling the secret service archive for membership in the PEMC. Evtim Konstantinov signed the statute and declared that nobody in this Bulgarian panel was a member of the repressive forces. Someone in Prague called me and asked, “Do you know that he was militiaman? How was it that he signed this?” And I said to them, “Please send a letter to the prime minister, to the Ministry of Interior, to Foreign Affairs, and to the chairwoman of the parliament.” This Boncheva and this Konstantinov started a propaganda campaign against me: that I wanted to be on this panel, that I was making difficulties for our country in Prague.
In 2007, the former Communists refused to elect to this panel Georgi Konstantinov, who was the nominee of the former president Petar Stoyanov. When Georgi was a young man, only 20 years old, he was an anarchist. He blew up the monument of Joseph Stalin in Sofia. This was about a week before the death of Stalin, so he was not sentenced to death. The sentence was 12 years in prison, so at the beginning of the 1960s he was released. He escaped to France, but now he’s living in Sofia. He was one of those who wanted at the beginning of the 1990s to take the state security to court. In 1992, the court declared him not guilty. But he is the only one who made such an appeal to the court.
All others, like me and other prisoners, we were rehabilitated in 1990 by a decision of the last Communist “parliament.” But now, according to the law, members of this panel must be never charged with a crime whether rehabilitated or not. So for all of us, this was forbidden.
We started a quick campaign, about 10-15 people, making a protest at the Ministry of Justice and in front of this panel building. But GERB decided to propose the former militiaman Evtim Konstantinov again and Boncheva again.
The president of our platform in Prague is Goran Lindbladt, from Sweden. He was rapporteur at the political committee of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. He is no longer a member of the Swedish parliament. He’s a dentist, and I find he’s an honest man. I invited him that to come to Sofia during our campaign against the reelection of the former militiaman Evtim Konstantinov to this panel and to participate in our campaign for the change of the rule that former prisoners could not be part of the commission. He participated in the press conference with former political prisoners.
We had a meeting with the Union of Democratic Forces and the co-chair at the that time of the Blue Coalition, Martin Dimitrov, and with him was Latchezar Toshev, a former Bulgarian representative at the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly, so a colleague of Lindbladt. And at that meeting, Toshev and Dimitrov said, “Okay, we will support everything. We will soon propose a lustration law.” For us, this was very important.
This lustration law was discussed in the first week of September 2012 in the plenary of the Bulgarian parliament. The vote was interesting. The Blue Coalition has 14 members, and only two voted for this proposal. And about eight so-called “independent” members supported the law, plus maybe two from the GERB and two from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. So, overall, it received about 13 or 14 votes. But from the Blue Coalition, only two. So, the law failed.
I work with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Sofia along with a group of young historians. We are now preparing about 18 brochures, each one focused on some topic of the communist totalitarian regime: the economy, culture, everyday life, the Party, the propaganda related to minorities. Our circle of former prisoners also adopted here in Plovdiv a declaration on the 9th of June. One of the demands has been the transfer of the security archives to the national archive so that everybody has access and it would no longer be controlled by a panel appointed by the governing oligarchy. Another demand is to establish an Institute of National Memory.
But I’m pessimistic about the feasibility of such an institution in a country like Bulgaria, given the current political leadership. The director of the agency for the National Archives intends to make a museum, because the central office of the national archives is in the same building that the state security occupied in the 1950s. It’s very close to the Communist Party headquarters, the same building that was set on fire in the summer of 1990. He asked the Konrad Adenauer Foundation to finance this project. He didn’t ask the government. It is so stupid to ask someone from abroad. And the director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Sofia said that he can’t support the complete project. People could go to Germany to look at the experience of these institutions of memory. But the Foundation couldn’t invest all that money for this project.
In Latvia, in Riga, there is a memorial museum devoted to the occupation of Latvia – by both the Nazis and the Soviets. It’s an educational center, and they’re working with young people. It is not financed by the government but by Latvian émigrés. The government only provided the building, which is in the center of Riga, a former propaganda institution for the Pioneers and the Komsomol.
I think that here too an Institute for National Memory has to be established by civil society. I will try to convince the former prisoners to maintain our independence. But this is difficult, because I myself have to spend time organizing people, making phone calls, writing letters. When I was an assistant at the European parliament, I had some stability. I had an office and money for travel and for making phone calls. It’s more difficult now. Also, Bulgarian émigrés are divided: one’s a social democrat, another’s an agrarian, a third is a nationalist.
One big problem we have with the past is the time before the Communists came to power. What kind of society was there in Bulgaria? There is a myth that before the bad Communists came along with the bad Soviet army, it was the very good kingdom of Bulgaria. The Communists destroyed everything. But after the First World War, the big problem in Bulgaria was extreme nationalism. These nationalists said: the people in Macedonia are really Bulgarian, and so are the people in Eastern Thrace, and so are the people in Kavala in northern Greece. But there were not only Bulgarians living in these places. There were very mixed populations: Turks, Pomaks, Greeks, Serbians, Albanians. This dream of a “Great Bulgaria” was the biggest problem for Bulgaria in the 20th century, because it brought genocide and other crimes. When Bulgaria entered the First World War with Germany, the result was hundreds of thousands of deaths and Bulgaria ended up ceding eastern Thrace. And in the Second World War, Bulgaria entered a pact with Hitler, occupied Greece and Macedonia, and sent the Jews of Macedonia and Greece to their deaths in the concentration camps. Until now, our history textbooks said that it was not possible for Bulgaria to save the Jews. But then why was Bulgaria in this pact with Hitler?
After the Soviet army arrived in Bulgaria after the Second World War, the Communists started to kill many people. But there was terror before this. And this is not discussed in Bulgaria until now. In Hungary, there is a museum of terror. But it deals not only with the terror of the Communists but of the previous regime.
The “white terror” of Admiral Horthy.
Yes. So, such a museum about totalitarian terror must include the resistance to the previous terror as well.
But how can we achieve this? It’s difficult because a million people have left the country. There is apathy. It’s difficult to engage young people. The former prisoners are very old people. I’m trying to collaborate with international friends, like this group in the European parliament and so on.
What do you think about the level of extreme nationalism in Bulgaria today on the one hand and level of pro-environmentalism on the other hand? Is there any relationship between the two?
First about the nationalism. It seems that nationalism is cultivated by forces that want to control Bulgaria. This Ataka Party, the main spokesperson of Bulgarian nationalism, is financed probably by Russia. It was established in Burgas as a powerful TV program and station. Their first members in parliament was a group of former state security officers, and they never said anything against Russia. They prefer to speak against the U.S. ambassador, against U.S. imperialism. They like to speak against Turkey, against the Roma population, against the Jews. But if you do a content analysis, they never speak about the human rights situation in Russia, or about Russian politics in the Balkans, in Europe, in the rest of the world. I think that Bulgarian nationalism is an ideological tool of the oligarchy to maintain influence over society. By having enemies like the Turks, the Jews, the Roma, it’s easier to control society through hate speech.
In terms of environmentalism, I know some very good environmental protection groups. Some of them are branches of international organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, Bank Watch. But this kind of NGO is financed by the European Commission, so I don’t believe that they can really be called NGOs. Other NGOs receive funding from the present Bulgarian government, so I would say that they are paid by and depend on the government. The Bulgarian government is engaged in several corruption cases concerning environmental issues, like the designation of Nature 2000 areas in the Rila Mountains. I am very engaged in this. For six years, there has been no decision about the buffer zone in the Rila Mountains. There is strong interest in constructing ski runs and ski resorts there, similar to the construction interests along the Black Sea coast. Some small environmental groups not financed by the European Commission or by the government defended these areas. To protect the Rila Mountains, Citizens for Rila gathered 140,000 signatures. I am also a member of this group.
There are also some cases related to underground resources. In Bulgaria, there are several underground resources like gold and copper. But the policy of the governments since the middle of the 1990s has been to provide these resources as concessions at a low tax rate. There’s a Canadian-based company connected with former Communist state security agents exploring the gold mine in Chelopech and polluting the Topolnitsa River with arsenic. The government tolerates this. They have a plan for a second mine in Krumovgrad. They brought a smelter from Namibia, and it’s forbidden to operate such a smelter that is polluting with arsenic here in the European Union. Yet the government approves this and the taxes are very low, and this means the government is corrupt. And not only this government but every government from Ivan Kostov to Tsar Simeon to Sergei Stanishev. A small group of environmental activists are saying that this ore and these underground resources are our national resources, and we should not give them to mafias. We have to use them for our country in a way that protects the environment and the public health.
But I would not call this extreme nationalism. Ataka has exploited this topic. Also, a former member of Ataka who is now in the European parliament – Slavi Binev – has said, “They are now our national resources.” But I cannot say that the environmentalists have anything to do with Slavi Binev or with Ataka. Sometimes they are saying similar things about the preservation of national resources, that it’s not in the national interest to give away resources to international mafia companies.
I’d like to end with three brief quantitative questions. The first is, when you think about all that has changed here in Bulgaria from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that change on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being most satisfied?
The same spectrum, 1 being most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied: how do you feel about what has changed in your own personal life, between 1989 until today?
So, I like everything in my life, and I think it’s 10.
And then when you look into the near future, the next 1 or 2 years here in Bulgaria, how do you feel about what will happen here on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 bing most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
Plovdiv, September 30, 2012
The Interview (2007)
On the Roma
The Roma first came to Europe in the 9th century and not much later to Bulgaria. This place is a crossroads of cultures and peoples.
There’s not been serious historical research on the Roma during Turkish rule. But after liberation from 500 years of Turkish occupation at end of 19th century, Bulgaria was a capitalist state with a king and a democratic constitution. For 60 years, Roma were able to say that they were Roma – there was no problem with their identity. The majority, the Bulgarians, perceived them as the people with whom they’d been living for centuries. This was the perception of the majority of Turks, too. There were no conflicts between Bulgarians and Turks. Then came the Russian soldiers. They came to liberate, according to Stalin, but it’s not true: they came to occupy. They promoted a communist totalitarian regime. At first, during this period, there was Roma theater, Turkish newspapers. After that, for the next 40 years, the Roma minority disappeared from the totalitarian public media, from TV, from newspapers. The communist government focused on heavy industry, and they needed people to work in those factories. Some of the Roma worked in agriculture, which was collectivized under communism. Some of the Roma worked in the factories. At that time, instead of putting Roma into the army, the communists put young Roma men into a kind of labor army that made some of the biggest things in Bulgaria at that time – plants, railways, etc.
So that was the position of the Roma minority under communism. They had to work, they had to stay silent. They could not move around as they did before. They had to have some basic education. And they had to remain absent from public life. The communist policy on housing in the bigger cities was to construct blocks where Roma had to live like Bulgarians. But the Roma have a lot of children. They want more space. In the 1970s and the beginning of 1980s, the communists decided to stimulate the growth of the population because they needed cheap labor. The Roma community, too, received pretty good per-child payments. Some Roma families became quite big.
There is no police presence in the ghetto – only when there was a big problem. In this ghetto, during the dictatorship, there was some order. And, at that time, more in the Roma community had some work. It might not have been good work, but at least it was work. But after 1990 and the start of the changes, more of these plants were closed. At the beginning of the 1990s, many of the Roma became jobless. They started to travel to Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey to do some small trading, import-export. They did some work in illegal construction. At this peak of unemployment, they started to travel. With the father and mother gone, the children stopped going to school. This new generation of Roma grew up on the streets. This new generation is now 18 and 19 years old. In the middle of the 1990s, social protection payments began. So even if you don’t work, you can still get some money. It was chaotic. The money often did not go to jobless people. Also, in some Roma quarters, they stopped electricity. Some political parties, for instance the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) the party of the mayor in my city), told the Roma that they didn’t have to pay electricity bills. This became the tradition, and other parties started to pay for votes. Many Bulgarians say, “The Roma don’t pay for electricity, why do we have to pay? They get social payments, why do we have to pay taxes to support them?”
Right now, unemployment is not so high. The economy is better. There is a lot of construction in Sofia and along the Black Sea. Some of the money is recycled from communist times, from state security. Some of it is from drugs. But there are more jobs now. Still, many Roma go to other countries to work – to Spain, to Greece. They send home money. Many times, the European Union insisted that Bulgaria improve education and the overall situation of the Roma. During the negotiation process on accession to the EU, they made recommendations every three months. But there were no results. Another factor was George Soros. He came at the beginning of the 1990s. He established the Roma Rights Center. For more than 15 years, he has spent money on this issue. But really, he just picked out nomenklatura, Roma apparatchiks who like to represent the community. They go to conferences, endless seminars. There are books and studies, But there is no political struggle. These representatives are not elected. Where is the democracy in the Roma community?
The president of Finland proposed to the Council of Europe to construct something like a European Roma parliament. Finally, elections were going to take place in the Roma community. The parliament consists of 150 members, who are Roma from different countries. But the Bulgarian Roma did not hold elections. They wrote protocols. They chose the ones who were ‘elected’ and gave the protocols to the Council of Europe.
There are six or seven Roma parties. One of these is in the coalition of Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). There is one parliamentary member from the Roma community. Other parties were formed in the middle of the 1990s. There are educated Roma who are not so dependent on Soros money or the BSP or the Roma or non-Roma mafias. One of them, Vasil Choprasov, publishes a newspaper every two weeks – with money from Soros and others.
There is a new player that arrived on the scene at the beginning of the century. This is the old oligarchy, mostly from former state security. They supported the king when his party took power. But then they produced a new party, the Ataka Party. In spring 2005, this party owned a television network. Party members participated in elections with strong anti-Roma and anti-Turkish slogans. They are anti-Semitic. Their leader, Volen Siderov, likes Hitler. In addition to their TV station, they also own a newspaper. In their media, you hear that there are Roma criminals and nothing is done. You hear that the Turks are bad because they have been in government. The next enemy is America, who is seen as the aggressor. They received 7% of the vote in 2005 and formed a parliamentary faction. They have three members in the European Parliament.
On Ethnic Turks
Numbering 800,000, the ethnic Turks are the largest minority. Before the Word War II, there were no conflicts with the Turks in Bulgaria. At the beginning of communist rule, the government closed the borders. The Turkish minority could emigrate to Turkey. Most did not leave. Next, the government prohibited the Turkish newspaper. The Turks didn’t have a party before World War II. It wasn’t forbidden but the Turks didn’t feel any pressure to create a party. During the communist period, Turks remained in their villages working. They could practice Islam. But at the beginning of the 1980s, because of the new policies of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II, and because of the opposition movements in Russia, Poland, and Hungary, the Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov decided that this Turkish minority was a danger because it was independent and because it was connected to a different mother state. The Bulgarian government began to force ethnic Turks to change their names. If they spoke Turkish on the street, they were fined. It was a campaign of terror. The government used tanks and state security forces to operate this terror. They killed people. They opened a concentration camp on an island in the Danube and filled it with Turks. They received sentences of 10-15 years. Many stayed in prison for six years. This government policy started in 1984 and peaked in 1985.
After the death of Andropov and the coming of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian government decided in 1989 to launch a different campaign. It opened the border with Turkey. About 300,000 Turks left the country. Some of them stayed in Turkey. Many of them decided to return to Bulgaria. The state security people were interested in constructing a party that could speak in the name of the Turkish minority. This party, The Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), is led by Ahmed Dogan. It has consistently won seats in the parliament. There is no other Turkish party. And the other Bulgarian parties generally don’t have Turks as members. So the MRF has achieved monopoly position. If you are Turkish, you vote for the Turkish party. Now, some of the Roma are Muslims. The MRF does not want these Roma to have their own party and take away votes. This is one barrier for the development of a Roma party. But there remains the question: what will be better for the Roma – to have a strong Roma party or to promote polices aimed to improve the situation of the Roma through the other, non-ethnically-based parties?