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When the "unimaginable' happened in Bulgaria

Todor Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 35 years, last month was the first of Eastern Europe's ousted Communist rulers to be convicted in a court of law.

Zhivkov, 81, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzlement, had been famous in Eastern Europe as the master of political survival. He outlived five Soviet leaders, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, pledging he would be with the Soviet Union "for life or death."

In 1989 he was overthrown as part of the revolutions in Eastern Europe that swept Communists from power.

Generations of Bulgarians remember the general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party for the kisses and long hugs he and his communist counterparts exchanged symbolizing the indestructible friendship between the "brotherly" countries. The leaders also liked to dance folk dances in the company of young women in national costumes or to pose for the cameras with children greeting them. As a rule they negotiated and solved their diplomatic questions while hunting in the deep woods escorted by numerous armed security guards. The other Communist rulers seemed to come and go, but Zhivkov remained in power.

"I was growing up and he was in power. I had kids of my own and he was in power. My kids grew up and he was still there, seeming unshakable. Now I can't imagine my life without him," said my father, IvanIgnatov, just 10 days before Zhivkov was forced to resign in November 1989.

When he was ousted I was in my hometown of Burgas, 300 miles from the capital city, Sofia. I was working for the leading Bulgarian independent weekly Pogled, writing an investigative story on the pollution of the Black Sea. That day, Nov. 10, a plenum of the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party was scheduled.

At that time we had vaguely heard about the opening of the East German border and the massive movement of East Germans to the West. The Bulgarian media had not fully disclosed the news about Communist parties losing power in Poland and Hungary or about anti-Communist protests in Germany and Czechoslovakia. We were getting information from Radio Free Europe and the BBC, but had no reason to hope for changes in Bulgaria.

So on Nov. 10 we watched the noon news on television: The same Communist leaders were giving speeches and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then a colleague from a newspaper in Sofia called to tell me that Zhivkov had resigned. When I told my parents, they immediately turned to the banned channels of Radio Free Europe and the BBC to confirm the information.

The BBC was the first to announce the change in our government. We started to call friends throughout the country. People would hardly believe us, so startling was the news. Finally, the evening television newscast showed Zhivkov staring at the cameras, himself in shock when hearing his subordinates at the Politburo announce his resignation. They had decided to sacrifice him but keep the power of the Communist Party.

Bulgarians celebrated in the streets. They shouted euphorically, threw fireworks from their balconies and opened champagne bottles.

A new era had begun.

Labor camps and murder

Bulgarians for years had called their leader Diado Tosho (Grandfather Tosho _ the nickname for the first name Todor), or _ with sarcasm _ Tato (our Papa). At the kitchen table with their closest friends, they would tell jokes about him and imitate his crude, loud laugh.

If any of the numerous security agents heard the people imitate Zhivkov, they would be sent to jail. A political cartoonist, Todor Hadzhiev, was imprisoned for drawing cartoons of the leader.

Zhivkov, who was uneducated, spoke in his home village dialect and often made grammatical errors in public and on television. It was a struggle for him to pronounce alien words like "pluralism" and "opposition" when he was later forced to keep up with Mikhail Gorbachev's new openness policy.

People would characterize him either as a "fool from Pravetz" (his birthplace) or as a "genius" _ referring to his talent to adjust to different Soviet leaders. What remained of Zhivkov's tenure doesn't confirm either of these. After he was ousted, Bulgaria was left with hundreds of volumes of his writings, several monuments to him and his late daughter, the remains of Gulag-type labor camps, an ethnic crisis and a $10.3-billion external debt.

The truth about the labor camps, where Bulgarians were tortured and killed, was first reported openly in 1990. During the 1950s and early 1960s, under Zhivkov's rule, people had been imprisoned there for various reasons, including opposing the Communist authorities, expressing anti-Russian moods, and studying in the West and speaking Western languages.

Thousands of Bulgarian intellectuals had been sent to crack stones. The prisoners' families had been arrested and moved out of the capital city, their homes confiscated and their children banned from the university. Many survivors didn't know where the dead were buried, and relatives tried to find the graves of their loved ones. They lost hope when a documentary showed that bodies had been used by sadistic guards to feed pigs. Until this documentary was broadcast on television in 1990, many Bulgarians had no idea that such Nazi-like camps existed in the country.

Some of the camps were crammed in 1985 when Zhivkov authorized a "Bulgarization" campaign for assimilating the Turkish minority. The 1.5-million Muslims living in Bulgaria were forced to change their names into selected Slavic ones and their mosques were closed. Those who opposed were sent to the labor camps and to prison. In the summer of 1989 more than 270,000 Bulgarians of Turkish descent left their jobs and the homes they were born in, and fled to Turkey. One of the refugees, Avni Velioglu, a former high school teacher, told the media that they had "lived in a hell, and they are ready to give up everything to come (to Turkey)."

Zhivkov's name also was associated with the murder of Georgi Markov, a dissident Bulgarian writer who had defected to London and was broadcasting an embarrassing series about Zhivkov's regime through the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and Deutsche Welle. In 1978 Markov was mysteriously killed with an umbrella tipped in a deadly toxin.

According to the testimony of former KGB Gen. Oleg Kalugin, Zhivkov had ordered the "Bulgarian umbrella" murder as "personal revenge."

The "pilferer's trial'

Bulgaria's own "Nuremberg trials" opened in February 1991. Zhivkov, who had been kept under house arrest, was moved to a prison. He was charged with misappropriating state property, initiating ethnic hostility and abuse of power. The maximum penalty for misusing of state property could reach 30 years in prison.

Quite soon trial No. 1, as it became popularly known, was called a "pilferer's trial." The Bulgarian television audience tired of hearing testimonies about corruption, illegal distribution of apartments, cars, cash and privileges to Zhivkov's relatives, closest circles and members of the intelligentsia. No proof was offered of Zhivkov's allegedly major crimes: genocide, repression and throwing the country into economic chaos.

For months the only thing that changed was the fact that the former Communist leader started smoking Marlboros in jail.

Following the advice of his two attorneys, Zhivkov would hardly speak most of the time. One of his few acknowledgements in court was: "We created illusions which reality could never meet."

Some of the defense witnesses meanwhile succeeded in bringing humor to the courtroom. Zhivkov's private nurse, Ani Mladenova, for example, testified he was so humble and thrifty that one of her responsibilities was to darn his socks.

At the same time Bulgarians were remembering this "humble and thrifty" man's luxurious residences shown on television after he was ousted _ spacious marble and carved wood villas near Sofia, in mineral springs resorts, on the Black Sea beaches, or hidden deep in the mountains. Zhivkov and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev were notorious for being two of the few people in the world who had monuments of themselves built while they were still alive. The head of the former People's Republic of Bulgaria also was not embarrassed to settle in the summer palace of the dead Bulgarian king Boris on the Black Sea, although he officially condemned monarchy.

According to other witnesses, Zhivkov always had welcomed gifts. In fact, one of his residences was turned into a museum that now displays his more than 1,600 gifts, the value of which is estimated in the millions of dollars.

After about 18 months without progress, some journalists began calling the trial a theater played so that the world could see the Bulgarians were stigmatizing their Communist past. Others characterized it a "soap trial," since several pieces of evidence were believed to have been destroyed or hidden abroad. "This trial will lead to nowhere because most of the charges cannot be proven yet," Chavdar Krumov, a journalist with a law degree, wrote in Pogled.

Following Zhivkov's conviction in early September on charges of embezzling 21-million leva ($1-million), prosecutor Krasimir Zhekov said: "Zhivkov should have gotten the maximum sentence (of 30 years). For 21-million leva there can't be a single mitigating circumstance. After the appeal the sentence can be extended or diminished."

The prosecutor announced that he plans now to move to the charges of initiating ethnic hostility, violating human rights and genocide.

"Zhivkov is a national traitor and a physical murderer. He should be punished for these crimes," wrote Demokratsiya, the daily of the Union of Democratic Forces. In another opinion, however, Duma, the daily of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the renamed Communist Party), pleaded for mercy for the "old and sick man."

The trial against Zhivkov has served as a social vent for most Bulgarians, who think justice should prevail. Some even rally for executing Zhivkov, like the neighboring Romanians did with dictators Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. But the Bulgarian president, Zhelyu Zhelev, said in a recent speech on television: "Maybe we, Bulgarians, should turn to Spain for an example. After the death of Franco, the new king, Juan Carlos, officially prohibited that the dictator's name was ever mentioned again. And then the country moved ahead."

Bulgarians are not likely to forget about Zhivkov any time soon. And by remembering our past, we will better appreciate our new freedom.

Bulgarian journalist Ekaterina Ognianova attends Indiana University and was an intern this summer at the Times.