Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov, the longest-serving leader in Eastern Europe, resigned Friday, thrusting his country into the political maelstrom sweeping the region.
Zhivkov, 78, who stepped down after 35 years in power, was replaced as general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party by Petar Mladenov, 53, the Bulgarian foreign minister since 1971, in a move that seems intended to promote basic political and economic reforms there.
In his first speech as party leader, Mladenov said Bulgaria has no alternative but to transform its political and economic system, though he stressed that the reforms must take place within the framework of socialism.
The official Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, reporting the changes at a Friday meeting of the Communist Party’s policy-making Central Committee in the capital, Sofia, gave no reason for Zhivkov’s resignation as the party leader and president. But Mladenov’s speech made it clear that momentous changes are under way there as elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Describing Bulgaria’s efforts at reform so far as failures, Mladenov told the party Central Committee, “We failed to realize from the very start that in order to accomplish new tasks, we need new approaches and methods of action,” according to excerpts of his speech from the Bulgarian agency and Tass, the Soviet news agency.
“It is in this that the answer lies to the questions--why has our restructuring failed to bring about the desired breakthrough, why is the economy so besieged with serious difficulties, why have some bold and original ideals been largely discredited.”
He promised to make glasnost , or openness, the basis of politics in Bulgaria, and to broaden democracy.
“We should not worry nor should we be frightened by the fact that in seeking . . . correct solutions there can and surely will be pluralism in our opinions,” he said.
Mladenov said the party’s ruling Politburo will call a special Central Committee meeting soon for an in-depth discussion on the state of the country and the development of a comprehensive reform program.
Pressure had been rapidly mounting on Zhivkov, however, as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev broadened and accelerated political and economic reforms in the Soviet Union and other East European leaders followed--or were replaced.
Mladenov was promptly congratulated by Gorbachev in a cable that said he believes “Bulgarian Communists and all the working people in your country will . . . handle the tasks required by the radical and consistent renewal of society in the spirit of the socialist choice,” according to Tass.
Mladenov, regarded by diplomats here and in Sofia as a moderate and far from a radical reformer, is believed to have come to power with a dual commitment--to reform but also for continuity--a formula intended to promote changes that are substantial and significant without relaxing the Bulgarian Communist Party’s grip on the country of 9 million.
But the extent of those changes will become clear only as Mladenov begins to act on his own. As a member of Zhivkov’s Politburo, he had been loyal to the party leader, though going significantly further in pressing for reform during recent party conferences. Soviet officials said they expect a party congress planned for December, 1990, to be convened much earlier.
Yet, the replacement of Zhivkov, who was formally thanked by the party for his “long, selfless service,” was greeted with enthusiasm in Sofia for the sheer feeling of movement and change that it brought.
“This is one of the happiest days of my life,” a leading scientist, Alexei Cheludko, at 70 a man of Zhivkov’s generation, said in a telephone interview from Sofia. “The time had come for change in Bulgaria. This has given us hope for the future.”
Cheludko, one of 250 Bulgarian intellectuals in Sofia’s reform-oriented Perestroika-Glasnost Club, called for Western countries to help Bulgaria ensure the success of the anticipated reforms. Mladenov, he said, is “not the best man available but not the worst either.”
Zhivkov had been rumored to be on his way out for more than two years--he was clearly out of sympathy with Gorbachev, with whom he had rather frosty relations--but the timing of the change in leadership surprised observers and its dynamics were unclear.
When Erich Honecker, the East German leader, was replaced last month amid massive protest demonstrations, attention shifted to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, the three Soviet allies in Eastern Europe that had not committed themselves to their own programs of fundamental change. Officials here repeated Gorbachev’s warning to Honecker “not to be late” or timid in promoting reform.
Although Zhivkov frequently acknowledged the need for reforms in Bulgaria, he just as frequently insisted that they need not be as sweeping or fundamental as those in the Soviet Union or elsewhere in Eastern Europe and that, in fact, they had been under way since he came to power in 1954 during the liberalization that followed the death of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin a year earlier.
In Bulgaria’s most recent reforms, party officials have attempted to decentralize economic management and bring market forces into greater play to supplement state planning. Bulgaria has also undertaken an agricultural reform program that will return nationalized land to farmers on long-term leases.
While Zhivkov had pledged to separate party and government functions and take other steps, including amending the constitution to ensure “political pluralism,” these had so far remained just promises.
To Zhivkov, Gorbachev was reshaping Soviet socialism far too quickly, running risks of destabilizing the country, according to East European diplomats. He saw Poland and Hungary taking even greater risks as they transformed their political systems, moving away from the original concept of a “people’s democracy” that they, like Bulgaria, had inherited from the Soviet Union after World War II.
Disquiet has increased recently in Bulgaria, according to East European and Soviet diplomats, as people there watched in amazement as the Soviet Union moved deeper and deeper into political pluralism with open elections, sharp debates in Parliament and a government accountable to elected deputies.
But Zhivkov has argued that perestroika, as Gorbachev’s program of political, economic and social restructuring is known, has not brought economic growth nor improved living conditions in the Soviet Union.
Having survived four Soviet leaders--Nikita S. Khrushchev, Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko--Zhivkov was described by Soviet observers as “unimpressed and impatient” with Gorbachev’s active promotion of perestroika in Eastern Europe.
“His attitude was, ‘We don’t have your problems, so we don’t need your solutions,’ ” a Soviet foreign policy specialist said. “In theory, he was correct, but he was ignoring the realities of his own country and of socialism in general.”
But Zhivkov, who had methodically purged the strongest advocates of reform from the Bulgarian leadership in recent years, may have concluded that greater reforms were becoming more urgent and that younger men were needed to carry them out.
Last December, he had told the Central Committee that it was time for a “bottom up” revolution that would bring the “complete reform of the political system.” Some changes followed, including multi-candidate elections for local government. In September, virtually all Bulgarians received permission to travel abroad.
Mladenov, however, criticized these and other measures as not going far enough. “We did not take into account that the administrative system that had operated for decades would not help us,” he told the Central Committee. “In fact, it would be absolutely unsuitable and act as a brake.”
Zhivkov’s resignation came a week after thousands of demonstrators rallied in Sofia for the first major pro-reform rally since the Communist Party took power there after World War II.
A crowd estimated at nearly 10,000 people marched through the capital’s streets to the National Assembly last Friday shouting “Democracy!” and, in a reference to Soviet reforms, “Perestroika!” and “Glasnost!”
The country’s small dissident movement had complained in recent months that their members were being harassed or imprisoned for even discussing political change. Members of one group, Eco-Glasnost, were beaten by police as they demonstrated last month during an international conference on environmental protection; officials later said that the police had gone too far.
With no tradition of anti-government protests and no institution, like the Catholic Church in Poland, around which to rally, the dissidents did not appear likely to pose a serious challenge to Zhivkov.
He had also weathered sharp international criticism earlier this year over Bulgaria’s treatment of its Turkish minority. More than 310,000 Turks fled the country over the summer, saying that they were being persecuted. Moscow, alarmed by Sofia’s actions and the impact they were having, attempted to mediate.
Mladenov, a graduate of Moscow’s prestigious Institute of International Relations, first worked as a local party official and then became foreign minister at the age of 35. He is now the Warsaw Pact’s longest-serving foreign minister.
In addition to pushing harder for reforms over the past year than other members of the Politburo, he reportedly had angered conservatives in the Bulgarian leadership by bringing the all-European environmental conference to Sofia--and thus providing a forum for the dissidents in which to demonstrate.
Mladenov’s health has been poor in recent years, according to diplomats in Sofia, and he underwent a double heart bypass operation in the United States.
Born in a village near Sofia, Zhivkov first learned about Marxism while a high school student in the 1920s during the first years of the Soviet state, and he joined the Communist Party while working as a printer in Sofia.
During World War II, he led Communist guerrilla units that fought with the aid of the Soviet Red Army to oust the German occupation troops, and he entered politics when the Communists took power in Bulgaria after the war.
He was elected first secretary of the party induring the political in-fighting that followed Stalin’s death in 1953 and the struggle for power in Sofia between the Stalinists and more moderate forces. Over the years, he consolidated his position, often by ousting others from the leadership who might pose a threat to him.
Times staff writer Rone Tempest, in Paris, contributed to this story.
BULGARIA AT A GLANCE Population: 8.97 million
Area: 42,829 square miles. A bit larger than Pennsylvania. It borders Romania to the north, Yugoslavia to the west, Greece to the south and Turkey to the southeast.
History: Bulgaria sided with Germany in both World Wars. Soviet troops invaded Bulgaria in September, 1944, and set up a predominantly Communist government, proclaiming a republic in 1946. From 1954, the power lay with Todor Zhivkov. Under his direction, Bulgaria remained a loyal supporter of Soviet policy in the Warsaw Pact.
People: Bulgarians make up 85%. Turks, Gypsies, Macedonians, Armenians and Russians make up the rest.
Economy: Living standards are among the lowest in the Soviet Bloc. Economy relies heavily on the agricultural sector. There is a $7-billion foreign debt and increasing shortages of goods.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD One of East Europe’s last bastions of conservatism faced upheaval with
the resignation of Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov. Out Todor Zhivkov came to power in 1954, making him Eastern Europe’s longest-serving leader. Over the years he became Moscow’s most obedient ally, heading a country never threatened by the attempts at revolution such as those that rocked Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He was a hard-line Stalinist but has been unable to cope with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s move toward reform. A short, stocky man, Zhivkov once described his country and the Soviet Union as “a common organism that has common lungs and a common circulatory system.” The 78-year-old Zhivkov held the reigns of power firmly. But many had grown impatient with his inability to dig Bulgaria out of its economic and political crisis.
In At 53, Petar Mladenov (PEE-tahr Mlah-DEHN-off) is the youngest member of the Politburo and regarded as its most liberal figure, more open to reform. Mladenov, who has been foreign minister since 1971, has grown increasingly tired of facing criticism of Bulgaria at international meetings. He resigned as foreign minister in late October, and secretarial staff got as far as clearing out his offices. He was persuaded to stay only by a last-minute promise of personnel changes at the top. He is described as non-authoritarian and a man who listens carefully to people’s opinions. He studied philosophy at Sofia University and graduated from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1963.