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Obituary: Todor Zhivkov

TODOR ZHIVKOV shared the main failing of many holders of absolute power: he did not know when to relinquish it. The man who led the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) for 35 years would have been better regarded by posterity had he resigned 10 years before his removal in November 1989.

Zhivkov was born in 1911 of poor peasant parents in the small town of Pravets. By 1928, as an apprentice in the State Printing House, he was already a member of the Communist Party youth movement. After being sacked in 1933 for his disruptive activities, Zhivkov worked as a full-time party functionary in the Sofia district. In 1938 he married Mara Maleeva, a medical student and fellow radical.

During the war Zhivkov operated as a political officer with the Chavdar partisan brigade and in September 1944 was in Sofia when the Fatherland Front coalition deposed the old regime. Whilst the Communists secured their domination within the coalition Zhivkov consolidated his own position within the Sofia party apparat, making himself known to the new rulers by redistributing amongst them the confiscated wealth of their predecessors.

By December 1948 Zhivkov was first secretary of the Sofia party committee and a full member of the central committee of the BCP. In 1950 he became a candidate member of the Politburo and in June 1951 was elected a full member.

It was Stalin's death which brought Zhivkov to the leadership of the party. In March 1954 Bulgaria's "Little Stalin", Vulko Chervenkov, at last stepped down as first secretary of the central committee. Zhivkov, who had fewest enemies, was elected to succeed him. In April 1956 the new leader presided over the April plenum which denounced Chervenkov and adopted the ``April line" which was to remain the bedrock of party policy until 1987.

If it had been the Sofia party apparat which had helped Zhivkov to power, two factors kept him there. The first was his ability to sense threats almost before they had time to materialise, a skill which enabled him to head off an army coup in 1965 and in the following 24 years to remove a whole series of would-be contenders for power.

His second prop was his good standing in the Kremlin. This was most dramatically illustrated in 1962, when he deserted a central committee plenum to fly to Moscow to secure Khrushchev's backing against his head of government, Anton Yugov. Yugov was deposed and in November 1962 Zhivkov became prime minister, a post he held until July 1971 when he stepped into the newly created presidency of the State Council, or head of state.

Close alignment with the Soviet Union continued to be the dominant feature of Zhivkov's foreign policy during the 1970s, so much so that in the first half of the decade there were rumours that he intended to make Bulgaria the 16th republic of the Soviet Union.

In domestic affairs Bulgaria had completed the building of its industrial base and now faced the problems of the transition from extensive to intensive growth, problems which were addressed in the new party programme which Zhivkov introduced in 1971.

By the end of the decade some progress had been made and Bulgaria was establishing itself as Comecon's leading producer of computer components and had established export markets for fork-lift trucks and other engineering products. Despite these successes, however, living standards did not rise as rapidly as predicted, with agriculture, housing, and the service sectors proving doggedly unresponsive to official stimuli towards growth.

These problems haunted Zhivkov in the 1980s. By the end of the decade it was clear they had outpaced his capacity to understand them. The much- heralded New Economic Mechanism of February 1982 proved to be little more than a bewildering and damaging series of tinkerings with the administration of the economy. Other reforms, such as the democratic Labour Code of 1986, were simply ignored or circumvented when they embarrassed the nomenklatura. In 1985 the advent of Gorbachev meant that the traditionalist Communist Zhivkov had lost his ultimate guarantee of power: support from Moscow.

It was at this time that Zhivkov launched his disastrous attempt to Bulgarise the country's Turks, forcing them to adopt Slav names and placing grave restrictions on the public use of the Turkish language. There was, however, some recognition of the advancing tide of reform in Eastern Europe. The July plenum of 1987 introduced the "July concept" as a replacement for the "April line", but its promises of reform were not kept and in the following year Zhivkov was clearly backtracking; in the summer he reverted to his old tactics by removing the obvious contender for his succession, Chudomir Alexandrov.

Zhivkov was concocting the brew for his own destruction. Unfulfilled promises of reform, a declining economy, growing public concern over pollution, and the international disgrace of the Turkish policies combined in the autumn of 1989 to precipitate the largest public demonstrations seen in Bulgaria since the Second World War. A central committee plenum on 10 November readily accepted Zhivkov's resignation.

Within days he was in a military hospital awaiting the trial which investigation into his past activities was bound to produce. By then there was inevitable questioning of his record, both in power and before achieving it, with accusations even that he had served as a police informer before 1944.

Zhivkov in fact became the first of the deposed Communist leaders to face trial. The initial charges were minor ones of corruption but eventually his role in the attempted assimilation of the Turks was included in the indictment, as was his attempt to incorporate Bulgaria into the Soviet Union. The trial proceedings, which formed the basis for Julian Barnes's novel The Porcupine (1992), were less an ordeal for Zhivkov than an embarrassment to the incumbent government.

The old leader showed that he had lost few if any of his old peasant wiles and he used the dock to contrast the apparent stability of his own years in power with the inflation, unemployment and uncertainty which gripped Bulgarians in 1991-92. In September 1992 he was sentenced to seven years, but his health and political sensitivities dictated that they be served under house arrest rather than in jail.

In his private life Zhivkov had been the victim of misfortune and misjudgment. His wife died in 1971 and a decade later, a few days before her 39th birthday, death took his daughter, Liudmilla. As a minister of culture prepared to assert Bulgaria's cultural identity, she had earned the respect of Bulgaria's intelligentsia. Less fortunate was Zhivkov's decision in the summer of 1989 to propel his son Vladimir along the same path. The latter had nothing of his sister's ability and his advancement was to many Bulgarians the final straw in their alienation from their leader.

Todor Hristo Zhivkov, politician: born Pravets, Bulgaria 7 September 1911; Prime Minister of Bulgaria 1962-71, President of State Council (Head of State) 1971-89; married 1938 Mara Maleeva (died 1971; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Sofia 5 August 1998.