Revolution that never was cheats Bulgarians: The Communists survived the trials of 1989 to keep the reins of power, writes Adrian Bridge from Sofia

A RECENT cartoon on the cover of the humorous Bulgarian newspaper Satira features two men in swimming trunks - one grotesquely fat, the other horribly thin - shaking hands in what is obviously a luxurious holiday resort on the Black Sea.

The two men are Alexander Yordanov, chairman of the Bulgarian parliament and a leading light in the rabidly anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), and Zhan Videnov, chairman of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the ex-Communists.

In the next picture, they meet again: this time in the corridors of parliament in Sofia. Here, instead of smiling, they are sneering at each other - as befits senior representatives of the country's two leading, and almost permanently warring, parties.

Todor Tsonev, the artist responsible for the cartoons, still laughs out loud when he sees his own work. 'It is my duty to reveal the shortcomings and deformities of our politicians,' says Mr Tsonev, who was jailed during the Communist era for doing precisely that. 'I had hoped that after the revolution I might be out of a job. But it was foolish thinking. My cartoons are needed now more than ever.'

Mr Tsonev is not the only Bulgarian to feel disappointment at the direction the country has taken since the toppling almost four years ago of Todor Zhivkov, the hardline Communist who led the country for an astonishing 35 years and who is currently appealing against a seven-year jail sentence he received last year for embezzlement. But Mr Tsonev has recorded more sharply than most how the early euphoria turned into anger and then, increasingly, indifference.

'We thought the end of Communism would usher in a new morality; we hoped that politicians would no longer act solely for personal gain,' Mr Tsonev says. 'But it was not to be. Unfortunately, our leaders today are every bit as interested in perks and privileges as their predecessors.'

Looking back, many Bulgarians now feel they were short-changed when the revolutionary wave swept across Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989. The wave touched them - but it did not come crashing down with the intensity registered elsewhere. Although there were anti-Communist demonstrations in Sofia and other large Bulgarian cities, they never matched the scale or passion of those witnessed in Prague or Leipzig, nor the violence of those in Romania.

Even the ousting of Zhivkov - on 10 November 1989 - was overshadowed by the opening of the Berlin Wall one day earlier. To the wider world, the Bulgarian 'revolution' passed almost unnoticed. And within the country, some Bulgarians still find themselves wondering if it really happened at all.

'In a sense, it was the revolution that never was,' said Rumen Maleev, a professor of mathematics at Sofia University. 'It was, of course, a sort of liberation - from the tyranny of Zhivkov at least. But it was not the cathartic experience others in Eastern Europe had. It was never the fully-fledged denunciation of the Communist past witnessed elsewhere.'

In part, the incomplete nature of the Bulgarian revolution stemmed from the fact that all that really happened on 10 November 1989 was a palace coup within the Communist Party, whereby Zhivkov, much to his amazement, was replaced by his long-standing foreign minister, Petar Mladenov. Although Mr Mladenov was forced to resign as president the following year for saying that the best thing to do against anti-government demonstrators was to 'send in the tanks', changes within the BSP, say opponents, have never been anything more than superficial - and opportunist.

Certainly the party, which within days of ditching Zhivkov was proclaiming itself to be a 'modern party of the European left' committed to sweeping reforms, free multi- party elections and guarantees of human rights, has never strayed far from the levers of power.

In June 1990, in marked contrast to most of its counterparts in Eastern Europe at that time, it won a resounding victory in Bulgaria's first post-Zhivkov elections. Although subsequently defeated by the UDF in elections in October 1991, the BSP did not have to endure long on the opposition benches. Late last year, after months of internal wrangling and badly damaged by an arms scandal, the UDF-led government was defeated in a vote of confidence after just one year in power. In the process, the UDF split, leaving the BSP once again the largest faction in parliament, although short of an overall majority.

According to UDF hardliners, the former Communists are quite clearly pulling the strings in the so-called 'non-party government of technocrats' headed by Lyuben Berov, an economics historian, which came to power in December. And behind the scenes, they say, the BSP, which still has a membership of 380,000, is steadily 're-Communising' the country by putting the brakes on the reform programmes initiated during the UDF's brief period in power and by ensuring that only loyal supporters hold positions of power.

To add a touch of Balkan spice, much of the opposition's most venomous criticism is directed against President Zhelyu Zhelev, one of the country's few dissidents during the Communist era and a former leader of the UDF. Mr Zhelev's criticism of the UDF-led government last year was one of the main factors in its downfall, they say - and they have never forgiven him for it.

While conceding that Bulgaria may be shedding its Communist past more slowly than other Central and East European countries, less partial observers nevertheless insist that the country has changed irrevocably and that there can be no simple return to the past. Multi-party elections are here to stay, agree most observers, and, although 95 per cent of the economy is still in state hands, the process of economic transformation is underway.

'Despite a very general sense of disillusion, there is a basic conviction that the country is now on the road to democracy,' said one Western observer. 'It may be in a slower lane than some had hoped for, but nobody really thinks there could ever be a return to totalitarianism.'