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Zhivkov lawyers have Sofia in a spin: Bulgaria's ageing former Communist dictator, who was sentenced to seven years for embezzlement, has enjoyed a revival in popularity of late that could still keep him out of prison, writes Adrian Bridge

NOT FOR the first time in his long career, Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's former Communist dictator, may be able to wriggle out of a tricky situation: an order for his arrest and jailing for seven years by decree of the country's Supreme Court.

Photographers who have flocked to the Sofia villa where Mr Zhivkov has spent the last 16 months under house arrest hoped to catch sight of him being clasped in handcuffs, as had been widely predicted.

So far they have had to content themselves with a message that the man who ruled their country for an astonishing 35 years and whose subservience to Moscow was legendary was not feeling too well and had retired to bed.

Mr Zhivkov's ill-health (he is reported to have heart problems) and age - he is 83 - may turn out to be his saving grace. Doctors due to examine him may well decide, as they did in the case of Erich Honecker, the former East German leader, that he is not fit enough to serve a prison term.

Mr Zhivkov's lawyers have filed an application for a legal review of the Supreme Court's decision last week to uphold the seven-year sentence imposed upon their client in 1992 for embezzlement. With no precedents to guide them, legal experts in Sofia admit to being perplexed by the Zhivkov case, now well into its fourth year, which, in the defendant's words, amounts to nothing more than a 'political farce strung out for almost as long as a five-year plan'.

'Perhaps there is a political element to it after all,' said one Western observer. 'Maybe the government now feels it would be embarrassing to jail Zhivkov. He has almost become popular in his old age.'

Like many of Eastern Europe's one-time discredited Communists, Mr Zhivkov, the only former East European leader to have been tried and convicted in a proper court of law, has been enjoying something of a revival of late. Horrified by inflation, unemployment and general insecurity in the transition to a more market-oriented economy, many Bulgarians look back nostalgically to the days when Mr Zhivkov's rule was law and when, although not particularly demanding or well-rewarded, jobs for life were there for the taking.

Mr Zhivkov, who still likes to describe himself as 'father of the people', has not been slow to capitalise on such feelings. At the beginning of the year he brought out a tape containing various recollections of his years at the helm under the title 'Uncle Tosho'. On the cover, the man who, it is alleged, once begged Moscow to admit Bulgaria into the Soviet Union, appears dressed in a beige cardigan alongside a favourite pet spaniel.

The cosiness of the image is somewhat at odds with that of the man who the Supreme Court decided should serve the seven-year sentence he received in 1992 after being found guilty of embezzling more than 21m Bulgarian leva (at the time worth about pounds 12m) of state funds to be spent on luxury homes, cars and lavish parties for his family, friends and loyal aides.

It is even further removed from the Mr Zhivkov who faces another trial this year on charges of inciting ethnic hatred against Bulgaria's 1 million ethnic Turks; who stands accused of creating the Lovech and Skravena prison camps where 147 people were allegedly killed between 1959 and 1962; and who, furthermore, is being investigated in connection with the channelling of millions of pounds of state funds into a Moscow-backed fund to aid Communist movements in the Third World.

'People's memories are very short,' said the observer. 'When Zhivkov was toppled in 1989 they felt bitter and wanted to see him punished for what he had done. Now, increasingly, they think: 'He is an old man; he is not very well; he was not so bad.' '

(Photograph omitted)