Zhivkov's high living ends in a seven-year sentence: Bulgaria's ex-dictator is the first Eastern bloc leader to be jailed, writes Tony Barber

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TODOR ZHIVKOV, who ruled Bulgaria from 1954 to 1989, yesterday became the first of Eastern Europe's disgraced Communist leaders to be sentenced to prison by a recognised court of law.

Zhivkov, who will be 81 on Monday, was jailed for seven years on charges of embezzling public funds to buy villas, apartments and fast cars for himself, his family and his political cronies. One of his former Politburo colleagues, Milko Balev, was jailed for two years on charges of fraud.

Zhivkov denounced the trial as a political farce but said that he was resigned to being a scapegoat for Bulgaria's Communist past. He faces further charges of sponsoring terrorism, setting up two labour camps in which 149 people died between 1959 and 1962, and planning the forced assimilation of Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish minority between 1984 and 1989.

All his close relatives are under investigation, and three former Bulgarian prime ministers - Grisha Filipov, Georgi Atanasov and Andrei Lukanov - are under arrest.

Among Zhivkov's contemporaries in Eastern Europe, some are dead, some are awaiting trial and others have fashioned new careers in the post-Communist order. The dead include Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, the Romanian dictators who were executed on Christmas Day, 1989, by an anti-Communist tribunal.

Their son, Nicu, was later found guilty of genocide and jailed for 16 years. But the Supreme Court has said it will revise the charge to 'instigation to murder under aggravated circumstances' - a milder accusation that may mean a reduced sentence. Out of 21 Communist officials jailed last April for trying to suppress the Romanian revolution, the former foreign minister, Ion Totu, is said to have committed suicide one day after being sentenced.

East Germany's Erich Honecker, 80, is in prison with cancer. He is awaiting trial on manslaughter charges stemming from the killings of East Germans fleeing to the West. His security police chief, Erich Mielke, 84, went on trial in February for the murder of two policemen in 1931, and also faces charges of abusing human rights.

Gustav Husak, who ruled Czechoslovakia from 1969 to 1987 after Soviet-led armies crushed the Prague Spring, died last year. His associate, Vasil Bilak, has been charged with inviting the Russians to invade in 1968. The other men who signed the invitation are dead - Alois Indra, Antonin Kapek, Drahomir Kolder and Oldrich Svestka.

Hungary's Janos Kadar, who ruled his country for 32 years after Soviet tanks crushed the 1956 uprising, died in relative peace in July 1989. Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski, who imposed martial law in 1981 ostensibly to prevent a Soviet invasion, allowed Solidarity to take power in 1989 and recently finished a book entitled Martial Law. Why . . . . A former Communist prime minister, Piotr Jaroszewicz, was found murdered with his wife this week in Warsaw.

Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with a Stalinist hand from 1944 until his death in 1985. The trial of his widow, Nexhmije, and 17 former Politburo members opened in Tirana last month.

Some former Communists are still in place. These include President Ion Iliescu of Romania and Vladimir Meciar of Slovakia. Most leaders of the former Yugoslav republics have a Communist background, but some, such as Milan Kucan of Slovenia and Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia, are considered converts to democracy.

(Photograph omitted)