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Out and about with Bulgaria's old rascal

MISSING PERSONS No 18: Todor Zhivkov
What a nice day out it was for a former Communist dictator. Todor Zhivkov, the man who ruled Bulgaria from 1954 until his overthrow in1989, and who was later convicted of embezzlement and abuse of power, was permitted last week to emerge from the obscurity of house arrest so that he could celebrate the centenary of the community centre in his birthplace, the little town of Pravets.

Predictably, Mr Zhivkov, as sly at 83 as he was in his youth, milked the occasion for all it was worth. He recalled to an appreciative audience that it was in this very same community centre that, 65 years ago, he had played the part of a drunkard in an amateur theatre production.

Then, displaying the egomania for which he was famous when in office, he mused for a while on politics. "Though some people would not admit it, nostalgia for the past is triumphing in Bulgaria. The whole country loves me," he said, while several local folk smiled approvingly and chanted his name.

Were these merely the ramblings of a doddery fallen autocrat? Hardly. The Bulgarian news agency BTA noted that "the former head of state looked in perfect shape for his 83 years".

Which raises the question of why Mr Zhivkov, who was sentenced in September 1992 to seven years in prison, should be allowed to serve his term in the relative luxury of his granddaughter's villa outside Sofia. Officially, he is supposed to be in poor health, but in Pravets he gave a 10-minute speech and said he wanted to hold a news conference later this year.

Of course, Mr Zhivkov thinks he should not even be under house arrest. In his own eyes, he is not a villain but a national hero.

It was the first time since November 1989 that the old rascal had been let out for a day, and he was delighted to be able to spend a little time with Ivan Slavkov, the husband of his late daughter. Mr Slavkov, by the way, faces charges of embezzlement and illegal possession of weapons, while Mr Zhivkov's son, Todor, is in prison awaiting trial in a gang-rape case.

All in all, it is quite a pleasant life for Mr Zhivkov, bearing in mind that he is the man whose security forces shot ethnic Turks if they refused to adopt Slavic names, whose agents murdered the dissident Georgi Markov on the streets of London, and whose slavish loyalty to the Soviet Union was such that Bulgaria was known in his time as the 16th Soviet republic. Things certainly did not work out so well for Todor Zhivkov's neighbour and comrade criminal, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Tony Barber