Bulgaria recently published a list of former KGB agents in the country and reveals the hidden impact of its totalitarian past on the nation’s current life
According to the law that qualifies the communist regime in Bulgaria as criminal and is one of the founding acts of the new state, “the Communist Party is responsible for the governance of the country from September 9, 1944, through November 10, 1989, which led to a national catastrophe.” Art. 2 adds that it “completely destroyed the traditional values of European civilization” as well as nine more similar sins.
However, such documents adopted in the euphoria of velvet revolutions subsequently remained empty and declarative. Bulgarians realized this, and the 2004 parliamentary declaration on the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the communist regime in Bulgaria noted that the search for those guilty of illegal violence in the post-war period was of a moral rather than a legal nature.
For a long time, Bulgaria had no memorial institution, examining its relations with the past. The entire burden of de-communization was undertaken by NGOs. And the old-new elites did not waste the chance to rid themselves of communist symbols that were inconvenient reminders for them. They were always ready to support superficial changes, such as the initiative to dismantle the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, a well-known Bolshevik and the first leader of communist Bulgaria. This took longer – and gained more publicity – than they expected though, because the marble construction turned out to be too solid. Other initiatives included the celebration of liberation from the Ottoman yoke, which replaced the Day of Liberation of Bulgaria from the Nazis by the Soviet Army on March 3; and laws on the amnesty and rehabilitation of people imprisoned under the communist regime, although this was more of a ritual.
The bulgarian government did not commit to the reevaluation of the communist past. Instead, it tried to distance itself from the process
The Bulgarian government did not commit to reevaluation of its totalitarian past while trying to distance itself from the process. In part, this stems from the strong position of Communism’s successor, the Socialist Party, in Bulgarian politics. It has always had its own faction in parliament and its members headed the government twice, in 1995-1997 and 2005-2009.The party leader, Georgi Parvanov – or Gotse as the communist special services agent – was Bulgaria’s president for two terms in 2002-2012.
Apparently, Bulgaria never saw overcoming its past as a matter of principle. The issue of lustration was hardly ever raised. In fact, Bulgaria had long been the only Central European state that did not have lustration mechanisms, unless dismissals in law enforcement authorities in the early 1990s qualify as such. Other attempts to initiate lustration were blocked by parliament or the Constitutional Court. The old-new Bulgarian elites watched closely to prevent anything that could fuel doubts as to their power.
NGOs and investigative journalists fueled interest in the attitude towards the totalitarian past from time to time, mostly focusing on archives and the disclosure of the secret files of the DS, the state security service – the Bulgarian KGB. Historic confrontation thus gradually shifted to the issue of archives and transformed into fragmented and sporadic discoveries of cooperation with the DS in the biographies of different people.
Until recently, Bulgaria had several keepers of secret service funds. These included the Interior Ministry, Justice Ministry and the Central State Archive. Some of the documents, 144,255 personal files, were destroyed in 1990 on the order of the then Interior Minister Semerdzhiyev. In 2002, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for this, although the case was sent for further investigation in 2003.
Over the 1990s, a series of laws was adopted that simplified access to communist security service archives. Potentially, they opened the way to even persecute former special service employees but all this stayed on paper, as there were no specific mechanisms to enact the laws. An important 1997 law entailed the transfer of all security service archives to the Central State Archive but this was not done either. Currently, the archive only contains the papers of the Communist Party Central Committee and part of the cases of those imprisoned by it. The only thing allowed, was for victims of repressions to view their cases on the premises of the Interior Ministry’s archive. Still, the law made it possible to expose nearly 150 communist special service agents, including 14 who were members of parliament at that time.
Just as in other FSU countries, the disclosure of information about the secret collaborators of the communist regime sparked huge interest in society. Public opinion began to demand the exposure of the truth about DS agents and their activities. Journalist investigations began to surface, exposing the mass involvement of Bulgarians in secret security operations and the positions these people hold in modern-day Bulgaria.
2006 was the turning point in the process: the legislature adopted the Law on the Disclosure of Documents and Exposure of the Involvement of Bulgarian Citizens in the Investigative Agencies of the State Security Service and Bulgarian People’s Army. Surprisingly, it was supported by most votes of the ruling coalition that included the Socialist Party, and the then opposition, comprised of centrist and right-wing parties. However, it was more a result of EU pressure rather than an internal compromise between the country’s political forces, although pro-government socialists opposed it.
Under the new law, all secret service files were supposed to be transferred to a commission with the same name as the law, while researchers and the public got free access to them. Under the new law, top politicians and officials, including the president, prime-minister, ministers and their deputies, most employees of the justice system, including judges of all special higher institutions, heads of central and local governments, mass media executives, top officials of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and more, were subject to the DS cooperation check.
Over the next 18 months, the government succeeded in blocking the work of the commission: it could not find any premises for all the archive materials. Thus, these former archives remained where they were – at the Interior Ministry, special services and Justice Ministry. These problems were later solved – the resounding victory of democratic forces over the socialists in the 2009 parliamentary election that gave them 117 seats out of 250 facilitated this.
The commission has been operating for six years now. Its official website posts declassified documents and details of people whose cooperation with the DS was exposed. Organizations and institutions are usually subject to examination. By mid-June, the website offered details about UniCredit board members and top managers, as well as the officials of the Veliko Tarnovo city council and municipality, who used to work for the communist special service. It also has the archive of the commission’s decisions and a search by name, birthplace and institution where the former DS employee or agent works. The information is disclosed under a unified system that includes 1) details on the name, date and place of the person’s birth; 2) name of the agent who recruited the person and the place of recruitment; 3) the name of the person’s supervisor within the special service hierarchy; 4) position and status of the person in the secret service, for instance, agent or secret employee; 5) references to archive documents; 6) date when the person was removed from the register; and 7) his or her current position.
The recently published results of several years of investigations even shocked the apathetic Bulgarian society. It emerged that DS agents included some of Bulgaria’s top people – businessmen, bankers, media moguls, civil servants, MPs, publishers, writers and so on. The disclosed list included a former president, prime-ministers, leaders of parliamentary parties, a state radio executive, a former chief editor of Playboy and the entire board of UniCredit’s Bulgarian subsidiary. Then more interesting details: 11 of 15 metropolitans of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, two of the nation’s chief muftis and a respected figure of the Catholic Church also secretly cooperated with the DS, as did 45 current ambassadors and counsels. Education had the most former communist agents. The check revealed that 40 of the 400 people in senior positions at the top three universities had once worked for the DS. All parliamentary candidates underwent the check, too. It turned out that the party of Bulgarian Turks had the most former agents, followed by the Socialist Party, centrist and even radical right-wing parties.
The commission’s operation can hardly be called lustration because it does not entail any penalties for cooperation with the DS, other than moral judgment, unlike similar bodies in, say, Hungary or Romania. In practice, however, the exposure is sometimes sufficient grounds for voluntary resignation or dismissal, following European bureaucratic standards. And of course, the person’s reputation is tarnished. Metropolitan Nicholas of Plovdiv, one of the few top hierarchs of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church who was not nailed in cooperation with the DS, even said that he refused to attend assemblies of the Holy Synod but later changed his mind.
Clearly, the names listed so far are not exhaustive but the overall picture is pretty clear. Over the past five years, the commission has examined the files of 113,000 people and found that 6,377 were linked to the DS.
It has emerged that even 25 years after the collapse of the communist system, dependence on the totalitarian past continues to be very significant. It’s not only in people’s minds but in more trivial things, such as in the fact that people who had once been the foundation of the communist regime now control the most important top positions, business assets and spheres of life in modern Bulgaria.
The motto of the commission exposing files and the involvement of Bulgarian citizens in investigation services and the Bulgarian People’s Army is that “you have the right to know, and we provide you with maximum information. It’s up to you to draw conclusions.”