Bulgarian dissidents again on the outer


By Sally Low

Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's former dissident turned president, once told a reporter it was possible he could again become a dissident. For Dimitrina Petrova and her friends, founding members of Bulgaria's most famous opposition movement, Eco Glasnost, that is already the case.

A professor of philosophy at Sofia University, she describes the splits and differentiation within most of the non-communist opposition in her country. Until the elections last October, she was a parliamentary deputy for Eco Glasnost. She resisted the "general trend of the political process towards intolerance and anticommunism and a desire to follow IMF policies and carry out the reform in a neo-liberal way."

Last April Eco Glasnost, along with other groups in the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), split over whether to participate with the Socialist Party (former Communist Party) government in drawing up a new constitution. The real issue, she says, was whether the Socialist Party should have the right to participate as a legitimate part of the new political scene. With some reservations, she and her colleagues signed the new constitution.

Panayot Denev, a supporter of the right who kept control of the UDF and won the elections, says there was really no split. Writing in the January-February issue of East European Reporter, he claims it was merely the "actions of a handful of would-be politicians following communist orders to establish new opposition formations ... to simulate pluralism".

Whereas the right remained united, the more liberal elements, "being more pluralistic and intellectual and finding more differences among themselves than the voters could discern, went to the elections in four separate formations. Not one of them crossed the 4% threshold to get into parliament", explains Petrova. About a third of the population voted for parties that did not win seats. The UDF gained 110 seats and governs with the support of the Turkish minority's Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has 24 deputies. The Socialist Party won 106 seats.

Now, the political situation is characterised by "the war of the colours", the Blues against the Reds. Petrova considers herself part of a small group that, in the sense that they oppose the intolerance, can be called centre. "Generally we don't have a Communist Party background, but on the other hand we are unhappy about the new government's measures to reinforce and consolidate its power."

One such measure is "lustration", or screening, legislation similar to, but probably even harsher than, that adopted in Czechoslovakia. In many regions purges have begun even before these laws have been promulgated. Other Bulgarians at the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly conference in Bratislava, where I met Petrova in late March, commented that many former low-level party officials who are now being targeted had often been honest and unities, which they tended to protect from the excesses of the corrupt regime.

Thanks to the legacy of the past and the nature of current reforms, Bulgaria's economy is in crisis. Living standards have dropped at least 30%. Unemployment is already between 15% and 20%. Labour discrimination, against women and minorities and particularly minority women, is spreading, claims Petrova. Sackings are often decided according to the "political biography" of employees.

While the monetary reform has been almost completed, - prices have been liberalised, a banking system established and internal convertibility introduced - privatisation has not really begun. After the elections, the new government decided restitution should be dealt with first; 95% of property is still state owned, but former owners or their heirs are now beginning to claim houses, factories and other city sites.

Petrova is hopeful that a more tolerant political atmosphere is slowly starting to evolve. She and other activists want to rebuild Eco Glasnost into an influential organisation. This time, however, they will emphasise grassroots activism and participation. Other movements, among women and opponents to military service, are just starting to organise.