Bulgaria's veteran leader appears set for another term

A second reshuffle of Bulgaria's senior government and party posts in two months leaves little doubt that veteran leader Todor Zhivkov is going for another term. Mr. Zhivkov has 32 years experience as the country's communist leader. He also has a 75th birthday coming in September.

Since late last year observers have speculated that he would step down at the party congress early next month. The two reasons for this were Zhivkov's years and a belief that he is no longer the Kremlin favorite he was in Leonid Brezhnev's day. It seemed that, by the ``new broom'' criteria of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorabchev, Zhivkov was ripe for retirement.

However, Zhivkov appears to have given a robust answer to both challenges, by:

Streamlining the government, eliminating six ministries, and naming a younger prime minister in the interest of economic revival after two bad years. Last Friday, premier Grisha Filipov was replaced by Georgi Atanasov, former head of the Bulgarian Communist Party's science and education department and a Politburo member.

By promoting four major party figures -- all young with qualifications needed to step into Zhivkov's shoes when the time comes.

These tentative ``crown princes'' combine strong party credentials with expertise in crucial areas of the reform-oriented ``science and technology revolution '' launched by Zhivkov last year. So far the revolution has made little advance because of problems in agriculture and an alarming slump in economic management and general efficiency. Next month's congress is likely to see a major effort to ``rally the troops.''

Zhivkov may be one of the less spectacular East-bloc leaders. But he is one of its shrewdest. It is this quality which suggests it is Zhivkov who will make the decision about retirement no matter what Gorbachev thinks.

Rumor had it that the January party committee meeting would see major changes involving Zhivkov. But the debate focused on the shortcomings of the past year and Zhivkov's position remained unassailed.

A Politburo member and candidate (nonvoting) member identified with economic failure were removed. Two of its younger members were advanced into key roles. Now, new Premier Atanasov heads a government looking distinctly younger than before.

Zhivkov's handling of affairs in these recent reshuffles seems to reconfirm that his is still the controlling hand.

The party congress convenes April 2, the precise anniversary of the 1956 party session that consolidated his takeover of the leadership two years previously and charted a course steered by himself ever since.

An updated adjustment of that course may be expected -- well into the 1990's -- with a stronger emphasis on reduced central planning controls in favor of enterprise and management autonomy and worker incentive with pay tied to individual productivity.

Zhivkov may be thinking of a deputy general secretary to take over day-to-day party routine. Conceivably Zhivkov could become president of the party. But straight reelection for another spell as leader now seems the most likely.

Zhivkov got along well with the late Leonid Brezhnev. But since Gorbachev came to power a year ago, there have been indications of a less comfortable relationship.

The reasons for the shift are not fully clear. But in October during a visit to Sofia, Gorbachev dropped more than a hint that Bulgaria's quid pro quo performance in return for Soviet ``generosity'' was far from satisfactory.

According to one report, the Bulgarians were until recently getting so much oil from the Soviets that, after meeting domestic need, they could turn the surplus into derivatives which they sold to the West for dollars. Moscow apparently also complained that Bulgaria was shipping inferior products to the Soviets and keeping its best goods for hard-currency markets. The Bulgarians' relatively higher living standards, they were told, had been achieved at the Soviet Union's expense.

Last year, it seems, the Soviets reduced oil deliveries so much that Sofia had to buy substantial quantities from Iran. The general economic slump and a 12-month climatic disaster forced the nation to take out big loans from Western banks to finance foreign grain purchases.

But none of this seems to have brought Zhivkov's position as leader into question. Pressure from Moscow could be counterproductive.

What Zhivkov has done, in fact, is to bring four, younger generation men into key posts.

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