Bulgaria loses an 'heir apparent'; period of political infighting likely

A cloud of uncertainty has settled over the political future of Bulgaria following the death of Lyudmila Zhivkova, a leading figure in that country's ruling circle.

A controversial figure, Mrs. Zhivkova held two important posts -- president of the Committee for Culture and voting member of the Politburo -- but her influence in shapimg the affairs of her country extended far beyond the power of her offices.

Indeed, many assumed that her father, Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov, was grooming her to succeed him.

Zhivkova's passing July 21 took everyone by surprise (she was still in her thirties) and is sure to produce a period of maneuver and realignment within the governing hierarchy. Her personal influence with her father was resented by some and gave others particularly artists and authors, opportunities otherwise unthinkable. It also gave ammunition to the disgruntled, who critized Zhivkov, always in private, with charges of nepotism.

Zhivkova's promotion of art and culture was nonideological in character, but the impact was decidedly liberal. By dramatically expanding cultural exchanges with the West, she was responsible for rolling back the isolation that was a lingering legacy of the cold war. She sponsored two major exhibitions that met enthusiastic receptions in Europe and the United States, one featuring ancient icons, the other made up of Thracian treasures.

When Bulgaria celerated its 1300th anniversary of national statehood earlier this year, hundreds of Western scholars were flown to Bulgaria at government expense for a gala affair in the newly commissioned Great Hall of Culture. Both the Western representation and the construction of the hall are generally credited to Zhivkova's efforts.

Ever since the final years of Stalin's rule Bulgaria has appeared to Western eyes as the faithful sidekick of Big Brother Russia. The image is supported by cultural and historic ties that go back far beyond the Russian revolution of 1917.

But the reputation of Bulgaria as a satellite attached to its giant neighbor to the north is undeserved in many ways. Western popular culture is abundant in Bulgaria and the government shows no sign of disapproval; events in the West, which are reported with surprising accuracy, are observe d with as much interest as the news from Moscow.

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