THE winds of change in Eastern Europe hit Bulgaria with full force last week, creating joy - but also confusion and even fear. Unlike Czechoslovakia, this Balkan state has no democratic tradition. Silence ruled during 45 years of Communist dictatorship.
The silence is breaking and everybody seems to have something to say.
When the daily demonstrations by the students and the week-old opposition group Union of Democratic Forces last week filled the squares of Sofia, it was ``as if the sun had come up in the middle of the night,'' a Western diplomat says.
The change is so great that Bulgaria's Communist leaders have agreed to begin round-table talks with opposition leaders this week, opposition figure Konstantin Trenchev says.
Only last week, the Communist Party felt it necessary to gather its troops one night under the big, brightly lit red star on top of the Communist Party Central Committee building. The party appealed for unity while attempting to lead the way in the rapidly changing political situation here. Among hundreds of waving green, white, and red Bulgarian flags, party chief Petar Mladenov talked of the necessity of renewal of the party and of socialism.
And during a three-day dramatic session of the Central Committee, the party's month-old leadership signaled democratic reforms of the kind not seen here since World War II.
``We have never had an open clash in Bulgaria during Communist rule, like they've had in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia,'' says Dejan Kourianov of the opposition group Ecoglasnost.
``This is not Europe, this is the Balkans,'' says student leader Emil Koshlukov, a 24-year-old English major who has spent almost four years in jail for his political activities deemed hostile to the Communist state. ``Here, everything does not start with the students,'' he continues, admitting that the students are weak and unorganized.
Last Thursday, 10,000 students nearly stormed the National Assembly, and even forced Mr. Mladenov out on the steps in front of the assembly to try to calm the crowd, but to no avail.
``A lack of responsibility can lead to a tragedy,'' Mladenov said. ``Extremism can throw the country into the abyss.''
But the crowd shouted ``out, out'' to the assembly members inside debating the abolition of the monopoly of the Communist Party, and Mladenov had to retreat hastily back into the assembly. The students demanded the resignation of the whole government, shouting ``mafia,'' ``freedom,'' and ``Berlin, Prague, Sofia.'' Not even the opposition leaders, speaking from a balcony overlooking the square in the fashion of their opposition colleagues at Prague's Wenceslas Square, succeeded in quieting the crowd, which did not disperse until late into the cold night.
``The whole thing could have gotten out of hand,'' says Mr. Kourianov of Ecoglasnost. ``The worst thing that could have happened was that parliament be stormed.'' As it was, tanks were very nearly called in, he adds.
Kourianov says it is better that things do not happen so quickly. Insead, he wants slow, constant progress, without backlash.
``If the authoritites stop the reforms even the opposition cannot prevent things from getting out of hand,'' adds Konstantin Trenchev, leader of independent trade union Podkrepa (``support'') which was founded last February. It now has about 40,000 members.
In the official reactions the day after the demonstrations at the parliament, the students were accused of extremism, which they denied. But there was no doubt that they, themselves, were a bit shaken. Even the students in the new independent student association admit that there is a lot of lingering fear and deep-rooted apathy. They see little hope for quick results. And many of the older intellectuals have such deep resentment toward anything that has to do with power and politics, that they just stay away.
``Politics is a very, very dirty business here,'' says Kourianov of Ecoglasnost, and many of the intellectuals don't want anything to do with it. Student leader Emil Korchulov thinks the prospects for democracy are still not good in Bulgaria.
Still, things have changed in the month since the 36-year-old dictatorship of Todor Zhivkov ended. Since then, the leadership of the Communist Party has been revamped and a whole new slate of independent groups has become a force to be reckoned with. In March, an extraordinary party congress will take place with further personnel changes to be expected. Sometime during the second quarter of next year, the first free elections in the postwar period are planned.
The Communist Party under Mladenov, facing a grave political and economic crisis, can no longer, alone, decide the future of this country.
The new troika leading the Communist Party - Mladenov, economic czar Andrej Lukaznov, and Alexander Lilov - still has hope.
``We are ready for a dialogue with all public forces,'' said Lukanov last week at a joint press conference with his Politburo colleague Mr. Lilov, who said that he had ``absolutely no illusion that the only way out of the crisis was the restructuring of the whole society.''
As Bulgaria tries for reform and democracy, it confronts a bleak record - and one that antedates postwar communism. A bloody coup overthrew the government established after World War I, and in 1934 a dictator ended constitutional rule.