Bulgaria Starts Down Hard Road of Reform

Election of dissident confirms demise of communist regime

BULGARIA is slowly but steadily sweeping away its communist past.

After Bulgaria's first two free elections since the communist takeover after World War II, the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) has formed the country's first noncommunist government. And the nation's former leading dissident during the communist era, philosophy professor Zhelyu Zhelev, has become Bulgaria's first democratically elected president in the runoff election on Jan. 19.

Professor Zhelev won 53.5 percent of the vote to 46.5 percent for challenger Velko Valkanov of the former Communist Party, renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Although the victory was narrow, still showing wide support for the former communists, it ensures the continuation of reform efforts.

The old communist guard still tries to hang on. Recently, the orthodox wing of the BSP held a rally in downtown Sofia to protest proposed laws that would expropriate the party's property. Red flags filled the air and the crowd of about 8,000 mostly older people, led by party chairman Alexander Lilov, shouted "Solidarity, Solidarity" and "Fascists, Fascists" against the democratic opposition, UDF.

The BSP lost only narrowly in last October's elections. Capturing around one-third of the vote, it is still a major political force. And it still hopes to make a comeback, says George Pirinsky, a longtime party member. But he admits that its biggest problem is a serious credibility gap - many Bulgarians still doubt that the party has really changed.

Bulgaria's first noncommunist prime minister in 45 years, Filip Dimitrov, says the communists have not changed, and he refuses to call them "socialists." He sees his government as the political guarantor that things have really changed in Bulgaria.

"Of course," he tells the Monitor, "I know well that we cannot bring better standards in a couple of months. But at least the grounds for hope should be established."

The young, quiet, and unassuming lawyer who now leads Bulgaria clearly feels the responsibility for bringing that hope.

"We have to succeed but it's neither easy nor lacking risky elements," he says in clear English.

Though social upheaval is one primary risk, Mr. Pirinsky says: "In general, the population is ready to make the effort connected with the harshness of reform. People are willing to reorient their lives, to acquire new skills, to put in a more intensive working day."

Today, Sofia is a different place than in the somber days of communism. Everywhere, private commerce is taking place. And on Sundays, people fill the magnificent Nevski Cathedral behind the parliament to worship in the new spirit of religious tolerance after the overthrow of communism.

The architect of the Bulgarian communist state, Giorgy Dimitrov, is no longer buried in his Lenin-like mausoleum in the center of Sofia. He was quietly moved one night to a common cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The mausoleum now stands empty and the colorful honor guard is gone.

The transition from communism to democracy took two years, but little has taken place in the way of economic reforms.

Bulgaria's economic problems are daunting. Inflation is more than 70 percent and unemployment now exceeds 10 percent. The vital Soviet market - which used to make up half of Bulgaria's exports - has collapsed, and new Western markets have not yet been developed.

The country's foreign debt is $12 billion. The Bulgarian leva is almost worthless on the international markets, and hard currency is seriously lacking. Small businessmen who have established joint ventures with Western firms and who have to pay their bills in dollars or deutsche marks are particularly hard-hit by the currency crisis. Because the national bank needs the hard currency to pay off foreign debt, it often will not sell it to businessmen.

"We believe that in two to three years we could increase the ability of the country to pay its foreign debts and start the new development of the country," says Emil Harsev, executive director of the Bulgarian National Bank. "But probably it will take about five to 10 years for the Bulgarian economy to recover from this collapse, which was actually the reason for the end of the old regime."

"We actually have taken the decisive step, which means that things cannot go back," says Prime Minister Dimitrov.

Still, he admits that turning this old communist state-run economy into a private enterprise system is not easy.

Despite encouraging signs of change, much remains the same, especially in the countryside. Life there is still harsh. The local market in Samokov, a little town outside Sofia, offers practically nothing for sale but a large pile of cabbage. Cars are still more scarce than horses and shepherds.

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