No Time to Smell the Flowers

The people who threw out Bulgaria's Communists are making life difficult for a reformist president

IN the legendary ``Valley of Roses'' east of Sofia, another abundant harvest of oil-rich blooms is being gathered.

The area's unique attar oil, sold at remarkably high prices to all the top names in Western perfume making, will again provide a boost to the national revenue.

But there is no bed of roses just now for politicians here, either past or present.

The communist ex-President Todor Zhivkov and the last of the communist prime ministers, Andrei Loukanov, were both recently indicted on new charges of financial malfeasance.

The court last year confined Mr. Zhivkov to seven years of house detention. Mr. Loukanov was held in isolated pretrial detention for three months until international human rights jurists condemned the procedure. He was released in December and returned as opposition leader in parliament, but the case against him has been reinstated.

What is more disturbing is the demagogic campaign launched this summer against Zhelyu Zhelev, the man who led the anticommunist revolution and then became the elected president of the new democracy.

Mr. Zhelev headed the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) when it won the 1991 elections, but assumed a nonpartisan stance when he became president of the republic the following year.

He quickly proved a thorn in the side of UDF radicals because of his insistence on national consensus rather than confrontation and his criticism later of the party's antagonistic relationship with labor unions and the news media.

In June, UDF oppositionists staged protests against Zhelev, brandishing the same populist tactics and slogans of ``traitor'' they used against the last communist leaders.

One UDF deputy staged a hunger strike ``to the death'' unless Zhelev left office. The president said he had no intention of stepping down and defused the situation with a one-liner: ``Death is no political argument.''

In person, Zhelev is a quiet man, but a canny politician. He is not likely to be pushed off course by irrational demands from the street.

Bulgaria, he said after his 1991 election victory, ``needs competent government with the support of all political forces.''

Since then, much of the past - at least superficially - has been swept away. Small private businesses mushroom amid economic reforms. But as in all the former communist states, an underground economy flourishes for dubious entrepreneurs.

In the real economy, the major problems persist: unrelieved unemployment; the failure to replace the devastating loss of the once failsafe Soviet market with new outlets; and the lag in winning foreign investment.

Zhelev and his government of technocrats say they need more international help. For the time being, the International Monetary Fund is overlooking an excessive budget deficit with promises of a third $200 million stand-by loan this year, plus some help in grappling with a $9.3 billion foreign debt.

European Community trade barriers, however, severely hamper growth for a country like Bulgaria, which relies on trade. But it is not just the EC at fault. An acute political problem within the UDF impedes progress.

Since the 1991 election, the broad anticommunist coalition has increasingly revealed conflicting interests and no longer presents a coherent program for the longer post-communist period.

The consequences would surely emerge in any early election. UDF had only a narrow margin of victory over the Communists 18 months ago. The latter still command the same strong following in the country.

Zhelev perhaps is more aware of this than the radicals who want him out.

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