The People’s Republic of Bulgaria (PRB) was the official name of the Bulgarian socialist republic that existed from 1946 to 1990, when the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) was ruling together with the ‘oppositional’ National Agrarian Party. In 1946, Georgi Dimitrov, a close friend of Joseph Stalin, became prime minister.
In 1948-49, the Party severely restricted or forbid all religious activities and organisations. Orthodox, Muslim, Protestant and Roman Catholic religious organizations were restrained or banned. The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria somehow continued functioning but was restricted and was later infiltrated with communist functionaries. Over 90 000 dissidents were eliminated via expulsions, arrests and killings in an anti-Titoist purge in 1948-49.
In 1950, after the death of Vasil Kolarov and that of Georgi Dimitrov a year earlier, Vulko Chervenkov became prime minister and he started a process of rapid and forceful industrialization. In March 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, Chervenkov was deposed as Party Secretary with the approval of the new leadership in Moscow and replaced by the youthful Todor Zhivkov. Chervenkov stayed on as Prime Minister until April 1956, when he was finally dismissed and replaced by Anton Yugov.
Todor Zhivkov. Bulgaria’s communist dictator from 1954 to 1989
During Zhivkov’s era, Bulgaria followed the Communist line meticulously, often called (even by Bulgarians) the 13th Soviet Republic. In return for Party loyalty came a secure job, enough food, education, health care and the reputation of one of the most prosperous Eastern European countries at the time. Those who didn’t adhere to the strict Soviet policies were marginalised and denied access to educational, personal and job opportunities, so most had little choice but to accept what the Party had to offer.
The uprisings in Poland and Hungary in 1956 did not spread to Bulgaria, but the Party placed firm limits and restraints on intellectuals to prevent any such outbreaks. In the 1960s some economic reforms were adopted, which allowed the free sale of production that exceeded planned amounts. The country became the most popular tourist destination for the Eastern Bloc people. Bulgaria also had a large production basis for commodities such as cigarettes and chocolate, which were hard to obtain in other socialist countries.
Under Zhivkov, many monuments were built in memory of heroes of Bulgarian history who had helped to bring the country to its Communist success, and therefore had not died in vain. Minority groups such as the Roma (Gypsy) and Turkish populations were not so glorified, and beginning in the 1950s were fully disregarded, denied access to basic services and forced to renounce their own names in favour of Bulgarian ones. Those who refused to do so were further marginalised or even sent to concentration camps, and in 1984 a violent spark was ignited over the issue.
In the autumn of 1989 the long ruling Todor Zhivkov was removed from power and in 1990 Bulgarian Communist Party changed its name to Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and adopted a centre-left political ideology in place of Marxism-Leninism. Following that the first free elections since 1931 were held and were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the country’s name was changed to Republic of Bulgaria.
By the time Zhivkov turned 70, his regime was very autocratic but brought also some social and cultural liberalisation and progress led by his daughter Lyudmila Zhivkova who unlike her father didn’t receive approval of communist functionaries because of her pro-Western attitudes. Before the fall of communism this autocracy was shown in a campaign of forced assimilation against the ethnic Turkish minority, who were forbidden to speak the Turkish language and were forced to adopt Bulgarian names in the winter of 1984. The issue strained Bulgaria’s economic relations with the West. The expelling of 300,000 Turks caused a significant drop in agricultural production in the southern regions due to the loss of labour force.
In the late 1980s, the Communists had grown too weak to resist the demand for change for long. Liberal outcry at the breakup of an environmental demonstration in Sofia in October 1989 broadened into a general campaign for political reform. More moderate elements in the Communist leadership reacted promptly by deposing Zhivkov and replacing him with foreign minister Petar Mladenov in November 1989.
This swift move, however, gained only a short respite for the Communist Party and prevented revolutionary change. Although Mladenov promised to open up the regime, demonstrations throughout the country brought the situation to a head. On December 11, Mladenov went on national television to announce the Communist Party had abandoned power. On January 15, 1990, the National Assembly formally abolished the Communist Party’s “leading role.” In June 1990, the first free elections since 1931 were held, thus paving Bulgaria’s way to multiparty democracy. Finally in mid-November 1990, the National Assembly voted to change the country’s name to the Republic of Bulgaria and removed the Communist state emblem from the national flag.
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