Tsetska Tsacheva, nominated by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party as its candidate in the country’s November 2016 presidential elections, was a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and says she is not ashamed of it.
At least some of the rivals of GERB, the party most likely to get the largest share of the vote on November 6, are using Tsacheva’s communist party past as a means of discrediting her. By seeking to make an issue of it in these presidential elections, they have revived Bulgaria’s desultory debate about its communist-era history.
In some quarters, there was indignation about GERB deputy leader and presidential campaign headquarters chief Tsvetan Tsvetanov trying to deflect the criticism by claiming that around 1989, “almost everyone” in Bulgaria was a communist party member.
Tsvetanov’s claim does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Going by official records, in 1989 Bulgaria had a population of about 8.87 million. The same year, the Bulgarian Communist Party had a membership of about a million – hardly “almost everyone”.
Historian Dr Momchil Metodiev, a specialist in themes in Bulgaria’s communist era such as secret service State Security, pointed out soon after Tsvetanov’s statement that were it true that almost everyone was a Party member, the state at the time would not have looked the way that it did.
Membership of the Bulgarian Communist Party was a means of advancement, he points out.
The 1971 Zhivkov constitution described the BCP as “the leading force in society and the state”. But that did not make everyone a Party member – and looked at with hard-eyed (and justified) cynicism, Bulgaria’s communist ruling elite would hardly want a club of which everyone in the country was a member.
Bulgaria has no system of lustration – under its 1991 constitution, adopted at the beginning of the transition towards democracy, that would be impermissible – and so having been a member of the BCP or having worked for State Security is no legal bar to public office.
At the same time, in May 2000 Bulgaria’s National Assembly (from which Tsacheva is on leave as its Speaker to stand in the presidential elections) adopted a law declaring the BCP a criminal organisation.
Currently, centre-right and right-wing politicians are fond of throwing this text in the face of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, lineal successor to the BCP, whenever that party tries to celebrate or rehabilitate the communist past, for instance annually on September 9, the anniversary of the Soviet takeover of Bulgaria.
A few quotations from that 2000 act of Parliament: “The Bulgarian Communist Party is responsible for State governance from 9 September 1944 to 10 November 1989 that has led the country to national catastrophe” and “the Bulgarian Communist Party has been a criminal organisation resembling other organisations based on its ideology, the activities of which were aimed at suppressing human rights and the democratic system”.
The text lays 10 charges against the leadership and leaders of the BCP (in those words – it does not say “members”) ranging from purposefully and deliberately ruining the values of European civilisation, the moral and economic decline of the State, employing permanent terror against people who disagreed with the system of ruling and against whole groups of the population, to unscrupulous destruction of nature.
It is not news that Tsacheva was a member of the BCP. In 2008, when Tsacheva was a member of the Pleven city council, a year before she became Speaker of the National Assembly, there were reports in certain media – allegedly close to then-senior figures in the BSP – claiming that not only had she been a BCP member, but also a local party secretary.
If that was true, it might well matter, because party secretaries were local-level gang bosses, able to make and break people through the Party and, by extension, State Security.
But no proof ever has emerged that the allegation is true. Tsacheva vehemently dismissed the attempt to smear her as having no basis in truth, and threatened to sue anyone making it for defamation. In the world of Bulgarian politics, where untrue allegations are standard operational practice, it is not difficult to believe that Tsacheva is correct in rejecting the allegation as a lie. The original media reports quoted anonymous “sources” and in the past seven years, no one has emerged in public with proof of the claim, or even a willingness to publicly claim remembering her occupying such a post.
The only post Tsacheva, a Sofia University law graduate, occupied was as a legal consultant at the District People’s Council – a form of local government body under communistm – in the town of Pleven.
Since her nomination as a presidential candidate, Tsacheva has again been asked about the matter.
Interviewed by local television channel Nova Televizia, she said that she had “nothing to worry about” regarding her party membership.
“I did not ride in a Volga with draped curtains,” she said, referring to the practices of the elite of the time, and nor had she been nomenklatura.
“I am not ashamed, this is (in) my biography, this is me,” Tsacheva said. She said that she had been approached to join the Party because she was “active” as a student, “putting forward many initiatives”.
Tsacheva said that she had agreed to join the BCP because she “did not have enough information” about the powers-that-then-were and blamed “brainwashing”.
But as the era of Perestroika dawned, she began to change her mind, looking differently at the country in which she was living. When the communist regime fell, she terminated her membership of the Party – shifting instead towards the ranks of supporters of the UDF, the coalition that emerged after the fall of communism, its unifying thread being rejection of the communist regime and its legacy.
Further, with the BCP having had about a million members in 1989 (about 40 times the number it had in 1944 at the time of the coup d’etat that opened the way for the communist regime) it is hardly surprising that Tsacheva is not alone in being in public life with a communist party past.
It is certainly no surprise that the ranks of the BSP, and its latter-day splinter parties, contain many people with BCP pasts. One notable example among many is Georgi Purvanov, a former leader of the BSP and now the leader of splinter party ABC, who was twice elected Bulgaria’s President, in 2001 and 2006.
Not only was Purvanov a BCP member, he also was State Security’s Agent Gotse. But he defeated his rival from the fractious UDF in 2001, and in 2006 had the advantage that his competitor in the run-off was Ataka leader Volen Siderov; Purvanov got close to 76 per cent of the vote at the second round, including from the right-wing electorate who accepted the compromise of voting for the former BSP leader because they found Siderov an even more ghastly alternative than him.
Another example recently in the headlines is Irina Bokova, the failed candidate to head the UN, who was a BCP member from a prominent communist family. The tale of her having been Bulgaria’s official candidate, nominated by a centre-right government under political pressure from Purvanov, is well-canvassed.
Again, it is hardly suprising to find former BCP members on the left-wing of Bulgaria’s political spectrum. But they are present on the right, as well.
A number of senior members of GERB are said to have been Party members, though websites making these allegation offer no documentary proof. Borissov himself was quoted in an interview in 2007 as having confirmed that he was a Party member. Given his Interior Ministry career that began during the communist regime, it seems highly improbable that he would have got anywhere had he not been one.
And while Tsacheva speaks about not being ashamed of having been a BCP member, it is hardly something that anyone in public life, especially on the right-wing, tends to shout from the rooftops about. Online searches of the CVs of various prominent right-wing politicians in the past 25 years, including heads of government, tend to turn up life stories that are silent on whether or not they were Party members before 1989.
Unlike the Dossier Commission’s statutory role in announcing former State Security people, there is no equivalent system for saying who was a Party member. (Speaking of State Security, by the way, in this year’s presidential race, three out of the total 21 candidates previously have been confirmed as having been agents – Krassimir Karakachanov, George Ganchev and Velizar Enchev). It is improbable that on the list of candidates, Tsacheva is the only one who was a BCP member.
To return to historian Metodiev, who said that he was not among those who argue that people who were members of the BCP are not entitled to a political career or any other career after the fall of the communist regime.
Anyone who lived under that regime made compromises to one degree or another, he said.
For him, the problem was that in the public exchange about the matter, the issue of the communist regime itself was glossed over. No presidential candidate had tried to speak on the subject, which was very problematic, Metodiev said.
The idea of sweeping the past under the carpet simply did not work, and everyone should know that it did not work, he said.
Attitudes towards communism were a fundamental question of values when it came to choosing a President.
“We need to be aware of what actions each of the presidential candidates would take, both at a symbolic and factual level,” Metodiev said.
Which commemorations would Bulgaria’s next President attend – those organised by former members of the BCP or those organised by the repressed?
Metodiev was referring to the rival commemorations in this country, for instance on February 1 when the country remembers the victims of communism – a commemoration officially part of the state calendar in recent years – and on September 9, when red politicians and Soviet sympathisers lay flowers at the memorial to the Soviet Army in Sofia.
He also asked what attitude the next President would show to the Dossier Commission, adding that the head of state has quite an important voice on such issues, setting the tone.
President Rossen Plevneliev, elected in 2011 on a GERB’s ticket – and who has not made himself available for election to a second term – has been quite forthright about the communist past. He has attended the February 1 commemorations, as well as commemorations at Belene, the communist-era concentration camp. Plevneliev also has defended the Dossier Commission and sharply criticised those who want to shut it down. He was patron of the 25 Years Free Bulgaria celebrations.
At this writing, there are about three and a half weeks to Bulgaria’s November 6 presidential elections. Four and a half to a second round runoff, if there is one, which seems likely.
Whether Tsacheva’s BCP past will resonate with the electorate as a factor remains to be seen; there are likely to be several other factors – party allegiance, the individual personalities of the candidates, other national issues dragged into the presidential election whether or not the head of state constitutionally has any say over them – that may decide the outcome.
And if the past 25 years are anything to go by, the process of allowing the shadow of Bulgaria’s communist to recede, barring periodic commemorations, political statements or short-lived controversies of the day, is likely to continue on its seemingly inevitable way.