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Bulgaria To Finally Open Secret Files

May 15, 2007

By Jan Buruma

Almost two decades after the fall of communism, Bulgarians are still wrestling with their totalitarian past. They do not yet have complete access to the files of the communist-era secret service (Darzhavna Sigurnost), but that is about to change. In June 2006, a legal deadline to open the files expired. But only in April 2007 has Bulgaria appointed a parliamentary commission to work on the topic.

The Bulgarian secret service was formally abolished in 1990, just after dictator Todor Zhivkov was forced to resign. Despite public pressure to open its archives like in other post-Soviet countries, in January 1990 most of the files were destroyed – those listing 46 percent of the secret services’ collaborators, 30 percent of those citizens who had been placed under surveillance and 91 percent of those who let facilities to the police.

The most high-profile case was the disappearance of the Georgi Markov file. Markov was a dissident writer and journalist who was famously killed in 1978 in London by a poisoned umbrella. KGB officers revealed in the 1990’s that they had cooperated on that case with their Bulgarian counterparts.

Bulgarian investigative journalist Hristo Hristov wrote the bestseller Kill the Tramp about the Bulgarian and British policy in the Markov case. The book was launched in June 2005, just before the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) was expected to win the parliamentary elections. Hristov’s book got a lot of publicity abroad, though not in Bulgaria itself. It is typical that only almost two decades after the fall of communism such a book could be published. In the early 1990’s the Bulgarians still feared the ghost of the formerly all-powerful DS. The publication of this groundbreaking work came only after the 1997 Velvet Revolution, when Bulgaria moved towards the West, joining NATO in 2004 and the EU at the beginning of this year.

However, the Balkan country still remains the only former Soviet satellite that has not yet given complete access to its secret files. Hristov wrote about his difficulties to get access to some documents. In May 2006 a 15-year legal deadline on confidential information expired, and the government announced it would gradually make public over 250,000 documents. However, all personal details were to be erased from the files, neutralising much of their effect.

Ever since 1989 Bulgarians have been discussing this controversial topic. In 1993, the right-wing Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) tried to pass a law to open the secret files, but this initiative was amongst others blocked by Ahmed Dogan, the leader of the ethnic Turkish party (DPS). In 1997, the SDS managed to pass the law. It could have led to the implication of about 150 ministers and members of parliament, as well as numerous presidential and parliamentary candidates, as agents and collaborators of the secret services. However, the Constitutional Court ruled that names listed on documents from destroyed files could be manipulated and therefore should not be revealed. SDS-leader Kostov admitted that some files could have been destroyed by his own party’s sympathisers, although he refused to reveal any names. Some names though, were made public, the most high-profile being Ahmed Dogan. He had served from 1974 till 1988 as DS-agent, but was prosecuted by the same organization from 1988, and therefore survived the ensuing public outrage.

In June 2006 the renewed debate took a presidential turn, as both current socialist President Georgi Parvanov and his right-wing predecessor (and current SDS-leader) Petar Stoyanov became involved. Parvanov admitted that he knew that a file on him existed under the name Gotse, but denied that he had actually worked for the secret services. Parvanov blamed Kostov for revealing the information. The latter admitted that he had known about the Gotse file back in 1997 when, as prime minister, he had set up a commission to investigate accusations.

However, not only the current president was accused. An internet forum posting claimed that Stoyanov had a file under the covert name Victor. Stoyanov immediately denied this, explaining that he and his family had been persecuted by the communist authorities before 1989. The SDS-leader called upon Interior Minister Rumen Petkov to investigate the claim and make a public statement declaring that they were not true, and threatened to cause an international scandal if he would not do so. Petkov denied that there was any information proving Stoyanov worked for the state security service, although the Interior Minister admitted that the secret service had followed Stoyanov because of his family’s background.

The political controversies were not limited to Bulgaria. It affected relations between Bulgaria, on the one hand, and NATO and the EU on the other. Dutch MEP Mrs. Els de Groen, who is a member of the delegation to the EU-Bulgaria Joint Parliamentary Committee, has been lobbying for complete access to all secret files. According to Mrs. De Groen, Bulgaria must be completely frank about its communist past in order to be a democratic and transparent EU-member. Therefore, she organised in July 2006 an international conference on the secret files.

Meanwhile, Greens in the European parliament warned that the continued existence of the secret files could lead to corruption and blackmail. In 2000 a parliamentary commission had started to work on the opening of the secret files. However, in 2002 it was closed by Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski. Metodi Andreev, the then-chairman of the commission, said it is a public secret that there are links between former secret service generals and organised crime. The EU is deeply concerned about the level of organised crime in Bulgaria, and there is speculation that the remaining files may contain revelations of links between prominent Bulgarians and organised crime groups. Therefore, as a brand new EU-member, Bulgaria will remain fir another three years under the strict control of Brussels.

In December 2006, Bulgaria’s parliament finally adopted several highly controversial amendments to not make public the files of those former agents when either their lives or national security could be endangered. Further, all documents would only be made public with the personal approval of the parliamentary commission’s chairman. Right-wing MP’s disapproved completely, claiming the decisions were made under pressure of the left-wing President Parvanov.

Nevertheless, it took the Bulgarians another four months to set up the commission, chaired by left-wing MP Evtim Kostadinov. SDS and the nationalistic party Ataka boycotted the 6 April 2007 vote on the commission, because they have no representative. The National Investigative Service denied SDS-candidate Georgi Kostantinov access to confidential information. He had allegedly masterminded the blowing up of a foreign diplomat’s apartment in order to hamper ties between Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. However, and likely of greater importance, Konstantinov was persecuted by the communist regime and spent ten years in Bulgarian prisons. In 1973, he fled Bulgaria and sought political asylum in France.

Progress thus remains slow. Stoyanov said the SDS was not going to put forward another candidate, because he very much doubts the commission will perform its duties properly. For his part, Kostadinov announced at a press conference on April 6, 2007 that his commission will start to check the past of the Bulgarian candidate-MEP’s, as elections for the 18 Bulgarian members of the European Parliament will be held on 20 May 2007.

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