392. Telegram From the Embassy in Bulgaria to the Department of State1

539/Depto 10040.


  • Deputy Secretary Whitehead’s February 5 Meeting With Todor Zhivkov.
Confidential—Entire text.
Summary: The Deputy Secretary’s final official meeting in Bulgaria, with Party and State Chairman Zhivkov, lasted well over two hours and covered bilateral and international issues, including human rights. In response to the Deputy Secretary’s questions, Zhivkov said he saw no serious barriers to better bilateral relations, something Bulgaria wanted. He also gave his views on current developments within the Soviet Union, including “glasnost,” the need for greater economic efficiency and “democratization.” While not disagreeing with Gorbachev’s approach, Zhivkov made clear his view that Bulgaria’s problems were dissimilar to those of the Soviet Union and that a somewhat different approach was needed here to deal with them. When the Deputy Secretary explained the great importance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, Zhivkov replied with a long and spirited defense of Bulgaria’s treatment of its Muslim population. After claiming that such issues were not appropriate for bilateral dialogue, and being told by the DepSec such a position was unacceptable, the Bulgarian leader backed off and suggested expanded human and cultural contacts between our two countries. Zhivkov was animated and cordial throughout the long meeting, though he showed more than a little agitation while discussing the “Bulgarian Muslim” issue. End summary.
Party and State Chairman Todor Zhivkov received the Deputy Secretary at the Boyana official residence on February 5 for two-and-a-half hours of talks, followed by a luncheon. On the Bulgarian side, Foreign Minister Petur Mladenov, Deputy Foreign Minister Lyuben Gotsev and Fourth Department Chief Ambassador Valeri Pchelintsev were among those present. Other U.S. participants were Ambassador Levitsky; Paula Dobriansky, NSC; Martin Wenick, EUR/EEY; Executive Assistant Marc Grossman; and Jonathan Rickert, DCM.
Zhivkov led off by welcoming the Deputy Secretary and expressing appreciation for his visit, which he hoped would lead to improved bilateral relations. Those relations involved no “heavy” or insurmountable issues. Despite differences in the political systems of the two [Page 1257] countries, systems that neither was going to change, Zhivkov saw no problems that could not be resolved. The Deputy Secretary observed that, from what he had heard since arriving in Bulgaria, it seemed as though Bulgaria is trying to move in the direction of our economic system. Zhivkov agreed, saying that Bulgaria liked everything about the U.S. economic system and would be happy to adopt it, with one exception—in the U.S. the profits went to private individuals, whereas in Bulgaria they reverted to the state. That did not mean, however, that Bulgarian businessmen were or should be any less interested in profits than their American counterparts.
The Deputy Secretary told Zhivkov that he had been given a special responsibility for Eastern Europe. In order to learn more about the area firsthand, he had visited Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia in November, 1986,2 and now was completing a tour of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.3 The purpose of these trips was to listen and learn how the Eastern European leaders and people think. The U.S. wanted to improve its relations with those countries where possible, relations that had not been particularly good in recent years. Despite differences in our political, economic and social systems and in our concepts of human freedoms, there was no reason why progress could not be made. This should be done in a step-by-step fashion, with each side making clear to the other the areas where it wanted to see improvements. The ultimate result would be better relations. The Deputy Secretary said his visit was intended to advance that process. He then said he would like to hear Zhivkov’s views on the future of our bilateral relations, the Soviet Union and how the world would look in 5–10 years.
Zhivkov said he would start with bilateral relations. He thought both countries should avoid concentrating on the past but rather should “look at each other with new eyes.” Both sides needed to adopt new approaches, since they had made mistakes before and the old ways had to be overcome. The main political reality today, he claimed, was that neither side of the East-West equation could destroy the other and survive. This new reality, which had not been foreseen by Marx, Engels or Lenin, had to be accepted and complied with. The answer, thought Zhivkov, was to develop new mechanisms for dealing with one another, new rules that would be adhered to strictly. He considered this the only viable alternative, even though it would necessarily be a slow, gradual process.
In the past, Zhivkov continued, communists had considered militarism the inevitable adjunct of capitalism. Now it was clear that capitalism had evolved and could exist without militarism. He predicted that in ten years the ideological foundation of militarism would have disappeared, since it was an unnecessary, dangerous phenomenon whose only outcome in the modern world could be catastrophe. Because of that war must be avoided by all possible means, and the two blocs must learn to coexist in new ways.
Turning to bilateral questions, Zhivkov reiterated that he could see no insoluble problems. After the Deputy Secretary’s departure, the Bulgarian side would seriously discuss among themselves the issues he had raised and try to find practical solutions. He hoped the U.S. would do the same for the matters brought up by the Bulgarians.
Concluding his remarks on bilateral relations, Zhivkov asked the Deputy Secretary to convey his best regards to President Reagan and the Secretary. Zhikov said that he and Reagan were of the same generation (only about seven months apart in age) and, he thought, both wanted to leave positive achievements behind them. He thought that it would be a constructive step for the President to encourage closer U.S.-Bulgarian relations and thus contribute to the development of socialism in Bulgaria, which was not contrary to U.S. interests since Bulgaria was a threat to no one.
Zhivkov then mentioned the question of anti-American propaganda in the Bulgarian media, a matter the Deputy Secretary had raised the previous day at the Foreign Ministry. The Bulgarian leader admitted that the press in his country was not independent but asserted that a truly independent press did not exist anywhere. He then claimed that Bulgaria was prepared to halt criticism of the U.S. in the media. Except repeat except, on questions of ideology and military matters (an area he did not define). In those two fields Bulgaria would have to remain critical. At the same time, Zhivkov observed that the U.S. had been on the periphery of Bulgaria’s foreign relationships in the past, a situation that must be redressed.
Zhivkov expressed strong interest in obtaining the best technology available from the U.S. as the world leader in that field to help modernize its economy. Bulgaria wanted to know what could be exported to it and would welcome visits by U.S. experts to ensure that such technology was not transferred to others. The only limitations Bulgaria could not accept were those on where it could sell goods it produced with the help of imported technology. He added that the whole world, including the Soviets, wanted to catch up with the technological leaders. While the Soviets were outstanding in science, they were much less successful in putting science to work for them. Zhivkov claimed with a laugh that if Bulgaria had possessed only a small part of the Soviets’ potential [Page 1259] in that area, it would have reached the stage of communism by now. However, the Soviets now recognized their mistakes and were making needed corrections.
Turning to the Soviet Union, Zhivkov said that the recent CPSU Central Committee plenum on cadres had showed more clearly than anything else could what was happening in that country. Gorbachev’s speech “tells it all—even too much, in my view,” said Zhivkov. There was no qualitative difference between developments in the USSR and in the other socialist states. The Soviet Union’s major problem was quantitative—the problems of the economy and the need to speed up development. For Bulgaria, on the other hand, the issue of economic progress was less urgent, since it had had one of the highest, if not the highest, growth rates in the world over the past thirty years. At the same time, Bulgaria needed to continue to improve its economic structure on the basis of the worldwide scientific-technological revolution.
Again contrasting the Soviet Union with Bulgaria, Zhivkov said that while “cadres” were a key problem in the former, they were not in his country. Bulgaria regularly had brought fresh talent into the leadership and now had, he claimed, the youngest politburo in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, if people failed to perform or were (occasionally) found to be corrupt, they were replaced. That was the correct solution to the “cadres” question.
Another major issue for the Soviets was the “democratization” of society, but not for Bulgaria. Fifteen years ago this country had introduced a system whereby the leaders at all levels up to the ministerial level were chosen by secret ballot. It had started out in the cultural sector and subsequently been extended to education, science and many other areas. Such elections were going on now and would be completed by mid-February. Zhivkov asserted that 2–3 percent of those running were not re-elected, which showed that the system was working. The intention was that all officials at all levels would be elected by secret ballot—this was not a fad, he said, but a needed development. Bulgaria had not taken its “democratization” from the Soviets but had started on that path well ahead of the USSR.
The Bulgarian leader thought that while all socialist states had certain essential common features, there were also specific features which characterized individual states. Bulgaria supported Gorbachev’s line in general, but not all of it applied here. That was why Bulgaria saw no need for changes in its political life—the changes in the USSR would enrich Bulgarian political practice but without altering it.
The Deputy Secretary thanked Zhivkov for his interesting presentation and expressed his support for the idea that we must look forward “with new eyes.” He agreed that militarism could disappear in ten years, but only if Bulgaria and others could get the Soviets to take [Page 1260] the necessary steps in that direction. The Deputy Secretary said that anti-Bulgarian feeling in the U.S. was a problem of mutual ignorance, as well as differing policies. Responsible public statements and media coverage plus quiet diplomacy were the way to deal with that, and we were willing to do our part in that regard.
Then the Deputy Secretary turned to the subject of human rights, calling his remarks on that topic “the most important thing I can leave with you.” He reviewed the role of human rights in the settling of America during colonial days, the Revolutionary War against Britain, the formulation of our constitution and our political development ever since. He stressed the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the relationship of the individual to his government. Those freedoms, he said, had played a major role in attracting millions of immigrants from all over the world, including Eastern Europe, during our two centuries of independence.
Because of the centrality of human rights and freedoms to our heritage and traditions, we tended to have the closest ties with those sharing the same values. Bulgaria should bear this in mind as our bilateral relations developed. While Bulgaria was a sovereign state in whose internal affairs we would not interfere, we nevertheless wanted Bulgarians to be able to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as we did—freedom of emigration, the press, religion, and, as in the case of the ethnic Turks, the maintenance of one’s language, culture and traditions. In short, human rights observance was very important to the U.S.
Zhivkov replied that there were aspects of American society that Bulgarians did not like—unemployment and treatment of the blacks were two examples. However, Bulgaria did not criticize these things. While each country had the right to criticize the other on such matters, they should not be allowed to become barriers to improved relations. Bulgaria too had its constitution, which entailed not only obligations but also extensive rights. There were no accurate statistics on numbers of religious believers in Bulgaria, though Zhivkov thought the majority of the population were atheists, with about 80 percent of believers being Orthodox, 10 percent Muslim and 10 percent Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other. The Bulgarian state subsidized the churches and even gave a larger amount per capita to the Muslims than to any other group.
Becoming more emotional, Zhivkov launched into a lengthy defense of the Bulgarian position on the ethnic Turkish issue. He complained that Bulgaria had been falsely accused of murdering imams, closing mosques and preventing Islamic worship. All these claims had been proven unfounded, he said. Since World War II 250,000 “so-called Turks” had left for Turkey with the permission of the Bulgarian state, even though such people were truly Islamicized Bulgarians and only thought of themselves as Turks. It was only at the insistence of [Page 1261] the Turkish leader Evren that Bulgaria had signed a document halting the flow. Since then the number of alleged Turks that Turkey maintains want to emigrate has grown from 100 families to 1.5 million people. However, no one had asked the people concerned what they thought or wanted.
Zhivkov called the matter a bilateral issue between Bulgaria and Turkey. He said he did not think it was any business of the U.S. If the U.S. wanted to be helpful, it should urge its Turkish ally to negotiate with Bulgaria. Bulgaria did not discriminate on the basis of religion or lack of religion. In fact, Bulgaria had made great efforts [Facsimile Page 12] to help raise the living and educational standards of the Bulgarian Muslims, who were largely rural, agricultural people, and integrate them more fully into the society. Indeed, outside pressures on this issue were helpful from the Bulgarian standpoint, because they made the Muslims, many of whom did not even speak Turkish, feel even more Bulgarian than they would have otherwise.
Zhivkov asserted that had the Bulgarian Muslim issue been a real problem, he would have gone to the areas concerned and spoken in public on the matter. However, neither he nor any other top leader had found it necessary to give a speech on this issue. In short, it was not a problem, and there was no need for speeches. He then made what, under the circumstances, was an almost bizarre offer. Zhivkov volunteered that he would agree to go with a member of the Embassy staff to any place in Bulgaria he chose. That staff member could speak with whomever he wished in order to satisfy himself as to the true facts of the situation. Zhivkov concluded by demanding again that this issue be dropped from the U.S.-Bulgarian agenda.
The Deputy Secretary observed that the ethnic Turkish question obviously was a very emotional one for Zhivkov. He reminded the Bulgarian leader that he had not come to launch a campaign. The information Zhivkov had provided was interesting. However, if Bulgaria were unwilling to discuss human rights, our bilateral dialogue would be wholly unproductive. Our approach on human rights was not one-sided—if there were issues Bulgaria wished to raise, we would be prepared to discuss them. But no one would tell us we could not raise our human rights concerns.
Zhivkov backed off, saying that of course he was completely prepared to discuss human rights and humanitarian questions. However, there were other aspects that could usefully be covered in those areas. Why not start a dialogue on tourism, he asked? Bulgaria wanted to receive many more American tourists and was willing to create facilities and conditions to attract them. Although hard currency was a problem, Zhivkov said he would like to see more Bulgarians visit the U.S. as well. Apparently under the false assumption that the U.S. would want [Page 1262] Bulgarian tourists to remain there, he said that if 20,000 visitors should go and 1,000 stayed, that would not be a problem. Indeed, if we could provide him with a list of Bulgarian dissidents who wanted to emigrate (assuming we could locate any dissidents), he would sign the papers himself allowing them to leave. In fact, Zhivkov claimed, Bulgaria was much more open to outsiders than was the U.S., and the country had sometimes suffered as a consequence, since terrorists and other undesirables had at times been able to enter undetected.
Tourism was not the only potential area for expanded human contacts, said Zhivkov. Bulgaria would welcome exchanges of religious groups (even Muslims), athletes, parliamentarians, scientists, women, trade unionists, young people, cultural groups, etc. Bulgarian athletes were excellent, and more sports competitions between our two countries would be particularly welcome. In short, Bulgaria would do anything reasonable except to change the system—Zhivkov jokingly said he would not risk that because he might be voted out.
According to Zhivkov, Bulgaria is the most open to the U.S. of all socialist states. Bulgaria, he said, did not fear Western influences or the erosion of its socialism—even if 10 percent of the population became dissidents, it would not threaten the country’s stability. We do not jam your radio broadcasts, he said, and indeed are moving toward satellite TV, with the necessary equipment soon to be mass produced in Bulgaria. Then people would be able to watch whatever they wanted on TV from abroad. Zhivkov asserted that “we’re not Poland”—we have low debts, we are realistic and the system will not change. However, our national dignity is important to us, and we will not accept to be abused by others. We have our own ways which we want to keep.
The Deputy Secretary expressed respect for Bulgaria’s long history and rich culture and suggested that the two sides examine the possibilities for expanded exchanges in such areas as sports, culture, tourism, youth, etc., as Zhivkov had proposed.
In conclusion, Zhivkov expressed his thanks for the discussion with the highest-ranking American official he had seen in a long time. Many topics had been covered. He hoped the Deputy Secretary’s visit would help pave the way to better bilateral relations. The U.S. was huge, he said, and Bulgaria very small, but even a small stone could tip over a large cart. Thus small countries did have a role to play in the modern world. Zhivkov then repeated his greetings to President Reagan and the Secretary.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, D870093–0440. Confidential; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information to Eastern European posts.
  2. November 9–16. See Documents 148 and 329.
  3. See Documents 411416 and 388392.