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



  • Soviet-Bulgarian Relations: The Impact of Glasnost.
Confidential—Entire text.


A spate of recent high-level meetings between Bulgarian and Soviet officials has offered an opportunity to examine and assess key aspects of the “special relationship” between Sofia and Moscow. In this report we focus on Bulgaria’s efforts to adapt to the phenomenon of glasnost, through a characteristically ambivalent approach: strong rhetorical support for the campaign for openness in the USSR, coupled with a superficial and sporadic struggle against “negative phenomena” at home. The GOB’s reanimation of this latter campaign may have been prompted by recent visits to Sofia by two Soviet officials who stressed Moscow’s commitment to the pursuit of greater openness. It appears clear, however, that Todor Zhivkov is not yet prepared to add Soviet-style glasnost to his own for agenda reform. End summary.

A Wary Eye

The GOB’s embrace of glasnost—Gorbachev’s drive to spotlight problems and issues previously discussed only behind closed doors—has never been as firm as its support for some other aspects of “restructuring” underway in the USSR. Taken as a whole, Bulgaria’s policy of information management resembles the traditional Soviet model: tight control over media access; circumscribed and formalistic criticism of the “negative” practices of lower-level institutions and individuals; one-sided coverage of international affairs; and incomplete information about accidents or natural disasters. The past few months have witnessed increased publicity about the need for openness, the social benefit of glasnost, and so on, but only fragmentary examples of it. While the Bulgarian leadership may still not quite know what to do about glasnost, however, they cannot simply ignore it, its Soviet sponsor, or its potential impact on the country.

Glimpses of Glasnost: In the Original . . .

One major reason that glasnost cannot be ignored is the wide access Bulgarians have to the Soviet media. Because of linguistic [Page 1269] similarities and an emphasis on Russian language training in primary and secondary schools, most Bulgarians have at least a fair passive knowledge of Russian. Soviet newspapers and magazines have become more popular as Soviet glasnost has taken hold; for example, copies of “Ogonyok” magazine featuring an excerpt from the heralded novel “Children of the the Arbat” quickly sold out of Sofia’s kiosks. Soviet evening television news is rebroadcast throughout the country on Fridays by Bulgarian TV, and one Soviet channel can be received daily via satellite link serving Sofia and its environs. Bulgarians here say that this “competition” from Moscow has had a noticeable effect on local programming, generally regarded as dull in the past. “Preduprezhdeniye,” the Soviet documentary on Chernobyl, was dubbed into Bulgarian and shown locally just a few weeks after the original broadcast on the “Soviet channel” attracted attention here.

. . . And in Translation

Bulgarian media themselves have become indirect purveyors of Soviet glasnost. “Rabotnichesko Delo” (“RD”) and other national papers routinely carry full translations of major speeches by Gorbachev, as well as reports of weekly Soviet Politburo meetings, in addition to the reprints of countless TASS dispatches. Over the past year, the Bulgarian press has carried interviews with many prominent Soviets—from MFA spokesmen to actors and authors—reaffirming the national commitment to glasnost in the USSR. During their recent visits to Sofia, Soviet officials Mikhail Solomentsev and Boris Yeltsin were quoted at length in the Bulgarian press on the “irreversibility” of the openness campaign.
Bulgarian “support” for glasnost in the Soviet Union, however, does not translate into a willingness or even ability to deal with the manifold implications of openness in this still-closed and tightly-controlled society. As glasnost has taken root and spread in the USSR, Bulgarian propagandists have shown themselves unsure over how far to “play” certain features of it. For example, the Bulgarian weekly “Narodna Kultura” published articles last year in praise of plans to erect an enormous WWII memorial on the eastern heights of Moscow. This coverage simply parroted the then-existing line from Moscow. However, when the project became the object of heated debate and criticism in the USSR, “Narodna Kultura” simply stopped reporting on the subject entirely.

Bulgarian “Openness”: Not a Priority . . .

The GOB has displayed even less enthusiasm about pursuing a Bulgarian version of the glasnost campaign. This reluctance seems to flow from the very top: Zhivkov has never thrown his full weight behind calls for more openness in Bulgarian society. By contrast, he has been quick to proclaim that Bulgaria and the USSR are on the [Page 1270] same path to economic reform. While he has co-opted the Bulgarian translation of “perestroika” to describe his own reorganization program, the word “glasnost” (which is spelled and means the same in both languages) is not a buzzword of the same magnitude. This official attitude as expressed concisely by Party Secretary and Politburo member Chudomir Aleksandrov when he told a reporter for the London Financial Times that “we think there is enough glasnost as it is.”

. . . But Nevertheless a Problem

These conflicting currents—rhetorical support for glasnost in the USSR versus a palpable reluctance to institute similar practices at home—contribute to inconsistencies in the campaign against “negative phenomena” that the GOB has pursued off and on for a number of years. The superficial resemblance of this campaign to a Soviet-style push for openness has increased somewhat in recent months, but in actual substance the two have very little in common. The most recent reincarnation of the “negative phenomena” program seems to date from publication in February of Zhivkov’s musings on the implications of the January CPSU plenum. His call to intensify the struggle against “negative phenomena” was woven together with criticism of “Rabotnichesko Delo” for excessive caution in spearheading the anti-”negative phenomena” campaign. (A month later, in a move which has still not been fully explained, Politburo member Yordan Yotov was replaced as editor of “RD” but kept his other high-level positions.)
Zhivkov’s call to action led to some cosmetic changes. “Otechestven Front” newspaper expanded its letters section somewhat, and retitled it “Glasnost to Readers’ Complaints.” Thereafter, the word “glasnost” began to appear more frequently in the press, especially during the aforementioned visits by Solomentsev and Yeltsin. As Solomentsev ended his five-day stay, the BCP Control Commission had already begun issuing calls for increased glasnost on shortcomings. The sudden reactivization of the “negative phenomena” campaign culminated in an authoritative “decision” of the CC Secretariat, which was published on the front page of “RD” the morning after Yeltsin’s arrival in Sofia, under the headline “Glasnost I Kritika” (openness and criticism).

A Restrictive Blueprint

The Secretariat decision laid down specific guidelines for the pursuit of criticism in the press. While journalists were directed to be “totally specific and personal” in their criticisms, and their recommended remedial measures were to be followed up again and again, the decision also clearly discouraged criticism of party institutions or individuals above the regional level. Moreover, the Secretariat stipulated that “criticism must be directed to the main and key problems [Page 1271] of our development,” with priority given to economic and scientific development. Clearly, these strictures discourage extension of the campaign of openness into areas such as social problems, accidents, and historical events which have been key targets of Soviet glasnost.

Business as Usual

The coverage of disasters and accidents most clearly reveals the limits of Bulgaria’s information policy. Following the Chernobyl explosion, the GOB continued to withhold information on radiation levels from the public even after Moscow had stopped stonewalling and began a relatively more open policy of disclosure. (Ironically, the fact that the USSR ultimately released more information than Bulgaria left many Bulgarians convinced that the radiation levels here were much worse than was probably actually the case.)
Several months later, “Narodna Kultura” carried an article commenting somewhat cautiously on the need for more adequate official information to counter the rumors which seem to circulate constantly among the populace. However, this isolated commentary did not lead to any change of policy. The incidence of AIDS in Bulgaria was the subject of great popular speculation for months before the GOB finally released the rather unbelievable information that only three Bulgarian hemophiliacs had contracted the disease. Earlier this spring, when some lead waste was accidentally mixed with cattle fodder at a farm outside Sofia, tardy and incomplete disclosure of the full story forced “RD” to carry several articles entitled “No Cause for Alarm” and “An End to Rumors About Meat.” These articles themselves contained contradictory information which, in turn, fed further rumors.

Censoring Pravda?

One of the most instructive illustrations of the disparity between Soviet and Bulgarian glasnost—at least insofar as they are perceived by the Bulgarian people—was the rumor which gained currency soon after Zhivkov made a major address to the Bulgarian trade union congress April 9. The rumor had it that Pravda had published criticism of the Zhivkov speech, prompting Bulgarian authorities to withdraw the offending edition from sale. A careful check revealed that no such analysis had appeared (in fact, Pravda had not published any mention of the speech at all, positive or negative). The very fact that such a rumor would circulate, though, is an indication of Soviet glasnost’s potential to influence Bulgarian domestic developments.

Final Comment

As long as Zhivkov continues to rule the roost in Bulgaria, it is unrealistic to expect much of a change in the conservative, traditionalist management of information here. Soviet-style glasnost is founded on [Page 1272] Gorbachev’s quest to correct the defects which accumulated under the country’s past leadership. Zhivkov, on the other hand, is about the only past that communist Bulgaria has to speak of, and his limited appetite for personal glorification does not imply a readiness to tolerate criticism. A young Bulgarian journalist, with unanticipated candor, confirmed as much when he scoffed at the notion that “real” glasnost could develop here. “Maybe in five years,” he allowed, if there were changes in the top leadership. For the time being, we expect that calls for greater openness in Bulgaria will continue to outnumber clearly identifiable examples of the phenomenon itself. End comment.
Moscow minimize considered.
  1. Source: Reagan Library, Rudolf Perina Files, Bulgaria—Substance (1). Confidential. Sent for information to Eastern European posts, Moscow, and Brussels for USEC.