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Bulgaria: Murder of Dissident Journalist Unsolved After 20 Years

By Annie Hillar

Prague, 11 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgarian emigre writer, dissident, and Radio Free Europe journalist Georgi Markov died in London 20 years ago today at age 49, the victim of a political murder. His death remains a Cold War mystery

Richard Cummings, former chief of security for RFE/RL in Prague, has followed the Markov story closely for years and written several articles on the case.

Cummings says Markov was a celebrated novelist and playwright in Bulgaria before he defected to the West in 1969. He eventually settled in England, where he was employed by the British Broadcasting Company, and worked frequently for RFE as a free-lance broadcast journalist. He also worked for the German international broadcast service, Deutsche Welle, but it was over RFE that he attracted the most attention for controversial broadcasts

Markov continued to be well known in Bulgaria for his criticism of its Communist Party rule and particularly of its leader, Todor Zhivkov. For several years he produced for RFE a series of biting satirical programs called Personal Meetings with Todor Zhivkov.

Cummings says a Bulgarian investigator established that Zhivkov told a party Politburo meeting in 1977 that he wanted Markov silenced. The task was given to Interior Minister Dimiter Stoyanov, who is said to have requested KGB assistance. Yuri Andropov, chairman of the KGB, reportedly agreed to help, as long as there were no trace back to the Soviets.

Three attempts to assassinate Markov followed. The final, and successful, attempt occurred on Zhivkov's birthday, September 7, 1978.

Cummings, who is now a bank security executive working in Germany, describes Markov's fateful day:

"On the day he was fatally attacked, Markov parked his car below London's Waterloo Bridge and climbed the stairs to a bus stop. As he neared the waiting queue, he experienced a stinging pain in the back of his right thigh. He turned and saw a man bending to pick up a dropped umbrella. Later that evening, Markov developed a high fever and was taken to a London hospital, where he was treated for an unidentified form of blood poisoning. He went into shock and, after three days of agony, he died."

After months of investigation, coroners ruled that Markov had been, in their term, "unlawfully killed" by a poison called ricin, which is more lethal than cobra venom.

Todor Zhivkov died August 5 this year, without having admitted in his published memoirs or elsewhere in public to any connection with the Markov murder. Bogdan Karayotov, an investigating magistrate in Sofia, said that there are no documents to prove the murder was ordered by Zhivkov and his Interior Minister Dimiter Stoyanov.

Security man Cummings says that several years after Markov's death, two former KGB officers, Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky, publicly admitted Soviet involvement in Markov's murder. Contemporary reports said a highly-secret KGB laboratory developed the weapon. The biotoxin ricin had been placed in a pinhead-sized pellet, which was concealed in an U.S.-made umbrella. The pellet was found in Markov's right leg.

The case lay dormant until Bulgarian and Scotland Yard officials resumed the investigation after the fall of communism in 1989. But thousands of pages on the case in the Bulgarian Interior Ministry were destroyed. And most traces of the crime have been disappeared.

More than a year ago, the British Parliament asked Russia to help in finding KGB agents who were involved in or knew of the murder. The request remains unanswered.

Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov said last January that he was prepared, as he put it, to do "everything that the constitution allows to reveal why Markov died and who ordered his sinister execution."

Colonel Seraphim Stoikov, head of Bulgaria's Interior Ministry archives, said in July last year that extensive records of the cooperation between the Soviet KGB and the Bulgarian Communist secret service would soon be opened to the public after parliament adopts the necessary law.

He said a special system and command center at KGB headquarters in Moscow had been created in 1974 for exchanging information.

Karayotov, the investigating magistrate, said recently that because of Markov's dissident activities, two files had been amassed on Markov totaling 18 volumes, one for foreign activity and one for domestic activity.

On Tuesday, the 20th anniversary of the attack that led to Markov's death, the Bulgarian newspaper Democratzia quoted Karayotov, who has been investigating Markov's murder. as saying he is preparing to issue an arrest warrant for a Dane of Italian origin, who he said was the likely slayer.

But, for now, the Markov murder case remains officially unsolved.