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Bulgaria: New Law On Communist Collaborators Fails To End Political Debate

Bulgaria's parliament has approved legislation that will make public the names of those who worked for or collaborated with the communist-era secret police. But the law, enacted three months ahead of parliamentary elections, has failed to put an end to an 11-year-long acrimonious political debate over the informants. RFE/RL correspondent Julia Guechakov looks at the reasons why.

Prague, 2 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria's parliament on Wednesday (28 February) gave final approval to legislation that will reveal the names of former agents and informants of the former communist regime's secret service and its civil and military counter-intelligence services.

Under the bill, the files of all those who have held public office since the regime's collapse in 1989, as well as of all candidates in presidential, parliamentary, and local elections, will be scrutinized. The names of former secret police agents and collaborators will eventually be displayed publicly and posted on the Internet.

The bill is due to become law later this month after it is published in the official State Journal.

The questions of whether, when, and to what extent to reveal the names of former secret police employees and collaborators has dogged Bulgarian political life throughout the past 11 years.

The ruling anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces, or UDF, which initiated the new legislation, says the amended law would serve as a long-needed catharsis purging Bulgarian society of its communist past. UDF deputy Metodi Andre'ev, one of the authors of the new bill, tells RFE/RL that if the issue of secret police files is seen as the fabled genie in a bottle, then the bottle should have been broken long ago. He says the failure to open the files earlier was an important factor in holding back democratic reform in the country.

"Many things were delayed in Bulgaria. The reforms were also delayed and one of the reasons why the reforms were delayed was that this law did not come on time."

The opposition Socialists [former communists] say they will appeal the law to Bulgaria's Constitutional Court. Socialist Lubomir Pantele'ev was quoted as saying that the UDF intended to use the law for political blackmail.

Other opposition figures say that the bill, approved only four months before scheduled parliamentary elections, could be used by the UDF against its political opponents before the voting. Osman Oktai, a senior member of the opposition ethnic Turks' Movement for Rights and Freedoms, says the law might be exploited by UDF not only to discredit its opponents but also to justify what he calls the failure of its policies.

"Secondly, [UDF leaders could use the law) so that it might reveal [as former secret police agents] the names of political opponents both inside and outside the party [that is, UDF], who they would like discredited before society in this election."

The UDF denies all such allegations. Andre'ev says the law was not timed to coincide with the pre-election period.

"Why right now? It just so happened, right now. In Bulgaria we have elections every two years (that includes local elections as well), so it would have happened before an election anyway."

Independent journalist Tatyana Vaksberg has spent many years investigating the archives of the former communist regime, including its secret police records. She says the new bill is wider in scope than the 1997 legislation, which allowed victims of communist persecution to view their personal records and opened the communist-era police files only of a limited number of prominent public figures.

"Thus, starting yesterday (28 February), Bulgarians already have the right to know not only which [parliamentary] deputies and mayors were employed by [former communist dictator Todor] Zivkov's secret police. They also will know who collaborated with the secret services among [today's] bankers, journalists, officials of state institutes and agencies [including] the privatization agency, and even private businessmen who have announced suspicious bankruptcies over the past 10 years."

Many of those who oppose opening secret police files have long argued that since 1989 there has been ample opportunity to destroy or falsify the records. Oktai, for example, says there are grounds for fearing the records may have been manipulated. Still, he says, the records will be useful for getting at the truth.

"In any case, we are not certain that falsifications, manipulations and the like are not possible. But I think that if someone wants the whole truth to come into the open, records in those archives can always be found."

Under the new legislation, information will be gathered and analyzed by a seven-member commission named by parliament and the government. Another commission of judges and prosecutors, whose chairman will be appointed by President Petar Stoyanov, will later reveal the names of the former secret police agents. Both commissions will be appointed for five-year terms.

Journalist Vaksberg says there is still a danger that some of existing information could be withheld because the intelligence services will supervise what is turned over to the commissions. Other analysts say doubts about the impartiality of the commissions could arise because their member are political appointees. Some say it could also lead to new accusations and counter-accusations of manipulating the files.

Despite the many reservations expressed about the new legislation, Vaksberg says the bill has one undeniable virtue: it allows ordinary Bulgarians unimpeded access to the archives -- but not personal files -- of the former secret police. And those archives, she says, reveal the means and methods that the state security service used to implement the decisions of the communist regime.

Opening communist-era secret police files was a sensitive issue in all Central European countries in the early years after the collapse of their communist regimes. Several of them managed -- by different means and with different degrees of success -- to resolve the issue and turn the page of their communist past.

But Bulgaria, Vaksberg says, is what she calls "light years" behind the former East Germany and also well behind other Central European states. Still, she adds, Bulgaria has taken a decisive step.

"Bulgaria undoubtedly took a step which Czechoslovakia made when it was still called Czechoslovakia. In other words, it nevertheless opened the files of a maximum number of members of political and public elites."

Even so, analysts say, more such steps are needed before Bulgaria finally puts its communist past behind it.