Zhivkov, Soviet-era dictator, dies at 86

Bulgaria's Soviet-era leader, Mr Todor Zhivkov, the last of eastern Europe's surviving hardline communist chiefs, has died, aged…

Bulgaria's Soviet-era leader, Mr Todor Zhivkov, the last of eastern Europe's surviving hardline communist chiefs, has died, aged 86, doctors announced yesterday.

Mr Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 35 years as a staunchly proMoscow satellite, died on Wednesday evening of complications following bronchial pneumonia in July.

The ageing former dictator had been reported to be suffering from respiratory problems several times in recent months, and was admitted to hospital in May for a diabetic crisis.

Family sources said his funeral was expected to be held on Sunday. The former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (PSB), now in opposition, has requested an official funeral, but arrangements are as yet unclear, party sources said.

The Bulgarian head of state, President Petar Stoyanov, who presides over an anti-communist coalition which came to power in April 1997, said Mr Zhivkov's death marked the definitive end of the communist era.

He had overseen "one of the darkest periods of modern Bulgarian history", said Mr Stoyanov, adding: "Todor Zhivkov was . . . head of state over several decades which cannot be erased from the annals of history."

The doyen of eastern Europe's hardline communist leaders, Mr Zhivkov was party chief, and successively prime minister and president, before being ousted as the eastern bloc's pro-Moscow regimes fell in 1989.

He was sentenced to seven years in jail in 1992 on charges of having abused public funds for his family and friends. In 1996 Bulgaria's highest court acquitted him.

Under Mr Zhivkov's rule, Bulgaria distinguished itself as the most stable and docile of all Sovietbloc states, with relatively little dissident activity.

The son of a peasant, Mr Zhivkov was a faithful ally of Soviet leaders from Krushchev to Brezhnev. Only with Mr Mikhail Gorbachev did he fall from grace, ousted in the 1989 domino collapse of the region's communist leaders.

His loyalty to Moscow - some say servitude - was legendary. According to archives released only after his fall, he even asked in 1963 and 1973 to transform Bulgaria into a Soviet republic, but Moscow refused due to concern at the international fallout such a move would provoke.

Analysts point out that he surrounded himself with mediocre

aides, and dismissed anyone who became too powerful. He was notably responsible for anti-Turkish clampdowns, the last of which saw 300,000 Bulgarian Turks flee the country shortly before Mr Zhivkov's political demise.

Following his dismissal on November 10th, 1989, by communist reformers, Mr Zhivkov mistakenly believed he would be able to go into peaceful retirement.

But he was arrested in January 199O on charges of embezzling 21 million leva ($21 million at the 1989 rate when he was ousted) and abusing his presidential powers, and put under house arrest in his granddaughter Yevgenia's villa in a chic Sofia suburb.

In 1992 he was sentenced to seven years in jail. But he appealed and remained in the villa until 1996, when Bulgaria's highest court acquitted him, ruling that constitutionally he could only be convicted of high treason.

He was finally released in September 1997 and was free to travel, and was cordially received by former communist colleagues.

The Bulgarian president paid no tribute to Mr Zhivkov yesterday. "For a long time eight million Bulgarians worked hard for dreams and illusions, while at the same time living in fear of political repression," he said.