Bulgarians - Pining for Socialism and Ivan Slavkov

May 9, 2011, Monday // 02:44 ; Milena Hristova
Bulgaria: Bulgarians - Pining for Socialism and Ivan Slavkov
Photos by Sofia Photo Agency and BGNES

- Comrade Slavkov, do you remember the times when we worked together at the Bulgarian National Television?

- You were the ones who worked, I was the director!

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Who was Ivan Slavkov? A former communist apparatchik, who climbed the career ladder thanks to his father-in-law, the totalitarian leader Todor Zhivkov? A good natured and charismatic opportunist with a great sense of humour and too many tools at his disposal? A home-grown Ostap Bender? A mix of Casanova and Rigoletto?

FROM ALLELUIA TO ANATHEMA

Braving the rain, thousands of mourners line the street in central Sofia to pay last respects to one of the best known, most colorful and controversial men in the country, who split the nation even after his death.

"There is not a single person in Bulgaria, who can say something bad about Ivan Slavkov – look how many people love him. His funeral has turned into a national procession," Stefka Kostadinova, world record holder in high jump and Chair of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee, says.

The 70-year-old Slavkov, former head of Bulgaria's national Olympic committee and soccer federation, athlete, socialite and son-in-law of late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, died May 1 from pulmonary virus and embolism, only 10 days before his 71st anniversary.

"He was a great friend of mine, open-minded, with plenty of self-irony. He called a spade a spade and did not spare criticism to anyone, including the top shots. This does him credit," a close friend of him reminisces with teary eyes.

The journalists from the Bulgarian National Television, which he headed for as many as ten years, credit him with numerous achievements – he modernized it, made it the best TV channel among the former communist countries, lured the best journalists, increased payments, and secured an annual budget nearly ten times higher than today.

"Any time he picked up the phone and spoke with the Finance Minister, the money arrived immediately," a journalist from the television remembers.

Yes, there was social security, but no freedom, fire back the opponents of Slavkov.

His colleagues however claim that although he ran the state-owned TV channel during the totalitarian times, he gave them complete freedom in their work.

"He was the first man who gave us the courage to have confidence as people working in the television. That we should not be afraid, that we should listen to our hearts," Boyko Stankushev, member of the Board of Directors of the television, says with nostalgia.

A palpable nostalgia for the past can explain best the plaudits for Slavkov, with which Internet forums in Bulgaria are overflowing these days.

In Bulgaria, the 33-year rule of dictator Todor Zhivkov and the connections of his son-in-law Ivan Slavkov have started to seem a golden era to many in comparison with the capitalism that came after the communist regime collapsed.

The new regime has failed to improve living standards, impose the rule of law and tame flourishing corruption and nepotism. Bulgarians are one of the most discontented people in the world. Average monthly salary and pension in the country total about EUR 300 and EUR 80 respectively.

Slavkov's opponents however point him as one of those responsible for impoverishing the country and taking away people's faith that one can achieve success in an honest, decent way.

A list of the embezzlement charges raised against him seem to bear out their claims:

Seven years after Todor Zhivkov was toppled as the country's communist leader in late 1989, Slavkov was acquitted of a charge of embezzling money from the Bulgarian Olympic Committee.

In May 2000, he was cleared by the IOC ethics commission of charges he was involved in a scheme to sell votes in the campaign for the 2004 Olympics, which went to Athens.

Four years later he was suspended by IOC after being secretly filmed by an undercover BBC television crew discussing how votes could be bought in the campaign to host the 2012 Summer Games.

World famous Stefka Kostadinova however will be one of the thousands, who will cherish their fond memories of Slavkov. In a bid to imitate his famous sense of humor Kostadinova, who succeeded him as head of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee, says:

"Now that he is dead, I am angry with him because he won't be with us in London."

LONDON - SLAVKOV'S WATERLOO

Slavkov, the Bulgarian IOC member, made headlines all over the world in 2004, when the BBC documentary "Buying the Games" accused him of inappropriate conduct in the 2012 Olympic bidding process and vote-purchasing.

The Bulgarian authorities at that time responded with silence to the commotion, leaving people guessing as to whether officials are too shocked or just cautious - playing safe in a game with many interests and money at stake.

The silence to Slavkov's woes was all the more deafening against the background of turmoil at the International Olympic Committee. IOC sent contradictory messages, battling with the dark ghosts of the 1998 Salt Lake scandal, in which Slavkov was also accused but later cleared.

Slavkov claimed he just played along in a reverse-sting operation and packing up for the Olympics in Athens assured Bulgarians he was fine. He was well aware that the sleaze scandal will put a stain not only on his name, but also on Bulgaria.

For many Bulgarians however it was both indicative and sad that it was foreigners who delved into the tricks of OIC corruption to come up with allegations against Bulgaria's top sports official.

Slavkov's expulsion was guaranteed. Firstly, he was presented on television worldwide as attempting to line his pockets out of the Olympic games. Secondly, the IOC would have lost all credibility if it didn't expel him.

Despite expectations that BBC muck-raking will cost London 2012 vital votes and may even end it, London was chosen to host the Olympic Games in 2012 after beating favorites Paris by 54 votes to 50 in a tense vote.

This has prompted many in Bulgaria to accuse the West of duplicity of standards and cite the accusations against Slavkov as a stark example of hypocrisy.

"Ivan Slavkov is surely not the only corrupt IOC delegate. All of them are corrupt, all looking to line their pockets. That's the reason why Slavkov was so calm in that movie - it is all part of the game. How come it was him and not anyone else whom BBC decided to target? Besides he said nothing in the film, the only one who spoke was the Serbian," writes a reader in the forum of Dnevnik daily.

"The intelligence hunted down Slavkov because he was opposed to the war in Iraq and the then US ambassador," claims Hacho Boyadzhiev, former director of the television and a popular bon vivant, just like his close friend Slavkov.

As a witness in the trial, together with two engineers, he claimed that the film is manipulated.

"At this fatal meeting Ivan never talks about money. He is present for just three minutes and if anyone knows anything about cutting, he will see the video is manipulated. The two journalists were never found by the investigation and they have never been members of BBC staff."

The people who back Slavkov are demented crowd of sycophants, says Andrew Jennings, consultant to BBC documentary "Buying the Games".

Why was Ivan Slavkov the only IOC member, implicated by the film?

"The journalists can't get a list of thirty corrupt members and force them in front of a secret camera. If Slavkov were not so greedy, he would have said to Goran to do it himself in his role of a middleman. Slavkov was so greedy that he exposed himself," argues Jennings.

Goran Takac, intermediary in the deal, who vehemently defended his Bulgarian friend at their first public appearance after the scandal broke, summed it up nicely at the time:

"The story would have been comic if it was not tragic".

SLAVKOV ON TODAY'S BULGARIA

In the last years of his life Slavkov openly expressed his contempt for the country's current center-right government, tapping on his personal conflict with the tough-talking Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

"Boyko Borisov is a strong man because he has no knowledge and no values. This can be very useful sometimes," Ivan Slavkov said in an interview for Darik radio just a year ago.

In his words the way the government rules can be compared to the tests of Olga Lepeshinskaya, a Proletarian scientist, who wanted to create life out of a broken egg.

"We have now a police state. What we had before (prior to the collapse of the communist regime in 1989) was a state of the rule of law.... I can see no similarities between the two systems and that's unfortunate."

He recommended that the prime minister call one of Moscow mayor deputies, who will "put this country in order for one month."

Asked about his plans, Slavkov said:

"I will destroy whatever I can. When you do something good, nobody pays attention. When you do something bad, you are on the first pages of the newspapers."

Hopes of catching up with the wealthy Western neighbours have been replaced by a sense of injustice and Slavkov claimed it was all because all the governments during the last twenty years have been too greedy.

"These people did not expect to wield power and they ended up just as if they were in the cave of Ali Baba. "Sesame" opened and they began to plunder all they could. Something like "A Thousand and One Nights"and "Alice Through the Looking Glass world" by Lewis Carroll all rolled into one," Slavkov said, coining one more sharp, witty and controversial, just like himself, famous quote.

SLAVKOV'S FAMOUS SAYINGS

"I like marriage. I've been married three times."

"It was not me, who entered into a marriage of convenience with Lyudmila Zhivkova. Rather it was the other way round as she was after obtaining Sofia citizenship. You know her father comes from Pravetz, right?"

(Slavkov refers to his wife Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of the communist leader Todor Zhivkov, who was born in Pravetz, near Sofia.)

"I try to explain to foreigners there is no reason to fear the mad cow disease in Bulgaria. They ask me how it is possible. I tell them there are left six mad cows in Bulgaria and I know each one of them."

"True, Bulgaria's football has been dealt a knock-down blow, but the state has got knocked out."

(Following the shameful 0:6 defeat of the national football team in a clash with the Czechs.

"I will dismiss the fans."

(Ivan Slavkov takes up a journalist's question whether he will dismiss the national head coach Plamen Markov after losing all games at Euro 2004.)

"Don't talk to me about the United States. For me this country does not exist. I dissolved the United States of America, it now consists only of a military firing ground and a manufacturing plant."

"When I am elected president, the parliament will have just two members – me and one more. No money will be splurged. There will be just one chair with a push button."

"I count Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi as a family friend."

"I am satisfied with everything in my life. Including the fact that I spent time in jail."

"I am happy! I'm leaving on a trip and my wife is staying in Bulgaria."

"What a final! There was fighting, goals, yellow and red cards, a penalty. It was perfect for color TV."

(Ivan Slavkov, on the Bulgarian Cup final between Levski and CSKA in 2005.)

"Good times are always where I am. I feel bored if I'm not there."

"There are no secrets revealed [in my memoirs]. The biggest secret in this country is that there is no such country.... There is no such country, but I have been there before."

"I love all the people. No one owes me anything. My life gave me everything."


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