The Bulgarian People’s court of 1944-45 was the largest post World War II tribunal in the world, and wiped out generations of Bulgaria’s elite and intelligentsia. Following my earlier article concerning the court, it is also very important to tell the story of the early Bulgarian opposition to the communist regime. A lot of parallels can be drawn between this very particular piece of recent Bulgarian history and 21st-century foreign policy issues. Hence, evaluating these parallels will bring answers to how modern foreign policy, and authoritarianism, should be handled.
Bulgaria has been viewed as the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally. Nonetheless, the Bulgarian democratic opposition won 28% of votes (1,191,455) in an election manipulated against them, and after an unmatched terror which swept away an entire intelligentsia. Hence, British investigator Felice Oti’s argument that Bulgaria had the most substantial political opposition to communism in all of Eastern Europe has merit. This opposition was led by the Bulgarian Agricultural National Union (BANU) politician Nikola Petkov.
Nikola Petkov’s story is a Shakespearean tragedy. A flawed man who made mistakes which led to his own downfall, but also a man who stuck to his beliefs to the grave in a way few would dare to. He had a strong belief in democracy, which is why he helped form the Fatherland Front with an offshoot of the disunited BANU, to challenge Bulgaria’s Tsarist Regime which was effectively an absolute monarchy under Tsar Boris III. However, disillusionment with the Communist Party (BCP) which dominated and monopolized power within the Fatherland Front, led to him increasingly opposing his former allies. This culminated in the communists butchering and mutilating the young girl who was his secretary, forcing a sudden realisation in Petkov that the BCP were a band of bloodthirsty unscrupulous thugs. Hence, he went into open opposition to the government which he helped propel to power.
After two years of tense political confrontation, with Petkov rallying allies from the West, and trying to unite all democratic forces against the looming communist state, Petkov was executed by hanging on September 23, 1947. Nonetheless, the question should be raised as to what extent were the policies of the victorious powers responsible for the death of Nikola Petkov, and with him democracy in Bulgaria? What lessons does this raise as to modern foreign intervention? Modern liberation? Мodern democratic expansion?
Leave the helpless little dictatorship alone!
After the FF’s 1944 September Coup which overthrew the democratic government of Bulgaria, the cleansing of the country’s political elite and intelligentsia commenced on a scale incomparable to anywhere else in the world at the time. Petkov ratified The People’s Court with the hope that fascist sympathizers would be brought to justice. However, the court used the pretext of post-war anti-fascism to wipe out any trace of opposition, with executions dwarfing the statistics of other countries. Petkov’s other mistakes included not effectively obstructing and opposing communist takeovers of the ministries of the Interior and Justice earlier on, as these became tools for communist suppression. Eventually, it was the communist-controlled Ministry of Justice that constructed a biased judiciary that falsely accused Petkov of attempting to plan a military coup, and being a Western agent, destroying their final democratic opposition.
Тhough the FF removed Petkov’s parliamentary immunity and arrested him on June 5th 1947, the timing of his arrest was no coincidence. He was arrested on the same day that the US Senate ratified the peace treaty with the FF government, then eight days after the treaty entered into force, Petkov was executed. The US government had decided to recognise the Bulgarian government through signing a peace treaty with the FF, the death of the opposition being a concession the US was willing to make in order to alleviate Soviet pressure from the UK’s crucial spheres of influence in Greece and Turkey. The only obstacle to the FF killing Petkov was their need to appease the West to achieve their diplomatic goal of legitimization. Petkov’s opposition survived until the West legitimized the FF as the official government of Bulgaria. Immediately after legitimization was assured, the FF eliminated Petkov without fear of Western retaliation. Liberal democracies, and particularly powerful liberal democracies, do not exist in a vacuum. Ideas of not intervening against foreign dictatorships due to self-determination is an oxymoron, for self-determination does not exist in a dictatorship, only the determination of the barbarian ruler does. Excuses that foreign intervention should not occur against oppressive bloodthirsty dictatorships is more than just an oxymoron, it is an indirect legitimization of death. It is acquiescence to inhumanity. It is turning our backs on humans with a different passport. It is selfishness masked behind pacifism.
The spheres of influence that the US and UK wanted to establish in Europe indirectly led to the death of Petkov. Firstly, as stated by the State Department’s original instructions to the US representative in Bulgaria, Maynard Barnes, “The Bulgarian matters are not of great interest to us.” The reason for this being that the US wanted to appease Soviet interest in the Balkans primarily so that the USSR would not retaliate against US interests in Japan. However, Petkov needed support from the West in order to make his goals appear achievable, thus rallying his opposition and standing up to the communists that had daunting Soviet support. Petkov himself noted, “Without Western involvement, the opposition would be disheartened,” and without any support, Petkov was isolated and eventually killed.
The West did make measly attempts to help Petkov, with strong Western support for implementing the Yalta Declaration which promised to have an allied commission in Bulgaria to overlook elections, allowing the West to pressure the FF into transparency. The Western allies also had a Western base in Bulgaria that would ensure Petkov’s direct security. However, after the Moscow conference in December 1945, Professor Kalinova noted that “US pressure for implementing the Yalta declaration in Bulgaria disappeared, displaying it as a tool to ensure interests in the Far East at the conference.” The declaration was a chess piece for broader political interests, and the West’s abandonment of Yalta’s principles gave the FF the freedom to practice totalitarian pressure on Bulgaria with the support of the largest political landmass in the world.
If anything, naive and empty Western support exacerbated the death of Bulgarian democracy. The US diplomat Maynard Barnes was the most vocal activist for Western involvement in Bulgaria, and unintentionally contributed to Petkov’s death through naive encouragement. Barnes told Petkov and his opposition partners, “do something, show yourselves and confront. We will give you all of the moral support possible.” That was precisely it. Support for the opposition was strictly moral. The FF on the other hand had physical support from the USSR.
Barnes filled Petkov with false hopes of Western support, leading to Petkov establishing a more vocal opposition which only made him a clearer target. In contrast, the FF was directly advised by the USSR, meaning that they could destroy Petkov with the certainty of Soviet protection. Similar effects came from Barnes’ ignoring of Washington’s orders for non-interference by achieving the postponement of the 1945 National Assembly elections. Though some note that this postponement bolstered Petkov’s position by making many friendly illegal opposition parties legal, it more so created the false impression that the West directly supported Petkov when it was Barnes acting independently. This gave Petkov unsubstantiated hopes of support and emboldened him to organize a strong opposition against the FF, which rounded up democratic forces and set a clear and compact target both for BCP, and the USSR.
Nikola Petkov’s story is clearly one of false hope, political chess, and abandonment. He was made to believe one thing, though the bigger picture had focused Western interests elsewhere. This is the dehumanisation of Bulgarians. They were not seen as humans, but political tools.
Millions in Bulgaria died for political purposes, but politics’ most basic purpose is to demystify subjective cruelty and protect a core, objective natural law of liberty. The powers of liberty have a duty to expand liberty, and domestic and global politics cannot overshadow this.
Saddam Hussein killed a quarter of a million Iraqis, started multiple wars that killed millions, suppressed political opposition barbarically and ruthlessly, and had created a surveillance state participating in multiple criminal industries in order to maintain its power. The false narratives leading to the invasion do not erase the reasons which had justified liberation long before. Yet dismal government building, and the shadiness of the narratives which finally justified the invasion, have seemingly discredited the very idea of a liberation being attempted, or that a liberal alternative was ever possible. The liberation thus becomes an “invasion”, and liberal democracy becomes “instability” and “chaos”.
The idea thus grows that authoritarianism has merits, not only in effective governance and stability but also in securing the nation. Yet neither is a reality. Butchering the opposition is not stable governance, it merely silences voices which point out the ineffectiveness and horrors of authoritarian governance, so as to make it appear stable. This does not, and cannot, occur in a democratic dialogue constituted by a contest of ideas. The dictator thus stands as an idealized fiction of himself.
As for the nation’s security, the dictator manipulates people’s fear of loneliness for his own benefit. The peoples of dictatorships want to belong, and within their authoritarian nations they belong to a people that succeed and lose together, and participate in a common perpetual suffering. People are scared of globalism and liberty, for in a large politically united and conflictless world, people once more become alone. The nation in this way defies lonely existence, defies god. Autocrats weaponize this fear of loneliness, to perpetuate their geopolitical autonomy, and the idea that they stand against foreign subjugation.
However, is a state geopolitically autonomous if the people who make it up are not? What geopolitical freedom are the people rooting for in an authoritarian state other than the freedom of the dictator to silence and oppress them? Are they protecting a culture, for culture becomes what the dictator wills in a state of autocratic rule, but is free to be defined by a nation’s peoples in a democracy. What is certain is that if an authoritarian state is left alone for long enough, like the recently nuclearized North Korea, it will cement itself. This is because if the state’s existential purpose is to oppress its peoples, it cannot be expected that those peoples will themselves liberate themselves.
All humans, no matter what their passport says, deserve liberty, for it gives people the freedom to pursue their greatest individuality. This perpetuates peoples’ endless development of the world without being shunned and handicapped in the name of the inevitably finite continuity of an individual’s political power. There is a reason that most of the greatest 19th and 20th-century thinkers and scientists did their work in relatively liberal states, even if they weren’t born in such states.
Liberty’s expansion should not only revolve around political borders and international bureaucracy, but rather people and what they can bring to the world. Yugoslav troops on all sides of the horrendous Yugoslav wars were participating in mass ethnic cleansing which had seemed impossible in 90s Europe, especially in Tito’s multicultural utopia. Yet NATO intervention has been shunned by many given the shocking images of a smoking and bombarded modern European city like Belgrade. Of course, it is easier to say nothing, but genocide does not stop when one turns a blind eye.
If by chance you or your loved ones were born in an oppressive regime of any kind, would you accept your suffering as your inevitable, cruel, lot in life? Of course not. The dictator weaponizes the fact that you have known nothing but his rule to convince you, for his own benefit, to denounce your natural state of freedom. Hence, you need to be petrified and manipulated into accepting such an unnatural reality. Naturally you would not accept being pummeled with the thought that you, a helpless and oppressed individual surrounded by a state which exists solely to demolish your ideas of self- determination and freedom, should liberate yourself by yourself in a world that will not help you. All of us could one-day wake up in an oppressive regime, so there is merit in showing empathy.
Expansion is Reserved for Authoritarians
As much as the West contributed to Petkov’s death through negligence, the USSR contributed to his death through political maneuverings. Of course, if the Liberal Powers turn a blind eye, the illiberal powers will take hold and not only crush the liberty of those in the state, but the political liberty of the state itself – its autonomy.
Barnes himself notes, “the Soviets wanted to integrate Bulgarian policy into its own”. Bulgaria was important to the USSR due to its proximity to the Dardanelles, which divide the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Hence, given US journalist Mark Ethridge’s argument, “the USSR felt its interests were secure only in countries with communist regimes”, the USSR would obviously attempt to eliminate the one person around which all anti-communist sentiment rallied- Petkov.
Since the Soviet invasion of Bulgaria in 1944, the Red Army had established influence in the country through the Soviet Control Committee led by General Buriuzov. This meant that the Soviets had a direct political presence in the government that ordered Petkov’s execution. The non-communist FF prime minister of Bulgaria at the time, Kimon Georgiev, had privately complained that he was powerless as the Soviets had 200,000 troops in Bulgaria, while the UK had three divisions in Greece. This gives reason for the reluctance the West had in openly defending Petkov, as the Soviet ability to undermine their Mediterranean holdings kept them at bay as the FF pressured Petkov.
Nonetheless, Stalin’s policy of attempting to consolidate relations with the West between 1944-46 led to him demanding that an opposition be maintained in Bulgaria, so that the West did not view Bulgaria as Sovietized. Stalin stated that “a careful policy against Petkov should be implemented so that he does not become a martyr.” When East-West relations soured, Stalin’s wish to consolidate Soviet influence grew, hence he approved Petkov’s execution in 1947. Retaining relations with the West was no longer possible, hence Stalin had no use for Petkov.
Authoritarian expansion has been a constant in history, and only recently has liberal expansion begun. Yet, liberal expansion, due to its own liberties, has garnered more scrutiny, and subsequently more condemnation than authoritarian expansion. It seems that a consensus is growing that because a state is liberal, it should not become a defender of liberalism globally, whilst authoritarian states should be left to their authoritarian nature and geopolitical autonomy…their authoritarianism is their geopolitical autonomy- the people in the state chose to be subjugated.
It seems that liberalism should only be defended, never extended. Yet, what if natural law means that liberty is everywhere? What if liberty is the natural way of things and authoritarianism has just blanketed most of it, for most of history? Liberal expansion is not expansion, liberty is everywhere, liberty is how animals live in nature. Liberal expansion is a defensive endeavour. It is liberation.
Yet now, in the name of internal political pressure, the US has dehumanized the peoples of Afghanistan. They have become political objects used to calm domestic populist promises. What is the result of turning your back on liberty, apart from spending two decades building the Taliban a ring road and then leaving? Most importantly, as a fundamentalist regime bangs at the doors and Afghans rush in a hysterical panic to planes and swarm out of the country, images conjure of Southern Vietnamese crawling onto American helicopters in Saigon as the communists took the city, and of East Germans throwing their children and belongings out of windows as the wall was erected. These images repeated throughout history prove that regardless of one’s passport, or the regime they have existed under their whole lives, everyone craves liberty. Authoritarianism is a suffocating blanket which should be lifted.
Petkov attempted to reconcile a fragmented democratic movement, rallied Western allies, vocally spoke out against communist brutality, and at his trial, condemned the regime which spat at him in fury that he would not plead guilty to fabricated indictments. Though the FF condemned Petkov, it was the West’s negligence and naive encouragement, and the USSR’s attempt at protecting its authoritarian sphere of influence, that led to Petkov’s death, and subsequently the death of Bulgarian democracy. This view is most powerfully demonstrated by a quote from a former Bulgarian concentration camp detainee in 1990. In response to American diplomats in 1947 visiting Petkov’s grave and leaving a wreath, he states; “At the time, passing through all Bulgarian camps and jails, we thought the Americans would turn the world over to punish those who killed a man like Nikola Petkov. But all they did was leave a wreath on his grave”. Half a century of communism followed Petkov’s death.
What does Petkov’s story teach us? Firstly, it raises questions as to whether today’s populists would do as Petkov, dying for an objective political right. Secondly, we are a globe with humans that do not deserve suffering, and no manipulation of the idea of national sovereignty can change this. A dictatorship is only autonomous as to its dictators, the country is geopolitically autonomous but the individuals who make up the country are not autonomous. I argue that if the people of a country are not autonomous, this undermines the very idea of the country’s geopolitical autonomy. When it comes to suffering and freedom, there is no such thing called “foreign” policy.