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Bulgaria won't be celebrating 1989

Bulgarians never reconciled with their communist past, and they worry about the present.

A visitor walks in front of a painting with portraits of Bulgarian communist ruler Todor Zhivkov (right) and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, part of the "Totalitarian art" exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Sofia, July 9, 2009. The exhibition displays over 65 paintings and sculptures of Bulgarian and Soviet communist rulers created by Bulgarian artists before the collapse of the Communist rule in the country in 1989. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

SOFIA, Bulgaria — The fall of the Berlin Wall rocked Bulgaria in 1989, so much so that the small Balkan republic is still recovering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While Germans celebrate the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall, and Czechs and Poles toast the Velvet Revolution and Solidarity, most Bulgarians are likely to treat Nov. 9 as just another day. No grand festivities are scheduled in the capital, Sofia.

The lack of cheer reflects a lack of closure, said experts. Once the Soviet Union’s closest ally in Europe, Bulgaria today is the poorest member of the European Union — a trajectory Bulgarians discuss with a mix of pride and resignation. There is a sense the country has come a long way since the collapse of communism but still isn’t enjoying all the fruits of democracy.

“It’s gloomy,” said Ognian Shentov, chairman of the Center for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think tank. “There is a depressing feeling the transition is not over. There is reform fatigue. Maybe in five years we can celebrate the 25-year anniversary in a better way. But now, probably. we need more time to reflect.”

Berlin Wall anniversary

Bulgaria has been slow to slough off its communist past. Unlike Germany, where the Berlin Wall’s destruction made a clean break between past and present, and neighboring Romania, where a firing squad ended the communist era by executing party boss Nicolae Ceausescu, Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov was ousted quietly in a palace coup on Nov. 10, 1989.

“It was not a revolution that brought Zhivkov down. It was just news on the radio,” said Diana Ivanova, an activist who oversees the nonprofit I Lived Socialism project, a website that collects Bulgarians’ personal recollections of life behind the Iron Curtain.

The communist functionaries who unseated Zhivkov were in and out of power until 1997, when their inept handling of the economy drove crowds into the streets to demand greater change. For the next decade, Ivanova said, Bulgarians largely kept silent about communism, focusing on rebuilding their shattered economy and their successful applications to join NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.

As a result, unlike other former Warsaw Pact countries, Bulgaria has never held a vibrant public discussion on the communist era. “We just know part of the story,” said Ivanova. “We don’t know how the people felt. Nobody actually asked them how they felt. This is for me a missing point.”