Bulgarian student leader and liberal politician, 1965–
Earlier this year viewers of Bulgarian VIP-Brother, the country’s version of the U.K. reality show Celebrity Big Brother, were treated to a joke:
A Greek boy at the beach boasts to a Bulgarian playmate, “We have bananas and oranges at home!” The Bulgarian boy runs tearfully home to his father. “Well,” the man consoles his son, “tell him that when the Greeks build themselves socialism, they won’t have bananas and oranges anymore.”
On TV, Emil Koshlukov told the joke after his reality-show housemate Todor Slavkov – grandson of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s last communist ruler – expressed nostalgia for the old regime. When Koshlukov told that joke some 25 years earlier, he was tossed in jail.
Known as a liberal and an idealist, Koshlukov has a place in modern Bulgarian legend as the student-rebel imprisoned in the 1980s on charges of anti-establishment activity for telling political jokes. Freed in 1989, the 24-year-old dissident was at the microphone on 14 December of that year when a 15,000-strong crowd formed a human ringaround the National Assembly in Sofia. As Bulgaria’s Communist Party retreated and agreed to hold round table talks with the opposition,the 24-year-old called for an end to mandatory instruction of students in communism and Marxism-Leninism.
Of the students’ role in the Bulgarian revolution, Koshlukov would later describe a kind of love-in powered by cheap vodka and homemade rakia. “The whole country knew us,” he said. “The girls treated us like stars when we visited other universities.”
Koshlukov’s transition from student leader to national politician looked promising in the spring of 1990, when he participated in the round table talks, but it was interrupted by a dramatic event – a fire at Socialist Party headquarters in August. Fleeing what he said were false allegations that he was responsible, Koshlukov made his way to the United States, where he enrolled in university and kept in touch with Bulgaria’s new, democratically elected president, Zhelyu Zhelev.
He returned to Bulgaria in the late 1990s, not intending to take up politics again, but in 2001 he was lured back to the national stage to join the rising centrist National Movement Simeon II (NDSV), which governed from 2001 to 2005 under the premiership of former king in exile Simeon Saxe-Coburg. Internal disagreements led Koshlukov to quit the NDSV in 2004 and found the liberal New Time party. New Time fielded candidates in the 2005 parliamentary balloting but failed to elect any candidates. In the 2009 electionsto the European and Bulgarian parliaments, Koshlukov headed the list for a coalition of New Time and the centrist LIDER (Liberal Initiative for Democratic European Government), which did not win a seat in either assembly. Observers attributed the poor showing to the unpopularity of LIDER founder Hristo Kovachki, a wealthy business mogul the government has pursued on tax-fraud charges.
The former anti-communist dissident is an outspoken critic of Bulgaria’s current leadership. “State capitalism has become oligarchism,” Koshlukov wrote in the daily Monitor in April 2007. Calling the country “only a democracy on paper,” he likened its leaders to the flamboyant, transvestite Bulgarian pop star Azis: “They are a travesty of what politicians should be – they talk like Azis sings.”
More than anyone else in modern times, he ruled Bulgaria. For three and a half decades from the mid-1950s until glorious 1989, comrade Todor Zhivkov, secretary general of the Bulgarian Communist Party, decided the fortunes of the country, and he has left his mark on it ever since.
Statue of Todor Zhivkov in Pravets, Bulgaria. Photo by Bruce McDon.
His aides say he collected jokes about himself; even if this is not true, the jokes were countless. They parodied his peasant background and folksy style, but at the end he somehow outsmarted people much better educated than him. Among themselves Bulgarians referred to him by the personal and quasi-respectful “Bai Tosho” or “Tato,” a fond diminutive for father. On 10 November 1989 he was sacked by his party comrades. The political jokes disappeared – and the transition began. Continue reading …