September 7, 2011 / 5:28 PM / 6 years ago

Nostalgic Bulgarians mark communist ruler's birthday

<p>People place flowers in front of the monument of Bulgaria's late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov in the town of Pravets, some 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Sofia September 7, 2011.Stoyan Nenov</p>

PRAVETS, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Hundreds of Bulgarians celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Balkan country's long-serving dictator Todor Zhivkov Wednesday, a sign that nostalgia for the communist era remains strong more than 20 years after it ended.

A new bust of Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 33 years until 1989 -- the longest tenure of any of Eastern Europe's communist leaders -- was unveiled in his home town of Pravets, some 50 km from Sofia, to mark the occasion.

Singers and folk dancers performed and deputies from the Socialist Party, heirs to Zhivkov's Communists, gave speeches at a ceremony broadcast live on television.

Bulgaria has aligned itself with the West, joining the European Union in 2007, but is the EU's poorest country with a per capita GDP just 43 percent of the EU average last year.

Disenchantment with the market economy's failure to raise living standards has fueled nostalgia for the communist past, as have corruption and nepotism. Support for the former communist Socialist party is about 18 percent.

"No doubt he did a lot for Bulgarian society," said historian Iskra Baeva. "Many people were not very rich but they had a much more secure and peaceful life during Zhivkov's leadership."

"He'll remain in Bulgarian history."

Pop-singer Todor Traivhev said: "I would like to bow to the man who gave so much to the Bulgarian culture."

Zhivkov was the second communist leader after East Germany's Erich Honecker to be ousted in 1989 in a bloodless coup, and the first to stand trial.

In 1992 Zhivkov was found guilty of embezzling nearly 21.5 million levs, then about $24 million, and letting communist cronies buy cars, apartments and villas at giveaway prices.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison but because of poor health spent his remaining years under house arrest until he died aged 86 of complications from diabetes.

Current Prime Minister Boiko Borisov once acted as a bodyguard for Zhivkov and has said he learned a lot about politics from him.

But to hundreds of Bulgarians, whose families were stripped of assets and human rights under communism, Zhivkov remained a tyrant who evaded justice.

(Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov)

Writing by Tsvetelia Tsolova

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