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Petio Petkov: Remembering RFE’s Bulgarian Service in 1989

Petio Petkov, during the days of the Romanian revolution.
Petio Petkov, during the days of the Romanian revolution.

RFE/RL interviewed Petio Petkov, a journalist who was working for the Bulgarian news agency BTA and based in Bucharest, Romania in 1989. Petkov spoke about the role of RFE’s Bulgarian Service that year.

RFE/RL: How do you remember RFE’s coverage of events in Bulgaria?

PETKOV: I remember listening to the Bulgarian Free Europe in the late 1960s with my colleagues as a student in the technical college M.Lomonosov in Gorna Oryahovitsa, a town in northern Bulgaria. We used the Soviet-made portable radios VEF with very good short waves and could avoid even the local jamming. In the summer of 1968, we listened and heard about the Prague uprising and the occupation of the Warsaw Pact troops. In the same year, I became a student at the Bucharest Economic Academy, and my parents were afraid the Soviet troops would enter Romania in response to the Romanian refusal to send troops to Czechoslovakia. At that time, Romania, from the Bulgarian point of view, was a pro-Western socialist country with many American films and programs on TV, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on radio, and practically non-existent Soviet propaganda.

Returning to Romania as a BTA correspondent in 1984, I found myself in a totally different country – a sort of North Korea in the background of the relatively tolerant regime of the late Bulgarian dictator Zhivkov. There was a total lack of information, fierce propaganda, and Securitate [secret police] everywhere. In those conditions, Radio Free Europe was for me a valuable source of information about Romania, which not only me but all my colleagues – correspondents from Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and even the USSR – used in their activities. I remember the interviews of such Romanian dissidents as Doina Cornea and Ana Blandiana, and daily comments of Neculai Constantin Munteanu, Mircea Carp, and many others. Radio Free Europe had a very important role in the Romanian anti-communist uprising, assuring true information about the events in Timisoara and many other towns.

RFE/RL: There are reports that KGB countermeasures against RFE’s Bulgarian Service were among the fiercest in the Eastern Bloc. Do you recall any of these measures, and their impact? (Of which there is the well-known case of Georgi Markov.)

PETKOV: For every Bulgarian listener of RFE in the 1970s who heard the news about the sudden death of the novelist and journalist Georgi Markov, there was no doubt that the communist secret services killed him for his Absentia Reports – an analysis of life in communist Bulgaria – and for his opposition to the regime.

RFE/RL: Do you recall any individual Bulgarian Service reports or personalities or programs that were particularly influential?

PETKOV: From the 1970s and 1980s, I remember Rumeana Uzunova, Vladimir Kostov, and, of course, Georgi Markov – the most popular voices of the Bulgarian Service.

RFE/RL: Did the events of 1989 in Bulgaria take you by surprise?

PETKOV: It is hard to say. I was expecting something like the Soviet perestroika, not more. The fall of Zhivkov came as something normal. Soviets always put their own men to control Bulgarian politics. But this time [in 1989] things evolved in a different way. The influence of the changes in the other Eastern European countries and the new freedom got Bulgaria very rapidly near normality. The Union of Democratic Forces was founded and the communists began losing the grip of power.

RFE/RL: Are you aware that RFE/RL relaunched its Bulgarian Service in January this year? And, a new Romanian Service, too?

PETKOV: My personal opinion is that the relaunching of RFE/RL in Bulgaria and Romania is an important gesture of support for the independent Bulgarian and Romanian media and journalists. Especially for Bulgaria, which in the last 10 years has rapidly lost its position in Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of freedom of speech, going from 36th to the 111th place.

Interview edited by Anna West.