Bulgarian Spring 1989

In the spring of 1989, Bush House in London, home of BBC World Service, became once more truly a station of hope for people across Eastern Europe.

Testing the limits of Mikhail Gorbachev's 'Glasnost', many of the old dissidents cut their teeth as the region's future politicians in interviews, recorded on crackly phone lines from London, way before mobile phones entered Eastern Europe. Throughout the year, the teams of journalists in Bush House came under pressure from various quarters, as they followed up their stories across the Iron Curtain - the authorities in Eastern Europe rarely showed understanding for the freedom of speech.

For instance, in May 1989, three phone lines in Bush House became suddenly and mysteriously unobtainable from Bulgaria: the main number of the Bulgarian Service, a number for the Newsroom, and the number of the Turkish language Service: it was the time thousands of Bulgaria's ethnic Turks responded to persecution by the authorities with hunger strikes. Shortly after Bulgaria's ambassador to London was summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, those three lines started ringing again from Bulgaria, and more pleas for broadcasts started coming in again.

Here is a radio interview (in Bulgarian) the BBC's Dimitar Dimitrov recorded on 12 May 1989 with the man who was to be Bulgaria's first democratically-elected President - Zhelyu Zhelev (in office, 1 August 1990 - 22 January 1997), still a dissident then. A former member of the Communist party, but expelled for political reasons 20 or so years earlier, Zhelev spent years in internment or unemployed. In May 1989 he had become chairman of the newly-founded 'Club for Support of Glasnost and Restructuring'. Its Declaration called for a change of regime, but almost expected those changes to be handed to them on a plate. One of the Club's first acts was sending a telegram of support to Mikhail Gorbachev. The end of the Communism, the Round Table talks and free elections were only a few months away.

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