Claire Sterling's book rings some very important bells in 2006, just as it did in 1984
Issue 1, October 2006
by Anthony Georgieff
Initially, it appeared to me it would make little sense to review the Bulgarian translation of a book that first came out 22 years ago (Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York; 1984), unless I wanted to make a point about the slow progress of investigative journalism into what used to be the Soviet Union's most faithful ally in Eastern Europe.
Two things made me change my mind and put pen to paper. First was the realisation that in 2006 little, if nything, had changed in the public perception, East or West, of the attempt to kill Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1981. Second comes the extreme, at times even comic vehemence with which most Bulgarians, left, right and centre, would brush aside any alleged link of "our country" to the attempted assassination. Current and former oliticians, historians, former Secret Service cadres, media pundits and rank-andfile citizens in Sofia would immediately peak with almost football-fan zeal about what at the time was dubbed the "Crime of the century". Either the CIA, the Italians and the Turks really did it, or propaganda, both in the Communist East and in the democratic, but not very perfect West, had succeeded, I thought.
This is what happened, briefly. On 13 May 1981, Ahmed Ali Agca, the convicted assassin of a Turkish journalist and an escapee from a Turkish prison, shot at the Polish-born Pope and seriously wounded him. He was arrested on the spot, in St. Peter's Square, literally with a smoking gun in his hand. A huge trial ensued, and in 1982 the Italian magistrates ordered the arrest of Sergey Antonov, an employee of Bulgaria's state-owned airline company. A number of other arrest warrants for Bulgarians in Rome were also issued, but the Bulgarians had kept one step ahead of the Italian law, and had already left.
Agca, who had already been given a life sentence in Turkey for the 1978 assassination of a prominent Turkish journalist, was at first considered a lonely lunatic. As the investigation progressed, however, the Italian magistrates, acting mainly upon Agca's confessions, unravelled his links to Communist Bulgaria. After he escaped from the Turkish prison, Agca spent almost a whole summer at the Vitosha Hotel in Sofia (now the Kempinski Zografski), a known hang-out for shady types from all over Europe and the Middle East. There he met with others linked to both the Turkish Mafia and the Bulgarian Secret Services. In Sofia, Bekir Celenk, a Turkish underworld boss who had been living comfortably in Sofia, offered him $1.7 million to shoot the Pope.
Against the geopolitical background of the times, it would not take a lot of imagination to see that the Soviets had a clear interest in eliminating Karol Wojtyla, the outspoken anti-Communist and supporter of the then fledging Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa. Characteristically, the Kremlin would use its most docile ally in Eastern Europe to carry out yet another "wet job". Bulgaria had already amassed considerable experience in such activities (such as the kidnapping of a Bulgarian emigre in Denmark, the assassination of writer and BBC journalist Georgi Markov in London and the attempted murder of another Bulgarian emigre and writer in Paris, all carried out in the 1970s).
Claire Sterling, a US journalist who had written a major article on the assault on the Pope for The Readers' Digest, went to great lengths to present and verify all the connections Agca and his paymasters had to the Bulgarians. From the standpoint of 2006, her findings are as shocking and relevant as they were in the 1980s. What infuriated the Bulgarians at the time was not so much Sterling's discoveries about Agca, but her well-documented and hardly disputable testimony about Bulgaria's involvement in arms and drugs smuggling, and international terrorism.
According to The Time of the Assassins it appears that the Bulgarian government ran an extensive network of smugglers who would supply huge quantities of weapons to select terrorist organizations ranging from the PKK in Turkey, the PLO in the Middle East, the Red Brigades in Italy and the IRA in the UK. Sterling puts it succinctly: the Bulgarians, acting upon the orders of the Soviets, considered anything that was bad for the West to be good for the East. In short, Sterling concludes, Bulgaria at that time was a rogue state, in comparison to which Saddam Husayn's Iraq or Muammar Qadhafi's Libya would appear coy.
Predictably, the Bulgarians were enraged. In retaliation for Antonov's arrest they brought espionage charges against two Italian tourists. They offered to trade the Italians for Antonov- Rome refused. The Bulgarian government organised a massive propaganda campaign, in which it vilified the CIA, the Italian services, its own archenemy, Turkey, and Claire Sterling herself for concocting what they said was a pack of lies designed to discredit Bulgaria as a nation.
When it was first published, Claire Sterling's book was immediately put at the top of the banned list this side of the Iron Curtain, where it remained up until the 1990s - in fact, up until 2006, when this translation was published. The propaganda seemed to have worked, and to have had long-lasting effects. In 2006, most Bulgarians would immediately repeat, almost literally, what they were told by Boyan Traykov, the official who ran the 1980's propaganda campaign. "Who would benefit from smearing our country?" they'd ask, thus unwittingly equating "the country" with its repressive DS, the Bulgarian version of the KGB.
Significantly, Claire Sterling is as tough on the Western governments as she is on the Bulgarians. According to her, the trial against Agca and his alleged Bulgarian accomplices failed because no Western service was wiling to help the Italians in any way. The CIA, Sterling says, had no interest in the case, the West German services co-operated only out of courtesy; the Italians were left alone to deal with a huge international conspiracy that would have required the concerted efforts of many countries to crack. The reason, Claire Sterling points out, was simple: if Moscow and its East European vassals had anything to do with the attempted murder of the Pope, the West didn't want to know. The enormity of the allegation would be detrimental to trade, arms controls and detente, and would harm Moscow's newly-appointed chief, Yuriy Andropov, with whom the West wanted to do business.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers