President Ronald Wilson Reagan passed away 13 years ago today, but his legacy of advancing freedom continues to be appreciated around the world. Deep in the heart of the former Soviet bloc, in Bulgaria’s capital city, officials have unveiled a new monument to Reagan.
The bust of America’s 40th president has significance beyond the already weighty triumph of democracy over oppression, or capitalism over socialism. Sofia’s South Park was the battleground for religious liberty in 1989, just as Bulgarian communism was about to come crashing down.
Krassen Stanchev, who helped lead the protests for religious freedom in 1989, remembers the scene – and the role that the Reagan administration played in bringing liberty to Bulgaria – in a new essay for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic:
Some say that in the mid-to-late 1980s, Sofia’s South Park became to Bulgaria what Hyde Park was to Chicago in 1969. The cause of public discontent was the government’s persecution of its Turkish minority. Although the policy continued for decades, the government intensified pressure during this time. In 1984-1985, atheistic officials began a campaign of renaming Bulgarian Turks with Slavic names at gunpoint. Public discontent reached its peak in 1989. Between May and August of that year, the regime began forcibly expelling Turks, with hundreds of thousands ultimately leaving the nation. In October, we went out to the streets – at first in small numbers – protesting against what seemed to us the most evidently anti-human nature of the secularist regime.
Stanchev reveals that the protests centered around topics one would not usually associate with the Right: environmentalist concerns and greater religious liberty for Islam. But the protesters’ tactics bore fruit.
International outcry over police brutality at the international environmentalist conference led to South Park being declared a safe haven for protesters. And supporting the religious liberty of the nation’s Turkish Muslim minority helped liberate its Christian majority, including the nation’s long-suppressed evangelical Protestants:
Underground civic groups of all sorts moved their rallies to the park. First, opposition conferences were channeled to a nearby cinema hall, and several key organization committees met in my kitchen. Human rights activists gathered bigger and bigger crowds in the park. Different oppressed religious groups crawled out from obscurity. One of them was the Bulgarian Church of God, an evangelical Protestant group that was officially banned in 1949 and operated for decades without legal protection.
A week after the October 1989 breakthrough, we moved our rally downtown, to formally submit signatures on a petition dealing with the environment to the Parliament – but we used the occasion to call for democracy.
After another week, on November 10, the old regime collapsed.
History reveals that the collapse of Communism had many factors. Ronald Reagan, with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, coordinated an energetic campaign to transition a timid foreign policy establishment from détente to victory. In the West, this entailed a military buildup of an unprecedented scale. Within its own societies, Marxism had lost whatever public confidence it once enjoyed. Already teetering on economic extinction, Soviet imperialism ground to a halt and, with it, the ability to expropriate the savings of its once-productive vassal economies. But as Pope John Paul II observed, “[T]he fundamental error of socialism was anthropological in nature.” Communism violated human nature, forbade religious observance, and denied inherent human dignity.
Less than a year after Krassen Stanchev led these rallies in Sofia, Bulgaria’s onetime Communist leadership would invite former Reagan administration officials and leaders of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to develop a blueprint for a free future. The story, a fascinating one, is detailed in the essay. However, Stanchev notes, Bulgaria’s political apparatchiks never fully implemented the ambitious plan to transition the Orthodox Christian nation away from Marxism toward a market-oriented democracy under a durable rule of law.
The fact that Reagan’s statue was vandalized just nine days after it was unveiled shows how much more work must be done in the transatlantic sphere, even today.
Nonetheless, Bulgaria is thriving thanks to the legacy of a U.S. president whose foreign policy matched his rhetorical advocacy of free markets and freedom of religion. Its per capita GDP has increased almost 600 percent since 1994. More people have the freedom to express their deepest held beliefs – in church, or in South Park. “All of this – democracy, a firmer commitment to the rule of law, economic prosperity and mobility, and the growing religious freedom at the heart of every free Western society – can be traced to the courageous actions of Ronald Reagan,” Stanchev writes.
You can read his full essay here.
(Photo: Gov. George Allen, center, stands next to the Bulgarian bust of Ronald Reagan, with his wife, Susan, and Robert Agostinelli representing Young Americans for Freedom. Photo credit: Young Americans for Freedom. This photo has been cropped. Used by permission.)