Georgi Markov: the truth that killed

Irina Novakova
10 September 2008

It took a brave person to look into the real face of communism, and an even braver one to speak the truth about it. Georgi Markov had both levels of bravery. The Bulgarian writer and broadcaster, after his exile from the country in 1969, used every channel available to him - plays, novels, and his weekly "in absentia" reports from Bulgaria on Radio Free Europe in the late 1970s - to expose the system he had escaped and its authoritarian leaders. On 11 September 1978, Markov paid for his courage with his life.

Irina Novakova is the European Union correspondent of the Bulgarian daily newspaper Dnevnik

It happened in an instant. When passing a stranger on London's Waterloo Bridge on 7 September 1978, Markov felt a stab in his leg and looked round to see the man scurry away, a big umbrella in hand. An illness took hold that led four days later to the writer's death from blood poisoning at the age of 49. A tiny pellet full of potent toxin was recovered from his calf, allegedly shot from the umbrella's tip. The case became known worldwide as "the poisoned umbrella" murder or assassination, and it marked the image of Bulgaria for years afterward - even to this day.

The plot

It is incontestable that Markov's murder was ordered from inside Bulgaria's secret service - a shady and omnipotent organisation of spooks, informers, administrators and politicians, modelled after the Soviet KGB and assigned to deal with "inconvenient" critics of the regime. A short time before the dissident's death, the service had tried to kill another defector, Vladimir Kostov, in Paris; and agents had made two attempts on Markov's life before the successful third operation (which happened to take place on the birthday of Bulgaria's communist leader Todor Zhivkov). The fact that they could operate freely and kill with impunity in western capitals shows just how powerful their organisation was.

The proven involvement of the secret service apart, few facts are known about Markov's assassination. Why exactly was he killed, by whom, and was his murder ordered and assisted by the KGB? These questions will probably remain unanswered, since according to Bulgarian law the statute of limitations of Markov's case lapses thirty years after his murder.

Also on Bulgaria in openDemocracy:

Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria's red mafia on Europe's trail" (19 January 2006)

Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria: the mafia's dance to Europe" (16 August 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Whether this assassination was conceived and executed by the Bulgarians alone, or whether Soviet agents were also involved, will never be known unless the Russian government decides to open the archives of the old KGB. Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB top official and later defector to the west, has stated that the Soviet service was behind the murder and even provided the weapon. This is plausible, as at the time Bulgaria was a loyal Soviet satellite; a decade earlier Todor Zhivkov had (albeit unsuccessfully) even tried to make the country the sixteenth Soviet republic. An operation like Markov's assassination would have been unthinkable without the KGB's support.

The lock

Why was Georgi Markov such an important target for both the Bulgarian and the Soviet services? It is true that he had intimate and detailed knowledge about the inner workings of Bulgaria's communist regime, but it was his vociferous and fearless criticism about the system's rottenness and the figures who manipulated it that sealed his fate. Markov's was a ritual murder - executed both to silence a subversive voice and to warn others - wherever they were - that they should fear their own thoughts before speaking about the regime.

In the eighteen years since Bulgaria shed communism, many have tried to establish the truth about the most notorious political assassination until Alexander Litvinenko's in 2006. Scotland Yard investigators have repeatedly and unsuccessfully requested access to the archives of the former secret services of Bulgaria, but the country's democratic governments proved no more cooperative than their communist predecessors. In May 2008, Scotland Yard reopened the case, and has again requested documents and questioned former secret-service figures in Bulgaria (see Matthew Brunwasser, "Fresh intrigue surrounds a Cold War murder", International Herald Tribune, 10 September 2008).

It has proved almost impossible to establish the whole truth. The most important documents on the case have been unaccountably destroyed, and two of the people charged with this destruction died in strange circumstances in the early 1990s. So far, the indefatigable researches of the Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov have come closest to revealing the true facts of the Markov case. After a three-year-long legal battle, Hristov got access to most of the former service's archives, including what is left of the files on Markov and the man Hristov named as his likeliest murderer: an Italian called Francesco Gullino.

Gullino, codenamed Agent Piccadilly, was trained by the Bulgarian secret service and paid handsomely for the "job" he did for them in London. His file, however, says little of the nature of his work; as with much of the information on Markov's case, it has been carefully weeded.

Since the end of communism, the Bulgarian authorities have tried hard to prevent the secrets surrounding Markov's assassination from being exposed. A number of former Bulgarian investigators spread disinformation and rumour, such that no poison had been found in Markov's body or that medical errors were responsible for his death. They were joined by former state security officers who implied that Markov himself had been a spy, and by establishment politicians who dismissed questions about what happened with the argument that "nobody is interested in this case anymore". Scotland Yard investigators and British politicians have complained that the Bulgarians have been blocking their access to evidence on the case. Hristo Hristov believes that elements of the former secret service still exert a strong influence in Bulgaria's public life, sufficient it seems to keep a lock on the case until its passes its date of legal closure.

The link

But with renewed demands from the British investigators, and with the documents obtained by Hristo Hristov, the key is out of hands of the communist-era spooks. Moreover, in July 2008 Bulgaria was the target of sharp criticism from the European Union because of its apparently invincible corruption and organised crime, and its sloppy judiciary (see Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis", 23 July 2008). Even after the formal closure of the Markov case, cooperation with those who are actually determined to uncover the truth will help Sofia make some amends with its European partners. This will also be an indicator of how powerful the spooks' lobby still is.

Whatever the outcome, Georgi Markov's murder remains an enigma as well as an unsolved crime. To some observers, the idea that someone can kill a dissident in London and never be found out creates a link with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Indeed, a comparison between these incidents is inevitable (see Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power", 20 November 2006). Both men criticised lawless and pitiless regimes whose agents killed them with exotic poisons. Both murders provoked rage and helplessness in the western world. Both operations demonstrated that a foreign intelligence service can operate freely in the heart of a democratic society. Both cases showed how dangerous, and necessary, speaking truth to power can be. Both deaths leave an open wound that only justice - however belated - can heal. Georgi Markov, thirty years on, deserves no less.

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