SOFIA, BULGARIA -- On the "Street Without Communism" in the "City of Truth" the non-negotiable demand is that aging former leader Todor Zhivkov be trotted out in front of the parliament to explain all the bad things he did before he was overthrown last fall.
The City of Truth is a camp of 100 or so tents pitched in central Sofia next to the office of the president of Bulgaria and right across the street from the headquarters of the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party.
It is a kind of Balkan Woodstock scene. Among the tents are men sporting long beards, women in mini-skirts, drooling puppies, environmental petitions and cross-legged, blanket-sitting discussion groups. The music is vintage 60s and John Lennon's anthem "All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance" has been resurrected. Every morning the 350 camp residents wake up, roll back their tent flaps, elect themselves a new mayor-for-a-day and amble off to the public toilets.
What is significant about the City of Truth -- in a country with a centuries-old tradition of beating, jailing and executing its critics -- is its raw political power.
The students, teachers and artists who have lived in the tents since July 7 are changing government policy and making heads roll in Bulgaria. When these latter-day hippies make demands, the reformed Communists who are struggling to keep control of the country seem to have no choice but to listen and respond.
The tent city demonstrators demanded the resignation of Bulgarian President Petar Mladenov. This was prompted by public outrage over a videotape which showed Mladenov discussing the possibility of using tanks last December to move against crowds of antigovernment protestors. He resigned on July 6.
Residents of the City of Truth also demanded the resignation of the head of Bulgarian television, accusing him of Communist bias. He resigned July 14. They demanded that the embalmed body of Georgi Dimitrov, the father of Bulgarian Communism, be removed from his Lenin-style crypt in central Sofia. This week, the government halted public viewing of the body, removed the mummified corpse from the crypt and cremated it. The ashes to be buried Monday in a public ceremony.
After 41 years of venerating Dimitrov's body with a white-gloved honor guard posted around-the-clock, the government this week allowed residents of the City of Truth to hang all manner of disrespectful posters on the railing in front of the now-empty crypt. One sign reads: "It Stinks."
The most recent demand -- for deposed Communist leader Zhivkov to be called before parliament to explain his 35 years of intolerant and economically destructive rule -- was approved Wednesday by the legislature.
As an unexpected bonus, Zhivkov himself, who has not spoken publicly since his overthrow last November, said in a letter read Wednesday before parliament that he wanted to "tell the truth about the period in which I worked and about my activities."
The Bulgarian Socialist Party, formerly the Communist Party, won an absolute majority in multi-party parliamentary elections last month. The victory, in a vote that was generally regarded as free and fair, was unique in Eastern Europe's year of elections. Only here did reform Communists win back power, after offering a well-organized opposition a chance to take over the government.
That victory, however, quickly soured. The election revealed a profound urban-rural, professional-worker schism in Bulgarian society. Voters in Sofia, the capital and largest city, backed the main opposition alliance, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). In the countryside, the Socialists won an overwhelming majority of the votes.
Since the election, Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov, a reformer Socialist, has insisted that the country is ungovernable unless the UDF -- particularly the professionals and technocrats who support it -- joins in a coalition government. Without such an alliance, Lukanov has said, Bulgaria cannot begin to rebuild its debt-crippled and centralized economy.
The UDF, however, has thus far adamantly refused any coalition. Its leaders say they prefer to let the Socialists stew in the economic juices that they brewed over the past half century. Instead, the opposition has given its support to those bearded and unconventional souls who reside in the City of Truth -- and torment the Socialists with non-negotiable demands.
In the wake of its election victory, the Socialist Party has been backed into a corner and is desperate for closer Western ties. Bulgaria's $10.2 billion foreign debt cannot be repaid without a generous rescheduling of payments to Western banks. The economy needs the aid and investment from the West now flowing into Poland and Hungary.
To make matters worse, the Soviet Union has cut back sharply on oil subsidies and other raw materials that for decades had kept Bulgaria's heavy industry alive.
Inside the "non-communist zone" in the City of Truth, protesters explain with barely concealed glee how the "commies" now have no choice but to be tolerant. They say the government simply cannot afford the unfavorable international publicity of a "Romanian solution."
Late last month in Romania, President Ion Iliescu bused in vigilante miners to muscle antigovernment protesters camped out in the capital. The beatings, which were televised around the world, severely damaged the credibility of the newly elected Bucharest leadership and triggered moves by several Western countries, including the United States, to suspend development aid.
"The lesson of Romania was too severe. They won't dare do it here. In the economic situation that this country is in, it is unthinkable that they would risk such a step," Willy Kavaldjiev, a spokesman for the City of Truth, said Wednesday.
"Unless we keep permanent pressure on the Communists, they will not do anything. Nothing will change unless we stay here," he said.
Lukanov, in an interview this week in parliament, put a better face on his government's willingness to tolerate the City of Truth.
"It is a sign of democracy, a sign of tolerance. I wouldn't say what they are doing is normal," said Lukanov. He added that he would prefer that solutions to the country's problems be hammered out in parliament, rather than in the streets.
Emboldened by several victories and by a sense of the government's inability to do anything about them, protesters in the City of Truth are escalating their demands by the day. They say they will not leave the street outside the president's office until a date is set for Zhivkov's trial and every member of the parliament who is responsible for "crimes of the past" is forced to resign.
Since bludgeons, water cannons, tanks and tear gas now seem out of the question, the Socialist Party here has come up with a novel counter to the tactics of the City of Truth: sarcasm.
The Socialist Youth Union has pitched its own tents about 100 yards from the non-communist zone. Posters on their tents poke fun at the middle-class, picnic atmosphere in the City of Truth. "Semi-Hungry Political Strike Without Breakfast," says one sign. It lists the day's activities as "tanning" and "meeting friends" and "self-education."
"We worry that street democracy is coming to dominate political life in Bulgaria," said Yuri Borisov, of the Socialist Youth Union and a resident of the satiric tent city. "We want to make them aware that we may act like they do. It is only a warning. Now we have only three tents. In the future we may have 300 tents."