SOFIA, BULGARIA, NOV. 10 -- It was a year ago today that Bulgaria, a Balkan nation with no democratic tradition, dumped the world's longest-serving Communist dictator and joined the ranks of revolutionary Eastern European states.
Since then, however, the replacement of totalitarianism with democracy has degenerated into an economic and political free fall.
The country is bankrupt, the ruling Socialist party is unable to rule and stores are emptier than they ever were under communism. The Soviet Union, Bulgaria's longtime patron, is halting the flow of cheap oil while rich Western countries more or less ignore the place.
The energy shortage here is so acute that electricity in the capital now flows in intermittent bursts -- two hours on, two hours off. In addition to long lines for meat, milk and cooking oil, there are lines for candles.
Across Eastern Europe, a year after the season of revolutions, there is a dispiriting sense of expectations unfulfilled and hope lost. As another winter settles in, it is becoming depressingly clear that the road to democracy and capitalism can be tortuous and painful, offering no quick cures for poverty or pollution.
Here in Bulgaria, though, the sense of loss seems greater as unpayable debts dovetail with energy shortages and the government remains unwilling even to begin the kind of systemic free-market reforms that are well underway in much of the region.
Last year, in the giddy weeks after the overthrow of President Todor Zhivkov, tens of thousands of Bulgarians flooded into the streets of Sofia for tearful demonstrations that melded joy with disbelief. Bulgarians said then that they were stunned by their sudden freedom.
Today, on those same streets, a long year's descent into penury and political confusion was punctuated by an anniversary celebration marred by heckling, minor scuffles and deeply pessimistic speeches. It was held on a square beside the party's smoke-blackened headquarters building, which in August was set afire and looted by anti-Communist demonstrators.
The "happy birthday to democracy" was staged by the winner of last summer's elections, the former Communists who have renamed themselves Socialists. It was heckled by supporters of the Union of Democratic Forces, the anti-Communist umbrella group that refuses to join the Socialists in a coalition government.
The keynote speech by Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov, who has refused to implement tough free-market reforms without the backing of the opposition, struck a tone that was defeatist rather than celebratory. The months since the June elections, he said, have been infected with "egoism, alienation and hatred."
Lukanov directed most of his remarks at several hundred young opposition hecklers who at times drowned out the estimated 30,000 Socialist supporters. "You embody the idea of what will happen to Bulgaria if it leaves its fate in your hands," Lukanov told the hecklers.
The prime minister finished his brief, truculent speech with remarks that seemed to concede the Socialists' inability to pull Bulgaria out of its crises. Recent opinion polls show that the Union of Democratic Forces enjoys the support of about 48 percent of the Bulgarian people, compared to 30 percent for the Socialists. That is a reversal of results in the June election.
"Dear anti-democrats," the prime minister told his hecklers, "in response to your shouts of 'Resign,' I want to say to you that Andrei Lukanov is not afraid of people like you. If he is to resign, he will present his resignation to the parliament, which was elected by the people as a whole," Lukanov said.
In recent weeks, as the feebleness of the Socialist leadership has become obvious, the Union of Democrat Forces has been uncompromising in its demand for complete control of the government.
The opposition party, an amalgam of technocrats, artists and trade unions, demanded this week that its leaders take over the seven most important ministries in the government, including the post of prime minister.
In a closed-door meeting with opposition leaders Friday, Lukanov reportedly offered to "freeze" his Socialist party membership if he could stay on as prime minister. He said he was willing to preside over a cabinet made up mostly of technocrats from the Union of Democratic Forces. The opposition rejected the offer, said Rumen Danov, a UDF legislator who was at the meeting.
In another signal that the Socialists' support is rapidly disintegrating, 16 Socialist members of parliament declared this week their independence from party discipline and said they would support a government "of different political forces."
The defection shatters the parliamentary majority that the party won in the first free elections in this country since World War II. Bulgarian television reported Friday night that the number of Socialist lawmakers defecting from the party is likely to double in coming days.
In the absence of a power-sharing agreement between the two major political parties, the prime minister has done little to implement his tough plan for free-market reform. The economy continues to be dominated by state companies, which are managed by Communist holdovers.
The absence of real change, especially compared to Poland or Hungary, has made Bulgaria the odd man out regarding Western aid or debt relief. The country has defaulted on its $10 billion foreign debt.
"Bulgaria is last in the queue of reformers in Eastern Europe," declared the parliamentarians who bolted from Socialist ranks Friday.
Political stalemate here has combined with oil-supply disruptions -- the major suppliers had been the Soviet Union and Iraq -- to create widespread panic in the food-supply system.
An official at the Ministry of Agriculture said this week that shortages are being caused by hoarding by farmers, truckers, shop owners and consumers.
"I am ashamed for the situation here," said Fanny Ribarova, a medical researcher in Sofia who this morning spent three hours standing in line to buy milk and yogurt. "My assistants in my laboratory ask me now if they can leave work to go shop. We are a civilized people, we shouldn't be living like this."
To add insult to this national sense of injury, a Sofia newspaper published on Friday an interview with a gloating Zhivkov, the deposed 79-year-old dictator who lives under house arrest awaiting trial on corruption charges.
In the interview, the first he has granted since his ouster, Zhivkov claimed he had never been corrupt or brutal. He said he had done a better job of running Bulgaria than the current crowd: "While Zhivkov was really ruling this state, were the shops full?" Zhivkov asked his interviewer. "Did people have jobs and security? Were there so many crimes? . . . so many riots?"
At the end of today's anniversary rally, supporters of the Socialists party walked defiantly passed hecklers from the Union of Democratic Forces. Police with riot shields, who had been called in to break up minor scuffles, kept the two groups apart. Insults, rather than fists, were thrown.