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Bulgaria goes consumer with Soviet help

Last year, Bulgarians saw bananas on the market only once. This year, the imported fruit has already appeared twice in the basement supermarket of Sofia's main department store.

Twenty years ago, the Tsum department store had neither supermarket nor bananas. The only things one could buy readily were cheap orange cotton underwear or crudely carved wooden souvenirs.

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Today, the four-story Tsum is filled with goods ranging from luxury-line dresses that cost as much as the average monthly salary - 150 lev ($150) - to cheap but plentiful cosmetics, housedresses, children's wear, and appliances.

Many Bulgarians seem satisfied, crediting their current higher standard of living to the country's close relationship with Moscow and the leadership of Todor Zhivkov, the man who has cemented that alliance over the last 30 years.

Mr. Zhivkov, a septuagenarian, enjoys a quiet but firm control over this country of some 8.9 million people. He became party chief in 1954 and took on the role of chief of state in 1971.

In the current five-year plan, despite a slowing of the economy, the Communist Party leadership has made a ''conscious decision'' to devote more funds to consumer goods, according to a Western observer. This has boosted Mr. Zhivkov's popularity. Despite his age, there is little talk in Sofia of who might succeed him.

A year ago Mr. Zhivkov launched a campaign to counter the decline in the quality of Bulgarian products by tying wages and factory profits to performance. In January, he shuffled the government and party leadership, putting economic experts in charge of key sectors.

If the drive to boost quality is successful, it could mean more trade with the West. But Bulgarians stress they first want to satisfy the East-bloc market, which takes 78 percent of its trade. Moscow accounts for 57 percent of Bulgarian trade and provides the country with nearly all its oil needs, which is paid for with Bulgarian goods.

Bulgaria has a separate department just to handle its relations with the Soviet Union. Its deputy head, Nicola Gugov, said there has been ''no pressure'' to change the oil payment. Though Bulgaria's debt to the West is less than $2 billion, some sources say it owes the Soviet Union up to 6 billion rubles ($7.5 billion).

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Soviet technology and aid have helped Bulgaria make ''a tremendous leap'' since the end of World War II, a Western diplomat said. In 1948, 82 percent of the work force worked in agriculture compared to 24 percent today.

''The quality of life is better,'' the diplomat said. ''I'm not sure a Romanian or Czech could say that.''

Zhivkov has always been on good terms with Moscow's leaders, and no change is expected with the new Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko. Mr. Gugov said Zhivkov had contact with Chernenko when he was Leonid Brezhnev's aide and they have always been ''friendly and comradely.'' Bulgaria was the first country to follow Moscow in boycotting the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

But the close allegiance between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union goes deep. The two countries share the same Orthodox religion and Cyrillic alphabet. Historically, the Russians are seen as liberators - first with Czar Alexander II , who freed Bulgaria from the Ottoman Turks in 1877-78, and then in World War II.

This alliance is also evident in the anti-Americanism present in Sofia. The many Soviet bookstores here carry books featuring a US flag draped over a skull.

A foreign student said when he leaves after six years of study in Bulgaria, he will have to say he does not have one Bulgarian friend. ''I see them in classes, but all foreigners live with foreigners, and the Bulgarians won't even speak to me after class.''

It isn't so much that the secret police ''will knock on the door at night,'' another foreigner said. ''They may do that but it is more just knowing they are there. That, and family pressure to stay in line. There is no incentive to be a rebel. They kept their heads down for 500 years under the Turks.''

The foreign student said the Bulgarians have a system for telling on each other. An odgovornik, or listener, is in charge of each segment of the concrete high-rise flats where Bulgarians live. He said it results in immature conversations. Out of fear of being reported, Bulgarian students restrict their talk to trivia.

''It's sort of pathetic,'' he said. ''You have engineering students talking about things like bubblegum cards.''

Despite the anti-American feeling, anything Western or ''with the Latin alphabet on it'' is sought after, especialy by young people. One foreigner came home to find a Bulgarian had cut the label off his jeans pocket.

Young people crowd the Correcom state-run shop where imported items can be bought with hard currency. It helps the black market flourish, and one dollar is worth four levs, four times the official rate. There is even a joke that says Correcom means ''correct communism.''

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