Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, Eastern Europe's last surviving strongman, has died at the age of 86, marking the end of the communist era in this Balkan state.

"Zhivkov has died," a doctor in the government hospital in Sofia told Reuters on Thursday. The hospital said the former leader died late on Wednesday of complications resulting from long-standing diabetes and old age."Beside being the Communist Party leader in one of the darkest periods of Bulgarian history, he was also head of state for decades. Eight million Bulgarians lived in labor, dreams and illusions, but also in fear and repression," said President Petar Stoyanov.

"With Todor Zhivkov's death the era of Bulgarian communism is completely over," Stoyanov said in a telegram expressing his condolences to Zhivkov's relatives.

Zhivkov had ruled Bulgaria from 1954 until he was ousted in a bloodless coup by fellow party members in 1989. He was released from house arrest in September 1997 after becoming Eastern Europe's first communist leader to stand trial in 1991.

Bogged down by procedural wrangles, all cases against Zhivkov during those six years turned into sham trials, sparking widespread public skepticism at the time.

In 1992, Zhivkov was convicted of embezzling 21.5 million levs (then about $24 million) of public funds, spent on luxury apartments and Western cars for his family and favored aides.

In January 1997, the Supreme Court overturned that sentence, but Zhivkov remained under house arrest on charges connected to his assimilation policy against ethnic Turks in the 1980s.