A Note on Bulgarian History

National Palace of Culture in Sofia

The Thracian ruler and the noble Thracian woman from the "Funerary Feast" scene - Thracian Tomb near Kazanlak (5th - 3rd Century B.C.).

Along crossroads of civilizations (archaeological finds date back to 4600 B.C.), Bulgaria was first recognized as an independent state in AD 681. Bulgarian Orthodox Christanity, which became a hallmark of national identity, was established in the 9th century. By the late 9th and 10th centuries, Bulgaria had become the strongest nation in Eastern Europe. Its power declined during the following centuries because of internal strife and external pressure from Magyars, Serbs, Russians, and the Byzantine Empire. Bulgaria was ruled by the Byzantine Empire from 1018 to 1185 and the Ottoman Empire from 1396 to 1878. During these five centuries, Bulgaria’s political and cultural identity was almost obliterated.

Read about this tragic part of Bulgarian history in Modern History Sourcebook: Sir Edwin Pears: The Massacre of Bulgarians, 1876. One of the greatest figures of that time is Januarius A. MacGahan from Ohio, better known as the Liberator of Bulgaria.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Bulgarian nationalism became a powerful movement. After Russia won a war with the Ottoman Empire in 1878, part of Bulgaria became an autonomous principality. In 1879, Bulgaria adopted a democratic constitution and invited a German nobleman, Alexander of Battenburg, to be prince. Bulgarians began to assert their national identity despite interference from Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and other Balkan states. The Ottoman province of East Rumelia united with Bulgaria following a revolt in 1885. Bulgaria achieved formal independence in 1908.

Veliko Tarnovo - The Tzarevetz Castle

In the early part of the 20th century, in an effort to gain Macedonian and other territories, Bulgaria engaged in two Balkan wars and become allied with Germany during World War I. It suffered disastrous losses as a result. The interwar period was dominated by economic and political instability and by terrorism as political factions, including monarchists and communists, struggled for influence. Following World War I, an Agrarian Party government under Aleksandr Stambolisky attempted to improve conditions for the peasants and maintain friendly relations with other Balkan countries. Stambolisky’s regime was overthrown in 1923. Internal dissension continued under the new government, which represented all political parties except the Agrarians, Communists, and Liberals. In 1934, Tsar Boris established a royal dictatorship.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia

In 1941, during World War II, Bulgaria allied again with Germany but protected its Jewish population of some 50,000 persons from the Holocaust. When King Boris III died in 1943, political uncertainty heightened. He was succeeded by his six-year-old son, Simeon II, and a pro-German government under Dobri Bozhilov. The Fatherland Front, an umbrella coalition led by the Communist Party, was established. This coalition backed neutrality and withdrawal from occupied territories. Bulgaria tried to avoid open conflict with the Soviet Union during the war, but the U.S.S.R. invaded in 1944 and placed the Fatherland Front in control of government.

Traditional Bulgarian house of a reach family - now the Museum of Ethnography - Plovdiv

After Bulgaria's surrender to the Allies, the Communist Party purged opposition figures in the Fatherland Front, exiled young King Simeon II, and rigged elections to consolidate power. In 1946, a referendum was passed overwhelmingly, ending the monarchy and declaring Bulgaria a people's republic. In a questionable election the next year, the Fatherland Front won 70% of the vote and Communist Party leader Georgi Dimitrov became prime minister. In 1947, the Allied military left Bulgaria and the government declared the country a communist state. Forty-two years of heavy-handed totalitarian rule followed. All democratic opposition was crushed, agriculture and industry were nationalized, and Bulgaria became one of the closest of the Soviet Union's allies. Unlike other countries of the Warsaw Pact, however, Bulgaria did not have Soviet troops stationed on its territory.

Dimitrov died in 1949. Todor Zhivkov became Communist Party chief in 1956 and Prime Minister in 1962. Zhivkov held power until November 1989, when he was deposed by members of his own party, soon renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The BSP won the first post-communist parliamentary elections in 1990 with a small majority. The BSP government formed at that time was brought down by a general strike in late 1990 and replaced by a transitional coalition government. Zhelyu Zhelev, a communist-era dissident, was elected President by the Parliament in 1990 and later won Bulgaria's first direct presidential elections, held in 1992. Zhelev served until early 1997.

Rila Monastery.jpg (90791 bytes)

The Rila Monastery, where most of the library of the American College in Sofia was preserved well hidden during the communist rule

The country's first fully democratic Parliamentary elections were held in November 1991 and resulted in a majority of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), in partnership with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). Philip Dimitrov became the country’s Prime Minister. The new Government began initiating economic and industrial reforms, including a privatization law and a revamped foreign investment law. However, conflict within the UDF and with the MRF led to a vote of confidence in Parliament in 1992, which Prime Minister Dimitrov lost.

A Government of experts supported by the BSP, MRF and a faction from the UDF assumed power. The Government was led by presidential advisor, Lyuben Berov, who stepped down in June 1994. In the December 1994 parliamentary elections, the BSP won a clear legislative majority, and Jean Videnov, chair of the BSP, formed a government and became Prime Minister. During this period (1994-1996) the Bulgarian currency lost 99% of its value.

In November 1996, Peter Stoyanov of the United Democratic Forces (UtdDF) won the Presidential election. This prompted Videnov to resign as Prime Minister and leader of the BSP. The BSP designated Nikolay Dobrev as the next premier; however, after his appointment was blocked, the new BSP leader, Georgi Parvanov, declined to form a government. A caretaker government was established with UDF’s Mayor of Sofia, Stefan Sofianski, serving as Prime Minister in February 1997. The UtdDF won a comfortable majority in the April 1997 parliamentary elections and Ivan Kostov formed the new Government. Kostov’s Government has achieved economic stabilization (including controlling inflation and restoring economic growth), adopted key political and economic reform legislation, and concluded a three-year agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

About the history on the Balkans read www.balcanica.org which contains information about Southeast Europe in different fields. The site is dedicated to Balkan peoples and is maintained by the International Center for Balkan Studies - CIBAL.