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A short history of Bulgaria – part 5 – Modern History
After the Russo-Turkish war all ethnic Bulgarians were supposed to be united and all the lands where they live had to be a part of the newly established Bulgarian state according to the San Stefano peace treaty, but at the Berlin congress (1 June – July 1878) the decisions of the Great powers divided Bulgaria into two separate countries – Principality of Bulgaria, north from the Balkan and Eastern Rumelia with Plovdiv as a capital in the south. The long awaited freedom from Ottoman rule did not come as it was expected during the liberation war. The decision of the Great powers to leave large territories with Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks in Turkey left the issues that were a reason for the Russo-Turkish war of 1878 unsolved.
First years of the new Bulgarian state and the Unification
Until the first Bulgarian government was established, Bulgaria was temporarily ruled by a Russian administration which was gradually replaced by Bulgarians. The Russian authorities did their best to ensure that Russia will have a strong influence on the Balkans. Meanwhile, after the announcement of the decisions of the Berlin treaty, the establishment of committees for armed resistance began. These committees were supposed to help for the unification with Bulgarians that got left within the borders of Turkey. The rebellion against the Berlin treaty is strongest in Macedonia (we have to note here that Macedonians are considered to be ethnic Bulgarians. The idea of the Macedonian nation was forged in the 1960’s).
With the acceptance of the the Veliko Tarnovo constitution by the National assembly is decided that the Principality of Bulgaria will be a democratic monarchy. The first Prince (called Knyaz in Bulgarian) of Bulgaria is Alexander I Batemberg who participated in the Russo-Turkish war and was chosen for this reason by the National assembly. Eastern Rumelia according to the Berlin treaty was to remain a vassal to the Ottoman empire state, under its military and political jurisdiction. At that time this could only mean that the war for Bulgarians was not over yet.
Just 6 years after the Berlin treaty, the preparations for an unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia had begun. An organisation called the Bulgarian Secret Central Revolutionary Committee (BSCRC) was created in 1884 and started working for uniting with all Bulgarians in Eastern Rumelia and Macedonia. The Unification with Bulgaria is declared on the 14th of September 1885 in Panagyurishte. The excitement in the entire Eastern Rumelia was great and in only a few days later (20th September) the unification is completed without any resistance by the Rumelian authorities. Prince Alexander I then approved the unification and made it official, but the Bulgarians had no time for celebration – after these events Serbia starts a military campaign against Bulgaria with the goal of expanding further east into the Balkans. Violent fights follow along the eastern borders in the next months – the Serbs are defeated on the 9th of December 1885.None of the Great powers wanted to take the challenges of revising the decisions of the Berlin treaty, but after the war with Serbia, the unification of Bulgaria is recognized the following year on March 24th. The national motto of Bulgaria until today is “Unity makes strength”.
The Kingdom of Bulgaria – Independence, culture and wars
After the Unification, in the summer of 1886 Prince Alexander was forced to abdicate by pro-Russian militants because he was not following the Russian politics on the Balkans. Immediately after the dethronation of the Prince, the Bulgarian prime minister Stefan Stambolov starts working for the stabilization of the country and for the election of a new monarch. In July 1887 Prince Ferdinand I de Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was chosen by the National assembly. He became a Tsar (Slavic pronunciation Caesar, identical to King) in 1908 when he declared the independence of Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire – Bulgaria from this moment became a Kingdom and Ferdinand I became the first Bulgarian Tsar since the 14th century.
Bulgaria in this period is developing quickly as a democratic and a capitalistic country. Western culture and especially the French, German and Italian has a strong influence on art, theater and even architecture. Many of the masterpieces of Bulgarian literature, some of which are known worldwide, are written in the first decades of the 20th century.
However the Balkans are still under the pressure of territorial disputes, Turkey was refusing to implement the requested reforms in the regions for which Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria have territorial claims – the south-west of the Balkans, Macedonia. Sooner or later the Ottomans had to be pushed even further away from the Christian lands, so a secret union was made between the three countries – together as allies to fight against the Ottoman empire. The first Balkan war started in 1912 and the allies had great success against the Ottoman empire. The Turks were pushed off as far as Adrianople, which was succesfully taken over. Bulgaria suffers the most casualties among the allies, but Serbia violates the pact of the allies with claims for territories inhabited by Bulgarians in Macedonia – a new war starts between the allies (known as the second Balkan war) – Serbia, Greece and Romania attack Bulgaria – this all leads to a defeat and a national crisis of the newly established Bulgarian kingdom. The countries of the Balkans are at war throughout 1912-1918. The conflicts at the Balkans and the attempts of the Great powers to intervene are what led to beginning of World war I. During WWI Bulgaria initially tries to stay neutral but is later affiliated to Central powers.
After the Great European War
Bulgaria was in a second national crisis – defeated in the second Balkan war and in WWI, had lost over 60.000 thousand men, large territories and was paying large reparations. The first decade after WWI is a time of political fights and instability, times when extreme political ideas gain popularity – Socialism becomes popular among the poor and a part of the intellectual elite, but mostly with uneducated farmers and workers, who dreamed of class equality. It takes more than 15 years to recover from consequences of the war and the economic crisis of 1922.
However, in the end of the 1930’s Bulgaria is again in an economic upturn, has developed a rich culture, literature and art. The government is following mostly a conservative nationalistic policy with eyes facing the west. In the beginning of the Second world war Bulgaria tries to maintain neutrality, but when German troops reach the north border at the Danube the come with an ultimatum: “Either with them or against them” and thus Bulgaria becomes an ally of the Axis (Germany – Italy – Japan) but does not enter into any major fights and protects the local Jewish population from the Nazis.
Russian propaganda in the period before the war does win a part of the intellectual elite on its side, but does not receive the desired influence on the Balkans until after the end of WWII when the world is divided into a Soviet east and a Democratic west.
Years of Socialism
The Socialist revolution of September 1945 was a tragedy for some and a reason to celebrate for others. The nightmare of the intellectual elite came true – journalists, politicians, writers and capitalists were pursued by the new authorities and killed or sent to labor camps; all factories and lands were nationalized; people who had large houses were forced to share them – for the sake of social equality. Russia now had a significant influence on the entire Balkans – every single person in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria was a subject to Soviet propaganda and studied Russian. Bulgaria’s Prince Kiril was killed by the communists and the under-aged monarch – Tsar Simeon II was forced to leave the country.
This is what happens after every socialist revolution – almost all connections and trade with the west are interrupted and redirected east, towards the Soviet union. The significant political leaders of this period are Georgi Dimitrov (1946-1949) who led the establishment of the new regime and Todor Zhivkov who was a prime minister from 1954 to 1989. This was indeed a time when all the news, books and even art is censored, but is also a time of great industrialization, extremely low unemployment rate and peace.
During this period all cultural events were related in some way to the Communist party, history was manipulated, but at the same time the average worker of the 60’s and 70’s had a high standard of living. Some of the elderly today are still nostalgic about Socialism – something that is dividing the Bulgarian nation even today. All major cities were developed with the typical for all Soviet countries architecture which can be observed in all states that were part of the Eastern bloc. The monuments and statues that are built in this era are impressive with their size and their unique style.
Recent History of Bulgaria – the revolution of 1989 and after
Socialism had gained certain stability in Eastern Europe, but there were many factor that led to its collapse – in first place the informational isolation from the western world, the lack of luxury goods and international trade. On the 10th of November 1989, just one day after the fall of the Berlin wall and protests in Sofia, the Communist party resigned and the country started the long and hard Transition to democracy. The first 10 years after the end of communism are marked by political instability, unprecedented inflation and bankruptcy of factories, high unemployment rate and poverty. Democracy and civil rights had a high cost for the average Bulgarian – this is a reason why many of the older people are still nostalgic about socialism when they had a simple, secure life with less freedom and opportunities for development.
In the years after the November revolution of 1989 the two are the big steps for the integration Bulgaria into the European family and the most significant political events in the 21st century – in first place is acceptance of Bulgaria in NATO in 2004 and the success of the negotiations for affiliation with European union. Since 1 January 2007 Bulgaria is a member of the European union and this marks an end to the so called Transitional period.
Bulgaria today has adopted the European values and the government of Boyko Borisov (2009-2013; 2014-now), with a majority of GERB political party, leads a pro-western policy with a focus on the achievement of a higher standard of living, construction of highways and the further integration of Bulgaria in the EU. The president of Bulgaria today is Rossen Plevneliev. GERB stands for Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Socialist party (former communist party) has supporters only among the elderly and keeps loosing popularity. In the recent years Bulgaria has developed as an attractive destination for business and housing investments, for cultural, hiking and sea tourism.
See our article Understanding Basic Bulgaria or read our article on the Opportunities for tourism in Bulgaria.