The Bulgarians have inhabited their present homeland for 13 centuries. They represent a merger of Bulgar invaders and local Slavic tribes, which occurred in the 7th century. From the Slavs, who had migrated to the Balkans from the area north of the Carpathian Mountains in the 6th century, the Bulgarians received their language and cultural roots. From the Bulgars, a Central Asian Turkic tribe that had crossed the Danube in 679 to settle permanently in Bulgarian territory, the Bulgarians received their name and initial political framework.
The early Bulgarian state, which had adopted Christianity in 865, asserted itself against the Byzantine Empire and reached its greatest territorial extent under Simeon I (r.893–927), but by
1018 it had again fallen under Byzantine dominance. Bulgaria rose again as a major Balkan power in the 12th and 13th centuries, especially under Ivan Asen II (r.1218–41), who had his capital at Turnovo. By the end of the 14th century, Bulgaria was overrun by the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the country until 1878.
Through Russian pressure, the Treaty of San Stefano (3 March 1878) provided for the virtual independence of Bulgaria. This was somewhat curtailed by the Congress of Berlin (June–July 1878), which gave northern Bulgaria the status of an independent principality under Turkish suzerainty, with its capital at Sofia. Southern Bulgaria (then known as Eastern Rumelia) remained under Turkish rule as an autonomous province. A military coup in 1885 annexed Eastern Rumelia to Bulgaria. Stefan Stambolov, premier from 1887 to 1894, consolidated the country's administration and economy. In 1908, Bulgaria declared itself a kingdom completely independent of Turkey, and the ruling Bulgarian prince, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, assumed the title of tsar. Bulgaria joined the anti-Turkish coalition (consisting of Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia) in the First Balkan War (October 1912–May 1913), gaining its long-desired outlet to the Aegean Sea. But as a result of a dispute over Macedonia, Bulgaria became pitted against Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey in the Second Balkan War (June–July 1913) and was defeated. The Treaty of Bucharest (10 August 1913) deprived Bulgaria of southern Dobrudja and a large part of Macedonia. Having sided with the Central Powers in World War I, Bulgaria also lost its outlet to the Aegean Sea through the Treaty of Neuilly (27 November 1919). By this time, Ferdinand had abdicated in favor of his son, Boris III, who ruled Bulgaria until his death in 1943. After an early period of stability and initial progressive reform under the leadership of Premier Alexander Stamboliski (assassinated 1923), growing political rivalries led to the introduction of authoritarian institutions; King Boris established a military government in 1934 and then personally assumed dictatorial powers in 1935.
When World War II broke out, Bulgaria moved toward an alliance with Germany in the hope of recovering lost territories. In 1940, Romania was forced to return southern Dobrudja, and during the war Bulgaria occupied Macedonia and western Thrace on the Aegean Sea. In September 1944, Soviet troops crossed the Danube and entered the country. At that time, the Bulgarian government severed relations with Germany and intended to sign an armistice with the Western Allies, but Moscow declared war on Bulgaria. A coalition government—the Fatherland Front (Otechestven Front)—was established, which, with the assistance of the Soviet army, came under the domination of the Communist Party. Subsequently, anti-Communist political elements were purged.
Elections for a national government, held in November 1945, were protested by the Western powers. The following September, a plebiscite replaced the monarchy with the People's Republic of Bulgaria. The 1947 peace treaty formally ending Bulgaria's role in World War II allowed the nation to keep southern Dobrudja and limited the size of its armed forces, but the latter provision was later violated. A new constitution in 1947 instituted the nationalization of industry, banking, and public utilities and the collectivization of agriculture, each program following the Soviet pattern. Centralized planning was introduced for the development of the national economy through a series of five-year plans that from the outset stressed the expansion of heavy industry. Subsequently, Bulgaria joined the Warsaw Pact and CMEA, thus placing itself firmly within the Soviet bloc.
After the Soviet-Yugoslav rift of 1948, a large-scale purge was carried out inside the Communist ranks to expel "nationalist" elements led by Traicho Kostov, who was executed in December 1949. Thereafter, the Bulgarian government remained unquestionably loyal to Moscow and was unaffected politically or ideologically by the upheavals in Poland and Hungary in 1956 or the events that precipitated the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the 1970s, Bulgaria sought to improve relations with neighboring Greece. Relations with Yugoslavia, however, remained strained because of Bulgaria's historic claims on Macedonia.
Todor Zhivkov, first secretary of the Communist Party since 1954 and president since 1971, was by the mid-1980s one of the longest-ruling Communist leaders in the world. A cultural "thaw" took place in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Zhivkov's daughter, Lyudmila Zhivkova, who was closely involved in organizing the commemoration of what was claimed to be the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of the Bulgarian state; she died in December 1981, two months before the celebration. In late 1982 and 1983, Bulgaria became a center of international attention because of allegations by Italian investigators that Bulgarian agents were involved in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on 13 May 1981. In March 1986, however, an Italian court ruled that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Bulgaria had ordered or was involved in the assassination attempt. The 1984–85 campaign of forcible assimilation of ethnic Turks allegedly resulted in more than 1,000 deaths.
A program of far-reaching political and economic changes was announced in July 1987, including an administrative overhaul that was expected to reduce the number of Communist Party functionaries by as much as two-thirds, the introduction of self-management for individual enterprises, and liberalization of rules for joint ventures with foreign investors.
The radical changes which Mikhail Gorbachev was introducing in the Soviet Union, long Bulgaria's traditional "elder brother," encouraged reformist elements within the Bulgarian Communist Party, who were growing increasingly restive under Zhivkov. The long-time ruler, however, resisted attempts to change, and moved into a pattern of direct confrontation with Petar Mladenov, his Foreign Minister. Mladenov, who had close ties to Gorbachev, wanted to change Bulgaria's image, but Zhivkov's intensifying efforts to "assimilate" the country's ethnic Turks or, if that failed, to force them to emigrate, only reinforced international antipathy. Finally, in November 1989, Mladenov and other opposition figures were able to take advantage of an international environmental conference convened in Sofia to press for Zhivkov's resignation. When Defense Minister Dobri Dzhurov agreed to support Mladenov, Zhivkov was forced to resign.
Mladenov had intended to reform the Communist Party, not remove it from power, but the tide of popular sentiment ran against him. Coordinated by an umbrella opposition group called the Union for Democratic Reform, huge pro-democracy rallies gathered in the capital, demanding an end to the Communist monopoly on power, and calling for elections.
The Communists attempted to meet these demands by increments, first relinquishing their constitutional exclusivity, then ending Zhivkov's program of forced assimilation, and finally changing its name to Bulgarian Socialist Party. However, the opposition, now known as the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), continued to insist on new elections, which were held in June 1991.
In something of a surprise, the Socialists received nearly 53% of the vote, while the UDF got only about a third; the rest of the votes went to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which represents the interests of the country's one million Turks. However, because the Socialists' votes came almost entirely from the countryside, while those of the UDF came from the city, the UDF decided to remain in opposition, and not enter any coalition. The Socialists' ability to form a government was further weakened by popular hostility to Mladenov, who was forced to resign about a month after the election.
However, because the Communists remained generally in charge of the government, very little reform was realized, and Bulgaria's economy continued to decline. In addition, a great deal of effort was devoted to the attempt to prosecute Zhivkov and his prominent cronies for malfeasance, incompetence, and other failings. Zhivkov fought back vigorously, exposing the sins of former colleagues who had remained in power. Although convictions were eventually obtained (in 1992, with additional charges brought in 1993), the exercise served to undermine public sympathy for the Socialists. That opened the way for the National Assembly to appoint Zhelyu Zhelev president. Leader of the UDF, Zhelev had spent 17 years under house arrest. The Socialists continued to have problems forming a government, however. Their first attempt, led by Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov, a Mladenov ally, collapsed after a few months; in December 1990 the replacement government of Dimitar Popov, an unaffiliated technocrat, outlined an ambitious program of economic reform.
The National Assembly passed a new constitution in July 1991, making Bulgaria the first of the Eastern Bloc countries to adopt a new basic law. Among other things, this document called for new parliamentary elections, to be held in October 1991; another provision reduced the number of seats in the Assembly from 400 to 240, guaranteeing a wide-open election.
A form of proportional list voting was used, but a threshold of 4% to receive seats was set, in order to eliminate fringe parties. As a result, the same three parties were represented, although now in different proportions. The UDF received 34%, the Socialists 33%, and the MRF got 8%. The UDF adamantly refused to cooperate with the former Communists, instead taking as their coalition partners the Turks, who exacted a high price for their agreement.
Bulgaria's first non-Communist government since World War II was led by Filip Dimitrov, of the UDF; however, most of his ministers were chosen for technical expertise, rather than party affiliation. Sixty percent of the members of Dimitrov's cabinet were drawn from outside the National Assembly. Dimitrov undertook an ambitious program of economic and political transformation, although he was somewhat hampered by the necessity to obtain cooperation of the Socialists for any measures requiring constitutional changes, since those changes need a twothirds majority vote of the Assembly.
Although it basically continued to perform poorly, the economy showed enough change to give Zhelev 45%, the greatest part of the popular vote, when direct presidential elections were held in January 1992. However, his Socialist opponent, Velko Vulkanov, received 30%, indicating how closely the electorate was divided.
Bulgaria's economy, left in poor condition by Zhivkov, continued to deteriorate. The consequential increased pressure on the government exposed strains within the ruling UDF. In late 1992 the Dimitrov government was replaced by a minority coalition of the Socialists and the MRF, with some defecting UDF deputies, led by Lyuben Berov. Widely seen only as a caretaker prime minister meant only to take the country up to new elections, Berov defied predictions, remaining in power for more than 15 months.
However, surviving in power was the limit of the Berov government's achievements. The UDF majority in the Assembly was unrelenting in its hostility to Berov, whom it accused of trying to "re-communize" Bulgaria. The UDF submitted as many as six votes of no confidence in a single year. In April 1994, President Zhelev announced that he no longer had confidence in Berov, but because the constitution denied him the power to dissolve the government, Berov was able to keep his cabinet in position, dependent upon the support of the minority Socialists and MRF. This increasing political deadlock and the continued deterioration of Bulgaria's economy led to new parliamentary elections in 1994.
Bulgarians, hostile to the UDF, gave the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), heir to the Communist Party, and two nominal coalition partners an absolute majority in elections in December. However, under the leadership of Prime Minister Zhan Videnov, the BSP government failed to move forward with economic reforms and by the end of 1996 the economy was in crisis with inflation at 300%, corruption rampant, and average wages at only US $30 a month. Bulgaria had sunk below Albania as the poorest country in Europe. Popular support for the Socialists had dropped to 10% and change was inevitable.
In the November 1996 presidential elections, Petar Stoyanov of the UDF was elected president by a wide margin over Socialist party candidate Ivan Marazov. Faced with a worsening economy and approval ratings of just 10%, Socialist Prime Minister Zhan Videnov resigned one month later. Retiring President Zhelev, a member of the opposition party, refused to allow the Socialists to form a new government. Without a stable government and with their economy in free fall, Bulgarians demonstrated in the capital for new parliamentary elections. The newly elected president, Petar Stoyanov, took office on 19 January 1997 and immediately called for elections. The new elections, held in April, were won by a four-party alliance anchored by the Union of Democratic Forces. UDF leader Ivan Kostov, a former finance minister, became the alliance's nominee for prime minister. The new government quickly instituted economic reforms, passed a tough budget, and clamped down on crime and corruption. The economy began to stabilize and popular discontent began to subside. New IMF loans were approved, and the government embarked on a campaign to attract foreign investment and speed up privatization. Stoyanov retained his popular support over the succeeding years, as the economy continued to improve and the government increasingly embraced the West, declaring its interest in eventual EU and NATO membership, and allowing access to its airspace during the NATO bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999. The battle against entrenched political corruption continued through 1999 and 2000 and included the dismissal of top government officials.
In April 2001, former king Simeon II established a political party, the National Movement for Simeon II (NDS), pledging to fight corruption, improve the economy, and improve Bulgaria's chances for EU membership through deregulation and privatization. The party won 120 of 240 seats in parliament in the 17 June 2001 elections, and Simeon Saxe-Coburg became prime minister. He is the first monarch in any Eastern European country to win political office since communism collapsed in the early 1990s. Simeon Saxe-Coburg claimed his party's intent was not to restore the monarchy, but to move ahead with reforms. However, in November thousands of protesters took to the streets of Sofia, dissatisfied with Simeon II's lack of progress on improving the economy and living standards. The NDS established a coalition with the political party of the Turkish minority, the Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS), the first time that ethnic Turks would be representatives in Bulgaria. Turks make up about 10% of the population.
In presidential elections held on 11 and 18 November 2001, Georgi Parvanov of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and candidate for the Coalition for Bulgaria alliance beat incumbent Petar Stoyanov for the presidency, winning 54% of the vote in the second round to Stoyanov's 46% (in the first round, Parvanov took 36.4% of the vote to Stoyanov's 34.9%). Turnout in the first round was only 41%; in the second round it was 55%. Stoyanov declared he would retire from politics.
In November 2002, NATO officially invited Bulgaria to join the organization, one of 7 Eastern European nations to join in 2004. Also in 2002, the EU announced that Bulgaria was not ready to become a member in the next round of EU enlargement taking place in 2004; Bulgaria and Romania are expected to join in 2007.