Bulgaria - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Bulgaria, country in southeastern Europe. Bulgaria lies on the eastern side of the Balkan Peninsula, a historical crossroads between Europe and Asia. To the north of Bulgaria is Romania and to the east is the Black Sea. Greece and Turkey lie to the south, and Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) lie to the west. Sofia is Bulgaria’s capital and largest city.

Bulgaria covers an area approximately the size of the state of Virginia. It is a land of mountains, rivers, and rolling plains. The Balkan Mountains, for which the Balkan Peninsula is named, extend east to west across northern Bulgaria. Bulgarians call them the “Old Mountains” (Stara Planina). The great Danube River, Europe’s second longest, forms much of Bulgaria’s northern border.

Between Sofia in the west and the Black Sea is a low-lying region called the Valley of the Roses. For more than three centuries, farmers in the region have raised Kazanluk roses for their fragrant oil, a prized ingredient in perfumes and a Bulgarian export specialty. To the east, the dramatic Black Sea coast drops from rocky cliffs in the north to sandy beaches in the south, where tourist resorts attract visitors from around the world. Heavy snowfalls in the mountains create a paradise for winter sports.

Bulgaria’s location as a crossroads has made it the center of many struggles for power. An independent kingdom for many centuries, Bulgaria was a major power for long periods during the Middle Ages. At different times its rulers controlled much of the Balkan Peninsula, and its Orthodox Christian religion and culture influenced many Slavic peoples of southern and eastern Europe. Following almost 500 years of rule by the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878.

After World War II (1939-1945), a government backed by the Soviet Union, the occupying power, was established in Bulgaria. During the period of communist rule, Bulgaria’s leaders enforced an industrialization program in an effort to modernize the country’s largely agrarian economy (see Communism). Bulgaria remained a communist-ruled country until democratizing reforms began in 1989. In 1990 Bulgaria held its first postwar multiparty elections and changed its name from the People’s Republic of Bulgaria to the Republic of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s transition toward democracy and a free market economy has not been easy. The fall of communism and the loss of the Soviet market for Bulgarian goods led to a massive contraction of the economy. The standard of living plunged amid rising inflation and unemployment, rampant corruption, and the collapse of the social welfare system. Many Bulgarians emigrated. The Bulgarian government remained committed to reforms undertaken in the late 1990s, however, leading to greater political and economic stability. Indicating Bulgaria’s progress in this regard, the country joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 and became a member of the European Union (EU) in 2007.


The area of Bulgaria is 110,994 sq km (42,855 sq mi). The greatest distance from north to south is about 330 km (about 210 mi) and from east to west it is about 500 km (about 310 mi).

Natural Regions in Bulgaria

More than half of Bulgaria is hilly or mountainous, with an average elevation of about 480 m (about 1,600 ft). The Balkan Mountains cross the country from the northwestern corner to the Black Sea. More than 560 km (350 mi) long, the mountains vary in width from 19 to 48 km (12 to 30 mi) and rise to a maximum height of 2,376 m (7,795 ft) at Botev Peak. Sheep graze in the rich mountain pastures.

North of the Balkan Mountains is a fertile plateau cut by deep river valleys. The plateau extends to the Danube, which forms most of the country’s northern boundary. The plateau is part of the Danubian Plain, Bulgaria’s most fertile expanse of land and the nation’s chief grain-growing region. In northeastern Bulgaria, the plateau extends into an agricultural region known as Dobruja, which lies partly in Romania.

The central and southern sides of the Balkan Mountains are fringed by a series of narrow plains, notably the fertile Thracian Plain. In the southern part of the country are the broad and irregular Rhodope Mountains (Bulgarian Rodopi), which contain many lakes and deep river valleys and form the boundary with Greece. At the western end of these mountains, in southwestern Bulgaria, are the rugged Rila Mountains, which rise to a maximum elevation of 2,925 m (9,596 ft) at Musala, the highest peak in the Balkan Peninsula. Several smaller ranges lie along the western boundaries.

Rivers and Lakes in Bulgaria

The principal river draining Bulgaria is the Danube. Its primary tributaries in Bulgaria are the Iskŭr (about 370 km/about 230 mi long) and the Yantra (about 290 km/about 180 mi long). The Maritsa (about 480 km/about 300 mi long), which flows east to Greece and Turkey across the Thracian Plain, is the deepest river of the Aegean Sea basin. Other important rivers are the Kamchiya (about 180 km/about 112 mi long), which empties into the Black Sea, and in the southwest, the Struma and Mesta, which flow south to the Aegean Sea.

Plant and Animal Life in Bulgaria

Some 33 percent of Bulgaria is forested, and half this area supports tall trees suitable for timber production. About 70 percent of the forest consists of broadleaf deciduous trees; most of the rest are conifers. Most wildlife is confined to the mountainous southwestern portion of the country, which supports populations of bear, wolf, red deer, fox, and wildcat.

Natural Resources of Bulgaria

The rivers of Bulgaria, which originate mostly in the Balkan Mountains and flow either north to the Danube or south to the Maritsa, are used for waterpower and for irrigating crops. The nation’s waterpower resources are plentiful but significantly underutilized.

Bulgaria’s soils are moderately fertile and support a great variety of agriculture. On the Danubian Plain, black earth and gray forest soils predominate. The Thracian Plain has mainly brown soils, together with some black earth. Deforestation and inadequate soil-conservation practices have caused erosion in some fertile areas.

Bulgaria has a wealth of metallic and nonmetallic minerals. Among the most important are iron ore and coal. Other mineral reserves are small, but some deposits, particularly lead, zinc, copper, manganese and petroleum, are valuable.

Climate in Bulgaria

Most of Bulgaria has a continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers. The climate in general is more severe than in other European areas of the same latitudes, and the average annual temperature range is greater than that of neighboring countries. Severe droughts, frosts, winds, and hail storms frequently damage crops. A Mediterranean climate, with dry summers and mild, humid winters, prevails in the valley of the southwestern Rhodope Mountains; the northern limit of the climatic zone is the Balkan Mountains.

The average January temperature in Sofia ranges from -4° to 2°C (25° to 35°F) and the July temperature ranges from 16° to 27°C (60° to 81°F). In Varna, along the Black Sea, the average January temperature ranges from -1° to 6°C (30° to 42°F) and the July temperature ranges from 19° to 30°C (65° to 85°F). The average rainfall in Bulgaria is about 630 mm (about 25 in) per year, ranging from a low of about 190 mm (about 7 in) in the northeast, to a high of about 190 cm (about 75 in) in the Rila Mountains. The wettest period is early summer in most of the country and autumn or winter in the southern valleys.

Environmental Issues in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s industrial economy has seriously damaged the nation’s environmental health. Virtually all of the middle and lower reaches of the major rivers are polluted by industrial centers that discharge detergents, heavy metals, nitrates, oils, and raw sewage. Water treatment facilities for industrial and municipal wastes are inadequate or nonexistent. Two of the largest industrial cities, Varna and Burgas, are located on the Black Sea coast. Water pollution generated by these cities has threatened the area’s valuable tourism industry. Uncontrolled mining operations and environmentally insensitive practices also contribute to soil erosion and contamination. Air pollution, from automobiles and industrial emissions, is severe, leading to acid rain and the defoliation of a significant portion of Bulgaria’s forests.


The population of Bulgaria (2009 estimate) is 7,204,687. The 1985 census population was 8,948,649; the subsequent decrease was largely caused by emigration after the collapse of the former communist regime. Bulgaria has a population density of 65 persons per sq km (169 per sq mi). Due to the communist government’s forced industrialization program, Bulgaria’s population became increasingly urbanized after 1945. Even so, today 71 percent of the people live in urban areas, a relatively modest figure compared to most European countries.

The Bulgarians are the descendants of the early Slavic inhabitants of the Balkans and of a people of Asian Turkic origin who founded states between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains in the early Middle Ages. Today about 85 percent of the population is classified as ethnic Bulgarian and about 9 percent are Turkish. Small groups of Armenians, Roma (Gypsies), Greeks, and Macedonian Slavs also live in the country.

Principal Cities of Bulgaria

Sofia (Bulgarian Sofiya), in western Bulgaria, is the national capital of Bulgaria and by far the largest city. An ancient city world-famous for its historic architecture, Sofia is the country’s chief political, cultural, and commercial center. With a population of 1,076,000 (2003 estimate), about one-eighth of all Bulgarians call the city their home.

Plovdiv, with a population of 340,638 (2001), is Bulgaria’s second largest city. Plovdiv lies at the center of an agricultural region in southern Bulgaria and is a center for the food-processing industry. Varna, the third largest city with a population of 314,539 (2001), is the largest Bulgarian city on the Black Sea and the nation’s principal seaport. Other major cities include Ruse, Bulgaria’s chief river port on the Danube, and Burgas, a port on the Black Sea.

Language and Religion in Bulgaria

The country’s official language is Bulgarian, spoken by about 90 percent of the population. Bulgarian is a southern Slavic language (see Slavic Languages) that is related to Slovenian, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Russian. Bulgarian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which was first used for literary purposes in medieval Bulgaria. Turkish is the largest minority language (see Turkish Language). Prior to 1989 Bulgarians were required to study Russian. Today, Bulgarian students frequently study English as a second language.

By tradition, most of Bulgaria’s people belong to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, established in the 9th century AD (see Orthodox Church). Under communist rule after World War II, the government tightly restricted religious activities but supported the church as a national institution under its control. The collapse of the communist regime in 1990 led to a revival of Orthodox religious activities. Today, an estimated 72 percent of the population adheres to the teachings of the Orthodox Church.

Another 13 percent of Bulgarians, mainly people of Turkish ancestry, identify themselves as followers of Islam. From 1984 to 1989, the communist government attempted to force Muslims to assimilate to Bulgarian culture, in part by pressuring them to take Slavonic names. During this period of persecution, hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims fled to Turkey. Since the early 1990s, Muslims in Bulgaria have enjoyed greater religious freedom. Bulgaria is also home to small numbers of Jews (see Judaism), Roman Catholics, Uniate Catholics (see Eastern Rite Churches), and Protestants.

Education in Bulgaria

Education is free and compulsory for children from the ages of 7 through 14; 100 percent of primary school-aged children are enrolled in school. Students attend primary school for four years, basic (or middle) school for three years, and secondary school for three to five years depending on the course of study. Bulgaria’s literacy rate is 98 percent.

Bulgarian students who perform well may continue their educations at state universities after passing qualifying exams. About 30 percent of students continue their education past the secondary level. There are more than 20 institutions of higher learning in Bulgaria, offering degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. They include Sofia University (founded as a secondary school in 1888 and chartered as a university in 1909) and universities in Burgas, Plovdiv, Svishtov, Tarnovo, and Varna.

Food and Recreation in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s cuisine reflects its location as a geographic crossroads, combining elements from Slavic, Greek, and Turkish cooking traditions. The main ingredients in Bulgarian food are lamb, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, a white cheese similar to Greek feta, and yogurt. A famous Bulgarian yogurt called kiselo mlyako is believed to promote good health and longevity.

Bulgarians typically eat a small breakfast. For many, the main meal of the day is a lunch consisting of salad, soup or stew, and a meat dish. Common foods served for lunch include shopska salata (cucumber salad); tarator (yogurt and cucumber soup) or gyuvech (a stew of eggplant, beans, and meat baked in a pot); and agneski drebulijki (shish kebab), moussaka (a dish made with minced meat, potatoes, onions, and yogurt), or sarmi (grape or cabbage leaves stuffed with pork and rice). Baklava (a thin, flaky pastry with a syrup-and-nut filling) is a popular dessert. Bulgarians enjoy high-quality domestically produced wines, especially full-bodied red wines, and spirits such as cognac and vodka.

As in many other European countries, soccer is the most popular sport in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian soccer team is frequently a source of national pride and on numerous occasions has reached the finals of the World Cup—the premier international soccer tournament, held every four years. Bulgarian families often spend their vacations skiing or hiking at mountain resorts, or swimming and sunbathing on Bulgaria’s Black Sea beaches.

Social Problems in Bulgaria

Under communist rule, Bulgarians became accustomed to free health services and a wide range of other social welfare benefits. Bulgaria’s post-communist governments have lacked the financial resources to maintain these services at the same level. Furthermore, the transition to a market economy led to a significant increase in unemployment, which remains chronically high. Corruption and discrimination against the Roma minority remain important problems to be resolved. Residents of Bulgaria’s large cities are burdened by housing shortages and high rents.


The rich spiritual life of medieval Bulgaria (especially in the 10th and 11th centuries), was the center of Slavic culture. Over the centuries, Bulgarian culture has been influenced successively by Byzantine, Islamic, and Greek traditions. In recent times, Russian and Western influences have been added, forming the modern Bulgarian culture that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.

Cultural policies under communist rule, including strict censorship, enforced an official culture based on communist ideology. Socialist realism, a form of realistic art that glorified communist morality and values, was promoted as the most advanced artistic expression. The government suppressed freedom of speech, and public art and literature expressed loyalty to communist ideals. However, intellectual and moral dissent never entirely disappeared from literary and artistic life. Totalitarian controls over art and literature dissipated with the collapse of communism in 1990. Since that time, authentic forms of artistic expression have reemerged alongside the rapid spread of mass commercial entertainment.

Literature in Bulgaria

The earliest Bulgarian literature was written in medieval times in the vernacular of the Bulgarian people, called Old Bulgarian or Old Church Slavonic. It was a major literary language of Europe and was later introduced into Russia and Serbia. Most of these writings, produced between the 9th and 14th centuries, consisted of historical chronicles and translations of religious works.

Modern Bulgarian literature dates from the 18th century, and its development is closely connected with the growth of Bulgarian nationalism during the 19th century. Among the best-known Bulgarian writers are the poet Christo Botev, a hero of the struggle for independence from the Ottoman Turks (see Ottoman Empire), and the poet, novelist, and playwright Ivan Vazov, whose works describing the oppression of Ottoman rule earned him a wide following. Other important writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries are Stoyan Mikhaylovski and Yordan Yovkov. Modern writers include Viktor Paskov, Blaga Dimitrova, Jordan Radichkov, and Bulgarian-born writer Elias Canetti, who won the 1981 Nobel Prize for literature. See Bulgarian Literature. Dimitrova served as vice president of Bulgaria from 1992 to 1994.

Art and Architecture of Bulgaria

The 13th-century frescoes of the Boyana Church near Sofia are outstanding examples of the painting of that period. Bulgarian handicrafts include rich folk embroideries and ornaments. Some of the best sculpture, wood carvings, etchings, and paintings are based on traditional culture and native subjects. Outstanding 20th-century Bulgarian artists include the painter Vladimir Dimitrov and Christo, a Bulgarian-born avant-garde artist noted for his technique of wrapping buildings, monuments, and landscape features, who now lives in the United States.

The most celebrated architectural monuments of Bulgaria are medieval churches and monasteries. The oldest is the 4th-century Church of Saint George in Sofia. South of Sofia in the Rila Mountains is the Rila Monastery, founded in the 9th century. An important monument of the 11th century is Bachkovo Monastery, south of Plovdiv. A major modern structure is the large, ornate Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in Sofia in the early 20th century.

Music in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a country in which music has a long, rich history. Traditional Bulgarian music includes folk songs and choral chants in the Greek mode for church services. Bulgarian folk music is unusual, displaying complex harmonies and rhythms. The chief folk musical instruments are the gaida (bagpipe) and the kaval (wooden shepherd’s flute). Characteristic folk dances are variations of the hora, a round chain dance, and the ruchenitsa, a lively dance of two couples. Some modern Bulgarian orchestral and operatic compositions have gained international recognition. Among the country’s leading 20th-century composers are Petko Stainov and Pancho Vladigerov.

Libraries and Museums in Bulgaria

Large libraries in Sofia include the Central Library of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (founded in 1869), the library of the University of Sofia (1888), and the Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius National Library (1878). The Ivan Vazov National Library (1879) is located in Plovdiv. In addition, the people of Bulgaria are served by many smaller library clubs (chitalisshta), a unique Bulgarian form of cultural center that has its origins in the national revival period of the 19th century.

Bulgaria has more than 200 museums. In Sofia are botanical and zoological museums and gardens; the National Archaeological Museum (1892), with a collection of old coins and artifacts from many ancient burial mounds; and the National Ethnographical Museum (1906). Other museums in the country are devoted to history, science, and the struggles for national revival.


Until 1947 Bulgaria was predominantly agricultural and rural, with virtually no heavy industry. In communist Bulgaria following World War II (1939-1945), all industrial enterprises were nationalized and operated under a series of five-year economic plans, with financial aid from the Soviet Union. Heavy industry was the government’s highest priority, and many Bulgarians moved from the countryside to cities to work in newly built factories. Bulgarian agriculture was organized into large collective farms (Collectivism), although many farmers were allowed to raise their own livestock and till small plots.

Bulgaria’s transition from a socialist to a market economy, which began in 1990, proved challenging. In 1991 the government introduced banking reforms, austerity measures, and a program to privatize state-owned assets. But the loss of the Soviet market for Bulgarian-produced goods triggered a pronounced economic contraction, causing widespread food and fuel shortages, high unemployment, and a severe drop in the standard of living. These developments led to popular dissatisfaction with the economic reforms. Consequently, the government failed to press for further reforms that would lead to mass privatization. Although limited privatization had begun, the major industrial sectors remained under state control.

In 1994 Bulgarian voters—yearning for the economic stability of the communist era—elected the former communists into power, a development that further hindered reform. Rather than transferring inefficient state-owned enterprises to private ownership, the government sustained them or had state-controlled banks extend loans that were never repaid. The absence of structural reform yielded dangerous consequences by 1996, as the value of the national currency, the lev, plummeted, pushing the fragile banking system toward collapse. In late 1996 Bulgaria entered a deep economic crisis, with skyrocketing inflation and a rash of bankruptcies in the banking sector.

In 1997 a newly elected reform-minded government undertook measures to stabilize the economy and to fight the deep-seated corruption prevalent in many of the country’s large enterprises. Since that time, Bulgaria has pressed ahead with pro-market reforms, including the acceleration of privatization. Bulgaria’s commitment to reforms led the European Union (EU) to open membership talks with the country in 2000. Bulgaria became a member of the EU in early 2007. Despite these developments, unemployment remains chronically high, and the nation’s per-capita income ranks among the lowest in Europe.

Today, as in most developed countries, service industries, such as finance, transportation, and tourism, account for the bulk of Bulgaria’s gross domestic product (GDP). However, Bulgaria remains highly dependent on manufacturing and agriculture, which together occupy about half the total workforce. Important manufacturing activities include chemical, metallurgical, machine-construction, and food processing industries. Bulgaria produces and exports many agricultural products, including vegetables, tobacco, and rose oil. Bulgaria’s wines are world-famous. In 2007, Bulgaria’s GDP was $39.5 billion.

Agriculture of Bulgaria

Emphasis on agriculture, once the largest sector of Bulgaria’s economy, declined significantly after World War II (1939-1945). However, Bulgaria remains a surplus food producer, and farming still occupies a major role in Bulgaria’s economic life. In 2007 agriculture contributed 6.2 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employed about one-quarter of the nation’s total workforce.

Climate and soil conditions support raising livestock and the growing of cereals (especially wheat), sunflower seeds, and tomatoes, grapes, and other fruits. Tobacco is one of the most valuable crops, contributing approximately 20 percent to the total value of agricultural goods. The most important livestock raised include fowl, sheep, and hogs.

Collectivization of agriculture began under communist rule in the early 1950s, and by the late 1980s most farmland was part of the country’s collective farm system. In 1990 private farming was legalized, and from 1992 to 1999 more than 96 percent of collectivized farmland had been returned to its former owners and their heirs.

Mining in Bulgaria

Coal furnishes the bulk of Bulgaria’s mineral production. Coal-powered energy plants produce more than 40 percent of electricity produced in Bulgaria. Annual coal production (27.2 million metric tons in 2003) has expanded to meet domestic demand. Petroleum was discovered in 1951 on the Black Sea coast; Bulgaria produced 365,300 barrels of crude oil in 2004. Production of iron ore was 120,000 metric tons. Copper, gold, zinc, lead, and natural gas are also commercially exploited.

Manufacturing in Bulgaria

As a result of privatization reforms begun in the 1990s, many formerly state-owned industrial enterprises are now privately owned. The metalworking and chemical industries, as well as the food-processing, tobacco-processing, and machinery-manufacturing enterprises, are among the newer, more productive sectors. During the 1990s, Bulgaria gained an international reputation for producing high-quality, affordable wines, especially red wines such as gamza, mavrud, melnik, and pamid. Smelting and metalworking industries are largely dependent on imports of raw materials. The ores mined domestically, however, are refined and fabricated into manufactured goods in Bulgaria. Machine building and engineering are being expanded, especially for light electrical equipment.

Textiles are the oldest manufactured products of Bulgaria and, except for cotton goods, largely use domestic raw materials. The manufacture of building materials, including cement, brick, and glass, is well developed, as is the production of leather goods and footwear. Perhaps the most famous—and among the oldest—products of Bulgaria is attar of roses (fragrant rose oil), which is used as a perfume base (see Perfumery).

Energy in Bulgaria

Bulgaria derives about half of its energy from nuclear power plants, with most of the rest coming from thermal plants burning low-grade coal and waterpower facilities. Bulgaria’s Kozloduy nuclear power plant produces enough energy to permit the country to earn millions of dollars from electricity exports. However, under pressure from the European Union (EU), which expressed concerns about the safety of four of the six reactors at the plant, Bulgaria closed two of the oldest reactors in late 2002, and two additional reactors at the end of 2006. Meanwhile, to meet future energy needs, Bulgaria announced plans to open two new reactors at Belene in the Danube River valley and a new coal-fired plant at Maritsa East thermal power complex in central Bulgaria. Bulgaria produced 43.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2006.

Currency and Banking of Bulgaria

The unit of currency in Bulgaria is the lev (1 leva equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The National Bank of Bulgaria is the bank of issue.

Transportation in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is largely dependent for transport on railroads, with 4,027 km (2,502 mi) of track in use. The country is also served by about 44,033 km (about 27,361 mi) of roads. A major event in the development of transportation in Bulgaria was the opening of the Ruse-Giurgiu rail-and-road bridge over the Danube River in 1954; it is the chief bridge of its type connecting Bulgaria and Romania. Extensive bus services operate in areas not served by railroads.

The Danube River is a major artery of commerce. Of the dozen Danube ports, Ruse, Svishtov, Lom, and Vidin have the greatest importance. Much of the Bulgarian freight and passenger traffic with the countries of the former Soviet bloc uses the Danube and the Black Sea.

Balkan Bulgarian Airlines served as the national airline from 1946 to 2002. At its height, it was one of Europe’s largest air carriers. It was replaced by Bulgaria Air, which serves the major cities of the country as well as many international destinations. Smaller airlines also operate in Bulgaria.


From 1946 to 1990, Bulgaria had a communist form of government with only one legal political party, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). Early in 1990, however, the Bulgarian constitution was amended to allow a multiparty system, and in July 1991 a new constitution was approved, establishing Bulgaria as a parliamentary democracy. All Bulgarian citizens age 18 and older may vote in local and national elections.

Executive of Bulgaria

The president serves as the head of state and is directly elected by the voters to no more than two five-year terms. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces and represents Bulgaria abroad. The president may also send legislation back to the legislature for further debate, although the legislature may pass the returned legislation into law with a simple majority vote.

The head of government is the prime minister, who is nominated by the president from the largest parliamentary party or coalition of parties and is approved by parliament. The prime minister presides over the Council of Ministers (or cabinet), the highest executive and administrative body of the Bulgarian government.

Legislature of Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s legislature, the National Assembly (Narodno Sabranie), is a unicameral (one-chamber) parliament composed of 240 members. Members are directly elected to four-year terms. The assembly is responsible for passing laws, approving the national budget, declaring war, and ratifying international treaties. The assembly may, through a vote of no-confidence, dismiss the prime minister and other ministers of government.

Judiciary in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s constitution of 1991 provides for an independent judiciary and for the establishment of a Constitutional Court, which interprets the constitution and rules on the constitutionality of laws and treaties. The Supreme Court sits in Sofia and oversees the application of laws by lower courts. Other tribunals in Bulgaria include provincial courts, regional courts, and military courts.

Local Government of Bulgaria

For purposes of local administration, Bulgaria is divided into 28 regions, each headed by a regional governor who is appointed by the Council of Ministers. The governor is assisted by an appointed deputy governor and regional administration. The duties of the governor and the regional administration are to implement the policies of the national government on the local level, safeguard the national interests, enforce the law and maintain public order, and exercise administrative control.

For purposes of local self-government, Bulgaria is divided into more than 250 municipalities. Each municipality is governed by a mayor and a municipal council. The municipal council is elected directly by the populace for a term of four years. The mayor is elected by the municipal council for a term of four years. The municipal councils adopt their own budgets and development plans and deal with matters such as environmental preservation, public health, education, and cultural activities.

Political Parties of Bulgaria

With the end of communist rule in 1990, Bulgaria became a multiparty state. Under the 1991 constitution, political parties or coalitions must gain at least 4 percent of the vote to enter the National Assembly.

During the 1990s, three principal political parties dominated Bulgarian politics: the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), composed of former Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) members; the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), a center-right coalition of anti-Communist parties; and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, an ethnic Turkish party. In 2001 a new organization led by Bulgaria’s former king, Simeon II, the National Movement for Simeon II, emerged as an important party. More than 60 other parties function in Bulgaria.

Social Services in Bulgaria

Matters of healthcare in Bulgaria are under the overall control of the ministry of public health. Health services are free in government-run hospitals, although patients must pay for some kinds of medications. Private medical services were authorized in 1989. However, social security, which provides pensions to seniors, has faced severe budgetary restraints as a result of economic difficulties.

Defense of Bulgaria

Military service is compulsory for nine months for all males beginning at age 19. Men enrolled in institutions of higher education may defer fulfillment of their military obligation until they complete their education. The army had about 25,000 personnel in 2006. Air force personnel numbered about 13,100. Military equipment in the late 1990s included 1,475 tanks and 217 combat aircraft. The navy had a force of about 4,370 and maintained three major bases on the Black Sea.

The Bulgarian military has undergone an aggressive restructuring effort to bring its equipment and forces up to the standards of other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a defensive alliance it joined in March 2004. In recent years, Bulgaria has played an important role in helping to resolve interethnic conflicts in the Balkan Peninsula, deploying small numbers of troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serbian province of Kosovo. It sent a contingent of troops to Afghanistan as part of the war against international terrorism after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001. Bulgaria also sent forces to Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003 (U.S.-Iraq War).

International Organizations in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a member of the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Group, the Council of Europe, and several other major international associations. Bulgaria became a member of the European Union (EU) at the beginning of 2007.


The region that is now Bulgaria was at one time included in the Roman Empire as part of the provinces of Thrace and Moesia. Slavic and Turkic tribes settled in the area between about the 4th and 6th centuries AD. One branch of people known as Bulgars, who had established a large state near the Volga River on the east side of the Black Sea, invaded the Balkan Peninsula in the 7th century. They set up a state between the Danube River and the Balkan Mountains, an area that was then claimed by the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine armies failed repeatedly to dislodge the invaders during the 8th and early 9th centuries. By the end of the 9th century the Bulgarians had annexed considerable additional territory and laid the foundations for a strong state under Khan Krum, who reigned from 803 to 814. The Krum armies inflicted a devastating defeat on an invading Byzantine force in 811 and, assuming the offensive, nearly succeeded in 813 in taking Constantinople (present-day İstanbul, Turkey), the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Bulgarian-Byzantine relations were thereafter relatively peaceful and continued to be so during the first half of the 9th century. The immediate successors of Krum enlarged their dominions, mainly in the region of Serbia and Macedonia. In 860, however, during the reign of Boris I, Bulgaria suffered a severe military setback at the hands of the Serbs. Four years later Boris, responding to pressure from the Byzantine emperor Michael III, made Christianity the official religion. Boris accepted the primacy of the papacy in 866, but in 870, following the refusal of Pope Adrian II to make Bulgaria an archbishopric, he shifted his allegiance to the Eastern Orthodox Church (see Orthodox Church).

The First Bulgarian Empire

In the late 9th and early 10th centuries, Bulgaria became the strongest nation of Eastern Europe during the reign of Boris’s son Simeon. A brilliant administrator and military leader, Simeon introduced Byzantine (Greek) culture into his realm, encouraged education, obtained new territories, defeated the Magyars (Hungarians), and conducted a series of successful wars against the Byzantine Empire. In 925 Simeon proclaimed himself tsar (emperor) of the Greeks and Bulgars. He conquered Serbia in 926 and became the most powerful monarch in contemporary Eastern Europe. Simeon’s reign was marked by great cultural advances led by the followers of the brothers Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius. During this period Old Church Slavonic, the first written Slavic language (see Slavic Languages), and the Cyrillic alphabet were adopted.

Weakened by domestic strife and successive Magyar raids, Bulgarian power declined steadily during the following half-century. In 969 invading forces from Russia seized the capital and captured the royal family. The Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces, alarmed over the Russian advance into southeastern Europe, intervened in 970 in the Russo-Bulgarian conflict. The Russians were compelled to withdraw from Bulgaria in 972, and the eastern part of the country was annexed to the Byzantine Empire. Samuel, the son of a Bulgarian provincial governor, became ruler of western Bulgaria in 976. Samuel’s armies were annihilated in 1014 by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who incorporated the short-lived state into his empire in 1018.

The Second Empire and Ottoman Rule

Led by the noble brothers Asen and Peter, the Bulgarians revolted against Byzantine rule in 1185 and established a second empire. It consisted initially of the region between the Balkan Mountains and the Danube; by the early 13th century it included extensive neighboring territories, notably sections of Serbia and all of western Macedonia. Ivan Asen II, the fifth ruler of the Asen dynasty, added western Thrace, the remainder of Macedonia, and part of Albania to the empire in 1230.

Feudal strife and involvement in foreign wars caused gradual disintegration of the empire after the death of Ivan Asen II. The Bulgarian armies were decisively defeated by the Serbs in 1330, and for the next quarter century the second empire was little more than a dependency of Serbia. Shortly after 1360, armies of the Ottoman Empire began to ravage the Maritsa Valley and by 1396 they controlled all of Bulgaria. During the next five centuries the political and cultural existence of Bulgaria was almost obliterated. After a century of terrorism and persecution, Ottoman administration improved, and the economic condition of the remaining Bulgarians rose to a level higher than it had been under the kingdom, although unsuccessful revolts against Ottoman rule occurred from time to time.

With the revival of a Bulgarian literature glorifying the history of the country, in the latter half of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century, Bulgarian nationalism became a powerful movement. In 1876 the Bulgarians revolted against the Ottomans, but were quelled; in reprisal, the Ottomans massacred an estimated 30,000 Bulgarian men, women, and children. In 1877, prompted by the desire to expand toward the Mediterranean Sea and by Pan-Slavic sentiment, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire and defeated it in 1878. As a result of the war, a part of Bulgaria became an autonomous principality; another part, Eastern Rumelia (see Rumelia), was made an autonomous Ottoman province.

Modern Bulgaria

Elected by a Bulgarian assembly in 1879, the first prince of the new Bulgaria was a German, Alexander of Battenberg, also a prince and a nephew of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. Eastern Rumelia revolted against the Ottoman Empire in 1885 and was united with Bulgaria. Russia, whose relationship with Prince Alexander had deteriorated, refused to recognize the union. The Russian emperor demanded the abdication of the prince and withdrew all officers who had been detailed to train the Bulgarian army. Serbia then declared war on Bulgaria but was quickly defeated. In 1886 a group of Russian and Bulgarian conspirators abducted Prince Alexander and established a Russian-dominated government. Within a few days the government was overthrown by the Bulgarian statesman Stepan Stambolov, but the Russians compelled Prince Alexander to abdicate. The new ruler, chosen in 1887, was Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Taking advantage of a revolution in the Ottoman Empire, in 1908 Ferdinand declared Bulgaria independent and assumed the title of King, or Tsar, Ferdinand I; he reigned from 1908 to 1918.

The Balkan Wars and World War I

In the First Balkan War (1912-1913), Bulgaria, allied with Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece, defeated the Ottoman Empire. Division of the reconquered Balkan territories, however, resulted in the Second Balkan War in 1913, which Bulgaria lost to Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, the Ottoman Empire, and Romania; as a consequence, Bulgaria lost considerable territory. Bulgaria entered World War I in 1915 on the side of the Central Powers, but was forced to agree on an armistice with the Allies (see Allied Powers) in September 1918. King Ferdinand abdicated in October and was succeeded by his son, Boris III. By the Treaty of Neuilly on November 27, 1919, Bulgaria lost most of what it had gained in the Balkan Wars and all of its conquests from World War I. It was also required to abandon conscription, reduce armaments, and pay large reparations.

The Interwar Period and World War II

The Agrarian Party government under Aleksandr Stambolisky, who became premier in 1919, attempted to improve the condition of the large peasant class and maintain friendly relations with the other Balkan countries. Stambolisky’s dictatorial regime, unpopular with the army and the urban middle class, was overthrown by a coup d’état in 1923; he was captured and killed while seeking to escape. Internal dissension continued under the new government, which represented all political parties except the Agrarians, Communists, and Liberals. Bulgaria and Greece again came into conflict in 1925, and the Greek army invaded Bulgaria. The Council of the League of Nations brought the conflict to an end and penalized Greece.

In 1934 King Boris III staged a coup of his own and established a royal dictatorship. In September 1940 Germany compelled Romania to cede southern Dobruja to Bulgaria. In March 1941, under German pressure, Bulgaria joined the Axis powers, agreeing to immediate occupation by German forces. Bulgaria declared war on Greece and Yugoslavia in April, shortly afterward occupying all of Yugoslav Macedonia, Grecian Thrace, eastern Greek Macedonia, and the Greek districts of Florina and Kastoría. Bulgaria signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in November and the following month declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom. Although allied with Nazi Germany (see National Socialism), King Boris and his government resisted German demands for the persecution of Bulgarian Jews, most of whom survived the Holocaust, the mass killing of European Jews by the Nazis.

When the tide of war turned against the Germans in 1943, German dictator Adolf Hitler attempted to force Bulgaria to declare war on the Soviet Union. In August 1943, after returning from a meeting with Hitler, King Boris died under mysterious circumstances and was succeeded by his six-year-old son, Simeon II, and a pro-German government under Dobri Bozhilov. An anti-German resistance movement organized by the Communists and the Agrarians opposed the Bozhilov regime, which fell in May 1944. The succeeding government severed its ties with Germany, but it was too late. The Soviet Union formally declared war on Bulgaria on September 5. No fighting occurred, and the Bulgarian government subsequently asked the Soviet Union for an armistice, or truce. Bulgaria, moreover, declared war on Germany on September 7. The armistice was agreed to by the Soviet Union on September 9, and under the protection of Soviet forces a government subservient to the Soviets was immediately established.

The armistice, signed by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain in October 1944, provided for the control of Bulgaria, until the signing of final peace treaties, by the Allied Control Commission under the chairmanship of the Soviet representative, who was also the commander of the Soviet occupation forces. The armistice provided also that the Bulgarians evacuate Yugoslav Macedonia and territories they had taken from Greece.

Soviet pressure in the Bulgarian election engaged the attention of Britain and the United States in the fall of 1945. National elections originally scheduled for August were postponed because of U.S. protests concerning the nature of Soviet political maneuvers within Bulgaria. The opposition parties boycotted the elections held on November 18, and a single list of candidates of the communist-dominated Fatherland Front won 85 percent of the vote.

The Communist Regime

By a plebiscite in September 1946, the Bulgarians ousted King Simeon and ended the monarchy; a week later Bulgaria was proclaimed a people’s republic. The constitution drawn up by the Fatherland Front, which won an overwhelming victory in the elections to the National Assembly, held in October, provided for freedom of the press, assembly, and speech. The National Assembly, which gained full control of state affairs, then elected the premier and also the president. The first president was Vasil Kolarov, a Communist Party leader. Georgi Dimitrov, a former key figure in the Communist International, was elected premier in November 1946.

In February 1947 the peace treaty formally ending Bulgarian participation in World War II was signed in Paris. It provided for reparations to be paid to Greece in the amount of $45 million and to Yugoslavia in the amount of $25 million; severe limitation of military strength, with partial demilitarization along the Greek frontier; and the retention of southern Dobruja. (The borders with Greece were returned to their status as of 1941.) In December 1947 the National Assembly adopted a new constitution modeled on that of the Soviet Union; this document replaced the presidency with the presidium, an executive committee. That September, Nikola Dimitrov Petkov, leader of the opposition to the Fatherland Front, had been executed after being convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Under pressure from the Soviets, Bulgaria renounced its treaty of friendship with Yugoslavia after the Soviet-Yugoslavian rift in 1948; relations with the country and its successor states have since continued to fluctuate, as have those with neighboring Greece and Turkey. Diplomatic ties with the United States, broken in 1950 but restored in 1959, were frequently marred by Bulgarian accusations of U.S. espionage activities. The U.S. ministry was raised to the status of an embassy in 1966.

During most of the communist period, under the leadership of Todor Zhivkov—secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) from 1954, the country’s premier from 1964 to 1971, and head of state from 1971 to late 1989—Bulgaria was one of the most restrictive societies among the former Soviet satellites. As a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and the Warsaw Pact, Bulgaria long remained among the Soviet Union’s most dependable allies. During the 1970s the country received substantial financial aid from the Soviet Union, which was used for industrialization.

During the mid-1980s the Zhivkov government launched a campaign to assimilate members of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority by forcing them to take Slavic names, prohibiting them from speaking Turkish in public, and subjecting them to other forms of harassment; during 1989 alone, more than 300,000 Bulgarian Turks crossed the border into Turkey to escape persecution.

The End of Communist Rule

Late in 1989, Zhivkov was ousted from power and expelled from the Bulgarian Communist Party; replacing him as general secretary was the foreign minister, Petur T. Mladenov. Under Mladenov’s leadership, Bulgaria restored the civil rights of Bulgarian Turks and began to institute a multiparty system. In June 1990 the communists, running as the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), won the nation’s first free parliamentary elections since World War II. Mladenov, who had become president in April, resigned in July over a scandal regarding the use of force in the suppression of student demonstrations. The parliament replaced him with Zhelyu Zhelev of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF).

The subsequent collapse of the Bulgarian economy led to the resignation in November 1990 of Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov of the BSP. Despite being replaced by an independent candidate, Dimiter Popov, new elections were scheduled. The UDF won the elections of 1991 by a narrow margin. Filip Dimitrov, head of the UDF, became the prime minister. Under a new constitution providing for direct presidential voting, Zhelyu Zhelev won reelection in January 1992.

Economic and Political Instability

Following the 1991 elections, the government slowly began initiating economic reforms. Among the reforms were laws allowing foreign investment, privatization of state-owned companies, and the return of lands seized by the communists to their original owners. However, public dissatisfaction with the social effects of the reforms led to the overthrow of Dimitrov’s government in October 1992.

The following two years were characterized by volatile and ineffective political alliances with parliament unable to enact key legislation. When the BSP and the UDF refused to form a new government, President Zhelev of the UDF dissolved parliament in October 1994. He then appointed a caretaker government until parliamentary elections were held in December. The BSP won a clear majority, capturing 125 of the 240 seats. Zhan Videnov, the 35-year-old chairman of the BSP, was appointed prime minister.

In 1996 Zhelev lost his party’s nomination to Petar Stoyanov for the November presidential elections. Stoyanov won 60 percent of the vote in the elections, defeating Ivan Mazarov, the BSP candidate. Faced with Mazarov’s defeat, a collapsing economy, and an intraparty rebellion against his leadership, Videnov resigned his posts as prime minister and chairman of the BSP in December. The BSP parliamentary majority then appointed the interior minister, Nikolay Dobrev, as their choice for prime minister. The UDF objected vigorously to continuing the BSP mandate and demanded an early parliamentary election, but the BSP refused, insisting that its mandate from 1994 be continued. Meanwhile, the national economy collapsed; the lev, the Bulgarian currency plunged in value and inflation soared, leaving the country in a state of near-bankruptcy. In January 1997 tens of thousands of Bulgarians began to hold daily protests, calling for early elections and an end to the country’s economic crisis.

On January 10, 1997, the UDF and other opposition parties—angered that the BSP refused to consider the UDF’s motion for new elections—walked out of a National Assembly session and began a boycott of parliament. Protesters immediately stormed the parliament building, trapping more than 100 BSP deputies inside until police broke through and enabled the deputies to escape. The next day, President Zhelev announced he would not give the BSP’s newly appointed prime minister the mandate, as required by the constitution, to form a new government. In the face of this political standoff, president-elect Stoyanov took office on January 22. After the mass protests and strikes succeeded in paralyzing the economy, the BSP conceded to the opposition’s demands on February 4, and Stoyanov appointed a caretaker government led by Sofia mayor Stefan Sofianski. The economy began to recover somewhat in March, in part because the interim government was able to attract support from international lenders and donor governments.

In the April 1997 parliamentary elections, the United Democratic Forces (ODC)—an electoral alliance of the UDF and several smaller parties—swept into power, winning 137 parliamentary seats. The leader of the alliance, Ivan Kostov of the UDF, was unanimously chosen to be prime minister. He immediately established a currency-board system to stabilize Bulgaria’s currency, the lev, a measure required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for aid. Kostov promised to battle organized crime and corruption and institute rigorous economic reforms. Bulgaria used IMF funds to help carry out financial, tax, and trade reforms, and to modernize agriculture and other economic sectors. In 2000 the European Union (EU) opened membership talks with Bulgaria.

Recent Events

In April 2001 Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Bulgaria’s former king Simeon II, reentered Bulgarian politics by creating a political organization that promised to improve living standards and combat political corruption—a chronic problem since the collapse of communism. Exiled in 1946, Saxe-Coburg had spent much of his life as a businessman in Madrid, Spain. Saxe-Coburg’s organization, the National Movement for Simeon II, emerged as the largest party in the June 2001 parliamentary elections. His party formed a coalition government with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, an ethnic Turkish party, and he became Bulgaria’s prime minister in July. In the November 2001 elections for the largely ceremonial position of president, BSP leader Georgi Parvanov edged out incumbent candidate Peter Stoyanov. Parvanov was reelected in a runoff in October 2006.

Saxe-Coburg’s government won praise from Western governments for pressing ahead with market reforms to meet targets set by the EU. The accession treaty to join the EU was formally signed in April 2005 during Saxe-Coburg’s administration, but in the June parliamentary elections, he went down to defeat to a coalition anchored by the Socialist Party and led by its leader, Sergei Stanishev, who became prime minister. Bulgaria officially became a member of the EU at the beginning of 2007, along with its northern neighbor, Romania. The two countries ranked as the poorest in the EU, with per-capita income in each only about a third of that in other member nations. Their inclusion in the EU brought the organization’s membership to 27 countries and expanded its borders to the Black Sea.

In the 2009 parliamentary elections Bulgaria’s Socialist-led coalition government fell out of favor to the conservative Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, led by the mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borisov. Borisov’s party won about 40 percent of the vote, compared with about 18 percent for the Socialist-led coalition, which was blamed for government corruption. Borisov was expected to be named prime minister.

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