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Bulgaria

History

The land that gave birth to the legendary Orpheus and Spartacus, Bulgaria is a country with a long, tumultuous and fascinating history. It has been invaded, conquered and settled by Greeks, Scythians, Romans, Byzantines and Turks, all of whom left their indelible marks on the landscape. Bulgaria’s medieval ‘Golden Age’, when the Bulgar Khans ruled over one of the largest empires in Europe, was bright but brief, while 500 years of subsequent, brutal Turkish domination isolated the country from the rest of Europe. More recently, Bulgaria spent four decades as a totalitarian Soviet satellite, again leaving this small Balkan nation in the shadows as far as the Western world was concerned. It’s no wonder, then, that Bulgarians are so passionate about preserving their history and their culture, which has survived so often against the odds. In the last years of the 20th century Bulgaria began opening up, and is one of the newest members of the EU.

Beginnings

Excavations of caves near Pleven (in the Danubian plains in northern Bulgaria) and in the Balkan Mountains have indicated human habitation as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic Period around 40, 000 BC. However, archaeologists now believe that the earliest permanent settlers, arriving around 6000 BC, were Neolithic people who lived in caves, such as at Yagodina in the southern Rodopi Mountains and later, between about 5500 BC and 4500 BC, in round mud huts. The best preserved examples are on show in Stara Zagora. Burnt grain found here indicates these people were farmers. Chalcolithic (copper-using) cultures developed during the fourth millennium BC, and a superb collection of artefacts from this period, including possibly the earliest worked gold jewellery ever discovered, is on show at Varna Archaeological Museum.

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Tribal times

The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the population of Thrace was ‘greater than that of any country in the world except India’, and that if the various tribes ever united under a single leader, then they would be the most powerful nation on earth; history, of course, tells us that they never did get their act together. Several tribes, who collectively came to be known as the Thracians, settled in modern-day Bulgaria, and in the early stages built settlements based around cave systems and near springs, which they considered sacred. As time went by, they built larger, more permanent villages around rudimentary fortresses, placed on elevated sites for defence.

Among the more powerful tribes were the Serdi, who settled around modern Sofia; the Getae, who lived along the Danube in northeastern Bulgaria; and the Odrysai, from the eastern Rodopi region. Despite their constant quarrels, the Thracian tribes shared much in common, and were feared and respected by outsiders as great warriors and horsemen: the fierce Thracian weaponry displayed at archaeological museums around the country will give you an inkling of what potential invaders were up against. The Greek historian Polybius wrote in the 2nd century BC of the ‘insoluble state of war’ between the Thracians and the Greeks of the city-state of Byzantium. It was impossible, he says, to gain a decisive victory over these ‘barbarians’, or to end the fighting, due to their sheer numbers: ‘If the Byzantines overcome one chieftain, three others still more formidable invade his territory’.

They worshipped many gods, but were particularly devoted to Dionysus, whom they celebrated in orgiastic rites, and believed in an afterlife. Greek chroniclers regarded the Thracians’ customs with disdain, though were not averse to reporting the racier aspects of their lives. We are told that they practised polygamy and that their young women were encouraged to be sexually promiscuous before marriage, while the historian Strabo comments on one tribe’s use of inhaled intoxicants (probably burning hemp seeds). Tales of their lurid tattoos also wrinkled many an Athenian nose.

Far from being the bloodthirsty savages portrayed by classical authors, though, the Thracians were accomplished artists and farmers, and grew wealthy from trading jewellery, copper and gold. Recent archaeological excavations around Shipka in central Bulgaria have unearthed some astounding works of art, including the gold mask and bronze head of a Thracian king, now on show at Sofia’s Archaeological Museum.

The Thracians significantly influenced the religion, architecture and culture of the subsequent Roman and Greek rulers. Some geographical names used today, such as ‘rila’ (for Rila Monastery) and ‘yantra’ (the name of the river through Veliko Târnovo) probably originate from Thracian words.

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Thracian reminders

Remains of Thracian settlements can be found along the Black Sea coast near Burgas and at the town of Mesembria (Nesebâr), while other remnants can be found on Nebet Tepe in Plovdiv, where the Thracians built the fortress of Eumolpias in about 5000 BC. Other Thracian settlements grew into the modern-day towns of Stara Zagora, Sandanski, Melnik, Bansko, Smolyan, Shumen and Madara.

By the first millennium BC the Thracians had spread as far north as Cherven, near the Danube, and as far west as Sofia. One tribe known as the Serdi created Sardonopolis, which was later renamed Serdica, and subsequently became Sofia, today’s capital city.

The most famous Thracian remains are the tombs dating from about 4000 BC, which are displayed in the excellent Archaeological Museum in Varna and the tomb at Kazanlâk built in the 4th century BC. Close by, the area around Shipka has been termed the Valley of the Thracian Kings due to its high concentration of Thracian burial mounds. Other Thracian artefacts can be seen in museums in Haskovo, Smolyan, Sofia and Sliven.

Legend tells that Orpheus, the semimythical musician and underworld explorer, was born in Thrace, near the modern-day village of Gela, while Spartacus, his famous fellow Thracian who led a slave revolt against the Romans in Sicily, came from the vicinity of modern Sandanski.

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Arrival of the greeks…

From the 7th century BC onwards, enterprising Greeks sailed up the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria seeking out good harbours and trade opportunities, and founded settlements including Apollonia Pontica (modern-day Sozopol), Odessos (Varna), Mesembria (Nesebâr), Krounoi (Balchik) and Pirgos (Burgas). They established large ports for exporting wheat, fish and salt, and traded Greek pottery for Thracian metalwork and jewellery.

The Greeks avoided most of southern and central Bulgaria because the belligerent Thracians had settled there in large numbers; estimates suggest that during the first millennium BC the Thracians outnumbered the Greeks by four to one between the Danube and the Aegean.

Only a few towns away from the Black Sea show any evidence of Greek settlement. These include Pataulia (Kyustendil), southwest of Sofia, and Silistra on the Danube in northern Bulgaria.

However, the Greeks did have a profound influence on religion, arts and culture throughout the Balkans for over 900 years. The Greek language was used extensively by non-Greeks for business, administration and education. The Bulgarian language still has many words of Greek origin, and the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was based in Athens for centuries. Towns such as Sozopol, Melnik and Sandanski still had large Greek populations at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the middle of the 4th century BC, the Macedonians, under the leadership of Philip II, and later his son, Alexander the Great, conquered all of Thrace. Philip made his capital at Philipopolis (Plovdiv), which developed into an important military outpost, while Odessos (Varna) and modern-day Sofia were also occupied. Macedonian rule was to be brief, though, and they soon had the might of Rome to contend with.

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…and the romans

The Romans defeated the Macedonian Empire in 168 BC, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 1st century AD that they began making inroads into the territory of the Thracians, occupying major Greek ports such as Mesembria (Nesebâr). They set up a base at Odessos (Varna), where the largest Roman ruins in Bulgaria, the great Roman Thermae complex, can still be seen.

By AD 46 the Romans had conquered the entire Balkan Peninsula, and the territory of modern-day Bulgaria was initially divided into the provinces of Thrace, in the south, and Moesia, in the north. To shore up vital defensive lines, the Romans built numerous military strongholds and fortified major Thracian and Greek towns along the Danube at Ruse and Bononia (Vidin), and at Debeltus (Burgas) along the Black Sea coast. Although they burned and looted the major Greek settlement of Apollonia, the Romans rebuilt it to become a vital port within the Roman Empire.

The Romans established Ulpia Serdica (Sofia) as the capital of their province of Inner Dacia (northwestern Bulgaria); the most visible reminder of their presence that still stands is the Sveti Georgi Rotunda, or Church of St George. Other towns founded by the Romans, or built on existing settlements of the Thracians, Greeks and Macedonians, include Sevtopolis (Kazanlâk), Ulpia Augusta Trayana (Stara Zagora), Nikopolis-ad-Istrum (situated north of Veliko Târnovo) and Trimontium (Plovdiv), where a magnificent amphitheatre was built that’s still used for performances today. By the late 3rd century AD, Ulpia Serdica had become a major regional imperial capital, where Diocletian and subsequent emperors held court.

Remnants of Roman settlements can be admired in many places, even as far west as Belogradchik. In central Bulgaria, the Romans were the first to build a real fortress on top of Tsarevets Hill in Veliko Târnovo. They built extensive walls, which partially still stand, at Hisarya (Hisar) to protect valuable fresh water sources.

Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Huns and a distressing array of other ‘barbarian’ tribes began descending on the Roman provinces of Bulgaria from the 3rd century AD onwards, causing much havoc, although such raids were sporadic and short-lived.

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Byzantines & bulgars

In 330 the city of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great on the site of ancient Byzantium, and was declared the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The division of the empire meant that the Bulgarian provinces were now ruled from that city. By the late 4th century, the Western Roman Empire fell apart, but the East continued for another thousand years, as the Byzantine Empire. The 6th-century rule of Emperor Justinian the Great was a relatively peaceful time for Bulgaria – Sofia’s original Church of Sveta Sofia was built at this time – but the following centuries saw growing numbers of Slavs, Avars and Bulgars breaching the empire’s borders.

In 632 the numerous Bulgar tribes, whose territories stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, were united under the overlordship of Khan Kubrat, and by the middle of the 7th century they had moved into the land of modern-day Bulgaria. The Byzantines, unable to cope with the vast influx, allowed them to stay. This fierce Turkic tribe settled throughout the region, subjugating and integrating with the Slavs and the remaining Thracians.

Khan (Tsar) Asparuh (r 681–700) was responsible for establishing what became known as the First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018), creating a capital at Pliska, near modern-day Shumen. The empire expanded south and west under Khan Tervel (r 701–718) and was revered for repelling an Arab advance on Constantinople.

Conflict between Byzantium and the Bulgars continued over the centuries, with Khan Krum ‘The Dreadful’ (r 803–814) besieging Constantinople after the Byzantines burnt down Pliska.

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Golden times

The 9th century was Bulgaria’s apogee in many ways, with several tsars expanding the kingdom’s territory: Khan Omurtag (r 814–831) captured Hungary in 829, and by the end of Khan Presian’s reign (r 837–852) the Bulgarian state encompassed a huge swath of southeastern Europe, including modern-day Romania, Moldova and Macedonia.

In 865 Tsar Boris I (r 852–889) tried to unify the fledgling Bulgar-Slav Empire by converting it to Christianity. At about this time, an independent church was established and a Slavonic alphabet devised by two monks, Kiril and Metodii, known in English as Cyril and Methodius.

Boris retired to a monastery in 889, leaving his son Vladimir in control, but was roused out of retirement by Vladimir’s attempts to restore paganism. Boris deposed his son, blinding him as extra punishment, and his younger brother Simeon (r 893–927) ascended the throne. The empire reached its zenith under Tsar Simeon, who transferred the capital to Veliki Preslav and ushered in a cultural golden age. The Bulgarian Empire, which stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Aegean Sea and to the Dnieper River (northeast of Bulgaria) was the largest and most powerful in Europe at that time, and the powerful Bulgarian army routed the invading Byzantines at the Battle of Acheloi (near Nesebâr) in 917.

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Decline & fall

Tsar Peter’s reign (r 927–968) was long and peaceful, but internal conflicts led to its decline. In 971 Preslav fell to the Byzantines and Tsar Samuel (r 978–1014) moved the capital to Ohrid (in modern-day Macedonia). At the Battle of Belasitsa in 1014, the Byzantines defeated the Bulgars; according to gory (but probably fanciful) legend, Emperor Basil II (‘the Bulgar Slayer’) ordered 15, 000 Bulgarian soldiers to be blinded and marched back to Samuel, who promptly expired from grief (he actually died some months after the battle). In 1018 Ohrid fell, and Bulgaria officially became part of the Byzantine Empire.

In 1185 two aristocratic brothers, Asen and Petâr, led a general uprising against the Byzantines and the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396) was founded, with Veliko Târnovo as the capital.

In 1204 the Byzantines fell victim to the forces of the Fourth Crusade, whose leader, Baldwin of Flanders, declared himself emperor. Invading Bulgaria the following year, though, he was captured and spent the rest of his days imprisoned in a tower (which still bears his name) at the fortress in Veliko Târnovo.

Through skilful diplomacy, Asen’s son, Tsar Ivan Asen II (r 1218–41), became the most powerful ruler in southeastern Europe and established Veliko Târnovo as an influential cultural centre. His most famous military victory was the crushing defeat of the Byzantine army at the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230. After the death of Tsar Ivan Asen II, the empire was weakened by Tatar and Arab invasions but in the end, internal fighting among Bulgarian leaders effectively brought an end to the unified Bulgarian state.

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Under the yoke

The Ottoman Turks swarmed into the northern Balkan Peninsula in 1362 and within the next 30 years they had conquered all of Bulgaria, which was subsumed into the Ottoman Empire where it remained for the next five centuries. Turkish rule meant the imposition of a harsh feudal system, and the isolation of Bulgaria from the rest of Christian Europe. Huge numbers of Bulgarians – some estimates say half the entire population – were either killed or carried off into slavery and many churches and monasteries were destroyed or closed. Numerous uprisings were put down with cruel ferocity, and many Bulgarians emigrated.

Turkish overlords settled in urban areas, forcing Bulgarians to flee into the mountains and rural regions. Haidouks (armed rebels) took to the hills and fought the occupiers in any way they could, while others, especially in the Rodopi region, were forced to convert to Islam, receiving exemption from tax and some rights in the law courts in return. These Pomaks, as they became known, were despised by their fellow Bulgarians, and remained a source of bitterness for centuries. Bulgarian national and cultural identity managed to survive in isolated monasteries, such as Rila, which were allowed to remain open, or were never found or controlled by the Turks. Taxes owed to the sultan by the Christian Bulgarians were oppressive, and eldest sons were routinely removed from their families to be trained for the elite janissary corps, which provided a bodyguard for the sultan.

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Breaking free

Bulgaria’s monasteries had done much to preserve the country’s history and traditions during the darkest days of Turkish rule, and nationalist sentiment had never been entirely subdued. However, the era that was to become known as the Bulgarian National Revival was prompted by the work of a monk, Paisii Hilendarski, who wrote the first complete history of the Slav-Bulgarian people in 1762. He travelled across Bulgaria reading the history to illiterate people (the authorities would not allow the publication of a Bulgarian-language book) and ignited a long-suppressed national identity. By the early 19th century, the Bulgarian economy was growing fast. Merchants in towns such as Plovdiv and Koprivshtitsa were supplying wool, wine, metals and woodcarvings to the ailing Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, and a new educated, prosperous, urban middle class was emerging, a processthat quickened further after the Crimean War, when the victorious allies persuaded Turkey to open up its empire to foreign trade.

These merchants built grand private homes and public buildings, often in the distinct National Revival style. They were decorated by woodcarvers from Tryavna and painters from Samokov, who had developed a unique Bulgarian style.

Bulgarian art, music and literature also flourished at this time, and schools with instruction in the Bulgarian language were opened. There were chitalishta (reading rooms) in nearly every town and village, which provided the people with a communal forum for cultural and social activities – and for political discussions. Official Turkish recognition of an autonomous Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 1870 was a crucial step towards independence.

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Revolution & freedom

Rebel leaders, such as Georgi Rakovski, Hristo Botev and Bulgaria’s iconic hero Vasil Levski, had been preparing a revolution against the Turks for years before the rebellion, known as the 1876 April Uprising, prematurely started at Koprivshtitsa.

The Turks brutally suppressed the uprising: an estimated 30,000 Bulgarians were massacred and 58 villages were destroyed. The largest massacre occurred in the town of Batak.

These atrocities caused outrage in Western Europe and led Russia to declare war on the Ottomans in 1877 after the indecisive Constantinople Conference. Major battles were fought at Pleven and Shipka Pass and about 200,000 Russian soldiers were killed throughout Bulgaria during the year-long Russo-Turkish War. As the Russian army, and its Bulgarian volunteers, crushed the Turks and advanced to within 50km of Istanbul, the Ottomans accepted defeat. It ceded 60% of the Balkan Peninsula to Bulgaria in the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on 3 March 1878.

However, fearing the creation of a powerful Russian ally in the Balkans, the powers of Western Europe reversed these gains at the Treaty of Berlin, signed 13 July 1878. They decided that the area between the Stara Planina ranges and the Danube, plus Sofia, would become the independent principality of Bulgaria. The Thracian Plain and Rodopi Mountains to the south would become Eastern Rumelia and, bizarrely, were placed under Ottoman stewardship. The Aegean Thracian plain and Macedonia were returned outright to Turkey. The legacy of the Treaty of Berlin carved up the region irrespective of ethnicity and left every Balkan nation feeling cheated and angry. These redefined borders have haunted the peninsula ever since: between 1878 and WWII the Balkan countries, including Bulgaria, fought six wars over border issues.

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The nascent state

On 16 April 1879 the first Bulgarian national assembly was convened at Veliko Târnovo in order to adopt a constitution, and on 26 June of that year Alexander Battenberg, a German prince, was elected head of state. On 6 September 1885 the principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia were reunified after a bloodless coup. This contravention of the Treaty of Berlin angered the central European powers and Turkish troops advanced to the southern border of the reunified Bulgaria.

Serbia, supported by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, suddenly declared war on Bulgaria. Heroic Bulgarian border guards defied the odds and repelled advancing Serbian troops while the Bulgarian army hurriedly moved from the Turkish border to the western front. Eventually, the Bulgarians defeated the Serbs and advanced deep within Serbian territory. Austria intervened, calling for a ceasefire, and the Great Powers recognised the reunified Bulgaria.

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The war years

Alexander was forced to abdicate in 1886 and was replaced by Prince (later King) Ferdinand of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family. Around this time the prime minister, Stefan Stambolov, accelerated the country’s economic ­development and two Bulgarian political parties were founded that would wield enormous influence in the years ahead. These were the Social Democrats, forerunner to the communists, and the Agrarian Union, which represented the peasantry.

King Ferdinand I declared Bulgaria’s complete independence from Ottoman control on 22 September 1908. But only four years later, the First Balkan War broke out when Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia declared war on Turkey. Although these states succeeded in largely pushing the Turks out of the Balkans, squabbling among the victors, especially over claims to Macedonia, led to the Second Balkan War (1913), from which Bulgaria emerged a loser.

Bulgaria entered WWI on the side of the Central Powers (which ironically included Turkey) in 1915. Facing widespread opposition to his pro-German policies, Ferdinand abdicated three years later in favour of his son, Boris III.

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Between wars

In the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly, Bulgaria lost Aegean Thrace to Greece, the southern Dobrudzha to Romania, and was saddled with humiliating and crippling war reparations. The interwar period was marked by political and social unrest, and the ruling Agrarian Party’s radical agenda and willingness to renounce territorial claims to Macedonia resulted in a right-wing military coup in 1923, while in 1925 communist terrorists tried, unsuccessfully, to kill Boris III at Sofia’s Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, murdering 123 people in the process. The 1930s saw the rise of the right-wing Zveno group, which staged a coup d’état in 1934, and after 1935, Tsar Boris assumed dictatorial powers.

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World war ii

At the beginning of WWII Bulgaria declared its neutrality. However, by 1941 German troops advancing towards Greece were stationed along the Danube on Bulgaria’s northern border with Romania. To avoid a war it could not win, and tempted by Hitler’s offer of Macedonia in return for assistance, the militarily weak Bulgarian government decided to join the Axis. Bulgaria allowed the Nazis into the country and officially declared war on Britain and France, but it refused to accede to demands that it declare war on Russia. Spurred by public opinion, the Bulgarian government also held back from handing over the country’s 50,000 Jews to the Third Reich. Tsar Boris III died suddenly on 28 August 1943, one week after meeting Hitler, prompting the inevitable conspiracy theories about murder, through slow-acting poison, though current research has found no evidence of this. Boris’ infant son succeeded him as Tsar Simeon II.

During the winter of 1943–44, Allied air raids inflicted heavy damage on Sofia and other major towns in central Bulgaria. A hastily formed ­coalition government sought a separate peace with the Allies, but to no avail. Then Russia declared war and invaded Bulgaria. On 9 September 1944 the Fatherland Front, a resistance group coalition that included communists, assumed power. Even before WWII had ended, ‘people’s courts’ were set up around the country at which thousands of members of the wartime ‘monarch-fascist’ government were sent to prison or executed.

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Red bulgaria

The Fatherland Front won the November 1945 elections and the communists gained control of the new national assembly. Under leader Georgi Dimitrov, a new constitution, created on the Soviet model, proclaimed the People’s Republic of Bulgaria on 15 September 1946. The royal family was forced into exile.

From the late 1940s, industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture was imposed, and opponents, ‘class traitors’ or any other awkward individuals were harshly dealt with by the strict Stalinist regime, often through the ever-popular show trials. Dimitrov’s successor, Vâlko Chervenkov was known as ‘Little Stalin’ for his unquestioning loyalty. Under Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s leader from 1954 to 1989, the country prospered under Soviet protection, which included cheap oil, electricity and other necessities. However, this boon came at a price, and the Bulgarian secret police had an especially fearsome reputation for their handling of dissidents, at home or abroad, and were even rumoured to have been plotting the assassination of Pope John Paul II. A ruthless nationalism came to the fore in the 1980s, when Turks, Pomaks and Roma were pressured into adopting Bulgarian names. Riots and a mass exodus of ethnic Turks resulted.

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The return of democracy

By 1989 perestroika was sending shock waves throughout Eastern Europe. On 10 November 1989 an internal Communist Party coup led to the resignation of the ageing Zhivkov, and the Communist Party agreed to relinquish its monopoly on power, changing its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). In opposition, a coalition of 16 different groups formed the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). However, the BSP comfortably won the first parliamentary elections in June 1990, so Bulgaria had the dubious honour of being the first country from the former Soviet Bloc to elect communists back into power.

However, the BSP soon lost favour with the electorate, and the UDF managed a narrow victory in the October 1991 parliamentary elections. Within a year, though, their government had collapsed. After a caretaker government of technocrats was similarly unable to deal with the financial disarray, the BSP again captured, in overwhelming fashion, the December 1994 parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Zhelyu Zhelev of the UDF became the new Bulgarian head of state after the first democratic presidential elections in January 1992.

The mid-1990s was a period of economic chaos, marked by hyperinflation and a sharp drop in living standards, which included the return of bread lines and fuel shortages, while legitimised criminal networks flaunted their new-found wealth.

The election of liberal lawyer Petâr Stoyanov of the UDF as president in November 1996, coupled with the resignation of the unpopular socialist prime minister Zhan Videnov, signalled that the electorate was finally fed up. Nationwide protests and highway blockades eventually forced the discredited BSP to agree to new parliamentary elections.

April 1997 ushered in the seventh change of government in as many years. Ivan Kostov of the United Democratic Forces (UDF), a coalition that included the other UDF, became prime minister and promised to combat corruption and attract foreign investment while adhering to market reforms. But like leaders of all former communist countries, Kostov had to make harsh economic decisions, which pleased the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and EU, but not the voters.

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Into the 21st century

In June 2001 the Bulgarian electorate made history by voting in their former king as prime minister – the first ex-monarch to return to power in Eastern Europe. Simeon Saxe-Coburg, or Simeon II as he is still often known, had formed his party, the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII), only two months before the election. Saxe-Coburg had lived most of his life in Spain and although he did not actually run for a parliamentary seat, the rules still allowed him to become prime minister.

The party won exactly half the seats in parliament and entered into a coalition with the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the party with the smallest number of elected representatives. The new government raised the minimum wage from 85 lv to 100 lv per month and promised a turnaround in Bulgaria’s economic fortunes, pushing for both NATO and EU membership.

However, in a major upset just five months after the new government took office, Petâr Stoyanov, regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most popular politicians, was beaten by the Socialist Party leader Georgi Parvanov in the presidential elections. Anyone looking for consistency in Bulgarian politics will be sorely disappointed.

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Bulgaria today

Low wages, unemployment and the growth of organised crime, among other things, led to disillusionment with the NMSII, and at the general election of 2005 the BSP was returned as the biggest party. After weeks of stalemate, it finally formed a coalition government with the NMSII and the Turkish MRF party, with the BSP’s Sergei Stanishev as prime minister. Turnout for the vote was low, and there was much criticism of the government’s decision to offer competition prizes, including cars, as an incentive for people who did turn up at the polling booths. In 2006, Georgi Parvanov won another five-year term as president, in a landslide against a nationalist candidate who opposed EU entry.

Bulgaria’s entry into NATO in 2004, along with a number of other former Warsaw Pact countries, was welcomed by a Bulgarian population keen to engage with the wider world, and in January 2007 the country, along with neighbouring Romania, finally joined the EU, introducing a third alphabet (Cyrillic) into the multilingual organisation. Already, though, there have been problems, with EU criticism, and threats of fines, over Bulgaria’s tardiness in supplying a list of areas to be included in the pan-European Natura 2000 network of protected ecological areas and the state of waste management in Sofia; the EU will now supply 80% of the money needed for a new waste recycling plant. The government, meanwhile, scored a small victory after winning the right to call the European common currency the ‘Evro’ rather than the ‘Euro’ in Bulgaria, in keeping with local pronunciation.

Discontent over low wages has increased since Bulgaria joined the EU, and 2007 saw a succession of long, drawn-out strikes. Teachers, demanding as much as a 100% wage increase, took industrial action over the summer, and all the teachers in five major cities, including Varna and Burgas, resigned en masse in protest at wages that are among the lowest in Europe. Bulgaria’s current minimum wage is just 220 lv (€110) per month.

Corruption continues to be a hot topic, especially around the vast construction projects shooting up in the big tourist resorts. There have been numerous campaigns spearheaded by environmentalists against what they see as thoughtless overdevelopment of pristine and supposedly protected areas of the country, all in the name of big business and big money. Organised crime, meanwhile, prompts sighs of exasperation from people who have lost trust in their government to combat it. Bulgaria has become a hub for human trafficking and the drug trade into Europe.

Painful memories of the country’s totalitarian past were once again dragged up in the run-up to local elections in 2007, with numerous politicians, including the current president, ‘outed’ as state security collaborators under the communist regime. What effect all this will have on the government’s future, though, is uncertain, but there is a great deal of disenchantment with politicians in general. Far-right nationalism entered the mainstream political arena at the 2005 elections, with 12 members of the ultranationalist Ataka party entering parliament, and wherever they go, controversy is sure to follow.

One of the biggest talking points of recent years was resolved in 2007, when the five Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya since 1999, on charges that they deliberately infected children in their care with HIV, were finally released. The nurses had been sentenced to death, but direct intervention by the EU and France brought the affair to wider world attention.

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