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|Country Study > Introduction|
For most of its history, Bulgaria has been a small, agricultural nation whose location at the nexus of the European and Asian continents brought strong cultural and political influences from both east and west. Because of its location in the Balkans, on the border of Asiatic Turkey, and just across the Black Sea from the Russian and Soviet empires, Bulgaria received much attention from the commercial, political, and military powers surrounding it. Some of that attention was beneficial; much of it was harmful. In spite of foreign influences, which included centuries of occupation by the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and absolute loyalty to the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, Bulgarian cultural and social institutions maintained a unique national identity that was again struggling to reemerge after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989.
When Bulgaria achieved autonomy within the Ottoman Empire in 1878, it was completely without modern political and social institutions with which to govern itself and deal with the outside world. Over the next seventy years, the process of inventing those institutions was rocky and uneven, both internally and in foreign relations. In spite of a very progressive constitution, Bulgaria's constitutional monarchy was plagued by frequent changes of government and governmental philosophy, including periods of despotism, until World War II. The impact of a world depression and being on the losing side of both world wars also hindered Bulgaria's development before another expanding power, the Soviet Union, incorporated it into another empire as a result of Soviet victory in World War II. Then, when it emerged from the shadow of the Soviet Union in 1989, Bulgaria was faced again with inventing institutions that would enable its society, its economy, and its government to prosper in a world whose evolution had continued apart from them for many years.
The Byzantine and Ottoman occupations eclipsed the significant cultural developments of two golden ages (in the tenth and thirteenth centuries) when independent Bulgarian kingdoms dominated their region. Despite the centuries of occupation, village cultural and church life retained basic elements of ethnic identity that fostered a national revival as Ottoman power dwindled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
After finally regaining its independence at the end of the nineteenth century, modern Bulgaria stood in the shadow of European power politics through the first nine decades of the twentieth century. In that period, three successive major geopolitical antagonisms largely determined Bulgaria's place in the world: the Ottoman Empire versus Slavic Europe, the Axis powers versus the Allies, then the Warsaw Pact. In all three cases, Bulgaria stood as a minor player placed at the critical frontier separating the sides. Besides those conditions, Bulgaria's location amid the constant turmoil of the Balkans also shaped domestic life and foreign policy, even in the relatively uneventful postwar totalitarian years.
For the first forty-five years of the post-World War II era, Bulgaria was the East European country most closely allied politically to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact member most dependent economically on Soviet aid. During that time, all aspects of life that a totalitarian government could control were redrawn according to the Soviet model -- from overemphasis on heavy industry to the content of works of literature. When the totalitarian era ended in 1989, it left behind many of the rigid structures and stereotypes formed by such imitation. Although Bulgaria had strayed from the prescribed Soviet path in noncontroversial areas such as glorification of the nation's 1,300-year history and token decentralization of economic planning, the machinery of independent national policy making was decidedly rusty when the post-Soviet era dawned suddenly.
At that point, Bulgaria was seemingly more liberated from involvement in the power struggles of stronger neighbors than ever before in its history. But this liberation also deprived the nation of the economic and security protection those neighbors had provided. In the early 1990s, a major reshaping of the economic power balance on the European continent was under way. Because most of Eastern Europe emerged from the economic and political dominance of the Soviet Union at the same time in the late 1980s, competition for new economic and political positions among the former Soviet client states was very keen. In this new context, Bulgaria, a nation of about 9 million persons located at the periphery of Europe, required particular energy and leadership to establish itself as an integral part of the new united Europe that began to emerge in the early 1990s. At the same time, energy and leadership were necessarily diverted to solving internal ethnic and political problems -- most notably the integration into society of a substantial and vocal Turkish minority and the cultivation of an efficient government structure based on shifting coalitions among Bulgaria's traditionally large number of political parties. In the background of those issues was an economy impoverished by decades of dependence on resources from the Soviet-led (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, Comecon -- see Glossary) and poorly balanced Soviet-style central economic planning.
Before World War II, Bulgarian society was overwhelmingly agricultural, supported by rich farmland that grew a variety of grains, vegetables, fruits, and tobacco for domestic use and export. Well into the twentieth century, rural life remained steeped in village traditions that had not changed for many centuries, even under Ottoman rule. Cities such as Sofia and Plovdiv were islands of commercial activity and points of contact with other cultures. The fast-paced industrialization and agricultural collectivization programs of the postwar communist regimes brought four decades of intense migration into urban areas; in 1990 two of every three Bulgarians lived in a city or town. The migration process also reduced the isolation of remaining rural populations, which maintained contact with friends and relatives who had moved away. Despite this process, however, the traditional dichotomy between cities and villages was still quite visible in the national elections of 1990 and 1991: Bulgaria's urban population largely supported economic and political reform platforms, whereas the rural regions expressed skepticism about reform by supporting the more conventional programs of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, formerly the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP)).
Besides speeding urbanization, postwar industrial policy put most means of production under central BCP control. The state also took over the Bulgarian financial system, and agriculture underwent a series of collectivization phases between 1947 and 1958. Following the standard recipe for centralized planning of the economy, heavy industry received a high proportion of state investment compared with agriculture and consumer production. The quotas of five-year plans for all those sectors, however, reflected unrealistic expectations of increased productivity. Although later five-year plans aimed at more realistic goals, the centralized Bulgarian economic system failed consistently to increase output although it devoted huge amounts of resources to the effort. Throughout the communist era, heavy industries lacked incentives because of state subsidies, and state-run agriculture never matched the productivity of remaining small private plots. The Zhivkov government trumpeted major economic reform programs in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, but they all remained within the restrictions of the centralized system, contributing nothing to Bulgaria's economic advancement.
As in the other East European countries, central planning of the economy produced severe environmental damage in Bulgaria. Damage was more localized in Bulgaria because its designated role in Comecon required fewer "smokestack industries" than that of Poland, Czechoslovakia, or the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Nevertheless, cities such as Ruse, Dimitrovgrad, and Srednogorie suffered severe environmental deterioration from manufacturing activities under the communist regimes, which disregarded pollution in the name of progress. In 1988 public concern over environmental quality spawned the first Bulgarian protest groups, which played a central role in the overthrow of Zhivkov and then evolved in the next three years into permanent opposition parties with strong public support.
In October 1991, the Grand National Assembly passed a Law on Protection of the Environment, and the coalition cabinet named shortly thereafter included a member of the Ekoglasnost environmental group as minister of the environment. Despite these measures, however, the critical need for economic growth in the postcommunist era hindered environmental recovery efforts. In 1992 auto emissions, heavy industry emissions, and power plants remained beyond government control although they contributed heavily to air pollution; excessive use of chemicals in agriculture polluted many Bulgarian lakes and streams; and continued reliance on nuclear power from unsafe equipment threatened a major radiation crisis.
Besides industrialization and urbanization, other important changes had occurred under the conventional communist totalitarian dictatorships that ruled Bulgaria under Georgi Dimitrov (1947-49), Vulko Chervenkov (1949-56), and Todor Zhivkov (1956-89). Centuries before, the Russian Empire had begun to assume the stature of protector of the Slavs in the Ottoman Empire by the first in a long series of wars with the Turks. In 1944, as Axis power retreated in Europe, a strong Russophile element remained in Bulgarian society. Accordingly, Bulgarians welcomed the arrival of the Red Army, whose presence ended Bulgaria's participation as an Axis ally in World War II and laid the foundation of the postwar political system. Interwar commercial and cultural relations with Western Europe (especially Germany and Italy) were curtailed when the postwar communist regimes intensified Bulgaria's traditionally close ties with the Russian Empire/Soviet Union. In 1949 this policy shift was codified by Bulgaria's membership in Comecon, which created a new network of East European trade relationships and subsidies dominated by the Soviet Union.
Between 1947 and 1989, Bulgarian foreign and economic policy followed scrupulously the policies of the Soviet Union. Intermittent periods of rapprochement and hostility between the Soviet Union and the West were mirrored in relations between Bulgaria and the NATO countries of Europe. Thus, for example, Zhivkov pulled back from newly invigorated relations with Western Europe in order to lend vigorous support to the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. Bulgaria also followed the Soviet lead in assisting developing nations and supporting wars of national liberation.
The Bulgarian constitutions of 1947 and 1971 borrowed heavily from their Soviet equivalents, and, especially in its early stages, the Bulgarian centrally planned economy followed Soviet guidelines. Periods of economic experimentation also coincided in the two countries; Zhivkov's first large-scale restructuring of the Bulgarian system occurred in the early 1960s, at the same time that Nikita S. Khrushchev experimented with unorthodox economic methodology in the Soviet Union. Zhivkov was able to experiment more freely because the Bulgarian system was much smaller and more homogeneous and because Bulgaria had earned a place as the most trusted and loyal of the Comecon member nations. By the mid-1980s, economic imitation of the Soviet Union had turned earlier skepticism into cynicism in large parts of the Bulgarian public.
The communist regimes of the postwar era did accomplish significant improvement in national education and health care. Although the basic structure of prewar Bulgarian education remained intact after 1947, the primary goal of centralized education planning was to bring Marxist theory to as many Bulgarians as possible; hence promotion of literacy and expansion of primary and secondary education proceeded much more rapidly under the communist regimes. On a basic level, those goals were reached through a combination of rapid urbanization of the population and mandatory training for children and adults. But the state educational program was a carefully regimented, technology-oriented imitation of the Soviet Union's system. After Zhivkov, the public education system and universities officially banned political indoctrination and activity in its institutions. Because many teachers and textbooks remained from the era when only the party line was acceptable, however, transition efforts encountered stubborn resistance in some quarters.
The communist era had provided very basic health care in state regional clinics available to most Bulgarians. Under the socialist health system, indicators such as average life expectancy, infant mortality rate, and physicians per capita improved steadily between 1947 and 1989. Nevertheless, post-Zhivkov governments embarked on decentralization and modernization programs to improve specialized care and raise the incentives for health care personnel and entrepreneurs in private facilities. In the early 1990s, the new programs underwent a difficult transition period that yielded uneven results.
The overthrow of Zhivkov's orthodox communist regime in 1989 produced especially dramatic changes in Bulgarian political and economic life. By the mid-1980s, the Zhivkov regime already had wielded power for thirty-five years; by that time, the regime's inability to deal with new political and economic realities was obvious to many Bulgarians, especially the educated classes. Zhivkov took token political restructuring measures in the late 1980s, but by 1988 formidable opposition groups were forming around such issues as environmental protection of Bulgarian citizens and the continued failure of the economic system to raise the standard of living. In 1989 Zhivkov's heavy-handed campaign to assimilate or exile Bulgaria's large Turkish ethnic minority depleted the labor force and evoked strong protest from the international community and many groups within Bulgaria. Shortly after an all-European environmental conference in Sofia provided an international audience for protesting groups, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) ousted Zhivkov to avoid losing power entirely.
Although the BCP strategy succeeded in the short run, Zhivkov's communist successors were unable to meet the multitude of demands that society unleashed upon them once the symbol of monolithic state power had disappeared. Having lost the solid support of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by 1990, the BCP hesitated between full commitment to political and economic reform and maintaining its still formidable grip on such sectors of Bulgarian society as management of heavy industry and administration of provincial government. A few months after Zhivkov's ouster, the party had changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and introduced a series of government reform programs. But opposition groups, combined in the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), refused to form a coalition government with the BSP or to support BSP reform proposals. Because the UDF represented a growing majority of Bulgarian society, by the end of 1990 the UDF strategy of non-participation had forced a political stalemate and resignation of the last communist-dominated cabinet, headed by Andrei Lukanov. This development negated the broad 100-day economic reform plan that Lukanov had proposed in the fall of 1990.
The old central planning system (that remained in place in 1990) had included excessive emphasis on heavy industry, distorted pricing, declining agricultural productivity, and isolation from foreign markets. By the end of 1990, those failures had brought the Bulgarian economy to a severe crisis that included a drop of 11.5 percent in net material product, drastic increases in unemployment, curtailment of all payments to foreign creditors, and a drop in the standard of living.
The period following Lukanov's fall was one of extreme crisis; social unrest was very high, but political factions could not find an acceptable compromise course. Finally, Dimitur Popov, a judge with no political affiliation, became prime minister of a coalition cabinet that would run the government until the 1991 national elections chose a new National Assembly. Resolution of this crisis was due in large part to the negotiating skills of President Zheliu Zhelev.
In 1991 Bulgaria experimented with government coalitions to promote major reform programs. Important legislative packages included depoliticization of the army, the police, courts, state prosecutors, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; amnesty for political prisoners; restoration of property to political émigrés and victims of repression; and reform of the local government system that remained a stronghold of socialist bureaucrats. Such reform legislation encouraged loans from the World Bank and other Western sources in 1991.
In mid-1991, all political factions agreed that economic reform was the government's top priority, but BSP members of parliament obstructed reform proposals that would bring temporary but severe economic dislocation. Instead, they favored a more gradual approach that would not threaten party members still entrenched in state industrial policy making. Although the National Assembly passed major legislation in 1991 on land redistribution, private commercial enterprises, and foreign investment, the key step of enterprise privatization remained unresolved in early 1992, and the land act required wholesale revision.
For a previously centrally planned system, privatization brought many difficult dilemmas. The new government had to distinguish state enterprises worth rehabilitation from those that should be replaced by totally new private enterprises. Restitution was needed for Bulgarians whose capital property had been seized by the state, but resolution of claims proved extremely complex. And rapid privatization inevitably displaced large numbers of workers from former state enterprises, damaging productivity, national morale, and earning power. In February 1992, the World Bank cited the lack of privatization legislation in delaying a loan of $US250 million. Both the Popov government and the government of Filip Dimitrov that followed spent months in fruitless debate of redistribution and regulation of large industries formerly operated by the state.
A vital economic support element, energy supply, became a critical problem in late 1991 when the Soviet Union first ended coal supply and then, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when Russia ended subsidized electric power supply to Bulgaria. Because Bulgaria's domestic energy base was quite inadequate to support an industrial system designed when outside energy supplies were plentiful and cheap, economic recovery depended on the single nuclear power plant at Kozloduy -- a facility judged unsafe by both domestic and international authorities in 1991. Lacking foreign currency to import fuels, however, Bulgarian policy makers placed their hopes on Kozloduy's shaky technology to provide as much as half the country's electricity throughout the 1990s.
Political developments in 1991 made accelerated economic reform more likely by finally shrinking the power of remaining Zhivkov-era officials to obstruct the transition away from authoritarian government and a centrally planned economy. After considerable delay, in July the Grand National Assembly, which had been elected for the specific purpose of drafting a new constitution, produced a document approved by a majority, but far from all, of its legislators. Some constituent groups in UDF refused to sign because they believed the constitution defended interests of the BSP, which was still the majority party at that point. Among vital innovations in the constitution were government by separation of powers, specification of the principles of a market economy, and full protection of the rights of private property.
The constitution also set conditions for election of a new National Assembly under reformed election laws. The new laws simplified the extremely cumbersome system used in 1990 and reduced the size of the National Assembly from 400 to 240. In the national election of October 1991, Bulgarian politics followed its long tradition of fragmentation when forty-two parties and other groups posted candidates. Of that number, thirty-five failed to receive enough votes for representation in the legislature. UDF candidates, running on three separate tickets, together won a plurality but not a majority of seats. The BSP held the next largest block of seats, making the twenty-four-vote block of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) capable of swinging majority votes for the UDF or obstructing reform legislation. Because the MRF represented the substantial ethnic Turkish minority, many Bulgarians feared that the UDF would be coerced into pro-Turkish positions. The MRF blunted some criticism by announcing support of most of the UDF reform platform, however, shortly after the election.
The fourteen-member cabinet formed by Prime Minister Dimitrov, leader of the UDF, was young (average age forty-nine), professional, and included no BSP or MRF members. Among Dimitrov's structural reforms in the cabinet (reduced from seventeen to fourteen members) was abolition of the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations, formerly a stronghold of Zhivkovite officials. For the first time, a civilian was named minister of defense. Key cabinet figures were Minister of Defense Dimitur Ludzhev, Minister of Foreign Affairs Stoyan Ganev, and Minister of Internal Affairs Iordan Sokolov. As in previous cabinets, economic policy was divided among several ministries. Dimitrov, who introduced no formal program when he was appointed, listed ending inflation, raising productivity, and stabilizing the economy as his chief goals.
Despite the triumph of nonsocialist factions in the October elections, however, the Bulgarian government remained unsettled in the winter of 1991-92. Key constituent groups such as labor unions and the Turkish population continued to be somewhat aloof from the UDF coalition as 1992 began, and the coalition itself was constantly strained by the diversity of its membership. In 1992 the former communists remained the country's largest party, and the oversized government bureaucracy created by the communist regimes still controlled many parts of the national administration. But, unlike his predecessor, Dimitrov had no opposition ministers in his cabinet, and the UDF possessed a legislative majority if it could avoid internal fragmentation and keep the loyalty of the MRF.
With the environmental demonstrations of 1988, Bulgarian society renewed a long-dormant tradition of public protest, and such activities continued during the crisis years of 1990-92. Zhivkov's second campaign for assimilation of the Turkish minority brought strong protests from Bulgarian intellectuals in mid-1989. The proximate cause of Zhivkov's ouster was the mass demonstrations in Sofia in October of 1989. When the new communist government failed to account for the excesses of the Zhivkov regime and economic conditions continued to deteriorate, a massive tent city was established for several weeks in downtown Sofia in mid-1990. In November 1990, the BSP government of Andrei Lukanov resigned during nationwide labor and student strikes. The volatile ethnic issue of Turkish minority rights evoked many boycotts and protests by both Turks and Bulgarians between 1990 and 1992. And industrial strikes, most organized by the Podkrepa labor union, protested working conditions and unemployment throughout 1991 and early 1992.
Although Bulgarian society was ethnically relatively homogeneous, especially compared with neighboring Yugoslavia, the Turkish minority of about one million (estimates varied from 900,000 to 1.5 million in 1991) continued to present a delicate political problem in 1992. Bulgarian-Turkish animosity was based on the indelible Bulgarian memory of five centuries of occupation and cultural suppression by the Ottoman Empire. On the Turkish side, hostility was based on more recent memories of forced assimilation and restriction of human rights by the Zhivkov regime. The Zhivkov government had justified repression of the Turkish minority by appealing to ethnic Bulgarian fears that empowering Turks within Bulgaria would once again threaten Bulgarian security. When Zhivkov fell, restoration of long-withheld civil rights became a central issue in the newly open political atmosphere.
Minority rights found expression in the new political order; the MRF was formed to advance those rights, and the UDF somewhat cautiously advocated full use of the Turkish language in schools and full civil rights for all Turkish citizens of Bulgaria. Especially in eastern Bulgaria where the Turkish population was largest, a strong undercurrent of hostility grew in 1991 and 1992 between ultranationalist Bulgarians and their Turkish neighbors. Only a Supreme Court decision allowed the MRF to post candidates in the 1991 election, and the issue of restoring the teaching of Turkish in Bulgarian schools remained quite sensitive in 1992. In late 1991, the BSP, shorn of its parliamentary majority, accelerated its attacks on the MRF as a subversive organization working for Turkey -- a desperate effort to build new support among Bulgarians fearful of new foreign domination.
In early 1992, the political situation left Turkish citizens with only partially restorated civil rights, and school boycotts were called in some areas where the use of Turkish remained restricted. On this issue, the Bulgarian court system, which had been a purely political institution under the Zhivkov regime, was unable or unwilling to fully exercise the independence granted the judiciary in the new constitution. This was partly because the new antidiscrimination language of that document had never before been tested and partly because of the lingering tradition of judicial dependency on political officials. Meanwhile, politicians generally treated the Turkish issue with great caution in 1991 and early 1992. Nationalist factions attacked the governing UDF for its legislative "alliance" with the MRF, suggesting that UDF compromises would jeopardize national security. These conditions lessened the likelihood that the National Assembly would finally attack and resolve the "national question."
Bulgarian foreign policy also changed markedly in the years following 1989. As in domestic affairs, a strong body of opinion favored maintaining pre-1989 policy, in this case continuing to cultivate the Soviet Union as protector and economic benefactor. Actual policy sought a compromise that would not only change political relations but also ensure continued supply of raw materials, especially fuels. Negotiations with the Soviet government yielded promises of continued supply, but by 1991 the Soviet republics responsible for delivery were able to ignore the commitment. This situation deteriorated further when the Soviet Union dissolved into constituent republics in the fall of 1991. By January 1992, Bulgaria had established relations with Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in an effort to reestablish supply lines. In November 1991, Bulgaria joined a new economic association, East European Cooperation and Trade, formed by economic organizations in most of the former East European Comecon member countries, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The aim was to restore economic relations among those countries on a new basis.
Nevertheless, worrisome signs indicated in early 1992 that Russia intended to maintain some of its traditional influence in Bulgaria. The longtime link of Bulgarian security agents with the KGB was believed reestablished in 1991; the Bulgarian government, loath to resume a role as a Russian intelligence outpost, was unable to identify the internal agents who might have been reactivated. Some of the new Russian foreign trade companies were believed to function as intelligence bases in Bulgaria. Russia also retained access to the high-frequency radio lines still used for secret Bulgarian diplomatic messages in the postcommunist era. And in spring 1992, Russia pressured Bulgaria to sign a friendship treaty prohibiting use of Bulgaria for "hostile acts" toward Russia -- seen by Bulgarian officials as an open-ended permit for future intervention.
A top foreign policy priority of the Dimitrov government was dismantling the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was still dominated by BSP functionaries under Prime Minister Popov. Shortly after his appointment, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ganev secured the recall of several ineffectual senior diplomats. In early 1992, he reviewed the performance of all ministry personnel in order to streamline the organization and purge remaining members of Zhivkov's state security establishment, which had been notorious for conducting espionage from diplomatic outposts.
Beginning in 1990, President Zheliu Zhelev and other Bulgarian officials met with Western officials to stress Bulgaria's commitment to economic and political reform and cement relations with the United States and the European Community. The EC was the primary focus because Bulgarian policy makers saw acceptance into the new European federation as the best way to avoid isolation and hasten internal reform. With this goal in mind, top-level diplomatic attention was divided among many West European countries, while overtures to Eastern Europe declined noticeably. In late 1991, France, Germany, Greece, and Italy promised to support Bulgarian membership in the EC, although at that point at least seven countries were ahead of Bulgaria on the list of prospective EC members. In 1991 Bulgaria did achieve associate status in the EC, together with Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. From the Western viewpoint, a stable Bulgaria offered a calming influence on the turbulent Balkans, where the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 threatened to trigger wider conflict over ethnic and economic issues.
Bulgaria viewed the Yugoslav crisis of the second half of 1991 as a serious threat to regional stability. Throughout the crisis, President Zhelev reiterated Bulgaria's policy of nonintervention and the right of self-determination for all people in Yugoslavia. This declaration was mainly to reduce accusations and fears in Serbia that Bulgaria had or would assume a direct role in weakening the Yugoslav Federation (now reduced to Serbia and Montenegro) to renew century-old claims on Macedonian territory. Zhelev's reassurances were also aimed at Greece, which feared annexation of its part of Macedonia into a state of Greater Macedonia. Following its advocacy of self-determination for Balkan states, Bulgaria recognized the four former Yugoslav secessionist republics, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia in the winter of 1991. In late 1991, Bulgaria strongly backed mediation of the conflict between Serbia and Croatia in Yugoslavia by the EC and the United Nations, and Bulgaria embargoed military supplies and arms bound for Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, relations with Turkey improved after the triumph of the UDF in the fall 1991 election. The UDF-MRF coalition pursued a treaty of friendship, cooperation, and security to match the treaty signed with Greece in October 1991. By early 1992, high-level military talks had substantially eased tension with Turkey, which maintained troops in Eastern Thrace close to the Bulgarian border. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ganev was seeking a trilateral summit meeting with Turkey and Greece to enhance regional security as well as a "mini-Helsinki" conference of Balkan states, to enhance regional security. Cultivation of Turkey had the strategic role of counterbalancing Greece and Serbia, two regional powers potentially allied against Bulgaria over the Macedonia issue in 1992.
The overthrow of Zhivkov revealed a deep fascination in Bulgarian society with the culture and ideals of the United States, and a desire for closer relations. Although United States aid the Bulgaria remained quite small compared with aid given to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s, high-level official contacts in that period were more friendly and frequent than ever before. President Zhelev stated Bulgaria's position very forcefully on two visits to Washington (1990 and 1991), and Prime Minister Dimitrov had a productive stay in March 1992 that gained a promise that the United States would accord Bulgaria the same aid status as the three major East European aid recipients. In November 1991, the United States officially granted Bulgaria most-favored-nation status.
The demise of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 left Bulgaria without the military protection of the Soviet Union and its allies. To bolster its security position, Bulgaria obtained NATO assurances about Turkey's military ambitions and established a special relationship with NATO headquarters in 1991. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian military establishment underwent reforms comparable to those elsewhere in society. A central aim of the Dimitrov government was to bring the military under civilian control, to end the separate, elite status that followed the Soviet model, and to make the military an open institution integrated into society. An immediate stimulus for this reform was the role of national military establishments in Yugoslavia's bloody internal conflict and the failed coup in the Soviet Union in 1991. (The Bulgarian military took no part in any of the political turmoil of 1989-91.) The military depolitization decreed by the Bulgarian government in 1990 reduced BSP influence in the ranks, but, as in other phases of Bulgarian life, positions of power remained in the hands of reactionaries from the Zhivkov era. By the end of 1991, however, about 85 percent of generals active in 1989 had retired voluntarily or under pressure. The resignation resulted in a net reduction of ninety-three generals from a top-heavy officer corps. The military reform campaign also sought to lift the status of the military as a profession and to foster positive relations between the civilian and military communities. In 1992, however, the army experienced a shortage of officers because of its negative image in society.
Arms and spare-part supply to the Bulgarian military suffered greatly when the overthrow of Zhivkov caused the Soviet Union to abandon long-term contracts. At the same time, the disproportionately large Bulgarian arms industry, a pillar of the centrally planned economy, was hit hard by the loss of its Soviet market. The new government limited the activities of Kintex, Bulgaria's notorious arms export agency, prohibiting sales to terrorists and totalitarian regimes. A long-term conversion program begun in October 1991 gave new civilian production assignments to many arms plants.
The Bulgarian military had a long history of cooperation with its Soviet counterpart. Weapons systems, doctrine, and training were interchangeable throughout the postwar era, and the Bulgarian military relied on Soviet fuel supplies even more heavily than the civilian economy. The sudden end of the Soviet partnership in 1990, followed shortly by removal of the communist symbols and dogma that had supported military morale, caused considerable turbulence and confusion.
New international responsibilities also affected the Bulgarian military establishment. To abide by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe signed by the Warsaw Pact and NATO in 1990, Bulgaria also faced reductions in military manpower and armaments beginning in 1991. Bulgaria sought to retain the Soviet SS-23 missiles installed at an unknown date in the 1980s, however, on the grounds that they predated the relevant nuclear disarmament treaty and were vital to national defense.
As the 1990s began, Bulgaria was in a completely new phase of national existence. For this phase to succeed, Bulgaria needed both a substantive new self-image and a believable new international posture. The postwar communist period had changed society by forcible industrialization and urbanization; those processes were accompanied by regimentation that suppressed cultural and economic individuality, and by isolation from influences and challenges outside the Soviet sphere. Then, in keeping with the wave of democratization that had swept most of Eastern Europe in 1989, Bulgaria made an abrupt about-face and began experimenting with democratic institutions in a manner unprecedented in the country's political history. After nearly fifty years of totalitarianism, and having had marginal success with democratic institutions prior to World War II, Bulgaria's experimentation was quite cautious at first. By 1992, however, a new generation of capable leaders had instilled impressive momentum in the transformation process. Although the slow pace of economic restructuring promised continued hardship, a large part of Bulgarian society was committed to reform, and hard-line revisionism and social unrest had declined in early 1992.
Besides adapting Western-type political and economic institutions to unique domestic requirements, Bulgaria's most difficult task was to overcome its Cold-War image as an obscure and somewhat sinister nation whose total loyalty to the Soviet Union had led it to support terrorists and assassins. By 1992 progress in that direction was significant; Western approval raised Bulgaria's status closer to that of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, the three former Soviet client states whose democratization had given them a head start toward integration into the fabric of Europe. As it strengthened its connections to the West in 1992, Bulgaria finally had an opportunity to develop social and political institutions appropriate to its needs under reduced pressure from large-power European politics.
In the months following completion of this manuscript, Bulgaria underwent serious political upheaval, and its economy failed to move toward reform nearly as fast as planners had hoped. The Dimitrov government elected in late 1991 showed early promise in promoting economic reform and democratization. By mid-1992, however, Dimitrov's leverage was reduced by shifting factions in his political coalition and by rising public skepticism that Bulgaria's painful reform program would yield a better standard of living.
In 1992 Dimitrov's UDF coalition dominated political dialogue and enjoyed a narrow majority in the National Assembly. This position required that the coalition remain unified within itself and allied with the much smaller MRF. But in the second half of 1992, UDF policies increasingly alienated influential parts of Bulgarian society such as the Orthodox Church, parts of the media, trade unions, and private businessmen, creating an atmosphere of escalating confrontation.
Meanwhile, the MRF was taking increasingly independent positions on many issues, seeking influence proportional to its importance in supporting the UDF. In October 1992, judging the UDF response inadequate, the MRF finally joined the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP; second-largest party in parliament) and dissident UDF members in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the Dimitrov government. By destroying the Dimitrov coalition, the vote created another crisis period in which Bulgaria was unable to choose a government. Nearly two months later, Lyuben Berov, an unaffiliated economics professor, was approved as prime minister after both the UDF and the BSP had failed to form governments.
The fate of the leading parties thus changed drastically at the end of 1992. The BSP, which had remained aloof from political struggle during the UDF's dominant period, found itself with the political influence of a parliamentary plurality as the new government took office. This happened in spite of the continued split between BSP conservatives allied with former communist party chief Aleksandur Lilov and the reformist branch of the party. Observers questioned whether the BSP would use its new influence to promote reform or to preserve the remaining Zhivkov-era party bastions in state industry and provincial government. In early 1993, BSP support of the Berov government was decidedly pragmatic, and experts saw a strong likelihood that support would be withdrawn (and the government automatically toppled) if policies displeased the BSP or if a new election would be advantageous.
Meanwhile, the disparate membership of the UDF wrote another chapter in the acrimonious history of the coalition. The group again split formally when one faction of constituent parties formed a new coalition, the New Union for Democracy. Although Berov had pledged to continue the UDF reform program, UDF members of parliament refused all support for the Berov government. Relations between the UDF and its former allies in the MRF remained hostile. Several attempts at forming new coalitions and alliances failed for various reasons in early 1993. The most notable coalition was the Bulgarian Democratic Center, whose loss of two key member parties left a void in the center of the political spectrum.
Besides the confusion of a fragmented political base, the Dimitrov government left unforeseen financial woes. According to one estimate, Bulgaria's internal debt doubled in 1992. The reasons were inflation (which reached 6.6 percent per month in early 1993), the Dmitrov government's concealing of budget deficits by withholding funds from certain industries, and government assumption of the debts of state companies. After the government had borrowed heavily from the Bulgarian National Bank to pay its debts, only an estimated 5 percent of domestic credit remained for private investment. Experts forecast the same figure for 1993, leaving no prospect of meaningful support for a larger private sector.
In April 1993, Berov's coalition government was able to draft a budget bill containing the same deficit as in 1992, despite the debt left by Dimitrov. To do this, spending on education, health care, culture, and national defense were reduced significantly; the Ministry of National Defense would receive only half the money it requested. Nevertheless, the proposed deficit, 7.9 percent of the gross national product, caused concern among international lenders.
Economic reform in 1992 had limited success. The amended land redistribution law passed in March 1992 effectively abolished collective farms; nominally, nearly 80 percent of Bulgaria's total arable land had been reclaimed by individual owners by midyear. Although the legislative machinery was in place, however, by mid- 1993 less than 20 percent of designated land had actually been restored, and Zhelev criticized the Berov government for neglecting this aspect of economic policy. In April 1993, farmers demonstrated in Sofia against inequities they perceived in the land law.
The political crisis stopped vital privatization legislation in late 1992, delaying the pilot privatization of 100 companies. Berov had called privatization the top priority of his government when he took office, and subsequent adjustments were made in existing laws to make conversion easier. Nevertheless, almost no privatization activity took place in the first four months of 1993. In early 1993, President Zhelev recommended that privatization be delayed until a large-scale national program, similar to those used in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, could be prepared. Meanwhile, inefficient state industries went deep into recession, cancelling the effects of what had been a rather successful economic stabilization plan in 1991.
International lenders, whose assistance was considered a vital ingredient in restructuring Bulgaria's economy, responded unevenly to the events of 1992. Lenders demanded faster progress toward a market system, but Bulgarian policy makers were wary of losing public support by further cutting state subsidies for social programs. In late 1992, Bulgaria agreed to repay part of the interest overdue to its international commercial creditors, as a good-faith step toward a 1993 debt settlement agreement. The additional expense, however, promised to exacerbate the budget deficit.
Prospects for Bulgaria's commercial relations with Western Europe improved in late 1992 and early 1993. In March 1993, Bulgaria signed an agreement with the EC to establish a free-trade zone with that group over a ten-year transition period. A strong incentive for the Europeans was bolstering Bulgaria as a stabilizing influence in the chaotic Balkans. In an April resolution on its relations with Bulgaria, the European Parliament (legislative assembly of the EC) declared that no further guarantees of reform were needed because Bulgaria was on an irreversible line toward a market economy -- a judgment likely encouraged by Balkan geopolitics. The new EC-Bulgarian accords were to go into effect in June 1993.
In March 1993, Bulgaria also signed a free-trade agreement with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Although at that point only 3.5 percent of Bulgaria's exports went to EFTA member nations (Austria, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland), the terms of the agreement made substantial expansion possible. Were the agreement ratified, 95 percent of Bulgarian industrial exports would have tariff-free access, while agricultural exports would be governed by bilateral arrangements.
Besides the drive for inclusion in West European economic groupings, the primary issue of Bulgarian foreign policy in early 1993 was preventing expansion of the Yugoslav crisis. In keeping with its own consistent policy of nonintervention, Bulgaria warned the other Balkan states to refrain from military involvement that might return the entire region to the chaos that preceded World War I. Bulgaria opposed lifting the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims, predicting that such a move would expand the conflict between Muslims and Serbs. Meanwhile, Bulgarian diplomats remained in constant contact with Greece and Turkey while reiterating Bulgarian support for the independence of all four former Yugoslav republics: Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia. Berov traveled to Moscow in March to discuss the Balkan situation, trade, repayment of Russian debts to Bulgaria, and economic cooperation. No concrete decisions were made, although the representatives noted their nations' harmony on the Balkan question. In early 1993, Bulgaria confirmed, however, its intention to rely on Russia and Ukraine as primary military suppliers, choosing to maintain longstanding relations rather than incur the greater expense of refitting its forces with Western equipment. According to official Bulgarian statements, no security threat was perceived from instability in any former Soviet republic.
Ethnic minority issues remained without solution in 1992, although no major open conflict resulted from continued tension between minorities and Bulgarian nationalists. Although 1992 human rights legislation improved the legal status of minorities, unemployment hit them especially hard, and as many as 40,000 Turks left Bulgaria in 1992. In the fall of 1992, the Roma (Gypsies) formed their first-ever national political organization in response to their dire economic conditions. Prime Minister Berov, whose government was nominally based on the ethnic-Turkish MRF, openly discussed pressure tactics used by both Turks and Bulgarian nationalists to influence ethnic self-identification in ethnically mixed regions. In 1993 those tactics still included campaigns against restoration of Turkish names (following Zhivkov's mass renaming campaign) and against use of Turkish in schools with Turkish populations, as well as forcible Turkicization of Bulgarian Muslims preferring to live as Bulgarians. Berov pledged to prevent human rights abuses on both sides, but little concrete change occurred in the first half of 1993.
Bulgaria began the fourth year of the post-Zhivkov era with prospects less optimistic than in the previous years. The momentum of economic reform was slowed significantly by continued high unemployment, rising inflation, low productivity, the resistance of Zhivkov-era holdovers in large state industries, and, increasingly, the cynicism of the Bulgarian public toward the usefulness of short-term sacrifice on the road to a market economy. The ominously growing shadow of the former Bulgarian Communist Party hung over the country, whose political system again collapsed into chaos in late 1992. International prospects seemed somewhat better, mainly because Bulgaria's designated role as a Balkan island of stability prompted increased Western support even when internal political and economic conditions failed to match Western expectations. But in 1993, the road from communism was proving much more rocky than most Bulgarians had anticipated; for many Bulgarians, living standards were lower than under the Zhivkov regime, and the patience of many was wearing thin.
Data as of June 1992
Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.
Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bulgaria was first published in 1992. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.
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Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.
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