Things to see and do - Bulgaria
The average person’s knowledge of Bulgaria seems to be restricted to a few facts: it was formerly part of the Soviet Union and it joined the European Union at the start of 2007, after the reincarnation of its former king as Prime Minister. So why do we know so little? Perhaps because the Bulgarian State was long overshadowed, or because of a more contemporary lack of understanding. And yet it was here that the brilliant civilisation of the Thracians flourished, and that, in the Middle Ages, the Bulgarians established one of the greatest powers in Europe, which rivalled Byzantium and the Frankish, and was able to fend off all but the Ottomans… Here is a retrospective on a turbulent, exciting and tragic history.
- Ancient Bulgaria
- The First Bulgarian Empire: 7C-11C
- The Second Bulgarian Empire
- The “Ottoman Night”: 14C-19C
- The Paths to Unity
- From crisis to crisis
In c 1300 BC the territory of modern-day Bulgaria was occupied by a people of Indo-European extraction, the Thracians .
Hunters and farmers, but also fearsome warriors, the Thracians created a rich civilisation, of which some treasures and necropolises survived, and were gradually brought to light by archaeologists. These discoveries provide precious information on the culture and history of a people who, because they didn’t write, were mainly known thanks to Greek and Roman authors. Thanks to these archaeological testimonies and written evidence, we also know that the Thracians had a not inconsiderable influence on Greek culture, contributing the cult of Dionysus and the myth of Orpheus . The latter was one of their kings, but probably merely a legend.
Mentioned by Homer as being allies of the Trojans – Rhesus , the Thracian king, is said to have been killed by Ulysses –, in the 8C BC, the dozen or so Thracian tribes were governed by kings who also carried out the role of grand preachers and were deified when they died.
The Thracians only really enter into the history books in the 5C BC, when, for the first time, the different tribes living on what is now Bulgarian territory united under the leadership of the Odrysians . This first Thracian state turned out to be a precious ally of the Athenians during the Peloponnesian wars. It disintegrated the following century under Philip II of Macedonia – who, in 346 BC, founded Philippopolis , now Plovdiv, on the site of Pupulveda – and his son Alexander the Great , who integrated a large part of Thrace into the Macedonian Empire. The territory of independent Thrace was thus reduced to a strip of land to the south of the central Balkans, around Sevtopolis , former capital of King Seuthes III ,a few kilometres from where Kazanlăk now lies.
Other tribes, such as the Bessi, tried to pick up where they had left off. But as brilliant as they were, these kingdoms were undermined by power struggles. These divisions facilitated the task of the Romans, who definitively defeated Thrace in 46 AD, after decades of bloody fighting, during which the famous Spartacus was taken prisoner and sold as a gladiator.
Under the reign of Emperor Claudius, the Bulgarian territory formed the Roman provinces of Thrace and Moesia . In addition to Philippopolis , the most important cities were Serdica (Sofia), Augusta Trajana (Stara Zagora), Augusta (Hisarja), Pautalia (Kjustendil) and Nikopolis ad Istrum (between Veliko Tărnovo and Ruse). The Romans fortified the banks of the Danube (Vidin, Ruse, Silistra) and organised the road network.
The famous Pax Romana (Roman Peace) then came into effect in Ancient Thrace and its inhabitants were quickly granted Roman citizenship. They even gave their conquerors a few emperors, such as the transient Maximinus (235-238).
Invasion of the Barbarians
But as of the 3C, such security was but a distant memory. Peoples from the steppes of Central Asia staged invasion after invasion, totalling over 50 in just two centuries! In 330, Emperor Constantine transferred the capital, Constantinople, from Rome to Byzantium. According to a legend that Bulgarians love to propagate, the Emperor hesitated for some time between Serdica and Byzantium before making up his mind. In 395, Thrace and Moesia were annexed to the Eastern Roman Empire, to which they gave two emperors: Marcian (450-457) and, most notably, Justinian the Great (527-565).
However, in the 4C, the wave of invasions continued, with the Goths, Huns and Avars. In the 5C, the first Slavic tribes entered the region. At the time there remained almost nothing of the romanised Thracians, nor of their civilisation, and at the end of the century the Bulgarian territory was distributed between many tribes. It was officially under the jurisdiction of Constantinople but, with the exception of a few periods, such as the rule of Justinian, the control of Byzantium over the region was purely theoretical.
However, at the end of the 5C, on the outskirts of the Empire, in the Lower Danube region, a new people settled. They were more or less the vassal of a Turk khanate : the Bulgarians . At first, these tribes, allies then adversaries of Constantinople, contented themselves with raids as bloody as they were fruitful on Ancient Thrace (502, 513, 540…).
The First Bulgarian Empire: 7C-11C
Beginnings of an empire
In 632, the Bulgarian Khan Kubrat , who was trained in Constantinople, refused to be ruled by the Turksand united the various Bulgarian tribes under his leadership, creating a true state north of the Black Sea and the Danube.
But Kubrat’s territory was under threat and difficult to defend. Hence the decision of his successor, K han Asparuh , to simply move Bulgaria! In 679, he crossed the Danube and was soon settled at Pliska , while his brother, Khan Kuber , went off to found another state on the territory of modern-day Macedonia.
While Asparuh became an ally of the Slavs in order to inflict a resounding defeat on the Byzantine armies, Kuber recognised the suzerainty of Byzantium. Macedonia later became part of the first Bulgarian Empire and Ohrid was named as capital .
On their new territory, which, in addition to Moesia and Dobrudža, included territories north of the Danube, the Bulgarians quickly mixed with the local populations, their new Slavic allies, whose language they ultimately adopted.
Asparuh’s successor, Khan Tervel , reigned until 720. The aid he brought to the Emperor proved decisive to the Byzantine Emperor in 718, when Constantinople was besieged by the Arabs.
The Byzantino-Bulgarian alliance proved short-lived as Constantinople was not happy about its Bulgarian neighbour’s increase in power. For several decades, war raged between the two states. In 812, the Bulgarians besieged Constantinople, and had it not been for the sudden death of Khan Krum they were set to conquer the city.
Khan Omurtag (who reigned from 815 to 831) extended his territories west towards what is now Hungary; his successors seized the regions of Rhodopes, Pirin and Rila, as well as the region of the north coast of the Aegean, making one of the vastest states in Europe. It was divided into eleven regions, governed by the Khan’s emissaries.
Rise and fall
Reign of Boris I (852-889)
One obstacle to unification was religious diversity. The Bulgarians worshipped the god Tangra, the Slavs were polytheistic, and the work of numerous preachers meant that Christianity was spreading. In 865, in an attempt to reinforce the cohesion of his people, Boris I , who came to power in 852, decided to convert to Christianity , which he made the state religion . After some hesitation, the sovereign decided to make the Bulgarian Church part of the patriarchate of Constantinople, which recognised Bulgaria as an autocephaly, ie an independent bishopirc. It was also under the long reign of Prince Boris I – he replaced the title Khan with “prince” – that an official alphabet was adopted: Cyrillic , a version of the Glagolitic alphabet that had been developed a few years earlier by Saints Cyril and Methodius and simplified by Clement of Ohrid . Reforms implemented by Boris I paved the way of the first Bulgarian Empire into its golden era.
Reign of Simeon I the Great (893-927)
Simeon I the Great came to power in 893 and, after a short interlude, set up his capital in Veliki Preslav , which quickly became a prestigious artistic and intellectual centre. “Great Bulgaria” – which encompassed Serbia, Albania and Macedonia –, was at that time Europe’s great kingdom and rivalled Byzantium. But Simeon had ambitions to seize Constantinople and don both crowns: it was for this reason that he took the title of “Tsar” , since borne by every Bulgarian sovereign. But in spite of several attempts – sometimes diplomatic, but most often belligerent –, Simeon never achieved his goal.
The End of the First Empire
For some, the decline of this first Empire started during the forty-two years of the pacific reign of Petăr I (927-969). Indeed, the end of his reign was marred by the corruption of the civil and religious elites, which enabled the ideas professed by Pope Bogomil to enjoy great popularity among a population crippled by taxes. During this time, Byzantium made the most of peacetime to prepare new campaigns.
A sad epic : 10C-11c sad epic: 10C-11c
Funded by Byzantium, the Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav , invaded Bulgarian territory in 968, seizing the northeast of the country. The Boyars were extremely worried by this attack and doubted old Petăr’s ability to resist , so overthrew him, replacing him with Boris II . But Sviatoslav’s appetite had been whetted and he next set his sights on ransacking Constantinople. The Byzantines struck back, routed the Russian and used the opportunity to take Veliki Preslav and depose the Bulgarian tsar, who was promptly killed, and his brother Roman castrated. Most of the Bulgarian Empire came under the control of its powerful Byzantine neighbour, and its capital was installed in Ohrid (Macedonia).
One military chief from Vidin, Samuil ,refused to give in, though, and launched a desperate reconquest campaign. Near Ihtiman, he crushed the Byzantines (986) led by Basil II –nicknamed the “Bulgar Slayer” – and instigated what has gone down in history as the Bulgarian Epic . Inflicting defeat after defeat on the enemy, Samuil, appointed by Roman as his successor in 997, attempted to reconstitute the Empire, piece by piece. But he died in 1014 and his potential successors started to squabble: Bulgaria was soon reduced to Macedonia and Ohrid fell in 1018. That year, the former Bulgarian Empire became a mere province of the Byzantine Empire.
The Second Bulgarian Empire
Almost two centuries passed. Despite sporadic revolts, it seemed that the idea of a Bulgarian State was now definitively part of a closed chapter of history.
The Asen restoration: 12c
The Byzantine Empire was not at its strongest, having been made vulnerable by the exactions of the crusades and increasingly frequent invasions by peoples from the east, such as the Pechenegs. A combination of circumstances enabled two brothers, Petăr and Ivan Asen , Boyars from Tărnovo, to use the opportunity afforded by the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire to restore independence and take back most of the Bulgarian territories. They founded the Asen dynasty. This was the birth of the Second Bulgarian Empire .
Further to a conspiracy, the two brothers were assassinated. Kalojan , their younger brother, acceded to the throne (1197). His set up his capital in Tărnovo (it was known as “the Second Constantinople”), and he set about reconquering territories without any difficulty. Constantinople, meanwhile, had become the capital of a short-lived Latin Empire created by the crusades, with Baldwin of Flanders at its head. Positioning himself as heir of Byzantium, he reclaimed Bulgaria. This proved to be a bad move as he was beaten by the Bulgarians at Edirne (1205), imprisoned and taken to Tărnovo, where a sorry fate awaited him.
The reign of Ivan Asen II (1218-1241)
After the death of Kalojan (1207) and a few dynastic episodes, the Bulgarian Empire experienced one last period of splendour under the reign of Tsar Ivan Asen II . Having conquered the despot of Epirus at Klokotnica (1230), he restored the Empire’s domination over the whole Balkan peninsula once more, thanks to a canny diplomatic policy. The territory of Bulgaria then included Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, Albania, and extended between the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Adriatic. Under his reign, economic and cultural life thrived like never before.
The beginning of the end
But this period of splendour did not survive the great Tsar. There was one inconsistent and short-lived successor after another, as well as a series of military defeats, while the Tartars of the Golden Horde undertook more incursions into the country, before being stopped in 1277 by a certain Ivajlo. He had himself proclaimed Tsar but was assassinated almost immediately.
The arrival on the throne in 1331 of Tsar Ivan Alexander marked a brief revival of the Empire’s international prestige. But he lost his authority over the Boyars, who took more and more autonomy, while the Turkish threat was looming ever clearer. Ivan Alexander himself contributed to the weakening of the Empire by giving the region of Vidin to his son Ivan Sracimir , who hastened to make his fief an independent kingdom.
The unstoppable turkish march
Having set foot on European soil in 1352, the Ottoman Turks seized Plovdiv in 1364, then forced the new tsar of Tărnovo, Ivan Šišman, to declare himself a vassal of the Sultan. The Turks took Sofia (1388). The alliance between Christian forces that had at last been realised ended in a series of disasters.
In 1393, Veliko Tărnovo fell into the hands of the Ottomans despite the resistance of the patriarch Evtimij (Euthymius) . Three years later, King Sigismond’s coalition, which the kinglet of Vidin, Ivan Sracimir, had joined, was crushed at Nikopol : this defeat sealed the collapse of the region’s Christian States.
The “Ottoman Night”: 14C-19C
At this point, Bulgaria no longer existed as a state. Annexed to the Ottoman Empire, it became the province of Rumelia , under the jurisdiction of a governer, the beylerbey .
The new masters imposed heavy taxes on all Rumelian possessions. But it maintained its language and religion – the Bulgarian Church was brought under the jurisdiction of the Greek patriarchate –, and “forced conversions” to Islam were fewer than cited. It is true that at certain times, Bulgarian children were commandeered and enrolled in the janissary corps, but the so-called “ Ottoman Yoke ” probably weighed much less heavily in daily life than in history’s official version, which nationalistic considerations are wont to perpetuate.
Bulgarian culture took refuge in monasteries that were difficult to access (Rila, Bačkovo etc), as well as in the convent-schools of Hilendar and Zographos (at Mt Athos).
Several insurrections against the occupier nonetheless marked this long period: 1595 saw the insurrection of Tărnovo, which was fomented by Ragusan merchants. Its failure instigated a period of repression, coupled with a policy of forced conversion, which some deem to be the origin of the Pomak , Bulgarians being converted to Islam.
In 1688-1689, taking the opportunity presented by the advance of the Austrians into Serbia, the Bulgarians rose up once more against the Ottomans. When the insurrection failed they transferred their hopes for liberation onto the Russians.
At the same time, as the Turkish regime was becoming weaker, both politically and militarily, the Bulgarian population was flourishing economically, and a middle class emerged, enriched by both manufacturing and trade.
At the end of the 18C, as state structures from another age imposed by the Turks stalled economic development, a few heavy-handed measures (such as the imposition of the Greek language in schools) generated a growing exasperation which led to the emergence of national sentiment. One date symbolises its awakening: 1762, the year Slavo-Bulgarian History , written by the monk Paisij de Hilendar, was published.
Around 1850, under the influence of the cultural centres that had sprung up all over the country, national conscience was developing among the youth. Many intellectuals took refuge in the Russian-controlled principalities of the Danube or in Serbia.
In 1862, one such young person, Georgi Rakovski , created the “First Legion of Bulgarian Volunteers” in Belgrade, with the aim of training a future national liberation army. But the small amount of aid he received from the elites of his host country, Walachia, was one factor in his hopes for armed revolution being dashed: the epic of Stefan Karadža and Hadži Dimităr, with a column of some hundred volunteers, ended bloodily in 1868.
This served to illustrate the limits of this strategy, and in 1869, writer Ljuben Karavelov founded the Bulgarian Central Revolutionary Committee in Bucharest, backed up by his newspaper Svoboda (“Liberty”). During this time, clandestine action spread in Bulgaria, instigated by young patriots who were irritated by the lack of concrete action of a newspaper and proclamations, which were too intellectual for their liking.
The key figure of Vasil Levski (1837-1873) stood out among these groups. This veteran of the legion of Rakovski organised a network of revolutionary committees , whose Central Committee was set up in Loveč with the aim of preparing a coordinated uprising across the whole of Bulgaria. Levski created committees in a hundred or so towns of the country, but an ill-timed armed manoeuvre led to the discovery of the movement’s archives. Vasil Levski then refused to start an insurrection prematurely. He was recognised in an inn, arrested and taken to Sofia. Known as the “Apostle of Freedom”, he was sentenced to death and hanged in February 1873.
The April Insurrection
Young militants, led by Stefan Stambolov , Nikola Obretenov and the poet Hristo Botev , took over the mantle and managed to reconstitute part of the network Levski had put in place. In 1876, in light of Turkey having just declared itself bankrupt, they felt it was the opportune moment to act and the April Insurrection was launched. However, the uprising started in Koprivštica was badly coordinated and failed after several bloody battles. Some 30 000 Bulgarians were massacred during the fighting and the ferocious repression that ensued. The fate of the village of Batak was talked about over all of Europe. Victor Hugo exclaimed: “A people are being assassinated!”
After the failure of the April Insurrection, Hristo Botev formed a detachment of 200 men; he crossed the Danube in a commandeered Austrian ship and marched on Sofia at the head of his regiment. He hoped that other insurgents, already assembled by the clandestine revolutionary network of Vraca, would join them. He waited in vain for these reinforcements, and was shot dead on 1 June. It became clear that no popular uprising would take place. In distress, Botev’s companions dispersed urgently, abandoning his body where he had fallen.
It seemed from then on that salvation could only come from outside.
The Paths to Unity
Salvation was not long in coming: in 1877, Tsar Alexander II of Russia declared war on the Turks. Bulgarian volunteers joined the Russian and Romanian armies. After hard fighting (Šipka Pass, Pleven), the sultan was forced to surrender and sign the San Stefano Treaty on 3 March 1878. Thus Bulgaria saw its 14C borders restored (covering the greater part of what is now Macedonia), while Russia gained control of the Straits.
The Berlin Congress
Under pressure from the English, Alexander II agreed to the meeting of the Berlin Congress . On 13 July 1878, the Congress recognised Bulgaria’s independence, but divided into three parts: to the north, between the Danube and Balkan, Moesia and the region of Sofia made up Northern Bulgaria , vassal principality of the Turks; to the south, Thrace became Eastern Rumelia , with Plovdiv as its capital, a Turkish province ruled by a Christian governer appointed by the Sultan; finally, Macedonia and the Thrace of Andrinople remained Turkish.
The following year, the Bulgarian National Assembly proclaimed the Tărnovo Constitution . Sofia became the capital of one constitutional principality, which chose the German, Alexander of Battenberg , as prince.
The goal of the Bulgarians was now to bring about the unity of their country. They managed partly, when in 1885 they annexed Western Rumelia, which triggered a Balkan crisis and a brief armed conflict with Serbia.
In spite of this victory, the prince was soon forced to abdicate following a coup staged by young officers in favour of a strong alliance with the Russians (August 1886). In 1887, the Bulgarian assembly appointed his successor: Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha , an officer of the Austrian army, whose candidature was supported by England and Austria-Hungary.
The Balkan conflicts
An old hero in the struggle for independence, Stefan Stambolov , was called to power. From 1887 to 1894, the “Bulgarian Bismarck” exerted authoritarian control, transforming the country’s infrastructures and setting up an impressive and well-equipped army. Abroad, the great preoccupation remained the question of Macedonia, whose armed struggle, led by Jane Sandanski and Goce Delčev , among others, culminated in the St Elias Revolt of 1903.
As for Prince Ferdinand, in 1908 he used the circumstance of the annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary to take the title of Tsar and the name Ferdinand I . Bulgaria officially became an independent state. The task of reunifying the country remained.
In March 1912, encouraged by Russia, Ferdinand created a coalition bringing together Bulgarians, Greeks, Montenegrins and Serbs to break up European Turkey. In October 1912, the alliance triggered the First Balkan War , which ended in May 1913 with the outright defeat of the Turks; they went on to sign the Treaty of London , which stripped them of all the territories west of the Enos-Midia line. However, going back on Russian acquisitions pursuant to the Treaty of San Stefano, they were given control of the Straits.
The victors of the conflict picked over the remains of the Turkish Empire. The Bulgarians attacked the Greeks and Serbs in June 1913, but the Romanians and Turks intervened and they were defeated in July. This Second Balkan War ended in August with the Treaty of Bucharest, which was a blow for the Bulgarians, who thereby lost much of the territory conquered in 1912: they had to surrender Southern Dobrudža to the Romanians and return Andrinople (Edirne) to the Turks, while Macedonia was shared out between Serbia and Greece.
The Firts World War
Bulgaria saw the First World War as an opportunity to rebuild itself. In spite of the opinion of Alexander Stambolijski – founder of the reformist party, the Agrarian Party –, and in the absence of any proposal of significant compensation in the event of an Allied victory, it positioned itself alongside the Central Empires in autumn 1916. Bulgarian troops immediately occupied Macedonia and Dobrudža… But the affair soon turned sour. Bulgaria was forced into an armistice on 29 September 1918 and in light of this second bitter failure, Ferdinand abdicated, leaving his son Boris III at the helm . On 27 November 1919, the Treaty of Neuilly blocked Bulgaria’s access to the Aegean Sea and ordered it to pay crippling war damages.
From crisis to crisis
The inter-war period
It was thus vanquished, humiliated and partly ruined, that Bulgaria embarked upon the inter-war period. From 1920 to 1923, the government was led by a charismatic character, the reformist Alexander Stambolijski , head of the Agrarian Union, which had won the 1919 legislative elections, pipping Dimităr Blagoev’s Communist Party to the post. Encouraging smallholdings at the expense of large capital, Stambolijski had no qualms about imprisoning the political leaders of the pre-war period, whom he judged responsible for the country’s disastrous situation. But things did not go smoothly: the Communists were called to the rescue at the most critical moments. On 9 June 1923, Stambolijski was accused of being a dictator and toppled by a coup d’état instigated by young officers, then literally lynched by the partisans of Bulgaria’s new masters.
The White terror
After various prevarications, the Communist Party tried to retaliate in September with an attempted insurrection, which failed. The new Prime Minister, head of the National Alliance, grasped this pretext to proclaim martial law and install a dictatorial regime. Disappearances and executions of opponents were rife during this period, which went down in the history as the White Terror . The climate of violence reached its height on 16 April 1925 with the attack on Sofia Cathedral (killing 200), ascribed to the Communists. The repression then worsened, extending to supposed opponents, as well as members of the intelligentsia, such as the writer, Geo Milev .
The traditional parties having been discredited and the progressive parties decimated, and the National Alliance government undermined by corruption, Bulgarians found themselves at a loss as to where to turn. A coalition party calling itself the National Bloc seized power in 1931, but the results were not convincing. As elsewhere in Europe, several fascist organisations emerged, but they were never more than splinter groups.
Meanwhile, the influence of “Zveno”, a group of officers advocating totalitarian ideas, was growing; on 19 May 1934, it forcibly seized power and the new government led by Kimon Georgiev immediately suspended political liberties, passing a number of decrees. This programme of reforms based on state interventionism in all areas was unanimously opposed. Tsar Boris III chose thismoment to get rid of Georgiev and impose his personal dictatorship (January 1935).
In 1940, with the blessing of the great powers, Bulgaria retrieved the part of Dobrudža that it had lost in 1913. This diplomatic success incited the monarch to declare neutrality in the war raging throughout the world.
But, in 1941, Boris III was forced to authorise German troops to station in the country and by March he was going to war at their side, declaring war against the Allies, while proclaming neutrality in the Germano-Soviet conflict. Berlin rewarded this good will by handing over all of Greek and Serb Macedonia to Bulgaria. In spite of this obligingness, it should be noted that the government refused to hand over the Bulgarian Jews to its new friends. However, internal resistance grew, and German interests and troops were attacked.
In 1943, the sudden death of Boris III , whose son Simeon II was only six years old, threw Bulgarian politicians into turmoil, all the more so as the Red Army was approaching. The Soviet Union declared war and invaded Bulgaria in September 1944. The Bulgarians then joined forces with the Allies and scored some successes against the retreating Germans, which enabled them to re-establish their 1940 borders during the peace conferences.
Forty-five years of Communism
In September 1946, the Communists seized power. The Republic was proclaimed and the former leader of the Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov , became head of the government. He soon set about a pitiless purge (which included the execution of the Agrarian leader, Nikola Petkov ). A new Constitution, promulgated in 1947, proclaimed popular democracy. Todor Živkov became the Party’s strongman in 1954, and led the country with an iron fist until 1989.
Under the Communist regime, Bulgaria, which until the last remained aligned with Soviet positions within the Warsaw Pact, underwent rapid transformation. Until then mainly agricultural, the country experienced a spectacular process of industrialisation and specialised in electrical equipment, while developing its iron and steel and coal industries. Urban growth was accompanied by the expansion of education and a drop in illiteracy. The price to pay was the merciless repression of any form of opposition, with deportations to camps and the assassination of opponents (including the famous “ Bulgarian Umbrella” affair, which did away with the dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.
But the country did not escape the economic crisis of the 1980s, which brought about some disgraces at the highest level. To deal with discontent, the Party played on nationalist feeling, even announcing a farcical decree in 1984 forcing upon Turks the “bulgarisation” of their names! The affair occasioned a massive emigration to Turkey, albeit temporary, and failed in any case to restore the popularity of the leaders. To salvage what could be salvaged, in 1989 Todor Živkov decreed the preustrojstvo , Bulgarian avatar of “perestroika”. Meanwhile, the abolition of agro-industrial complexes exacerbated the food shortage, and the repression of the opposition group Ecoglasnost ended with the regime being discredited. On 10 November, Živkov was forced to give up his position to Petăr Mladenov .
As of the following year, the Communist Party was transformed into the Socialist Party, relinquished its “leadership role” and opened dialogue with the opposition, which did not stop them winning the first free elections in June. Nonetheless, it was the former dissident, Želju Želev , who became President of the Republic in August, before being elected to the position during the presidential elections of 1992.
A difficult transition
The new leaders were faced with an increasingly worrying economic situation due to the debt left by the previous administration (but also by the defection of an important client, Iraq, after 1991), which prevented any significant reforms. The people went through some extremely tough times, with the collapse of banks, which led to the evaporation of the savings of the poorest, food shortages due to the disorganisation of the system, lack of heating, unemployment, and the mafia ruling the roost.
In 1997, the discredited Želev handed over to Petăr Stojanov , member of the Union of Democratic Forces (moderate right), who, with Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, had to implement currency rehabilitation measures, including the adoption of the new lev in 2000. Some of the measures were unpopular and caused the party electoral difficulties. In 2001, Stojanov was replaced by a socialist, Georgi Părvanov , and the UDF collapsed at the legislative elections in June.
It was a new party that triumphed at these elections: the National Simeon II Movement, led by the former king, Simeon of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha . He may have promised to solve the country’s problems in 80 days, but it has to be said that the former king did not manage to win over his fellow citizens, in spite of economic results deemed to be convincing. It was a young socialist leader, Sergej Stanišev , who was brought to power in June 2005, while an ultranationalist formation, viciously anti-Roma and anti-Turk, Ataka, broke through. Its leader, Volen Siderov, even managed to take President Părvanov to a second round at the presidential elections of October 2006, which, despite economic and social improvements, is indicative of the weariness of the population towards a political elite, weakened, furthermore, by constant matters of corruption.
Bulgaria officially entered the European Union on 1 January 2007.