Contact    Print version   en | de

Capital: Sofia, 1,096,289 inhabitants (census 2001)
Population: 7,973,671 (census 2001)
Ethnic composition: 83.5 percent Bulgarians, 9.5 percent Turks, 4.6 percent Romanies, 1.5 percent other minorities (census 2001)
Area: 110,994 square kilometers
Gross Domestic Product: 19,860 million US dollars (2003)
GDP per Capita: 2,536 US dollars (2003) 

A King Comes to Sofia

In the postwar era the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was long considered one of the most faithful allies of the Soviet Union. At the latest by the time that Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985, however, the relationship between the two states had cooled considerably. Their relations of economic exchange, which until then had been very close, also cooled around this time. The standard of living of the Bulgarian people declined noticeably, although they had hoped for greater freedoms and better benefits from the frequently promised changes to the political and economic system. Faced with a growing crisis of legitimacy, Todor Shivkov, the long-standing state and party leader, attempted to consolidate his position through a mixture of reform rhetoric and repression. At the same time, there was an increase in discrimination against the Turkish minority, a practice with a long history in Bulgarian ethnic policy.1  As early as the mid-1980s the official organs of the party and state forced members of these ethnic groups to "Slavicize" their Turkish first and last names. In spring 1989 Shivkov opened the border with Turkey and, with the help of a campaign of violence, touched off a mass exodus of more than 300,000 people. In the end, however, these actions accelerated his fall, as they completely isolated the People’s Republic of Bulgaria internationally. On November 10, 1989, the head of state was stripped of his powers by the Bulgarian leadership, by arrangement with Gorbachev. The successor to the Communist Party, renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party ( BSP ), sought to remain in power by the parliamentary route. Its chances were reasonable, in fact, as the dissident movement in Bulgaria was relatively weak. On December 7, 1989, the opposition had formed an alliance called the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS). The spectrum of oppositional forces ranged from human rights and environmental groups by way of nonaligned union action groups to parties revived from the interwar period.

In the first free parliamentary elections on June 10 and 17, 1990, the BSP did not achieve a clear majority. The Union took 36 percent, whereas the Farmers’ Union took 8 percent of the votes, and the party headed by dissident Ahmed Dogan, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) received 6 percent. This last group primarily represented the interests of the Turkish minority. In the run-up to the elections, on April 10, 1990, a law was passed that prohibited the founding of parties based on religion or ethnicity. The DPS managed get around these requirements only by formally opening itself to all citizens, and with the help of the Bulgarian constitutional court. In years to come the demands of the Turkish minority for cultural and political rights repeatedly met with aggressive counter movements within the majority, deliberately stirred up by the other parties.

At the end of 1990 the governing Socialist Party had to step down as a result of mass protests, and in the following years the government changed several times. In the end, the BSP returned to power in early 1995 with the help of an electoral alliance (the Democratic List). The party had managed to appeal in particular to voters who had lost social status as a result of the restructuring of the economy. By 1996, however, Bulgaria had met with one of the worst monetary and economic crises of postsocialist eastern Europe. Inconsistent economic policies, the retention of traditional structures for production, and a corrupt system of favoritism played an important role. After a rapid decline in real income and the near complete breakdown of social security net, many people were only able to survive with the help of urban soup kitchens. The Bulgarian population prepared itself for a "famine winter." In the face of such perspectives, the economic depression expanded to become a crisis of state. In late 1996 the growing social discontent gave vent to new mass demonstrations. Shortly thereafter, demonstrators stormed the parliament in Sofia and thus succeeded in getting their demand for new elections met.

In April 1997 the conservative SDS party won an absolute majority in parliament with its electoral alliance, the United Democratic Forces. The new prime minister, Ivan Kostov, followed a strict policy of austerity, slowed inflation, and laid important cornerstones for future membership in NATO and EU. But people’s hopes for an improved standard of living were not fulfilled. Instead, the social polarization of society increased. The conservative government was the first to survive a full legislative period, but it suffered severe loses in the parliamentary elections of 2001. Surprisingly, the hodgepodge party of the former monarch Simeon II2  emerged as the strongest force. Borisov Saxecoburggotski, the common name of the last Bulgarian tsar, had returned from more than five decades in exile and established the populist National Movement Simeon II (NDSW) in just a few months. Within 800 days, Saxecoburggotski’s slogan went, the country would be clearly improved. The course of privatization was to be made socially acceptable. Yet he too failed, despite incipient economic growth, to improve significantly the standard of living of the people. Unlike the metropolis Sofia and the tourist centers on the Black Sea, the countryside and the small towns were cut off from any economic development. Like all its predecessors, Saxecoburggotski’s cabinet was soon suspected of corruption. The parliamentary elections of June 2005 revealed a deep chasm between the political classes and the rest of society. Although the BSP got 31 percent of the ballots, many voters had not forgotten the economic disaster of their last period of rule in 1995-96. The conservatives, who had been constantly at loggerheads in recent years, were also punished at the polls. But the share of the vote received by the National Movement Simeon II shrank by half, to 19.9 percent. The primary beneficiaries of this crisis of political representation was the extreme right party Ataka ( Attack ), whose share of the vote increased to 9 percent, making it the fourth largest party. Its success was largely due to racist attacks against Bulgarian Turks and Romanies. After protracted negotiations a center-left coalition was formed from the NDSW, the Socialists, and Ahmed Dogan’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The crucial factor was the dominant view that only a stable coalition could ensure that the plan to join the European Union remained a realistic option.

Future Membership in the EU

As early as late 1995 the socialists, who were in power at the time, had applied for full membership in the EU for Bulgaria, but at the same time, in the face of Russian objections, they remained reserved toward the possibility of joining NATO. As the economic crisis set in, NATO membership became the highest priority of Bulgarian foreign policy, as it was hoped this would provide a crucial benefit for entry into the community of European states. Bulgaria dropped its initial reservations regarding the Yugoslavian conflict and in 1999 it made its airspace available for NATO attacks against the neighboring Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In the end, it joined the military alliance in March 2004, together with Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the three Baltic states. Since 1997 Bulgaria has largely met the Copenhagen criteria3  and since 2002 it has been considered a "functioning market economy." On April 25, 2005, EU foreign ministers and representatives of the Bulgarian and Romanian governments signed the membership agreements, which state that both countries will become members on January 1, 2007. The protective clauses were stricter than those in earlier negotiations on entry: if all conditions have not been met, the European Union can delay admission until 2008.

Until the end of the 1990s the EU accused the Bulgarian government of serious lapses in its attention to human rights. In addition to the Bulgarian Turks it is above all Romanies who are subject to serious discrimination and marginalization. Nothing fundamental has changed in that respect, although Prime Minister Saxecoburggotski has placed the integration of the latter minority on the political agenda.

In 1999 the Bulgarian and Macedonia governments set aside a longstanding battle of words. Bulgaria recognized the independence of the Macedonian nation4  for the first time. Macedonia, in turn, agreed it would not attempt to influence the Macedonian minority in its neighboring state.

Protectorate of the International Monetary Fund

Until 1989 the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was well integrated into the division of labor on which the economic structures of the Eastern Bloc were based. While 80 percent of Bulgarian foreign trade was exported to socialist states, the EU share of trade was only 12 percent. The economic situation and above all the balance of payments with foreign countries were already considered problematic in the 1980s. The change of system and the beginnings of the restructuring of the Bulgarian economy magnified the difficulties. The shrinking of eastern European markets and the poor competitiveness of Bulgarian products on the capitalist world market led to a rapid decline in industrial production and jobs. Between 1989 and 1999 the gross domestic product dropped by more than two thirds.

Rushed privatization of agriculture also led to clear reductions in production in the 1990s. When the cooperatives were dissolved and the farms returned to former owners or their heirs, nearly all of the resulting farms were too small to be productive. At the same time, more and more people were forced by poverty into a subsistence economy. In 2003 the agrarian sector, in which 25.6 percent of the employed are occupied, accounted for 11.4 of gross added value.

By contrast, the privatization of state industries merely shuffled along. The cause was in no small measure the economic calculations of the old nomenklatura. After the system change the nomenklatura used its key social positions to enrich itself from public property. First private companies were formed that placed themselves strategically within the input and output structures of the large state industrial companies. They sold the state companies’ raw materials at inflated prices, bought their finished products under special conditions, and then sold them off at great profits. The governments in turn subsidized the ailing state companies in order to preserve jobs. At the same time, the representatives of the old power structures founded a series of banks that were financed by the Bulgarian State Bank. They then granted loans to private companies close to them. Over time, a virtually impenetrable financial pyramid arose that no longer had any real economic basis. Through their constant provision of new funds, they turned the existing inflation into hyperinflation. In the end, Bulgaria’s currency was useless as a means of payment. Hence during their term in office the socialists served above all the interests of the former nomenklatura, which had transformed into the business elite of the 1990s.

To overcome the crisis, in spring 1997 the new conservative government, acting at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, introduced a "currency board arrangement" in Bulgaria. The currency board, appointed on July 1, 1997, tied the exchange rate of the lev to the German mark or euro, respectively (1,000 leva = 1 DM). From this point on the currency in circulation was covered by foreign exchange reserves of the Bulgarian central bank and strictly tied to those reserves. Since this decision Bulgaria is effectively a kind of IMF protectorate, as the government’s autonomy in budget questions has been abolished de facto, and every decision must be coordinated with international financial institutions. The International Monetary Fund is said to be the largest creditor of Bulgaria’s foreign debt, which totals more than 13 billion US dollars.

Pegging the exchange rate did indeed consolidate the Bulgarian economy; the inflation rate stabilized. The disadvantage of this austerity policy, however, is that the room for state investment and social programs is significantly restricted. In addition, the stabilized exchange rate has a negative effect on domestic demand. In recent years the IMF has pushed for continual increases in energy prices and is trying at the same time to prevent an increase of the minimum wage. Although the 4.3 percent (2003) growth rate of the economy is considered relatively dynamic, the Bulgarian gross domestic product in purchasing power standards is about 29 percent of the average among EU countries. Hence the standard of living of the population is still decoupled from economic growth. An average family budget at the end of 2000 was 470 leva monthly; a year later it was just 410 leva.

By contrast, the unemployment rate has fallen in recent years (2004: 12.2 percent), but experts attribute the decline less to an economic boom than to labor policy. At the same time, the unequal geographical distribution of unemployment can be observed. Whereas in Sofia the 4 percent rate can effectively be described as full employment; in other regions more than 20 percent of the residents are unemployed. As a consequence of this imbalance, broad sections of the "flatlands" are largely depopulated today.

Also striking is the increase in direct foreign investment, which in 2003 totaled 1.36 billion US dollars. In addition to low wage levels and the modest corporate taxes, the planned EU membership plays a role in this. Bulgaria’s balance of trade has clearly deteriorated. The deficit rose from 5.3 percent of the gross domestic product in 2002 to 8.4 percent the following year. In 2003 Italy was the Bulgaria’s largest trading partner at 13.2 percent, followed by Greece (11.6 percent), Germany (11 percent), and Turkey (9.2 percent). More than half of its imports come from the countries within the enlarged European Union (EU-25), with the Federal Republic of Germany leading at 13.8 percent. Even so, German-Bulgarian trade relations remain in general at a very low level.

Harmonization with "Western" Standards

Although Bulgaria’s 1991 constitution guarantees freedom of information and the press, the parties and powerful interests groups place heavy political and economic pressure on the editorial staff of the various media. It was long considered a matter of course that control of television in particular was the responsibility of the government. As a result, the post of the chairman of the television station changed eleven times between 1989 and 2000, according to the preferences of the party in power. In keeping with Bulgarian policies toward minorities, until mid-2000 there was a requirement that the programs of the state electronic media could only be broadcast in Bulgarian. The zeal which the Bulgarian government is currently showing with regard to the code of criminal procedure relating to freedom of the press is connected to the country’s imminent joining of the EU. As recently as autumn 2004 the progress report of the EU commission noted that the accusation of defamation of character or libel could be punished with fines high enough to destroy a person’s livelihood, and that the legal protections on journalists’ information sources were entirely inadequate.

For a long time Bulgarians were considered especially enthusiastic readers of newspapers. Estimates by media experts indicate that at the end of the 1990s every third adult purchased a daily newspaper. The market leaders are Trud (Truth) and 24 Chasa (24 Hours), both belonging to the Bulgarian subsidiary of the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ).5  The German publishing group, which has repeatedly had conflicts with the state cartel authorities as a result of its monopolistic holdings, asserts that it does not influence the editorial practices. An analogous process of concentration can be observed in the advertising market. Here the WAZ has managed to occupy a key position in Bulgaria’s advertising market. However, newspapers have been losing circulation in recent years, while the electronic media have made gains—a trend that has affected the WAZ papers as well. In the television market Rupert Murdoch’s media corporation has established itself as the market leader.


1 The relationship to the Turkish minority in Bulgarian ethnic policy has been conflicted ever since the founding of the modern Bulgarian state. Bulgaria’s struggle for independence ( 1876-78 ) ended with the expulsion of about half a million Muslims. The second wave of emigration began with the two Balkan Wars in 1912-13 and lasted until 1926. Entire population groups were "exchanged" in accordance with ethnic policy perspectives. The communists also pursued a rigid ethnic policy. In the mid-1950s they postulated that Bulgaria was "not a multiethnic state" and the Turkish minority was an "inseparable part of the Bulgarian people." In 1969 an emigration treaty was signed with Turkey that permitted about 120,000 Bulgarian Turks to leave the People’s Republic in 1978. For reasons of domestic politics there was another wave of forced migration in 1989. After the collapse of the communist regime many of those expelled returned. But even the new Bulgarian constitution of July 13, 1991, does not recognize the Turkish-speaking population as a minority, and it rules out any right to territorial autonomy. [zurück]

2 The Congress of Berlin in 1878 recognized under international law the countries of Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro and the autonomy of the Principality of Bulgaria. At the same time the great powers determined that it would be ruled as a monarchy. The prince’s throne that had been dictated by outsiders was perceived by the majority as "alien to the country." In Bulgaria in 1887 the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha removed Prince Alexander von Battenberg from office, as he had fallen out of favor with the Russian tsar. In 1909 the sultan recognized Bulgaria’s full independence and renamed it a kingdom. Following World War One, authoritarian regimes in the form of "dictatorships of kings" asserted themselves throughout southeastern Europe. In Bulgaria, Simeon II (born 1937) ascended to the throne on August 28, 1943, following the death of his father, Boris III. It turned out to be a brief intermezzo. For Bulgaria, which was allied with the German Reich, was occupied by Soviet troops in September 1944. Supported by a referendum, the Bulgarian communists dissolved the monarchy on September 6, 1946. Simeon II went into exile in Spain with his mother. [zurück]

3 At an EU summit in Copenhagen in 1993, three fundamental criteria for entry were defined (the Copenhagen criteria): stability of institutions, a functioning market economy, and adherence to the Union’s political aims. "Accession partnerships" concern monetary and budget policies, administrative reforms, interventions in the social security systems, and the adoption of the shared set of regulations of the European Union (the "acquis communautaire"). If candidate states fail to meet agreed targets then sanctions may be imposed. In comparison to previous rounds of EU expansion, the present negotiations are more strongly determined by one-sided demands of the EU. [zurück]

4 In the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria divided Macedonia among themselves. After World War One a long-standing conflict flared up over the Yugoslavian part of Macedonia, to which Bulgaria laid territorial claim. The Bulgarian occupation of this region from 1941 to 1944 encountered widespread resistance among the leadership of the communist partisans. Hence the Communist Party of Yugoslavia declared the Slavic Macedonians to be an autonomous nation. After Tito’s break with Stalin the conflicts over the "Macedonian question" grew bitter again. Both people’s republics accused the other of expansionist endeavors. In order to keep the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria away from possible separatist influences from Yugoslavia, the Bulgarian state changed its ethnic policy. The leadership in Sofia began to deny the existence of minorities in its country. Until the end of the 1990s the Bulgarian government took the position that the Slavic Macedonians in the neighboring republic were Bulgarians in an ethnic sense. [zurück]

5 The Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) group has developed into a media power in the region in recent years. It is active in Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, and Hungary, among other countries, and it is seeking to expand further. Not coincidentally, the company added Bodo Hombach, the former coordinator of the so-called Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, to its board. [zurück]