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Bulgarian Political History – Choice between East and West
1. Introduction:The Bulgarian political profile could be described with one word only – dynamical. The historical view shows that almost every aspect of that profile has went through severe changes. Take for example Bulgaria’s political map – established as a small fortification and without any clear borders in the north, the country had its biggest territory in the middle of the 13th century bordering on three seas (Black sea, Aegean and Adriatic) and then in the next century with the offence of the Ottoman Empire it was erased from the world map.
The same observations can be made in respect of the system of government. Everything has been tried, beginning with absolute monarchy, through the constitutional monarchy and ending up with the republic. Moreover, Bulgarian people have experienced the 3 most popular regimes in the world - fascism, socialism and democracy, in practice. Taking into account, additionally, that the political situation varies from unstable to the most stable in the region, it might be concluded that the Bulgarian nation is living in interesting times permanently.
This could be explained with the always pending question before the Bulgarian decision makers which direction to follow. Being a country located on the border between Europe and Asia, Bulgaria was forced to make alliances in order to survive. And the choice has always been between two sides – the western world with its western values and political order or the Eastern World which was closer in the geographical sense of the word.
2. Bulgaria in the middle ages: Bulgaria was established in year 681. Not long after its foundation, the country was faced with the political question: “East or West”. The reason was a very essential problem for the old ages – consisting of many tribes among which dominated the old Bulgarians and the Slavic, it became clear that if their substantial differences were not adjusted, the country would not survive the permanent offence of its neighbors. Thus, in the 9th century the Bulgarian ruler Boris initiated a plan which was aimed at combating the controversies in religion, tradition and communication between the tribes. It was decided that Christianity shall be the general religion for all people inhabiting the kingdom territories and the paganism was forbidden. In the fulfillment of this idea however, Boris had to choose between the two Christian centers, Constantinople and the Papacy in alliance with the Franks, to convert the Bulgarians. Of course this was not only a question of religion but a question of joining a political family also. Extensive negotiations with both sides have been held but at the end the closeness to the Byzantium Empire and the relative religious independence offered by the Patriarch turned to be decisive. Bulgaria chose the East for first time.
Results:The results of this choice could be seen even nowadays for the majority of the Bulgarian citizens are orthodox. Christianity united the nation and the next few centuries were the most thriving in Bulgarian history. Following the religion, the language and the alphabet were also unified under the reign of King Simeon (the son of Boris). Bulgaria grew to a cultural and religious center for all surrounding countries. From political point of view the adoption of orthodox Christianity secured a long-term peace with the Byzantium Empire which opened the way for heavy inner development. This, however, was not enough to save the country from the invasion of the Ottoman Empire which in the 14 c. enslaved Byzantium, Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries, a process which was additionally facilitated by the lack of serious support from the Western world, consisting predominantly of Catholics at that time.
3. The Ottoman Slavery:After the fall of the Bulgarian kingdom in year 1395 the political system of the country was erased. It was replaced by the feudal structure of the Ottoman Empire headed by the centralized governance of the Sultan. The Bulgarians were suppressed and discriminated and were not allowed to participate in any political or religious movements. For five centuries under Ottoman slavery international relations were cut, political activity was forbidden and every person who expressed ideas for change was slaughtered or sold in slavery. The Bulgarians remained aside from the political evolution of the rest of the world.
Results:With the establishment of the Ottoman dominance, the Eastern Asian values were imposed on every social aspect. The 500 years slavery affected the Bulgarian political life immensely. During the invasion the Ottomans did their best to eliminate the county’s elite and their successors. The same fate shared the bright Bulgarians who tried to speak for modernization and political independence. This led to the extinction of the political culture in Bulgarian community and as a result it took many years after the liberation to develop a body of young politicians who could take crucial decisions.
4. Restoration and the years afterwards:Political activity was reborn in the 19th century when the empire fell into financial and governmental crisis and its military control over its European territories weakened. Some Bulgarian revolutionaries believed that independent Bulgaria should be a Monarchy, others opted for Republic. There were also ideas for a confederation with Serbia. Among all young politicians one should be distinguished because of his bright political view and working solutions – his name was Vassil Levski. He managed to establish a secret organization which was so well organized that for several years spread over the whole territory. He believed that liberated Bulgaria should be republic, based on the principles of civil rights, freedom of speech, equality before the law etc. He was a sworn democrat and for all his ideas he is now recognized as the politician with the clearest political view at those times.
Despite the many differences between the revolutionaries, unanimity has been met on one point – all fractions believed that the Bulgarians will receive aid in their fight for freedom from Russia. This disposition was not based on any political ideas but was motivated by the Russian wars against the Ottomans which had as a result the independence of Greece and Serbia. On the other hand the Western countries in the face of England, France and Austria supported the Ottomans because they didn’t want the Russian control to widen. Nevertheless, the Bulgarians were not in the position to chose by whom to be liberated. The Russian army declared war on the Ottomans in 1877 and one year later Bulgaria became a free country. The Russian military support was seen as an act of good will and highly appreciated by the nation. For this reason during the following 100 years Russia was adored by the regular Bulgarian citizens as the Savior and this ensured its dominant position in the region.
Results:The demolition of the Bulgarian governmental tradition for 5 centuries and the thread of counter-attack by the Ottomans, gave grounds to the Russians to establish temporal Russian governance over the liberated territories. More than 80 Russian officers were sent to Bulgaria to perform the duties of regional governors, heads of police, army commanders etc. Their main purpose was to pass to the Bulgarians the Russian governmental experience. Thus the young Bulgarian country was organized not according to the ideas of the revolutionaries-idealists but according to the Russian model. The Constitution envisaged that Bulgaria is a constitutional monarchy with a single-chamber Parliament. Although the MPs were given broad powers, no working mechanisms have been introduced to prevent the Monarch from suspension of the Constitution. And the monarch was supposed to be a foreigner due to the lack of noblemen among the Bulgarians.
The Western countries didn’t like the course of the events. They made everything possible to ensure that the Bulgarian Monarch won’t be with Russian birth. The efforts gave results and the Austrian Prince Alexander von Battenberg has been chosen. In the following years the political battles between the main parties – liberals and conservators – were determined by the struggling Russian and Austro-Hungarian interests. The Bulgarian politicians were divided in Russophiles or Russophobes.
5. The Balkan Wars and World War I
The tension between the big European countries, provoked by the desire for reallocation of the existing colonies, found its reflection on the Balkans. The soil was very vulnerable because the Balkan countries had controversial territorial claims and desire for expansion. Although Russia wanted to avoid a conflict on the Balkans so it would later be able to depend on strong regional allies, the Balkan wars broke out in 1912 and 1913 and weakened the region.
Bulgaria entered in the Balkan wars economically strong and independent. The government of Stefan Stambolov introduced a protective policy over the Bulgarian production and granted free land for the construction of factories. In its foreign policy it tried to set aside the eternal question East or West and tried to maneuver between the interests of the great powers. The governmental measures gave a hard push to the economy and the self-esteem of the Bulgarians and the country entered into the wars as a leading factor on the Balkans. Instead of stopping after its successful battles in 1912, the Monarch, blinded by the winning streak, individually declared war on his previous allies. This move turned the neighbors against Bulgaria and it logically lost the war. The defeat and the desire for king’s revenge predestined the country’s allies in World War I.
Result:During this period Bulgaria tried to be independent from the Eastern and Western countries. This granted economical prosperity and some relative independence in the international relations. However, being one of the biggest states on the Balkans at that time and having a strategic position, the Bulgaria couldn’t keep its neutral direction in the pre-war world. Furthermore, the old arguments for territories with its neighbors required a powerful friend who could support its claims. Bulgaria went out of the three consecutive wars economically poor and smaller in size. This opened the door for radical political movements.
6. Before and after World War II. The Socialism
In the period between the World Wars the principles of democracy were heavily neglected. After the war the agricultural party won the elections but although it didn’t have enough votes it ensured the necessary majority by partial cassation of the results of the opposition. The agricultural government will be remembered with intensive reforms which were severely protested. In order to suppress its opponents the party used force. This instrument of the authorities was adopted by the following governments and marked the period between the wars. The military alliances grew on force and made several military coups in order to overtake the power. In the 30s emerged a fascist movement which played an important role in the years before World War II. In international aspect, Bulgaria was doomed to isolation. The radical prime-ministers were against the close relations with communist Russia and the other countries were cold towards defeated Bulgaria.
Between 1918 and 1940 the socialist movement, established after the holly liberation, grew into a strong party engaging more and more people, enchanted by the naïve ideas of Marx and Engels. In the beginning the party was accepted by the rulers and even allowed to the authority by the agricultural government. However, after the socialists were thrown out from the Council of Ministers they organized several conspiracies against the new governments. Their immediate reaction was to declare the party as illegal. But only after the bloody bomb attack against the famous church “St. Nedelia” started the executions of communist leaders.
At the end of WW II the communist party was at its peak. Disappointed by the result the people didn’t have faith in the traditional parties. Furthermore, the Russian army was dislocated on Bulgaria’s northern border. This left no chance to the government but to give the communist opposition the power and to avoid new blood baths and civil war. Shortly after, the communists initiated referendum for republic, the prince was banished from the country and the opposition together with the intellectuals was sentenced to death. During the mass nationalization new victims in the face of the former businessmen and tradesmen were executed. Without living opposition the communist party ensured its reign for the next 45 years and left no chance to the nation to choose freely between East and West.
Result:Once again Bulgaria missed the world’s modernization. The fundamental freedoms were restricted and the private initiative was eliminated. Bulgaria’s foreign policy was determined by Russia and in many more areas it became a dependent country with limited sovereignty.
7. The way towards Democracy.
On the 10th of November 1989 was declared that the communist regime is over and Bulgaria begins transition towards Democracy. This act is organized and fully controlled by the communist party. Its leaders assure that only they are able to conduct the transition and that blood shedding is unnecessary. The communist party changes its name to socialist party and makes personal changes in its management. Claiming that it is fully reformed it keeps its position in the next three government.
The newly established Democratic Party refused in the beginning to govern together with the socialist party. One year later it changes this position and after one year in coalition in the winter of 1991 it constructs a single party government. The failure of the first Democratic governance, caused by the differences in management and awful internal policy leads to a political crisis and brings back the socialist party. The next five years under the rule of two socialist governments and one constructed by experts were marked by instability. The immense economical crisis from 1997 made the people to leave their jobs and go to protests which later evolved in civil disobedience. This time the socialists were thrown out of the Parliament with force. They were replaced by the Democrats which were more experienced then before and with better party organization. Political instability and economic crisis hav e come to an end.
Result:In the past 20 years Bulgaria tries to forget its communist past and to adopt the principles of democracy. The democratic ideas have been implied in the new Constitution adopted in 1991 which set the foundations for modern society. Negotiations have been initiated with NATO and the European Union in the realization of the effort to enter the Western countries’ family. However, the political environment was not satisfactory cleaned in order to ensure the clear course of the country. There are numerous political decisions which could be pointed out as influenced by the former communist activists. This means that even now when Bulgaria is clearly following the Western direction there are distractions which give rise to suspicions about the effectiveness of our transition.
As a conclusion – one might say that on the crossroad between East and West, Bulgaria was strong enough to choose the direction it wants to follow only once – in the ninth century.
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