The other end of Europe

Continuing our post-financial crash series on small countries around the world, Hamish Kirk looks at the recent history of Bulgaria.

When Romania and Bulgaria were accepted as the newest (and last?) states to be accepted into the EU what did we at the other end of Europe know about them? Even amongst those who follow current affairs, Bulgaria was a far-away country of which they knew nothing. Stories about sinister doings with poisoned umbrellas, attempts to murder the Pope, and a vague idea of a place for cheap package holidays in the sun might emerge from those who could differentiate between Bulgaria and Bavaria. This is strange because for at least a decade in British politics, Bulgaria was centre stage.

The ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’ of the 1870s dominated public political discourse. As the Ottomans attempted to hold onto Bulgaria during an armed uprising against their rule, news reached the European press, including The Times, of massacres committed by irregular forces against the Bulgarian population. Gladstone, MP for a Scottish Constituency, tapped into this outrage and railed at every opportunity against the continuing Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria and the rest of the Balkans. The ‘Eastern Question’ acted as a litmus test for political opinion in 19th Century Britain. Tories were pro-Ottoman. Liberals and other radicals were vociferously on the side of the insurgents in the Balkans. The Uprising against Ottoman rule ended in massacre, but did result in The Russian Tsar declaring war on Ottoman Turkey. The Imperial Russian forces, with help from Romania, crossed the Danube and military defeat after a long winter campaign led to a peace treaty in which the government in Istanbul agreed to a free Bulgaria. Liberation of Bulgaria was paid for in the blood of Russian soldiers. Bulgarians did not forget that and pro-Russian sympathies are not hard to account for.

Despite the machinations of Disraeli, Bulgaria did achieve a limited independence within the Ottoman Empire in 1878. And with that, it would seem Bulgaria disappeared from the political agenda in Europe and from the consciousness of the radicals and socialists of the continent and the world. During the period of economic growth after independence, Bulgaria began to industrialise and parts of the country, for example Sofia and Gabrovo, saw the growth of an urban proletariat. The Socialist movement saw rapid growth, with close ties between the Bulgarian movement and those in Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia. 1891 was the year when the first Social Democratic Party in the Balkans was founded by Dimitar Blagoev. The Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party split in 1903 with a Narrow Wing and a Broad Wing, mirroring splits in other parties in Europe. Parallel with the growth in the Socialist Party we can see a growth in trade unions representing labour and also a growth in the cooperative movement, especially in the field of agriculture and of handicrafts.

During this period of development and change in Bulgaria, one important factor was that the dominant feature of agricultural life in most areas of Bulgaria was the peasantry. As in other areas of Europe, there were no agricultural clearances in Bulgaria. Individual peasant farmers continued to farm the land with small, mixed farms accounting for much agricultural production. Imagine an economy which is dominated by crofters; that was then and continued to be, a feature of Bulgarian life. There was not an urban proletariat totally separated from the land. Most town dwellers maintained family and personal contacts with those producing food as smallholders. This was a tendency that has continued until today and is a crucial factor in explaining developments in Modern Bulgaria. It accounts for major differences between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union.

After partial independence in 1878, Bulgaria did not develop into the ‘Switzerland of the Balkans’ that some patriots had hoped to see. There was a minor war with Serbia in 1885 and then the disastrous Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Bulgaria lost territory as a result of these, including the fertile Dobrudja which produces huge quantities of wheat. In an attempt to regain lost territory in Dobrudja, Macedonia and Thrace, Bulgaria sided with the Central Powers and in 1915 became a belligerent fighting with Germany, Austria and Turkey against Imperial Russia, France and Britain. Ferdinand, a German prince of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, certainly played a role in allying Bulgaria with the Central Powers. The disastrous defeat of Bulgaria and the imposition of the Peace Treaty of Neuilly cost him his throne.Attempts to establish a republic were unsuccessful.A left-wing government under Alexander Stamboliski was overthrown by a military coup in 1923, and the organised left, including the organised peasantry and the socialist groupings were the victims of death squads and arbitrary executions. Stamboliski himself, a prominent anti-war activist, adversary of King Ferdinand and signatory of the Peace of Neuilly (the Bulgarian ‘Versailles Treaty’) was tortured, mutilated and murdered by his Macedonian captors. Writers like the Symbolist Geo Milev disappeared. Thousands of others shared their fate. Political activists, those who had opposed the War, and trade unionists were particular targets for the Death Squads. Police and Army played their part in helping crush the Left.

Those who are nostalgic about pre-war ‘Bourgeois Bulgaria’ would do well to remember that this regime had more in common with some vile South Americanmilitary dictatorship than with the liberal democracies of Western and Northern Europe. After 1923 a series of undemocratic and authoritarian governments ran Bulgaria.Influences from Austria and Germany were always strong and after 1933 it was clear to most observers that Bulgaria would be with the new powers in Berlin in any conflict.The political repression and political executions committed from 1923 on go a long way to explain the ferocity of the Peoples Court in the period after 1944. As the World divided itself into two camps in the late 1930s and 1940s, Bulgaria was clearly with the Axis Powers. Berlin had engineered a settlement between Romania and Bulgaria whereby the Southern Dobrudja including the towns of Dobrich, Silistra, Balchik and Tutrakan were retuned to Bulgaria after 27 years of Romanian administration. After the occupation of Greece, Western Thrace was given back to Bulgaria which had controlled this area briefly after the Balkan Wars. This area had a substantial ethnically Bulgarian population, and furthermore gave Bulgaria direct access to the Mediterranean without the need to go from the Black Sea through the Bosporus. King Boris, unlike his father King Ferdinand who had been forced to abdicate in 1918 could learn something from history. As a result after he declared war on Great Britain and the USA, he did not declare war on the USSR. He realised that there was a huge sympathy for Russia amongst the people, partly as a result of the role played in establishing Bulgarian independence.

The organised left in Bulgaria had gone underground and after the German attack on the USSR, armed struggle against the ‘monarcho-fascist’ government in Sofia was decreed.

The partisan struggles in Bulgaria were determined and no one should doubt the enthusiasm and courage of those involved. It never reached the levels of the partisan war in Yugoslavia under Tito. Students of British Social History may have come across the name of E P Thompson who wrote *The Making of The English Working Class*. Not so well known is his brother, Frank Thompson, who as a liaison between London and the Bulgarian partisans was arrested, tried and executed. A village to the North of Sofia is named after him. The war took its inevitable course and as the Red Army crossed the Danube into Bulgaria in September 1944,partisan units took over the administration in Sofia. A Popular Front-style government under the leadership of Georgi Dimitrov took over. Revenge for the repression of the previous two decades was swift. Large numbers of politicians and administrators were executed. These included Prince Kyril, regent and brother of King Boris who had died in mysterious circumstances in 1943 after a visit to Berlin. A referendum in 1946 abolished the monarchy and the infant King Simeon left. First port of call for the ex-royals was Egypt where King Farouk offered asylum. After Farouk lost his job, General Franco gave the family a pied-a-terre in Madrid.

Bulgaria had not suffered the devastation that other European countries had seen during the Second World War, but the 1940s and 1950s were hard times economically. Bulgaria was fully integrated in Comecon and assigned the role of agricultural producer with some heavy industry. Prosperity did come in the 1960s and later, although in terms of measured GDP she was always down at the bottom of the list. Let us not forget though the role of the peasant farmer. Small farmers in Bulgaria, even during collectivisation continued to produce food. In the economic collapse coming after the fall of the USSR and the end of Comecon, this was to prove a blessing to many families. Large enterprises in many cases after 1989 simply stopped paying wages, or paid only part wages many months in arrears. Because large sectors of the population still lived like crofters, they could survive this catastrophe. Of course Bulgaria during the period of the People’s Republic was no Workers’ Paradise, but there were certain gains. Full employment, a health system that provided basic health care for all, decent housing for people in the towns were some of the gains. One sign of prosperity was that from the 1960s it became increasingly common for a family to have an apartment in town as well as a house in the village. How many proletarians in Britain had two houses?

The changes after 1989 came to Bulgaria slowly. There were no dramatic scenes as were witnessed with the end of the Ceausescu’s in Romania. Blood was not spilt and the transition was peaceful. Nonetheless the ‘Changes’, as the euphemism goes, did bring about real changes for many. A few became rich. Many were pauperised. Times were not good for pensioners, the chronically sick, large families and the Roma. The age of full employment ended in the early 1990s. From a system where everyone had a job (indeed where everyone was *required* to work), we now have a system where there is mass unemployment. Whole sectors of industry have disappeared – the most recent being the Steel Plant at Kremikovtsi. Accession to the European Union in 2007 was not universally popular, although some analysts saw this as providing Bulgaria with alternative markets for its produce. Many within the political class had a clear interest in administering the grants and other aid that were expected from the EU and true to predictions of some commentators there have been many cases of corruption involving agricultural development funds from Brussels.

A dramatic illustration of the hard times can be seen by looking at the case of emigration – emigration from Bulgaria is a new historical phenomenon. Unlike Poland or Scotland, Greece or Italy, this country has no tradition of sending its sons and daughters into exile. Look no farther to see that the Triumphalism we witnessed amongst the ideologues of the Cold War in 1989 rings very hollow to many. A sad anecdote will illustrate the reality of the New Bulgaria for many. This story was reported recently on Bulgarian TV and in Novinite (the Sofia News Agency). A couple from a village in the North east of Bulgaria were unemployed. They listened to advice from a man who promised them work in a factory in Prague. They parted with their money for his fee and for the bus fare to the Czech republic. There was no job.Stranded in a foreign country with no money they came back the only way they could. They walked the 1100 km from Prague to Russe.