Republic of Bulgaria

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Republic of Bulgaria

Type of Government

The Republic of Bulgaria is a semi-presidential democracy. The executive branch consists of a president, elected by direct popular vote, who serves as head of state and leader of the armed forces, and a prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party in the legislature and serves as head of government. The legislative branch consists of a single chamber with members elected by direct, popular vote. Judicial authority is divided between the Supreme Court of Cassation, the Supreme Administrative Court, and the Constitutional Court. Justices of the high courts are elected by the legislature upon nomination by the executive branch.


Located in southeastern Europe, Bulgaria has a long history of occupation by the Ottoman Empire and an attachment to the Eastern Orthodox Christianity left to it by the earlier Byzantine Empire. Bulgaria’s northern regions border Romania, the east lies along the Black Sea, the west faces Montenegro, Serbia, and the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, and the southern regions border Greece and Turkey.

Statehood in Bulgaria had its beginnings in the lands between the Balkan Mountains and the Danube River, where the Roman provinces of Thrace and Moesia existed in the early centuries of the Common Era. The country takes its name from the Bulgars, a Central Asian Turkic tribe that crossed the Danube River in the seventh century and settled permanently in the Balkan region. In the late ninth century the inhabitants of Bulgaria, who included Slavic farmers as well as Bulgars, adopted the Eastern Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire and began using the Cyrillic alphabet that was employed by other Slavic-speaking peoples. By the end of the ninth century the various tribes inhabiting the area had become unified into one recognizable nation. The First Bulgarian Empire lasted from 839 to 927 under the reigns of Pressian (d. 852), Boris I (d. 907), and Simeon I (d. 927). In 1018, despite a long resistance to Byzantine rule, Bulgaria fell under the empire’s dominance. In 1186 Bulgarian home rule reasserted itself after a successful rebellion by local nobility and during the Second Bulgarian Empire, Bulgaria extended its authority over a large portion of the Balkan Peninsula. By the end of the fourteenth century, however, the Ottoman Turks had overrun the country and ruled it for nearly five hundred years, from 1396 to 1878.

There were frequent, but ineffectual, rebellions against the Ottoman Empire’s rule. Bulgarians succeeded at maintaining their own cultural and political identity, in spite of efforts by Ottoman rulers to assimilate the population into the empire. A well-organized national liberation movement ended in an unsuccessful 1876 uprising led by Stefan Stambolov (1854–1895). The following year, however, in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the Russian Empire declared war on the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian victory in 1878 resulted in more autonomy for Bulgaria, although it remained within the territorial boundaries of Ottoman Turkish rule.

In 1879 the First Grand National Assembly of Bulgaria met to draft and approve the country’s first constitution. The assembly elected Alexander Battenberg (1857–1893), a German prince and nephew of the Russian tsar, as prince of Bulgaria. In 1886 difficulties arose with his Russian relations, and Battenberg was kidnapped and deposed by a Russian contingent that was intent on establishing a Russian-dominated government. Stambolov overthrew the Russian-dominated government the following year, and another German prince, Ferdinand I (1861–1948), became king. In 1908 he took advantage of upheaval in the Ottoman Empire by declaring Bulgaria a free and independent constitutional monarchy.

Government Structure

The president is elected to a five-year term by a popular vote of the people and can serve up to two terms. As the head of state, the president serves as the commander in chief of the armed forces, sets the overall course for domestic and international policy, schedules parliamentary elections, and chooses the country’s prime minister from among the leaders of the majority party or coalition in the parliament.

Once appointed by the president, the prime minister must be approved by the parliament. The prime minister heads the fourteen-member Council of Ministers, which includes the ministers of justice, finance, transport, environment and water, culture, and education and science. Even though the president is responsible for the direction of overall policy, the Council of Ministers is responsible for implementing the country’s domestic and foreign policy and maintaining public order and national security.

The unicameral parliament, the Narodno Sabranie (National Assembly), has 240 deputies who are elected on the basis of proportional representation for four-year terms. The parliament approves the membership of any new Council of Ministers and may pass legislation with a simple majority (more than half) vote. Amendments to the constitution require approval by a three-fourths majority. The Narodno Sabranie elects temporary and permanent commissions to assist it when needed. Both the Council of Ministers and individual members of the parliament may introduce bills, but only the Council of Ministers may introduce legislation related to the national budget.

The judicial system is independent of the other two branches and consists of three national courts. The Supreme Court of Cassation reviews decisions of the lower courts under appeal. The Supreme Administrative Court rules on the legality of actions taken by government institutions. A Constitutional Court of twelve judges who are appointed to nine-year terms by the Narodno Sabranie, the president, and judicial authorities reviews the legality of legislation and resolves issues of election law and competency in the other branches of government.

Political Parties and Factions

Three parties have dominated the multiparty system since the end of communist domination in 1990. The Bălgarska Socialističeska Partija (Bulgarian Socialist Party), composed largely of former Communist Party members, also combined various leftist factions in its membership. It enjoyed tremendous popularity until 1994 to 1996, when it inaugurated seriously flawed economic policies and lost popular support. It continues to be an opposition party and focuses on what it sees as the neglected social rights of Bulgarians.

The Sajuz na Demokraticnite Sili (Union of Democratic Forces) is a right-of-center coalition of parties united by an anticommunist perspective. Its origins go back to the final days of the Communist regime in 1989, when it emerged as a platform uniting fifteen different dissident groups. It came to power in the early days of the new republic in 1992, but due in part to factionalism, it lost a parliamentary vote of confidence in 1994. The party leader Ivan Kostov (1949–) transformed it in the late 1990s into a single political party with a liberal ideology. In 2004 Kostov and other disaffected party members formed the somewhat more conservative Demokrati za Silna Balgarija (Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria), which advocates for competence in government, a strong democracy, and a more prosperous society.

The Hak ve Özgürlükler Hareketi (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) represents the interests of Bulgaria’s large Turkish minority, which accounts for about 10 percent of the total population. Though it has participated in coalition governments, many other Bulgarian political parties do not consider it an attractive coalition partner.

An organization led by Simeon II (1937–), the son of Bulgaria’s exiled former tsar Boris III (1894–1943), organized the Nacionalno dviženie za stabilnost i vǎzhod (National Movement for Stability and Progress) in 2001. Initially quite popular, especially among younger exiles who had returned home, the party has since declined in popularity. Its platform focuses on full Bulgarian integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Sixty other parties function in Bulgaria, including the Zelena Partija na Bǎlgarija (Green Party), the Bǎlgarski Zemedelski Naroden Sajuz–Naroden Sajuz (Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union–People’s Union), and the conservatively inclined Bǎlgarski Biznes Blok (Bulgarian Business Block).

Major Events

Bulgaria sided with the Central Powers in World War I (1914–1918) and with Germany in World War II (1939–1945) in the hope of winning back neighboring territories it had lost in the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912–1913). Neither of these efforts proved successful. In September 1944 Soviet troops entered and occupied the country, even though it had severed its ties with Nazi Germany.

In 1946 a plebiscite (vote of the people) abolished Bulgaria’s constitutional monarchy. It declared itself a republic and elected a communist government, after which it became known as the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. The country’s constitution, like that of other Soviet-inspired states in Eastern Europe, called for a highly centralized government with a planned economy and uncontested Communist Party authority. The legislative branch of government served to legitimize policy established by the Communist Party. A council of ministers, chaired by a prime minister, constituted the executive branch. A 1947 constitution nationalized industries and banking and forced the collectivization of farms. A series of five-year economic plans stressed the expansion of heavy industry and Bulgaria moved from a largely agricultural economy to an urban industrialized society.

In 1955 Bulgaria joined seven other East European nations in the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Intended as a Soviet and Soviet-bloc response to West Germany’s admittance to NATO, the pact provided for a unified military command based in Moscow, the presence of Soviet troops in member states, and mutual assistance. The disbandment of the organization at a summit meeting in July 1991 signaled to some West European nations the true end of the cold war.

The waves of democratization that swept Eastern Europe in the late 1980s led to the 1989 resignation of Todor Zhivkov (1911–1998), the last communist prime minister in Bulgaria. Communist and opposition leaders negotiated a new democratic constitution, and multiparty elections were held in June 1990. A new constitution that established Bulgaria as a parliamentary democracy was drafted in 1991.

Twenty-First Century

Bulgaria’s history is evident in the religious adherence of its population, two-thirds of whom are Eastern Orthodox Christian, and approximately 10 percent of whom are Muslim. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Uniate Catholics (Catholics who recognize the pope as their spiritual leader, but practice Eastern Orthodox rites), and Gregorian-Armenian Christians. Bulgaria’s 1991 constitution guarantees religious freedom, but specifies the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as a traditional state religion. The 2002 Confessions Act requires all other religious groups to register with the municipal court in the capital of Sofia before offering public worship.

Bulgaria’s transition to a market economy following the collapse of more than forty years of communist rule has been challenging, and the country continues to work to boost a standard of living that is substantially lower than much of the rest of Europe. Privatization of agriculture and industry following the collapse of communist rule was slowed by changes in government, particularly during a socialist government in the mid-1990s. Government policies are now geared toward lowering taxes, reducing unemployment, and creating a more dynamic private job market. Foreign direct investment is rising modestly as Bulgaria attracts businesses, especially those from western Europe, that are looking for opportunities within a convenient traveling distance. Its stock market is becoming more active and there is no capital gains tax on stock market investments. Low inflation and steady progress toward structural reforms are gradually improving Bulgaria’s business environment.

After addressing concerns of European Union (EU) officials regarding judicial conduct, health care, and education, Bulgaria joined the EU in January 2007. Regardless, EU officials still express concern over corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria and are monitoring the situation. Concerns center around a judiciary perceived as weak and vulnerable to bribery. Killings associated with organized crime are frequent, and many go unpunished. Bulgaria’s geographic location between Turkey and Europe controls key land routes from Europe into Asia and offers a conduit for transnational trafficking in people and illicit drugs. In 2006 the parliament passed new criminal codes intended to address EU concerns. How effective they will be remains to be seen. If EU officials do not see tangible improvements, such as more effective investigations, shorter pretrial periods, and increases in conviction rates in the next few years, they have warned that future EU aid may be withheld.

Brown, J. F. Bulgaria under Communist Rule. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Crampton, R. J. A Concise History of Bulgaria. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Curtis, Glenn E., ed. Bulgaria: A Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.