The Third Tsardom of Bulgaria
The Third Bulgarian Tsardom was established on October 5th, 1908, with the country gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire. Ferdinand I was crowned as Tsar. He was a militarist and sought options for unifying all lands in the Balkans with an ethnic Bulgarian majority. These had previously been seized by the Ottoman Empire.
Bulgaria was almost constantly at war throughout its existence, leading to its nickname, ‘the Balkan Prussia’. For several years, Bulgaria mobilized an army of more than 1 million people, about 1/5 of its total population, and in the 1910s, it engaged in three wars – the First and Second Balkan Wars and the First World War. After WWI, the Bulgarian Army was disbanded and strictly limited by the Entente Powers, and all plans for the unification of the claimed Bulgarian lands failed.
The Second Balkan War (1913) had led to a serious territorial conflict between Bulgaria and Serbia, which related to the border in the interflow of the Struma and Vardar rivers. The situation worsened after the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine was signed on November 27th, 1919, which required Bulgaria to cede:
- Western Thrace to the Entente, which awarded it to Greece at the San Remo Conference, thereby cutting off Bulgaria’s direct outlet to the Aegean Sea.
- A further 2,563 km2 (990 sq mi) area on its western border to the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia). Bulgaria was also forced to recognize the existence of this rival state.
- Dobruja, which, according to the Treaty of Bucharest, was partially ceded to Bulgaria and partially to the Central Powers (which later, on September 25th, 1918, transferred it to Bulgaria), to Romania, thus restoring the border set by the Treaty of Bucharest (1913).
In Bulgaria, the results of the treaty are popularly known as the Second National Catastrophe.
Less than two decades later, Bulgaria entered the Second World War on the side of the Axis and reoccupied most of its former territories, a part of Serbia, and practically all Macedonia. Nevertheless, ultimately, Bulgaria once again found itself on the losing side. In September 1944, it switched sides to the Allies. Initially, as demonstrated at the October 1944 Moscow talks between J. Stalin and W. Churchill, the Soviet Union had the intention to significantly reduce Bulgaria’s territory. However, the position changed and the USSR showed a desire to resolve the Bulgarian-Yugoslav conflict according to its own interests.
Rise of Socialism
After Bulgaria switched sides late in WWII, its communist future was all but guaranteed. In 1944, when the Socialist Revolution took place in Bulgaria, the government of Prime Minister Konstantin Muraviev and Prince Regent of Bulgaria Kiril, supported by the Royal Army and Nazi Germany, was overthrown by the Fatherland Front (FF) movement supported by the USSR. It was replaced with a government of the FF led by General Kimon Georgiev, the former Prime Minister of Bulgaria (in office from May 19th, 1934 until January 22nd, 1935).
Georgiev had the ‘great experience’ of organizing three coups: in 1923, 1934, and 1944. His political views underwent serious changes as well. Initially inspired by the Duce of Italy, Benito Mussolini, he introduced a corporative economic system in Bulgaria, but was soon forced to resign by Tsar Boris III. Later, during World War II, when Bulgaria was fighting on the side of the Axis, he grew close to the left-wing forces in Bulgaria and joined the anti-Axis Fatherland Front as one of its leaders in 1943.
On September 5th, 1944, the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Workers’ Party (BWP) and the general staff of the People’s Liberation Revolt Army began planning a coup d’état. The plan was further detailed on September 8th. According to the plan, the coordinated actions of the partisans, the BWP combat groups, and the pro-Fatherland Front army detachments would assume power and effective control of government during the night of September 9th. The stated goal of the coup d’état was the “overthrowing of the fascist authorities and the establishment of popular-democratic power of the Fatherland Front”.
Unrest began all around Bulgaria on September 6th and 7th, with the strikes of the Pernik miners and the Sofia tram employees, as well as the general strikes in Plovdiv and Gabrovo. The prisons in Pleven, Varna, and Sliven had their political prisoners released. A total of 170 localities were entered by partisan detachments between September 6th and 8th. In many cities and villages, the strikes and meetings grew into armed clashes with the police, with victims on both sides. On September 8th, the Red Army entered Bulgaria, meeting no opposition on the order of the new Bulgarian government.
On the eve of September 9th, army units, together with Fatherland Front detachments, captured key locations in Sofia, such as the Ministry of War, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the post office, the telegraph station, the radio station, the railway station, etc. On September 10th, the police was abolished and replaced with a popular militia consisting mainly of partisans. A total of 8,130 political prisoners were released from prisons, and the concentration camps of the former regime (e.g. Gonda voda, Krasto pole, Lebane) were closed down. Fascist organizations were banned, as were their publications. The former regents, Prince Kiril, Bogdan Filov, and Nikola Mihov, were executed in February 1945.
On September 8th, 1946, a referendum about the future of the monarchy was held. Bulgaria was declared a People’s Republic on September 15th, 1946, although the result was most likely rigged.
The new Communist regime, aided by the Red Army, imposed a policy of class war through several waves of terror: extrajudicial intimidation, People’s Court tribunals in the mid-1940s, the elimination of opposition to the Bulgarian Communist Party, and the hunt for ‘Enemies with a Party Ticket’.
Nationalism in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. ‘Deturkisation’
In 1944-1948, wider rights were granted to Bulgarian Macedonians on the basis of the program of cultural autonomy of the Pirin Region, as well as to the Turkish population, who received the opportunity to study in schools in their native language.
Significant changes in national politics occurred in the second half of the 1950s, when what officially was called the ‘separation of national minorities from Bulgarians in territorial, economic and socio-political relations’ was criticized by the Communist government. Proceeding from this, in October 1958, the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) reproved the viewpoint that there were national minorities in Bulgaria, which henceforth had to be considered as ‘ethnic groups’, with the exception of Macedonians, who became ‘ethnic Bulgarians’.
The refusal to recognize Macedonians as a national minority had become the subject of heated discussions between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. In terms of the characteristics of the foundations of domestic national policy and the growth of nationalism, the attitude towards the Turkish ‘ethnic group’ was indicative. Between the 1960s and 1980s, in line with the course of national and demographic policy adopted by the Bulgarian leadership, they consistently tried to increase the percentage of the Bulgarian population by the so-called full inclusion of national minorities, primarily Turks, into the Bulgarian people. In 1979, the population of Bulgaria was 8,860,000, of which 88% were Bulgarians, and about 9% were Turks, whose number increased due to rapid natural growth. A specific group of the Bulgarian population consisted of Pomaks — Bulgarians forcibly converted to Islam during the years of Ottoman rule. Other ethnic groups, such as Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Russians, etc., were much smaller.
In December 1967, a special resolution was adopted by the Central Committee of the BCP and the Bulgarian government, and in February 1968, a decree on the promotion of childbirth. At the same time, the question was raised about the need to maintain the percentage of Bulgarian Turks at a level not higher than 8.5% through assimilation or by resettling them to Turkey. It was also strongly recommended to give Bulgarian names to the children of Armenians, Gypsies, and Turks, as well as to record the nationalities of children from mixed marriages as Bulgarian.
Among the Bulgarian Turks, as a result, there was a strong belief that they were considered in Bulgaria not as a national minority, but as an alien ethnic group. Discriminatory measures against Turks were intensified. They served almost only in the construction units of the Bulgarian Army, their access to power structures became more and more limited, and their domestic discrimination became more frequent. According to existing estimates, already in the early 1980s, at least half of the Bulgarian Turks showed a tendency to move to Turkey. In just ten years (1958-1968), about 120,000 Bulgarian Turks moved to Turkey, which negatively affected the foreign policy prestige of Bulgaria and interethnic relations in the country itself.
The situation was further worsened after January 1985, when in the shortest possible time and through the application of ‘administrative measures’, a campaign was carried out to replace the names of 800,000 Bulgarian citizens who considered themselves Turks. By initiating this so-called ‘revival campaign’, the Bulgarian leadership tried to solve the problem of creating a ‘united Bulgarian socialist nation’ on the basis of denying the very fact of the existence of the Turkish minority as such. This act of brutal, violent assimilation provoked protest from the Turkish population. Initially, these were through passive resistance, and then, after May 1989, when Bulgarian citizens were granted free exit from the country, through mass emigration to Turkey.
The anti-Turkish campaign in the PRB has left an imprint on Bulgaria’s relations with neighboring countries and on its position in the Balkan region. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that the statements of the Bulgarian leaders emphasized ‘not only the national, but also the international significance of the action’, and also accentuated that it strengthened the position of the PRB in the Balkans. This statement was made by a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the BCP, Stanko Todorov, in March 1985, but was not covered in the Bulgarian press. Neither were other statements or facts about the change of names among the Turks.
The attempts of the new Bulgarian leadership that came to power after 1989 to restore historical justice to the Turks immediately encountered serious resistance from the Bulgarian population, especially in the south of the country, where Bulgarian Turks historically lived. The slogans “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” and “Stop the turkisation of Bulgaria” appeared in the Razgrad region and the Kardzhali community.
At the beginning of the 1990s, radical changes took place in Bulgaria’s national policy and its relations with its neighbors. In October 1991, an Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation with Greece was concluded. In December that same year, a treaty was signed between Bulgaria and Turkey, supplemented in May 1992 by a bilateral Agreement on Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Cooperation. Contrary to the historically established position, Bulgaria also became the first state to recognize the independence of Macedonia in December 1992, as well as the presence of the Macedonian language.
The Union That Never Happened
The first Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was Georgy Dimitrov. An old communist, Dimitrov was a friend of Stalin and Tito and a supporter of the creation of a single South Slavic State centered around Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. This proposal was made by the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs just a few months after the creation of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
Yugoslav leaders refused to sign the union treaty until Pirin (Bulgarian) Macedonia united with Vardar (Yugoslav) Macedonia. The situation improved in 1946, when the Paris Peace Conference took place (which later resulted in Paris Peace Treaties, signed in 1947). A report by S.P. Kirsanov, the Soviet ambassador in Bulgaria, titled About settling territorial issues between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, the restoration of the Bulgarian-Yugoslav parts of Macedonia and forming a union between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, was published on September 4th, 1946. It emphasized that “now we can justifiably give Bulgaria and Yugoslavia consent to the process of forming a union treaty.”
At the same time, “the existing territorial issues between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia must also be settled – the question of the so-called ‘Western Outlands’, now belonging to Yugoslavia, and the Macedonian question. These issues can be solved by exchanging the ‘Western Outlands’ for the Bulgarian part of Macedonia, which, in this case, would be reunited with the Yugoslav part of Macedonia“. The reunification of the two parts of Macedonia “carried out as the integration of the Bulgarian part of Macedonia to the autonomous Macedonian People’s Republic, would itself be a major a step forward in the process of establishing single autonomous Macedonian Republic by disjoining from the three states (Bulgaria, Greece and Yugoslavia) regions in the Federation of South Slavic Democratic Republics”. “Relations between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria cannot be truly allied unless territorial issues are resolved by mutual agreement once and forever“.
After a peace treaty between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was signed on February 10th, 1947, Dimitrov sent a letter to Tito with a proposal to begin serious preparations for the forming the union treaty as a step towards the creation of the Federation, believing that the initiative should belong to Yugoslavia, as the leading country in the Balkans.
At the same time, in a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPY, Soviet-Yugoslav and Bulgarian-Yugoslav relations were discussed. Tito, in the circle of the party’s leadership, expressed his concerns about the creation of a federal state. He believed that the Soviet Union would exercise excessive influence on Yugoslavia through Bulgaria, which could play the role of a ‘Trojan horse’.
At the Bulgarian-Yugoslav negotiations that took place between July 30th and August 1st, 1947 on Lake Bled, Yugoslavia, the text for an indefinite treaty of friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance was written. The formation of conditions for the establishment of a single Macedonian republic (formed of Pirin Macedonia and Vardar Macedonia) and the transfer of the Western Outlands to Bulgaria in the framework of the Federation of South Slavic Democratic Republics took place as well.
However, Stalin condemned Dimitrov and Tito’s actions, as they were not coordinated with Moscow. During the tripartite negotiations that took place in Moscow on February 10th and 11th, 1948, he recommended Bulgaria and Yugoslavia to unite in a federation as soon as possible. On February 19th, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPY rejected this idea. A few months later, this was followed by the rupture of relations between the USSR and members of the Soviet bloc, on one side, and Yugoslavia on the other after the Tito-Stalin split, which ended the question of the Balkan Federation. The Bulgarian-Yugoslav border in the region of the Western Outlands and in Macedonia remained unchanged. Relations between the two countries remained frozen for a long time.
Stalin’s Picquet in Eastern Europe
In 1949, Dimitrov died in the USSR under mysterious circumstances. His death coincided with the aggravation of Yugoslav-Soviet relationships. Under the new Prime Minister, Valko Chervenkov, a Stalinist, those favorable to Tito and his brand of Communism, and thus opposing Stalinism and Moscow’s iron fisted control of its satellites, were prosecuted and purged in Bulgaria.
Chervenkov’s leadership was short: the death of Stalin in 1953 marked the end of his premiership, as his own personal support in Bulgaria was quite weak.
After the establishment of the Socialist system, armed underground groups, consisting of those who disagreed with the policy of the ruling party, began to operate in Bulgaria. In the beginning, they consisted of former police, soldiers, and officers who were hiding from the government, as well as activists of nationalist and monarchist parties. But when the Communist Party of Bulgaria began to pursue a policy of collectivization, the dissident troops gained popular support, especially among the peasantry, which resulted in a long armed confrontation. Groups of opponents of the regime organized the so-called Goryani movement, which carried out armed actions from 1947 to 1956.
Goryani Movement: First (and Last) Resistance to the Communist Regime
An active partisan resistance against the Bulgarian Communist regime, the Goryani Resistance Movement (Bul. Горянското съпротивително движение), began immediately after the September 9th coup d’état in 1944 (the so-called ‘People’s Uprising of 9 September’, which opened the way to Communist rule in Bulgaria). It reached its peak between 1947 and 1954, subsided by the late 1950s, and ended by the early 1960s.
At first, the Goryani were poorly armed and merely hid from the authorities or agitated against them in fear of arrest. By 1947, they had banded into armed Chetas (‘чети’, bands in Bulgarian) in highland and mountain areas.
At that time, the overall number of armed Goryani was estimated at 2,000 in 28 Chetas, with another ~8,000 collaborators supplying them with food, shelter, arms, and intelligence. By the early 1950s, the secret police of Committee for State Security of Bulgaria (‘Комитет за държавна сигурност’ in Bulgarian, also known as ‘Държавна сигурност’) had identified 160 Chetas, of which 52 were supplied from abroad or comprised hostile emigrants, who had sneaked into Bulgaria across the borders. The movement was strongest in the southern part of the country.
The main Cheta was led by Gerasim Todorov, and controlled the larger part of the Sveti Vrach (modern day Sandanski) county in the southwest.
In the spring of 1948, thousands of ‘narodna militsia’ (people’s police) and armored troops invaded the northern Pirin, imposing two-week emergency measures in the area. Gerasim Todorov and his men were encircled and he killed himself on March 31st. This cleared the area of Goryani for a period. In late 1948, Borislav Atanasov and other former IMRO fighters crossed the Greek border and renewed resistance.
By the early 1950s, the Goryani had a propaganda radio station, Radio Goryanin, which broadcasted into Bulgaria from Greece. In mid-1951, the radio broadcasted an appeal for an insurgent army to form in the centrally located Sliven area, where the Goryani movement was the strongest. Therefore, ~13,000 police and troops entered the Balkan mountains near Sliven. Bulgarian leader Valko Chervenkov monitored events from an armored personnel carrier in the mountain. The largest Cheta, led by Georgi Stoyanov-Tarpana, also known as Benkovski (after a 19th Century Bulgarian popular hero), was encircled by ~6,000 troops. It fought them on June 1st and 2nd, managing to break the encirclement and rescue their wounded. However, all of them were captured by the secret police in late 1951, being later tortured and executed.
Despite the Bulgarian ‘popular tradition’ of highland, mountain, and woodland-based resistance, the movement was active in lowland and farming areas. The Dobrudzha area in the northeast of Bulgaria saw strong resistance activity, with many villages being captured for short periods.
Though the Bulgarian authorities brought the Goryani movement under control by the mid-1950s, there were isolated incidents of violence well into the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the movement finally ceased.
In March 1954, Todor Zhivkov became General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party (de facto head of state), which would last until nearly the end of the Cold War.
In 1955, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, together with the USSR and six other Eastern European countries, signed the Warsaw Pact in response to the creation of NATO. Bulgaria’s Army was the smallest of the alliance, however, in terms of a percentage of the population in uniform, it was the most militarized.
Bulgaria During the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968
Many people associate the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia with a Soviet occupation. Nevertheless, the armed forces of five Warsaw Pact states invaded the country. In addition to the USSR (the contingent which made up the lion’s share of all troops), there were troops from Bulgaria, the GDR, Hungary, and Poland.
The Communist leadership of Bulgaria, led by Todor Zhivkov, took a wait-and-see position in the first weeks of the Prague Spring. Back in early March, all Bulgarian media received an order to provide information about the events in Czechoslovakia only according to the reports of the party newspaper ‘Rabotnichesko Delo’ and the ‘Bulgarian Telegraph Agency’ (BTA; word-for-word translation for Bulgarian ‘Българска телеграфна агенция’, or Bulgarian News Agency). By that time, all Bulgarian students in Czechoslovakia had been recalled to their homeland.
When the Prague Spring began, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia were connected not only by student exchanges, but also by strong economic and cultural ties. Czech and Slovak entrepreneurs, scientists, and cultural figures actively participated in the formation of a new Bulgaria after the liberation from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1870s. The Czech Konstantin Irecek wrote the first scientifically grounded work on the history of the Bulgarian people, made a significant contribution to the development of the Bulgarian educational system, and became the first Minister of Public Education of the independent principality. The Czech Ivan Myrkvichka was the founder and first Director of the State Drawing School (now the National Art Academy) in Sofia and is recognized as the greatest master of Bulgarian painting. Czech engineer Jiri Proshek worked on the construction of the first Bulgarian railway and the first modern seaport in Varna. Together with his brother Bogdan, Jiri Proshek founded the first printing house in Bulgaria and built the first brewery. The Czech Club in Sofia (which still exists today) has long been a favorite place of the Bulgarian intelligentsia, and was the only restaurant in socialist Sofia where people could find chilled Czech Staropramen beer.
By mid-April 1968, the events in Prague had caused a disturbance, not only in Moscow, but also in its ‘fraternal’ capitals. On the morning of April 23th, 1968, Todor Zhivkov flew to Prague on a government liner. Alexander Dubcek, the main proponent of the Prague Spring, met Zhivkov at Ruzyne Airport, and “Welcome, dear Bulgarian friends!” in Bulgarian was written in large white letters above the entrance to the building. Even though the meeting of the two Communist leaders was advisory, by that time, Zhivkov had already formed a position on the Prague Spring. Back on March 29th, at a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the BCP, Zhivkov unequivocally spoke in favor of the use of force in Czechoslovakia: “We very much hope that it will not come to that, but you understand perfectly well that if we have to, we will use our troops. Dubcek has neither the experience, nor the intelligence, nor the will to lead the party.”
For the European socialist bloc citizens, a vacation on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in the 1960s was something extremely prestigious. Czechoslovaks took the first place among the foreign guests to Bulgaria.
On the afternoon of August 21st, the news releases of Radio Free Europe and the BBC covered what happened in Prague and Bratislava. According to eyewitnesses, there was confusion and panic among the Czechoslovaks on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. Nobody could call home (the usual telephone connection with Czechoslovakia was interrupted), and many people did not know what to do. The news that Bulgarian units were also part of the occupation forces increased the level of tension between Czechoslovak holidaymakers and the local population, although plenty of Bulgarian citizens still did not know about the dramatic events in Czechoslovakia.
In the middle of July, the preparation of two Bulgarian military units for the Warsaw Pact training maneuvers began. The 12th Motorized Rifle Regiment from the city of Elkhovo was transported by sea to the Soviet port of Ilyichevsk, and from there by train to the Transcarpathian city of Mukachevo. The 22nd Motorized Rifle Regiment was transferred from Harmanli by Soviet military air transport to Kolomyia. The presence of two Bulgarian regiments for a month in the west of Ukraine was kept secret.
The Soviet Army provided Bulgarian military units with equipment, fuel, and food. At the end of July, Soviet General Gennady Obaturov set the task for the commanders of the two Bulgarian regiments, colonels Alexander Genchev and Ivan Chavdarov, to occupy strategic objectives on the territory of Czechoslovakia. The task of the 12th Motorized Rifle Regiment (consisting of 1,206 personnel) was to capture the barracks, police, and radio of the Slovak city of Banská-Bystrica, as well as the Zvolen airport located next to it. The regiment was alerted on the night of August 20th-21st, and, at 4 a.m., Bulgarian soldiers crossed the state border with Czechoslovakia. The task of the 22nd Motorized Rifle Regiment was to capture and protect the Prague airports of Ruzine and Vodohody. The operation was successful, without a single shot fired.
During their stay in Czechoslovakia, Bulgarian personnel received salaries in Czechoslovak crowns: common personnel – from 60 to 100 crowns per month. The reports of the commanders reflected the rather dull everyday life of the Bulgarian soldiers, who regularly faced the unfriendly attitude of the local population. There were separate desertion efforts and one suicide attempt was registered. The Bulgarian soldiers lacked the usual food, the commanders complained of a shortage of sweet peppers, tomatoes, and grapes. However, most acute was the lack of native cigarettes. As Colonel Chavdarov notes in the report, “the Soviet ‘Belomorkanal’ and ‘Sever’ are too tough for Bulgarian soldiers.” The total number of Bulgarian personnel who took part in the suppression of the Prague Spring amounted to 2,177.
The only victim among the Bulgarian military personnel was Junior Sergeant Nikolai Nikolov, who was killed near the city of Kladno on September 9th, the day of the Communist holiday of Bulgaria. According to his colleagues, Nikolov started a quarrel with the passengers of a passing Czechoslovak car. The passengers managed to take away the Sergeant’s machine gun, and, as a result, three bullets hit Nikolov. One of the accused, Jiri Kalous, said it was revenge for the Bulgarian participation in the occupation, but three others said it was just an accident. Nevertheless, all four were sentenced to nine years in jail.
By the end of October, the withdrawal process of Bulgarian troops began, and on October 29th, the last Bulgarian serviceman left the territory of Czechoslovakia. In Bulgaria, they were greeted as heroes. All soldiers who participated in the suppression of the Prague Spring were granted the right to enroll in universities without having to do entry exams.
Bulgaria as a Warsaw Pact Member
Bulgaria was the southernmost member of the Warsaw Pact and, in the alliance’s grand strategy, it was the least important. Bulgaria had limited self-sufficiency in ammunition, rifles, and military trucks, but otherwise, was completely dependent on the USSR. Bulgaria had tremendously small domestic potential to develop combat jets, tanks, radars, etc. Bulgaria’s economy was limited and weapons obtained from the Soviets were either free or bought at massively-subsidized prices. Moreover, vehicles the USSR provided were determined by what the small Bulgarian Army could operate and what Bulgaria’s limited treasury could afford to keep operational. Soviet priority was given to transfers for the Czechoslovak, East German, and Polish armies, which they envisioned would bear the brunt in any future war against NATO. One thing working in Bulgaria’s favor was that the USSR viewed it as the most politically reliable of all the six satellite states, hence there was little hesitation from a weapons sophistication standpoint, and the Soviets sometimes granted Bulgaria early access to its newest weapons.
These factors led to the Bulgarian Army modernizing in spurts from the late 1940s to the end of the 1980s, whenever a new Soviet aid package came. The combination of financial penury and political obedience also led to some strange pairings of WWII-era equipment and new, top-line Soviet kit serving simultaneously in Bulgaria. For example, the T-34 tank’s Bulgarian career overlapped with that of Bulgaria’s 9K79 ‘Tochka’ ballistic missiles, and the Mosin-Nagant rifle with that of the MiG-25 in the Bulgarian Air Force.
In 1978, the USSR and Bulgaria instituted a secret agreement, where a Bulgarian MiG-21 (later MiG-23) squadron was allocated 30 atomic bombs for use against Turkey and Greece. The bombs were kept in Soviet custody on Bulgarian airbases. Compared to the USA’s nuclear-sharing agreements with several NATO allies, there was (obviously) no public debate on the topic in Bulgaria, and Bulgaria could neither request the weapon’s use nor veto them. Bulgarian pilots were only trained in how to drop the weapons, not how to arm them or employ them tactically. The weapons were taken back to the USSR in 1989.
‘1,300th Anniversary of the Bulgarian State’ Yearlong Celebrations in 1981
The year of 1981 was related to an important date in Bulgarian history. Thirteen centuries before, the First Bulgarian Empire was established after the Battle of Ongal, when the Bulgars, led by Khan Asparuh, beat Byzantine troops under Emperor Constantine IV. The First Bulgarian Empire’s area was as much as ~400,000 km2 in 850 a.d., lying between the Black Sea’s coast in the east, the Carpatian mountains in the north, Greek Trace in the south, and the historical region of Illyricum in the west.
Many events took place to honor the date:
- The inauguration of several monuments, including the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria in Shumen, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Sofia, the Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Buzludzha Peak, and the impressive National Palace of Culture in Sofia;
- A 323-minute historical documentary about Khan Asparuh was filmed (selected as the Bulgarian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 55th Academy Awards, though not accepted as a nominee);
- The Interkosmos 22-Bulgaria 1300 artificial satellite (the first ever Bulgarian one) was launched from Plesetsk spaceport, Arkhangelsk region of RSFSR, USSR;
- The annual football competition Bulgarian Cup first took place, replacing the Soviet Army Cup;
- A military parade took place in Sofia’s September 9th Square, attended by the country’s leaders and important people, including Todor Zhivkov, Colonel General Hristo Dobrev, and the Minister of People’s Defense, General of the Army Dobri Dzhurov.
From Dusk Till Dawn
The year of 1989 is well-known for a series of ‘gentle revolutions’ in Eastern Europe. In October, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of People’s Republic of Bulgaria, Petr Mladenov, issued a letter to the Central Committee of the BCP, accusing Todor Zhivkov, the party’s (and the country’s) leader, of illegal methods of leadership. On November 10th, 1989, Zhivkov was removed from power. Mladenov took his place as the General Secretary of the BCP.
In general, the politicians who came to power in Bulgaria in November, 1989 were aware of the need for changes. Their position was approved by Mikhail Gorbachev and the other creators of Soviet perestroika. In two years, the Bulgarian party of power had not abandoned Socialism as the main direction of the development of society, but the very vision of Socialism and the corresponding program settings underwent a serious modernization and revision. Since the end of 1989 and in 1990, the main Party documents and decisions stated the rejection of the Soviet (Stalinist) model of social structure, the functions of the BCP as a ‘party-state’, and the orientation towards building democratic, humane socialism. To confirm these intentions, the BCP initiated the removal from the Constitution of the provisions that recognised the leading role of the Party, which were abolished by the People’s Assembly (Parliament) on January 15th, 1990. At the end of December 1989, the Central Committee of the BCP condemned the ‘revival process’ and the government allowed the Bulgarian Turks to restore their original names.
The XIVth Congress of the BCP, held between January 30th and February 2nd, 1990, adopted the Manifesto of Democratic Socialism, which proclaimed a course for the creation of a rule of law state, the establishment of parliamentary democracy and the separation of powers, and the development of a socially oriented market economy. The combination of the highest party and state posts was canceled. Alexander Lilov, who had previously (1974-1983) been a member of the top leadership of the BCP and removed from there by T. Zhivkov (for ‘remoteness from reality and lack of interest in economic issues’), was elected the new leader of the party. Mladenov had to focus on government work. This Congress was the last one held by the Party under a ‘Communist’ name. In April 1990, according to the results of the all-party referendum, initiated by Lilov, it was renamed and became the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The numbering of subsequent party congresses began to be carried out from the First Congress of the Bulgarian Social Democrats in 1891.
After amendments to the Constitution on April 3rd, 1990, the State Council was disbanded, and Mladenov was elected as Chairman (President) of Bulgaria. In the summer of the same year, mass opposition protests broke out due to the leak of an audio recording on which his voice said (in connection with the opposition demonstration in December 1989): “It would be better if tanks came.” Mladenov himself denied the authenticity of the recording. Still, he left the post of President and completely retired from politics.
When Mladenov resigned from the position of President, Stanko Todorov took his place and became the acting President of Bulgaria, serving from July 6th to July 17th, 1990. He won a parliamentary seat in the elections, but resigned later that year for health reasons.
The next acting President was Nikolai Todorov, a Bulgarian scientist and politician. His political career gathered momentum in 1978, when he became the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Bulgaria to Greece, serving until 1983. On July 17th, 1990, he became acting President of the country.
On August 1st, 1990, the 7th Grand National Assembly of Bulgaria elected Zhelyu Zhelev (from the Union of Democratic Forces Party) as the President of the state. He became the first head of state in 44 years who was not a Communist nor a Communist sympathizer. Later, in 1992, the first democratic election was held in Bulgaria, and Zhelev, with 52.8% of the votes in the second round, became Bulgaria’s first-ever directly elected head of state.
Standardization and Sovietization of the Army
The only armored formation in the Army of the Kingdom of Bulgaria during the Second World War was the Armored Brigade, based in Sofia and armed with German equipment. After the end of the Second World War, the first Soviet T-34 tanks were delivered to the Bulgarian Army. As a result, a new tank regiment was formed in Samokov with 65 T-34 tanks and an armored troops school was formed in Botevgrad.
At the beginning of 1946, the Bulgarian First Tank Brigade was armed with 49 CV 33/35, Pz.Kpfw. 35(t)/LT vz. 35/T-11, Pz.Kpfw. 38(t)/LT vz. 38, and Renault R35 light tanks, along with 57 Pz. IV Ausf.G, H, J medium tanks, 15 Jagdpanzer IV, and 5 StuG 40 assault guns.
Immediately after the end of the war, the completely outdated Italian CV 33/35 light tanks and French Renault R35 light tanks were discarded. The Czechoslovak LT vz. 35 and LT vz. 38 lasted until the early 1950s. The last order for spare parts for them was received by Škoda in 1948.
By 1950, only eleven of the Panzer IVs (of different variants) remained in the 1st Tank Brigade, while the main element consisted of 65 Soviet T-34s obtained back in 1945.
In 1963, the Bulgarian People’s Army’s peacetime strength was set at no less than 100,000 men, with four motor rifle divisions (the 16th Mountain Brigade had been upgraded into the 16th MRD on February 6th 1961) and five tank brigades at full strength within the Land Forces, and an additional three motor rifle divisions at reduced strength.
During the Cyprus Crisis of 1974, outdated German tanks and SPGs were used as pillboxes on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. It is specified that about 100-170 pieces of such fixed installations were delivered on the second line of defense at that time.
Light Amphibious Vehicles in PRB Service
According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 250 Soviet PT-76 light amphibious tanks were supplied to Bulgaria between 1960 and 1964. However, no other reliable evidence of this fact has yet been found.
Another vehicle used by the Bulgarian Army at that time was the PTS-M. Some were used to carry the 100 mm MT-12 gun onboard and 6 such vehicles were presented during the Military Parade of 1981.
Medium and Main Battle Tanks in the PRB Service
The total number of T-34-85s in the Bulgarian Army is estimated at 398. The T-34-85 served in Bulgaria for a long time. In 1968, during the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia, there was a tank battalion consisting of twenty-six T-34-85s as part of a group of Bulgarian troops. The T-34-85 was finally withdrawn from service between 1992 and 1995.
In the mid-1950s, Soviet T-54 tanks, and from 1960, T-55s, began to be supplied to Bulgaria and later became the main tanks of the Bulgarian People’s Army. After the start of T-55 tank supplies, the obsolete T-34s were partially dismantled. Their turrets, as well as the turrets of the German Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks, were used in the construction of fortifications on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. In total, 1,800 T-54/T-55 tanks were delivered to Bulgaria from the USSR, of which 1,145 were T-55s. All of them were withdrawn between 2004 and 2009.
According to some sources, several Czechoslovak T-55AM2 Kladivo MBTs were tested and operated by the Bulgarian Army in the late 1980s.
In 1978, the first group of T-72 tanks arrived in Bulgaria from the USSR. By 1992, Bulgaria had 334 T-72s, and in 1999, 100 more T-72A and T-72AK tanks were purchased from Russia. Currently, 160 T-72s remain in service of the Bulgarian Army, with between 150 and 250 more stored.
Self-Propelled Guns in the PRB’s Service
In 1947, SU-76M self-propelled guns were supplied to Bulgaria, which served until 1956, when 100 SU-100 anti-tank self-propelled guns were adopted by Bulgarian Army.
Since 1979, the 122 mm self-propelled howitzer 2S1 ‘Gvozdika’, based on the MT-LB APC chassis, has been produced in Bulgaria. The 2S1 self-propelled guns of Bulgarian production entered service with the Soviet Army and, apart from inferior manufacturing quality, it did not differ in any way from the Soviet-produced version. In total, 506 2S1 ‘Gvozdika’ SPGs were produced in Bulgaria, and together with Soviet supplies, their number amounted to 686. Later, in 1989, 20 152 mm 2S3 ‘Akacia’ self-propelled howitzers were supplied to Bulgaria by the Soviets.
Armored Personnel Carriers and Infantry Fighting Vehicles in PRB Service
In 1955, the first BTR-40 armored personnel carriers were adopted by the Bulgarian Army, with a total of 150 units supplied until 1957. After 1957, wheeled BTR-152 APCs were supplied to Bulgaria. In the period from 1965 to 1967, 150 reconnaissance and patrol BRDM-1s were delivered to Bulgaria.
Starting in 1962, the BRDM-1 was gradually replaced by the BRDM-2. A total of 420 units of BRDM-1/2 were delivered to Bulgaria. In addition, BRDM-2s of the former National People’s Army of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) were distributed between Bulgaria and Poland. Today, there are still about a dozen BRDM-2s in service with the Bulgarian Army, with another 50 stored. The 9P133 ATGM “Konkurs” carrier on the basis of BRDM-2 was also delivered to Bulgaria, 24 of which are still in service.
After 1962, BTR-60 Soviet armored personnel carriers began to be supplied to Bulgaria, which became the main APCs of the Bulgarian infantry. Deliveries continued until 1972. About 700 were delivered in total. The first modification delivered was the BTR-60P with the open-top hull. It was followed by the BTR-60PA, a modification with a completely closed hull. With this APC, Bulgarian troops entered Czechoslovakia in 1968. A modification called the BTR-60PB, with reinforced armament of a 14.5 mm KPVT machine gun and a 7.62 mm PKT in the turret, became the main Bulgarian armored personnel carrier for many years.
Around 100 to 150 BTR-60PBs are still in service with the Bulgarian Army, with another 100 to 600 in reserve. Some of them were modified to BTR-60PB-MD1/MD2/MD3 versions in the 2010s.
From 1960 to 1963, a total of 700 BTR-50 tracked APCs were delivered to Bulgaria. Currently, they have been withdrawn from service.
Since the beginning of the 1970s, a total of 560 units BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles were delivered to Bulgaria, including 100 BMP-1Ps with a more powerful ATGM 9K111 ‘Fagot’ launcher, and six sets of smoke screen installations 902B received from Russia in 1996. Currently, the Bulgarian Army has between 20 to 75 BMP-1Ps in service, with another 80 or 100 in reserve.
In 1972, production of the MT-LB light armored tractor was introduced to Bulgaria at the BETA machine-building plant (now Beta Industry Corp. JSC) in Cherven Bryaga. Production continued until 1995. According to some reports, a total of 2,350 MT-LBs were produced. Most do not practically differ from the Soviet original version. Still, some of the vehicles were produced with modifications, which brought even more variety to the already wide range of the MT-LB family.
The following machines were developed in Bulgaria on the basis of the MT-LB:
- MT-LB AT-I — minelayer
- MT-LB MRHR (MRHR – cyrrilic ‘МРХР’ – in Bulgarian stands for ‘Машина Радио-Химической Разведки’, or radiochemical reconnaissance vehicle)
- MT-LB SE (SE – cyrrilic СЕ – in Bulgarian stands for ‘Санитарно-Евакуационна’, Sanitary Evacuation [vehicle]) — combat medical vehicle
- MT-LB TMX — self-propelled mortar with the 82 mm M-37M mortar
- KShM-R-81 ‘Dolphin’ — command and staff vehicle
- R-80 — ground artillery reconnaissance station
- SMM B1.10 ‘Tundzha’ — Bulgarian version with a 120 mm mortar mod. 1943, developed in 1981 under the supervision of Chief Designer Georgi Imsheriev
- SMM 74 B1.10 ‘Tundzha-Sani’ — Bulgarian version, developed in 1981, using the 2B11 mortar from the 2S12 ‘Sani’ mortar complex as the main armament
Fifty 2B11s were produced under Soviet license in Bulgaria in the period from 1986 to 1987. A total of 212 ‘Tundzha’ self-propelled mortars are currently in service with the Bulgarian Army.
Bulgarian MT-LBs were actively exported. In the 1980s, 800 Bulgarian-produced MT-LBs were delivered to Iraq. Currently, around 100 to 150 MT-LB light armored tractors remain in service with the Bulgarian Army, with a further 600 to 800 in reserve.
Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Guns and Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Missiles in PRB Service
Between 1960 and 1962, 30 S-75 Dvina systems were delivered to Bulgaria. They were in service until 2018.
Bulgarian S-75 Dvina rocket carried by ZIL-157 truck
Bulgarian S-75 Dvina rocket carried by ZIL-157 truck during Military Parade.
Source: Air Group 2000 Forum
Bulgarian S-75 Dvina rocket carried by ZIL-157 truck during Military Parade.
Source: Air Group 2000 Forum
In 1963-1964, 28 9K52 Luna-M rockets were supplied to Bulgaria, which served until 1995.
Between 1965 and 1966, 100 ZSU-57-2 SPAAGs were delivered to Bulgaria, and from 1969 to 1972, 40 more ZSU-23-4 Shilka followed.
Thirty-four S-125 Pechora missile systems were supplied to Bulgaria between 1975 and 1981, which were still in service in the 2010s.
From 1976 to 1982, ten 2K12 ‘Kvadrat’ missile launchers were supplied to Bulgaria. In 1981, 9 2K11 ‘Krug’ missile launchers were passed on. All were in reserve by 2011.
Twenty-four 9K33 Osa SAM systems were passed to Bulgaria between 1985 and 1986.
Two S-300 system units were passed to Bulgaria in 1989, and eight more followed in the next two decades. By 2008, all vehicles were in service.
Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and Operational-Tactical Missile Complexes in PRB Service
An unknown number of BM-13 MLRS served in the Bulgarian Army after the Second World War. Later, in 1963, 24 Czechoslovak MLRS Raketomet vz. 51 (RM-51) were supplied, amongst which were both export variants (based on Soviet ZIL-157 trucks) and original ones (based on Czechoslovakian Praga V-3S trucks).
Raketomet vz. 51
Czechoslovak Raketomet vzor 1951 (RM-51) installed on a Soviet ZIL-157 truck, displayed at the National Museum of Military History in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Tourbillon
Czechoslovak Raketomet vzor 1951 (RM-51) installed on Soviet ZIL-157 truck during military maneuvers. Source: pan.bg
Czechoslovak Raketomet vzor 1951 (RM-51) installed on a Praga V-3S truck during military maneuvers. Source: pan.bg
The BM-21 Grad Soviet MLRS is one of the longest operating vehicles in the Bulgarian Army. A total of 225 were delivered to Bulgaria from 1968 to 1972, 24 of which were still operated by the army in 2016.
At least 35 Soviet operational-tactical missile complex 8K14 (R-17) were supplied to Bulgaria in the 1970s and 1980s, which served until early 2000s.
At least 18 OTR-21 Tochka operational-tactical missile complexes were supplied to Bulgaria from the 1980s and remained in service until at least 2014.
BMP-23, BMP-30, and BRM-23 ‘Sova’
Creating an Infantry Fighting Vehicle using existing platforms was far more at hand for the small country of Bulgaria during the Cold War period. The overall goal was to have an improved IFV compared to the BMP-1 already in service. The resulting vehicles, the BMP-23 were adopted by the Bulgarian Army in the early 1980s.
The basis for the BMP-23 was the Soviet 2S1 ‘Gvozdika’ self-propelled howitzer, built under license in Bulgaria at that time. The Gvozdika itself was based on the MT-LB Armored Personnel Carrier’s chassis.
The BMP-23 used a 23 mm 2A14 automatic cannon as its main armament, fed by 600 rounds and had +80° of elevation. Secondary armament was a 7.62 mm PKT coaxial machine gun and a 125 mm 9K11 Malyutka ATGM launcher. On the BMP-23A version, this was replaced by 120 mm 9K111 Fagot. Mobility-wise, the BMP-23 was given an improved engine, the turbocharged diesel YaMZ-238N (315 hp), giving the vehicle a 62 km/h top speed on road and 550 to 600 km operational range on average.
In 1987, a BMP-30 was developed on the base of BMP-23. Its turret was replaced by one from a Soviet BMP-2, armed with 30 mm 2A42 autocannon, coaxial 7.62 mm PKT machine gun, and 125 mm 9К111-1 Konkurs ATGM.
Another modification of the BMP-23 was BRM-23 ‘Sova’ (Bulg. owl). This vehicle existed in three variants:
- Sova-1 – equipped with R-130M radio;
- Sova-2 – with R-143;
- Sova-3 – equipped with portable ground reconnaissance station PSNR-5 «CREDO» (1RL133);
Lekh Plavascsh Tank ‘Oktopod’
At the end of the 1980s, Bulgarian engineers were working on the concept of a light amphibious tank based on the BMB-23 Infantry Fighting Vehicle. This tank was mainly meant for a conflict with Greece and Turkey, which, as the Bulgarians thought, were going to buy Leopard 2 main battle tanks. Given the mountainous border on Bulgaria’s south, a light tank would have been better suited for combat. The tank was suggested not only for Bugarian Army, but also for export.
By the end of 1988, the preliminary project was ready and was being reviewed at the highest state level. It used a modified hull of the BMP-23 IFV with additional anti-HEAT armor made of zeolite mineral, a Soviet 100 mm MT-12 gun, and a Swedish engine.
Meanwhile, after November 10th, 1989, a process of fundamental political reformation in Bulgaria began. The amount of funding for the project declined rapidly. In the beginning of the 1990s, funding finally stopped, and the development team was dismissed. The project was abandoned, and most of the documents about the light tank vanished in unknown ways (probably, deliberately destroyed or still classified in an army archive). The only thing that has somehow survived through all this was the mock-up of the vehicle.
When the T-62s were withdrawn in the 1990s, some of the tanks were converted into armored repair and evacuation vehicles, which received the designation TV-62. The turrets were removed, and in their place, half-shortened turrets from T-55s and T-55As with a DShKM anti-aircraft machine gun were welded backwards. The vehicles also received winches and equipment for underwater driving.
‘Krali Marko’ Line: Pillboxes of the Bulgarian-Turkish Border
Bulgaria managed to mostly stay out of the meat grinder of military operations during the Second World War. When, in late 1944, it became clear that Germany was likely to lose the war, and Soviet troops approached the Bulgarian border, a coup took place in the country. The Bulgarian Army, often even using German vehicles, went on the offensive against its former ally side-by-side with the Soviet Army. It even participated in the Victory Parade.
A part of the fleet of captured German vehicles was transferred by the Soviet Union to the Romanian and Bulgarian armies after 1946, and by the mid-1950s, all of them were completely replaced by Soviet ones. That was not the end of their service, as the Bulgarians converted them into pillboxes.
German Panzer IVs buried in the ground and turned into a pillbox.
Panzer IV being unearthed for restoration. Source: wwiiafterwwii.files.wordpress.com
Panzer IV unearthed for restoration. Source: wwiiafterwwii.files.wordpress.com
Next to Bulgaria was a formidable and dangerous neighbor, Turkey, a NATO member. Therefore, it was a potential threat to Bulgaria and the Warsaw Pact. In the southeast of Bulgaria, along the entire border with Turkey, the Krali Marko line, named after the legendary King of Prilep, Marko Mrnjavčević (1335-1395), a network of defensive fortifications, was created.
According to the military doctrine of the Bulgarian Republic at that time, in the case of an intervention by the Turks, the Krali Marko Line had to restrain the aggressor’s offensive until the Soviet troops stationed in Ukraine could come to the rescue.
German Panzer IV with enlarged turret and Soviet ZiS-3 gun
Panzer IV pillbox. The turret was enlarged, and the German gun was replaced by a Soviet 76 mm ZiS-3 taken from a SU-76. Source: valko-bg
Another Panzer IV pillbox with a Soviet 76 mm ZiS-3 gun. Source: valko-bg
Unearthed Panzer IV pillbox with a Soviet 76 mm ZiS-3 gun. Source: valko-bg
Unearthed Panzer IV with ZiS-3 pillbox being restored. Source: valko-bg
Unearthed and restored pillbox. Source: valko-bg
The first fortifications in the Krali Marko Line consisted of captured German tanks and self-propelled guns. These had been either donated by the Wehrmacht in 1943 or transferred by the Soviet Army from their captures after the war.
Unearthed Pz. IV pillboxes (including one re-armed with ZiS-3 gun)
Unearthed Panzer IVs and Panzer IV with ZiS-3 gun. Source: wwiiafterwwii.files.wordpress.com
Pillboxes made of Soviet T-34-85 turrets
Entry to the T-34-85 pillbox. Source: wwiiafterwwii.files.wordpress.com
Note the concrete blast pad by the gun’s muzzle, made in order to avoid kicking up dirt with each shot. Source: wwiiafterwwii.files.wordpress.com
In the end, there was no invasion. By 1990, Bulgaria had set a course for Europe, and in 2004, joined NATO. Thus, the Turks and Bulgarians, former enemies, are allies today, without any risks of military confrontation with each other. The line of defense at Krali Marko became unnecessary and forgotten up to the present day.
Pillboxes made from German StuGs
Source: Vagabond magazine
Local metal collectors regularly visit these pillboxes, cutting off everything that can be carried away and sold for scrap.
Pillboxes made from German Jagdpanzer IV
Unearthed Jagdpanzer IV. Source: wwiiafterwwii.files.wordpress.com
A.P. Sal’kov. “The Bulgarian-Yugoslav territorial conflict in the Soviet concept of post-war settlement (1945–1948)”;
Series of books “Old World – New Times”. Volume “South-eastern Europe during the Era of Cardinal Changes”. Edited by Doctor of Historical Sciences A.A. Yazykova, scientific supervisor of the series – Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, N.P. Shmelev;
Nikola Krastev, “Zhivkov against Dubchek – about Bulgaria-68”;