From 1946 to 1990, Bulgaria existed as a satellite state of the Soviet Union (USSR), under the name of The People’s Republic of Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Communist Party was closely allied with the Soviets, and thus Bulgarians lived under a single-party system – essentially a dictatorship.
Under Vulko Chervenkov between 1946 and 1956, who was leader of the Communist Party, Bulgaria followed a harsh Soviet-inspired regime. Orthodox, Muslim, Protestant, and Roman Catholic religious organizations were restricted or banned. A process of rapid industrialization following the Stalinist-model took place. Agriculture was collectivised, and refusal to comply with strict standards was punishable by imprisonment. Labour camps were set up, and housed up to 100,000 people. Thousands of enemies of the state were imprisoned, or even executed. Life in Bulgaria during this period was grim.
Chervenkov was forced out of office in 1956, having lost much power since the death of Stalin. His replacement was Todor Zhivkov, who was younger and more inclined towards reform. Bulgaria was still allied with the USSR, but this was now more positive. In the Soviet Union under Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, there was a move towards a more liberal administration and a relaxing of state control. This was mirrored in Bulgaria. The Orthodox Church was no longer targeted as harshly. Relations with Yugoslavia and Greece were restored. There were economic reforms which allowed Bulgaria to trade with the outside world, and to become a popular tourist destination for people within the Eastern Bloc. Life improved somewhat, and Bulgaria began to modernise gradually.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union began to disintegrate rapidly. Bulgaria did not have a revolution as such, and thus the breakdown was fairly calm. In November 1989 there were environmental demonstrations. The government did not break them up, which was seen as an indicator of positive change. These demonstrations eventually turned into ones for more general political reform. In February 1990, the Communist Party gave up its claim to power due to pressure, and in June 1990 the first free elections since 1931 were held. Bulgaria was now (in name at least) a democracy. However, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which was in fact just the new name of the Communist Party, won, so perhaps true political change was limited at this point.
Bulgaria’s transition was hard, as were the transitions of the other ex-Soviet states. Privatisation took place, but it was handled badly, and Bulgaria struggled to adapt to global capitalist markets. As a result, there was large-scale unemployment and a recession. Crime was high, and the government remained very powerful. Things improved under Ivan Kostov between 1997 and 2001, as there was economic reform – however there were also allegations of corruption. In 2001, Simeon II, the son of Tsar Boris II of Bulgaria (the former monarch), returned to power through a political party he had created, named National Movement Simeon II. He had a strict pro-Western bias, as a result of which, Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007. Economic growth was better, although unemployment and emigration remained high. Many problems still existed, but things were better.
Bulgaria today is very different to how it was in 1946. It is a democracy, and an active member of the global community, and it has now modernised and stabilised. Living conditions are far better, and the Bulgarian culture is flourishing.