Evidence of human habitation in Bulgaria dates from the Middle Paleolithic Period, and agricultural settlements appeared in the Neolithic Period. The Thracians were its first inhabitants to enter recorded history. Their existence in Bulgaria can be dated from about 3500 BC, when seminomadic pastoralists from the Eurasian steppes moved southwestward to settle in the Balkan Peninsula. The first known Thracian state dates from the mid-5th century BC. Weakened by conflict with the Macedonians and Persians, the Thracian kingdom was finally absorbed by the Roman Empire after a 150-year struggle lasting into the first years of the Christian era. Under Roman rule Bulgaria was divided between the provinces of Moesia and Thrace and lay athwart the main land route from the west to the Middle East.
Beginning in the 3rd century AD, the Balkans suffered desolation brought about by successive invasions of Goths, Huns, Bulgars, and Avars. Gradually, from the mid-6th century, Slavic agriculturists repopulated most of the region. During the 7th century the Bulgars rose against the Avars, crossed the Danube, and subjugated the Slavic communities to the south. In 681, following an unsuccessful war with the Bulgars, the Byzantine Empire formally recognized Bulgar control of the region between the Balkans and the Danube. This is considered the starting point of the Bulgarian state. The ruler Boris I adopted Orthodox Christianity in 864, and the adoption of the new religion facilitated the assimilation of the Bulgars into the more numerous Slavic population. Although the name "Bulgaria" survived, the Bulgar language and customs died out, leaving few remnants among a population speaking a Slavic language.
The first Bulgarian empire flourished under Tsar Simeon (reigned 893-927) but was forced to accept Byzantine domination in 1018. A successful revolt led by the Asen brothers regained Bulgarian independence in 1185. The second Bulgarian empire, with its capital at Turnovo, ruled much of the Balkan Peninsula before succumbing to internal divisions and foreign invasion. In the second half of the 14th century, Bulgaria was invaded by the Ottoman Turks, and in 1396 the last vestiges of independence were lost. During the five centuries of Ottoman rule (1396-1878), imposed on Turkey by Russia, the Bulgarian nobility was destroyed and the peasantry enserfed to Turkish masters.
Bulgaria lagged behind its neighbours, Serbia and Greece, in the creation of a movement for independence; but, by the time of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), a movement known as the National Revival had brought about a widespread sense of Bulgarian identity. The Treaty of San Stefano (1878), imposed on Turkey by Russia, created a practically independent Bulgaria covering almost three-fifths of the Balkan Peninsula. This was unacceptable to the other Great Powers, and the Congress of Berlin (1878) permitted the creation of only a small, autonomous principality covering the core area between the Balkans and the Danube. Alexander of Battenberg, a nephew of the Russian emperor, was made prince. In 1885 Alexander annexed Eastern Rumelia, lying to the south between the Balkan and Rhodope ranges, and in 1908 his successor, Ferdinand, declared Bulgaria an independent kingdom. Ferdinand then joined Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro in forming the Balkan League, which seized Macedonia and Thrace from Turkey in the First Balkan War (1912-13). Dissatisfied with the small portion of Macedonia that he received as spoils, Ferdinand precipitated a Second Balkan War (June-August 1913) against Turkey, Romania, and his own former allies. Bulgaria lost this war, along with most of the territory it had gained in the first conflict. This effectively ended the expansion of the Bulgarian state, although Ferdinand sided with the Central Powers during World War I in an attempt to regain Macedonia. Bulgaria's defeat in 1918 forced Ferdinand's abdication and the accession of his son, Boris.
The interwar years were a period of economic crisis and political extremism and violence. Boris finally established a royal dictatorship and, during World War II, sided with Germany in yet another unsuccessful attempt to expand westward.
A communist-inspired coalition seized power on Sept. 9, 1944, in conjunction with an invasion by the Soviet Red Army. In 1946 a plebiscite abolished the monarchy and formed a people's republic that was henceforth ruled by the Bulgarian Communist Party. The country's industries were expropriated from their owners by the state, and the country's peasant farmers were forced into collective farms. Under the successive rule of the communist leaders Georgi Dimitrov, Vulko Chervenkov, and Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria was transformed into a predominantly urban and industrial society. It remained firmly allied to the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc.
In 1989, however, Bulgaria was caught up in the wave of democratization that was sweeping eastern Europe, and Zhivkov resigned and was replaced by younger, reform-minded leaders. Like its Soviet-bloc counterparts in eastern Europe, the Bulgarian Communist Party then abandoned its constitutional monopoly of power and thus freed noncommunist opposition parties to participate in multiparty parliamentary elections. The Communist Party, renamed the Socialist Party, won a majority of seats in the parliamentary elections of June 1990, but, in elections held in October 1991, the opposition Union of Democratic Forces won and went on to form Bulgaria's first noncommunist government since 1946.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bringing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many of Bulgaria's best and brightest fled the country. Bulgaria lost 600,000 citizens in 1990, nearly eight percent of its population. The remaining nine million Bulgarians struggled to survive the confusing and economically detrimental early to mid 1990s. Many of these citizens decided to leave the country as well, where monthly incomes amounted to somewhere between ten and ninety dollars and "insurance" hungry mafias operated unchecked by the government.
Although Bulgaria became a parliamentary democracy in 1990, it elected a socialist government into power in 1991. This socialist government led by President Zhelu Zhelev, was overthrown within two years by similar political forces. Again, in 1994, Bulgarians voted the Communists back into power. Bulgaria's economy collapsed in 1996, leading to high inflation and gross devaluation of the lev.
With the January 1997 election of current President Petar Stoyanov, a member of the United Democratic Forces political party, Bulgaria became a democratically-led nation. Stoyanov, a lawyer, supports a free-market economy and campaigns for foreign investment in Bulgaria's industries, including natural gas and petroleum. Stoyanov has also been instrumental in Bulgaria's initiation into foreign aid organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, Peace Corps and the United States' SEED program for development of newly democratic nations.
Bulgaria's advances in democratization have lagged behind other former Soviet Bloc countries because the new democratic government has been in office for less such a short time and because many Bulgarians remain loyal to the former Soviet Union's governance. The Russians liberated Bulgaria twice: once, from the Turks in the late Nineteenth Century and a second time from the Nazis in 1945. The former flag of The People's Republic of Bulgaria contained its crest: a lion surrounded by two dates, one is 1944, when Russia liberated Bulgaria from Nazism. Today's Bulgarian flag does not show this crest.
"Bulgarians had it good under Communism," write historians. The Soviets considered Bulgaria vacationland. Many neighboring nations enjoyed Bulgaria's regal mountain vistas, historic landmarks and unspoiled Black Sea beaches. "Bulgaria was a poor-man's Rivera," writes Radek Sikorski (1996). Not only did Bulgaria have streams of Soviet tourists entering its borders, Moscow borrowed money to maintain Bulgarian's middle-class lifestyle, including a week-long government-paid vacation for workers. Bulgaria was technologically proficient (due to Moscow's funding and training) through the 1980s; it was considered the "Silicon Valley of the Soviet Bloc." Food was abundant in Bulgaria's markets and the wine trade was booming. Bulgarians were, quite clearly, reluctant to repel centralized Communist government, for economic as well as historical reasons.
Governmental reforms are beginning to make small differences in the lives of Bulgarians. Foreign investors are beginning to consider Bulgaria's natural gas and petroleum (not to mention wine) trade as opportunities, NGOs are beginning to support and often instigate Bulgarian reforms and American Universities are offering help and expertise. The generally robust global economy is having a postive effect on Bulgaria's economy also.