By Jack Cross
When one thinks of Bulgaria’s current position in world, you could be forgiven, by all bar the most passionate Bulgaphiles, in drawing a sizeable blank. Today, the Republic of Bulgaria inhabits a significant chunk of south-eastern Europe on the Black Sea coast yet holds little influence or geopolitical sway in its neighbourhood. This is not, however, for lack of trying.
From its de facto independence in 1878, through four wars and various crises, successive Bulgarian governments have sought to establish themselves as a middle power in the region. Despite ample opportunities, this has come to nought.
The 1st of March marks the 80th anniversary of Bulgaria joining the Berlin Pact, otherwise called the Axis, during the Second World War, a final throw of the dice to reverse the country’s fortunes. The purpose here is to examine the development of Bulgarian foreign policy and why it never achieved the Middle Power status it so clearly craved.
The modern Bulgarian state was born out of war. Namely, the Russo-Turkish War between 1877-78 that ended with the Treaty of San Stefano and established the Principality of Bulgaria, officially under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. This states’ territory was significantly larger than the current republic, encompassing significant parts of modern-day Greece, Serbia and Macedonia, bordering the Black Sea and the Aegean, and dividing Ottoman Europe in two. It was a dream for the Bulgarian independence movement. However, the dream was short lived. The Great Powers of Europe would not accept such Russian expansionism on their backdoor.
So, in a rare moment of European unity, later in 1878, well organised diplomatic opposition from the rest of the Great Powers, and exhaustion from the protracted conflict, forced the Russians to accept an alternative agreement, the Treaty of Berlin. This compromise allowed for a Bulgarian principality, but radically smaller than had originally been envisioned. The new treaty established a Bulgarian state that was of relative power to that of its Balkan neighbours. And, while it gave Bulgaria autonomy over its internal affairs, the treaty prevented the principality from conducting its own foreign policy. Consequently, between 1878-1941, the driving force behind Bulgarian foreign policy was to reverse the Treaty of Berlin and to redraw its borders in the image of San Stefano.
Throughout the years 1878-1913, Bulgaria conducted a remarkably successful foreign policy in pursuit of its territorial ambitions. In 1885, Bulgarian soldiers successfully forced Ottoman authorities out of the province of Eastern Rumelia, which had been under joint Ottoman-Bulgarian rule since 1878. While the move was not in the spirit of the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria did not formally annex the territory, but rather forced the Ottomans to appoint Prince Alexander as governor.
A key element of Bulgarian strategy in this period was patience. Successive governments were happy to bide their time, not overreaching too quickly, carefully choosing moments that incurred minimal risk of failure or diplomatic repercussion. This was seen again in 1908, while much of Europe was gripped by the Bosnian crisis, Bulgaria officially declared its independence, throwing off the last vestiges of Ottoman rule, unifying the principality with Eastern Rumelia and elevating itself to a titular tsardom. The entire affair went off without any serious opposition and no diplomatic backlash was experienced. But it is here that hubris started to develop.
Thirty years of unchallenged expansion will inevitably give one a sense of a Balkan-style manifest destiny. The Bulgarian King and many around him began to dream of further expansion, not just to reclaim the lands lost in the Treaty of Berlin, but even further, to capture Constantinople and Salonika – to create a new Byzantine Empire for the 20th century. One can naturally see the attraction of such acquisitions, but they seemed to forget that these cities were also coveted by others; the Russians pined for the former and the Greeks for the latter.
With their patience wearing thin and the pace of their ambition quickening only four years would pass before Bulgaria would make their next move. The First Balkan War (1912-13) saw Bulgaria make significant territorial gains in Thrace and Macedonia, capturing the major city of Adrianople (modern day Edirne) and ports on the Aegean. They chose not to act alone, but as part of an alliance with the other independent Balkan states and with the diplomatic support of Russia. This war handed Bulgaria the opportunity to become the dominant force in the Balkans. Unlike landlocked Serbia, or Romania with its Black Sea coastline, Bulgaria now had access, through its new Aegean ports, to the Mediterranean and with it the chance for significant economic and naval expansion. Bulgaria was now poised to become a middle power.
Yet, over the next five and a half years, Bulgaria would, through its own miscalculations, lose any claim to this title. In June 1913, Bulgaria, unhappy with the settlement of the previous war, launched a second conflict against its former allies Serbia and Greece to secure further lands in Macedonia and the port of Salonika (modern day Thessaloniki). They started a second war with no allies and an exhausted army, the patience of previous years was now gone. Despite some initial success, the Second Balkan War quickly became a disaster for Bulgaria, with the kingdom enduring Greek, Serbian, Ottoman and Romanian invasions. The subsequent peace would see Bulgaria cede territory to all four of these opponents, including the return of Adrianople to the Ottomans.
Within Bulgarian history, defeat in the Second Balkan War is often referred to as the ‘first national catastrophe’. This gross overestimation of their own abilities would not be the last, as, in 1915, Bulgaria would join the Central Powers in the First World War, attempting yet again to reclaim the gains of 1878. But once again, their ambition was not matched by their abilities. The Great War saw Bulgaria suffer yet another defeat and lose yet more territory, including all its Aegean coastal possessions. Bulgaria was also forced to pay war reparations and reduce the size of its army. In the midst of this defeat, Tsar Ferdinand abdicated his throne and fled into exile. Bulgaria ended its third war in five years in its worst position since independence, with no allies, a weak economy and a pitiful military.
The inter-war period was one of isolation, yet the dream of San Stefano was still very much alive. The very last gamble, allying with Germany during the Second World War, merely confirmed what had been known about Bulgarian power twenty years previously, that its time had been and gone. Not only did they pick the eventual losing side, but they were too weak to make a substantial contribution to the Axis war effort, Bulgaria did not contribute a single soldier to the Axis invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece but was granted territories in line with those of the Treaty of San Stefano. It did however, oversee the transportation of Jewish populations from these areas to German concentration camps. Yet by the end of the war, it was clear Bulgaria had once again backed the wrong horse and it saw in 1944 broken, humiliated and under Soviet occupation until 1947.
Few countries in modern history have experienced a rise and fall with the speed with which Bulgaria did. In 1912, Bulgaria had all the makings of a strong middle power, none of these survive today. A popular delusion appears to have gripped Bulgaria in the decades after independence, one of expansionist destiny. But successive Bulgarian monarchs and politicians forgot the most important part of European diplomacy: the almighty strength of the Balance of Power. Those who overreach and seek power beyond what those around them will tolerate, are doomed to fail. Bulgaria’s early success was down to careful timing and realistic expectations but emboldened by their own success and convinced by the certainty of their mission, all sense of proportion or perspective was lost.
Jack Cross is currently pursuing a master’s in the History of War in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. His main research interests are diplomatic history, the role of great and middle powers within current international politics, as well as the politics of the Balkans and Middle East.
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