by Professor Hristo Matanov

How Bulgaria joined the club of wealthy countries

© George Licurici


On the eve of the millennium, winter was snowy, but euphoria warmed Bulgarians' hearts. Fed by good news, they had high hopes for the year 2000. In December 1999 the EU had invited Bulgaria join the community. At that time, the country had quite a pleasant international image – and not just thanks to Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihaylova, nicknamed Hubavoto Nade, or Pretty Nade. Mihaylova was elected vice president of the European People's Party, and on 26 May 2000 Bulgaria wrapped up the first four rounds of negotiations with the EU. In 2001 the country was removed from the Schengen blacklist – Bulgarians could now travel visa-free in most of Europe. Despite appearances, things weren't all that rosy. 2000 was a year of scandals that irreparably damaged the government's prestige.

February 2000

On 28 February Libya accused five Bulgarian nurses and a doctor of deliberately infecting nearly 400 children with the AIDS virus. The Bulgarians were not the only ones charged. However, other nations managed to free their citizens, while Bulgarian diplomats dithered and then Prime Minister Kostov made the memorable statement: "What if they're guilty?" Attempts to solve the problem began only in the following year.Members of the Union of Democratic Forces, or SDS, criticised their leader Ivan Kostov at the party's national conference, and former Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev shook up the United Democratic Forces coalition, or ODS, by accusing the prime minister of corruption.

July 2000

Israel removed the memorial plaques in the Bulgarian Forest commemorating the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews saved from the Holocaust and replaced them with a single one. The reason? The 11,000 Jews from Aegean Macedonia and Thrace – which were under Bulgarian administration in the 1940s – who were deported to death camps. The scandal flared up following a letter from Bulgarian intellectuals to Israel calling for the removal of the memorials. Signatories to the letter included Deputy Speaker of Parliament Blagovest Sendov.

Petar Stoyanov visits Israel

President Petar Stoyanov visits Israel

August 2000
The scandal of the month involved the security services. The head of counterintelligence, Gen. Atanas Atanasov, drew up a list of names of Russian and Yugoslav citizens barred from entering Bulgaria for 10 years due to national security concerns. The list included the notorious Russian investor Michael Cherniy.

September 2000
Information surfaced that Cherniy's close associates had financed the SDS before the party took power. In 1997, Cherniy had donated $80,000 to the Future for Bulgaria Foundation led by Ivan Kostov's wife, Elena.

October 2000
The SDS chief secretary Hristo Biserov as well as high-ranking party officials Yordan Tsonev and Evgeniy Bakardzhiev demanded Kostov's resignation. Instead, the upstarts found themselves kicked out and the SDS parliamentary bloc splintered.

Then Prime Minister Ivan Kostov with foreign minister Nadezhda Mihaylova

Then Prime Minister Ivan Kostov with foreign minister Nadezhda Mihaylova


As the election drew closer, the scandals continued – despite Kostov's explanation that he was the target of a media war. After an unsuccessful attempt at privatisation, the national air carrier Balkan went bankrupt at the beginning of 2001. GNP grew by 5.8 percent, but unemployment remained between 16 and 18 percent, even reaching a staggering 33 percent among young people. Inflation climbed to 14 percent. Foreign investments amounted to a formidable $800 million – but this was chump change in comparison to the cash pouring into Central Europe. The quality of health care, education and culture plummeted, and Bulgaria slid below 60th place in the UN rankings for all three categories. Young people emigrated, the birth rate remained low and the country found itself facing a demographic crisis. Despite these obstacles, Kostov led Bulgaria towards NATO and EU integration. His government even managed to set a record – it was the first since the Democratic Changes to finish out its whole term. Tired of scandals, non-transparent privatisation and corruption, Bulgarians demanded a change. The State Security Archives Declassification Commission announced that 52 sitting and candidate MPs as well as ministers had been Communist-era State Security agents did little to change the public sentiment, and the 2001 general election proved just that.


A new player unexpectedly burst onto the political scene – the exiled King Simeon Saxe-Coburg.Bulgarians still aren't quite sure how the former monarch got back into politics. First, 76 MPs asked the Constitutional Court whether Simeon could run for president. On 8 February 2001 the court ruled that the king did not fulfill the Constitutional residency requirements and would not be allowed to stand for president. In response, Saxe-Coburg founded a political party.

Former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg (middle) returns to Bulgaria. Present Mayor of Sofia Boyko Borisov (lest) was his bodyguard

Former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg (middle) returns to Bulgaria. Present Mayor of Sofia Boyko Borisov (lest) was his bodyguard

On 4 April 2001 thousands the Bulgarians met Simeon upon his return to Bulgaria. They saw him as an alternative to both rightwing and leftwing governments. Two days later the king announced his intentions – he asked for the people's trust for "800 days," during which he would "significantly" improve Bulgarians' lives and introduce a "new morality" into politics.On 8 April Saxe-Coburg founded the NDSV, or Simeon II National Movement. Those in power recognised the threat posed by the mysterious monarch whose reputation had not yet been tainted by Bulgarian political intrigue.

Attempts to apply judicial and local pressure on the NDSV failed, however, and the movement won the 17 June election by a resounding 42.7 percent. The ODS came in second with 18.7 percent, followed by the BSP-dominated Coalition for Bulgaria with 17.24 percent. The fourth parliamentary force was the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Ivan Kostov resigned as SDS leader and his faithful supporter Ekaterina Mihaylova took his place. The NDSV signed a power-sharing agreement with the DPS and on 26 July Saxe-Coburg became prime minister. Most of the NDSV's MPs and ministers were little-known figures.

An angry crowd rallies in Central Sofia in March 2001 following the Constitutional Court's decision not to allow Simeon II to stand for president

An angry crowd rallies in Central Sofia in March 2001 following the Constitutional Court's decision not to allow Simeon II to stand for president

Two groups formed within the movement – the "Yuppies," led by Nikolay Vasilev and Milen Velchev, were young Bulgarian professionals who had built careers in the West. The leaders of the "Lawyers" included Plamen Panayotov, Speaker of Parliament Ognyan Gerdzhikov, Aneliya Mingova and Daniel Valchev. Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi didn't fall into either camp. He was the founder and president of the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, which demanded integration into NATO – his appointment set a clear course for the country's foreign policy. However, Bulgaria not only opened itself towards the EU and NATO, but also towards the Islamic world. In August 2001 Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz and Jordan's King Abdula II visited Bulgaria. Gerdzhikov also met with Muammar al-Qadhafi's son Saif al-Islam in an attempt to influence the trial against the Bulgarian nurses.


In 2001 the elections weren't just for parliament. In November Bulgarians had to choose a new president. The BSP put all of its energy in that direction. As early as May 2000 at the insistence of Chairman Georgi Parvanov, the party officially abandoned its anti-NATO stance. Logically, the BSP nominated Parvanov as its presidential candidate. Under pressure from its leader, the NDSV supported the incumbent president Petar Stoyanov. On 18 November 2001, however, Bulgarians threw their support behind the Socialist, giving him 54.13 percent of the vote.

Georgi Parvanov with wife Zorka

Georgi Parvanov with wife Zorka

Parvanov announced that he would not support the war without a UN Security Council resolution. The BSP took a clearly antiwar position.Bulgarians expressed their opinion on current events in the usual way. In the local elections that autumn, less than 50 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Most votes went to BSP and SDS candidates.On 2 April 2004, Bulgaria joined NATO. Only the government seemed to notice its own successes, and in July the prime minister wrote an open letter to the media. In it, he listed his achievements: financial stability, control of the budget deficit, a reduction of unemployment to 12.6 percent, a 75-percent increase in the minimum wage, and a 30 percent rise in pensions.


Only a few months after the electoral triumph, loss of faith in the government was apparent. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha only made matters worse. He enraged Bulgarians – who consider the "Macedonian" language an artificially altered dialect of Bulgarian – by telling the Macedonian Prime Minister Lyupcho Georgievski that the language dispute between the two countries would be resolved. He then promised Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis that the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant's Reactors Nos. 3, 4 would be shut down in 2006. This was in keeping with EU demands, but contradicted previous government policy. Problems in the government were reflected within the NDSV itself, which by May 2002 already had the status of a party. Several of its MPs left its faction. The BSP also had its own troubles. They criticised the government, but at the same time had their own representative in it – Deputy Prime Minister Kostadin Paskalev. President Parvanov also criticised the cabinet for the lack of reforms addressing judicial power, corruption and crime. Of course, the news wasn't all bad. In May 2002 NATO's Parliamentary Assembly was held in Sofia. During the same month, Pope John Paul II arrived and announced that the "Bulgarian connection" in the assassination attempt against him in 1981 was untrue. New drama unfolded in March 2003, when George W. Bush declared war against Iraq. Even as the Simeon Government included Bulgaria in the "coalition of the willing," GNP growth of five to seven percent, a reduction of direct taxes, increased foreign investment – the NDSV began its term with ambitious intentions. 9/11 changed the focus, however. Bulgaria declared its commitment to the war on terrorism and Finance Minister Milen Velchev announced that a new agreement with the IMF was necessary. This made it impossible to fulfill most of the king's campaign promises – especially those connected with income increases. Prices for electricity, steam heating and natural gas jumped 10 percent, and medicines were subject to VAT. The European Commission also decided that despite its advances, Bulgaria would not join in 2004.

Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

The Last Monarch

Simeon II has suffered more twists and turns of fate than most European monarchs. Born on 16 June 1937, he became king after the sudden death of his father, King Boris III, in 1943. When the Communists came to power, they rigged a referendum that abolished the monarchy. On 16 September 1946, Simeon, his sister and his mother were expelled from the country. Their first stop was Egypt, where Simeon graduated from the British Victoria College in Alexandria. From 1951 until 2001 he lived in Spain. In Madrid Simeon completed a French lyceum, studied political science and law, and from 1958-1959 attended the Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pennsylvania. There's no official information as to what he was up to between 1962, when he married Spanish aristocrat Margarita Gomez-Acebo y Cejuela, and 1996, when he returned to Bulgaria for the first time. Some sources say Simeon was the director of the Spanish branch of the French defence and electronics conglomerate Thompson and that he worked as a consultant to companies in banking, hospitality and electronics. Simeon II and Doña Margarita have four sons and a daughter.


The achievements couldn't save the NDSV from its internal problems. In 2004 a group split off from the main party, calling itself Novoto vreme, or New Time. The right wing suffered from the same syndrome. In February the SDS re-elected Nadezhda Mihaylova as its leader and Ivan Kostov founded the DSB, or Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, a rightwing party that criticised all the others. The conflict between Mihaylova and Kostov splintered the ODS parliamentary bloc.The growing influence of the DPS in the government led to a conflict with the NDSV. The first direct clash came in February 2005, when the DPS and the New Time thwarted the privatisation of Bulgartabac by British-American Tobacco. The NDSV managed to survive the subsequent no-confidence vote and finished out its term. The government even managed to pass a few social policy measures. Elementary school children in the first few grade levels received free textbooks and snacks, and salaries were increased. The rifts in the coalition between the NDSV, New Time and DPS proved too deep, however. The three parties ran separately in the following parliamentary election.


After eight years in opposition, the BSP was ready to return to power and in May 2005 it headed the broad Coalition for Bulgaria. The other parties made the Socialists' job easier. The DSB decided to stand independently. The BNS, or Bulgarian People's Union, united with one of the many Bulgarian Agrarian People's Unions, or BZNS, the nationalist VMRO and the Union of Free Democrats, led by former Sofia Mayor Stefan Sofiyanski. The Coalition for Bulgaria came out on top in the 25 June elections – but with only 31 percent of the vote, it was far from holding a majority. The NDSV came in second with 19.88 percent and the DPS third with an unexpected 12.68 percent. The real surprise was Ataka. The nationalist party led by Volen Siderov was founded only two months before the election, but managed to win 8.16 percent of the vote, beating out the ODS (7.7 percent), the DSB (6.45 percent) and the BNS (5.2 percent).Parliament was in a quandary. Even together the BSP and the DPS didn't have a majority, and the NDSV announced that it would not join a leftist government. President Parvanov negotiated between the BSP's Sergey Stanishev, the NDSV's Simeon Saxe-Coburg and the DPS's Ahmed Dogan. On 18 July 2005 the BSP leader received a mandate to form a government. His suggested "minority cabinet" made up of the Coalition for Bulgaria and the DPS received 120 yes and 119 nays.Next it was the NDSV's turn. However, the party turned down the mandate, returning the ball to Parvanov's court. The president took his time. If a third mandate also failed, this would require a new election and would delay entrance into the EU. Pressured by time and circumstances, after 50 agonising days of negotiation, the BSP, NDSV and DPS formed the Tripartite Coalition on 15 August 2005. It would make decisions by consensus and through consultations with the coalition's Political Council. The coalition ruled under the DPS's mandate, but Dogan immediately nominated Stanishev as prime minister. Despite having a stable parliamentary majority, the new coalition partners had trouble governing. Coordination between them was extremely clumsy and the prime minister had only weak control over NDSV and DPS ministers. Not surprisingly, internal scandals soon began: over corruption, over surveillance by the special services, over unused European funds, over problems preserving protected territories and over delays in major infrastructure projects. During the third year of its mandate, the government lost much of its support to a new party – Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB. Its informal leader is the current mayor of Sofia Boyko Borisov, formerly chief secretary of the Interior Ministry in Simeon's cabinet.

Fireworks on 1 January for Bulgaria's EU accession

Fireworks on 1 January for Bulgaria's EU accession


While NATO membership provoked heated discussions, Bulgarians applauded entrance into the EU. On the eve of the country's accession, more than 60 percent of the population were optimistic about the EU. In August 2006 Standart newspaper summarised the reasons for the EU enthusiasm: free trade, increased confidence on the part of foreign investors, freedom to travel, reform of the judicial system, opening of the aviation market and cheaper flights, financing from the EU funds, adopting of the euro and financial stability. In short, Bulgarians expected the EU to help them clean up the mess.Bulgarian representatives signed the Treaty of Accession on 25 April 2005 in Luxembourg. In July 2007 Bulgarian citizens elected 18 deputies to the European Parliament. Bulgarian Meglena Kuneva became the EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner. A year and a half after the noisy celebrations marking its entrance into the EU on 1 January 2007, Bulgaria has officially become the EU's black sheep and has been deprived of more than one billion euros due to corruption and improper absorption of EU funds.


25 March Vladimir Putin becomes president
5 October Slobodan Milošević is removed from power
12 December The US Supreme Court confirms George W. Bush's election victory

March-August Tension and fighting between ethnic Albanians and government forces in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
28 April US millionaire Dennis Tito becomes the first space touris
29 June Milošević is turned over to the court in the Hague
11 September Al-Qa'ida attacks the US East Coast
9 December The Taliban regime falls in Afghanistan

23-26 October Chechen terrorists seize a theatre in Moscow, killing 116 people

12 March Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić is killed
9 April - 1 May The United States and the UK launch military action against Iraq, toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein
5 and 20 November Al Qa'ida attacks in Istanbull

11 March Terrorist attacks in Spain
1-3 September Chechen extremists seize a school in Beslan, killing 340 people
26 December A tsunami in Southeast Asia claims 255,000 victims

2 April Pope John Paul II dies
16 June The EU abandons its plans to introduce an European Constitution
7 July Bomb attacks in London kill 52 people
10 October Angela Merkel becomes the first female chancellor of Germany

4 February Caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper provoke demonstrations in the Islamic world

6 May Nicolas Sarkozy is elected president of France
27 June Gordon Brown replaces Tony Blair at Downing Street


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