On 22 September 1908 Bulgaria refused to receive its freedom ‘a spoonful at a time’
The fact that Bulgaria gained its independence as late as 22 September 1908 may seem illogical or even insulting to some Bulgarians. After all, didn’t the Treaty of San Stefano and the Treaty of Berlin (dating from 3 March and 3 July 1878, respectively) restore the Bulgarian state after five centuries of Ottoman domination and place Bulgaria on the European political map for good?
It’s true that in the years leading up to 1908, the Bulgarian state increased its territory twofold; defeated Serbia in the unsought 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war; successfully eliminated foreign interference and rapidly became the most dynamically developing country on the Balkan Peninsula. However, it did not manage to avoid the special status that had been imposed upon all newly-established Balkan states since the early 1800s. Apprehensive about their ability to govern themselves, the Great Powers granted them freedom in stages – ‘a spoonful at a time’. Long after their emergence, the Balkan states remained under the formal control of Istanbul as provinces with a special regime.
What were the restrictions placed on Bulgaria, which was partially liberated in 1878 and partially unified in 1885? The country could not elect its own Knyaz (Prince) without the sanction of the Ottoman Porte (Government) and the approval of the Great Powers. It was unable to send ambassadors abroad – just diplomatic agents. And it was not allowed to conclude any directly-negotiated bilateral accords with other countries or expel foreign nationals.
On top of all this, it had to pay an annual tax to its former oppressor. This humiliating semi-independent status aimed at more than simply upholding the Sultan’s prestige, which was greatly undermined by the territorial decrease of European Turkey. It also allowed the leading European countries to maintain their privileges within the former Ottoman Empire.
It served the cunning purpose of restraining the independent evolution of the new Balkan states, and thus created legal opportunities for direct intervention into their internal affairs. This status applied to all Balkan countries, but it was particularly imperative with respect to Bulgaria. For how long could the Bulgarians endure this shameful role as vassals? The road to renouncing it progressed slowly but steadily and its finish coincided with the current Balkan crisis at the time the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
On 22 September 1908, a political proclamation was read solemnly upon the sacred hill of Tsarevets in the old capital Veliko Tarnovo and inside the Saints Forty Martyrs Church. This act took place in the presence of the entire Bulgarian Government and the monarch – Ferdinand Saxe-Co burg-Gotha. Bulgaria rejected its status as a tributary principality and declared its unconditional independence as an expression of its will to become part and parcel of the European political system. Bulgarian political decisions were no longer to be restricted by external decrees. Now Bulgaria held the key to its home in its own pocket.
Having been prepared for years, this act was carried out with the civilized methods of European diplomacy by skilfully combining respect with a defiance of international legislation. The much-awaited initiative was backed by the heightened potential of the entire Bulgarian society. This arsenal of confidence included the 100,000-strong Bulgarian army. After brief negotiations and consultations, every European country recognized Bulgaria’s independence, with Montenegro leading the charge.
This event became another milestone of the painstaking journey of Bulgarian national emancipation, commenced on 3 March 1878 and brilliantly continued in September 1885. It removed the last administrative shackles and severed the last spiritual ties with the Ottoman past. The ghosts of the heroes, martyrs and scholars of the Bulgarian Revival could finally rest in peace.
This historic achievement was a natural outcome of centuries of liberation efforts, preserved literary traditions and religious endurance. Having contributed to the origin of the European idea, Bulgarians staunchly stood up for their place in Europe, even when European diplomacy took little heed of their ethnic and religious predicament. Yet the declaration of Bulgarian independence meant more than affinity for the ‘foundation stones’ of Europe. On that day, Bulgaria, which was ridiculed as incapable of finding switchmen for the Orient Express, demonstrated its accumulated self-governing experience. The country’s constitution, legal system and government became guarantees of the immutable historical fabric of the Bulgarian nation.
Yet Bulgarian history after 1879 is a mixed bag of achievements and failures. Oddly enough, the country had more foreign policy wins under the restrictions of regulated dependence than in the years following its formal independence. Was it because dependence used to stir up the ambitions and imagination of our ancestors? Can this invigorating tradition be renewed now that we enjoy the limited sovereignty of the European Union? This is a hard question to answer, but there is one thing we can say with certainty: on 22 September 1908, Bulgaria became a different nation once and for all. No matter what trials the future held in store for it.