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Bulgaria’s 30-Year National Day

04/03/2012

Yesterday, the 3rd of March, Bulgaria celebrated its national day – Ден на Осводождения на Българиа от Турско Робство – Day of the Liberation of Bulgaria from Turkish Slavery. Strong words and, truth to tell, not PC in these years of European unity – a process now involving the Republic of Turkey. No, nowadays it’s been vanilla’d into something like “the Ottoman presence” – all 500-odd years of it.

But 3 March is only one of the contenders for Bulgaria’s national day. This small Balkan state which traces its origin way back to 681AD has the good fortune – or rather misfortune – to have three such dates. The 3rd of March can be seen as the start of the process, relating as it does to the year 1878 and the date of signing of the Treaty of San Stefano. This was the outcome of Russia’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire in a two-year war in the Balkans. But the provisions which summoned into being a grand new state of Bulgaria, running from the Danube to the Agean, from the Black Sea almost to the Adriatic, were torn up by the ‘Great Powers’ barely four months later, by the Treaty of Berlin.

Those other powers – notably Britain and Austria-Hungary – had good reason to doubt the bona fides of this major new state of Bulgaria. They considered that it would be tantamount to a substantive Russian presence in the Balkans and indeed the Treaty of San Stefano provided for a Russian occupying force of some 50,000 troops for a period ‘approximating’ two years, with real political power in the new state vesting in a Russian ‘commissioner’.

So Bulgarians celebrate 3 March with mixed feelings. For a brief period in 1878, there was the prospect of resoration to a glory not experienced for a millenium. But the Bulgaria permitted to exist by the Treaty of Berlin was a pale imitation.

Which brings us to the other contenders for national day, both falling in September. On the sixth is commemorated the day in 1885 when the rump Bulgaria of Berlin reclaimed – without a shot being fired – the large tract of historical Bulgarian territory known as ‘Eastern Rumelia’ and incorporated it into the new principality. This is Ден на Съединението – Day of the Unification. And then on 22 September 1908, the Bulgarian prince Ferdinand proclaimed himself king and issued the country’s unilateral declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire. This is Ден на Независимостта – Independence Day. Again there was no bloodshed. By this point in time, the Ottoman Empire was barely functioning, preoccupied as it was with attack from within. The Young Turks were displacing the old sultans.

So, yes, Bulgaria has three national days, with a 30-year spread between them. No one of them alone is able to provide all the elements for celebration of nationhood – it was a laborious process, this emergence from five centuries of subjugation to a foreign power.

And for a period of some 45 years, there was even another national day – also crammed into September.  The ninth, commemorating the day in 1944 when the Soviet Army entered Bulgaria to ‘liberate’ the country once again, this time from fascism. During the communist period, 9 September was elevated to a much higher pedestal than any of the others just mentioned. It was the day of military parades along Boulevard Lenin under the benevolent gaze of ‘Bai Tosho’ – party boss and undisputed leader Todor Zhivkov. Today it passes unremarked except by a dwindling number of nostalgic pensioners – and diehards in the rebranded Bulgarian Socialist Party.

From time to time, there is debate as to whether Bulgaria should ditch these backward-looking dates and select as its national day a date – and an event – which betokens optimism for the future. But nothing is simple here and no one candidate has yet to emerge with anything like a consenus. Of course, it’s possible to do without a national day – witness the United Kingdom – and perhaps that’s the way to go.

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