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Bulgarian Independence day

Often our guests tell us they are a little confused about Bulgarian history, and they ask why there is a Liberation Day (our biggest national holiday, celebrated on the 3rd of March) and an Independence Day (celebrated on the 22nd of September). They also ask whether these are two completely different holidays or one in the same! In this blog post we will try to make it clear what the difference is. We will also explain, why is the 22nd of September a significant date in Bulgarian history and why Veliko Tarnovo is an especially good place to spend this national holiday.

Liberation Day

After the end of the war in 1878 between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, a new map of Bulgaria was drawn. The Russians won that war. The agreement was signed on the 3rd of March at San Stefano (nowadays a suburb of Istanbul under the name of Yeshilkoy). This treaty created a fully independent Bulgarian state. The Bulgarian territory was supposed to include almost 170 000 sq km. It included many regions, which are nowadays in Greece, Northern Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia. See the pink area on the left map below.

The details of this treaty, however, never became a reality. The reason was that both the Great Powers of the era and the other Balkan countries were afraid that the creation of such a huge and powerful state would disrupt the fragile balance of powers in Europe.

The Treaty of Berlin

This is why, later the same year, the Treaty of Berlin was signed. It arranged the creation of a much smaller Bulgarian state. According to it, Bulgaria was able to conduct its internal policies independently. In international relations, however, it had a limited legal capacity.

Independence Day

Maps of the region after the Treaty of San Stefano and the Congress of Berlin of 1878
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More importantly, Bulgaria still had to comply with all the international treaties, which applied to the Ottoman Empire. Specifically with the so-called Capitulation Treaties. Unequal trade agreements, which gave a number of commercial and tax privileges to traders from the biggest European states on Bulgarian territory. Also, certain pieces of infrastructure, such as some roads and railways, didn’t become property of the Bulgarian state, even though they were within its borders.

This is why it’s considered that in 1878 Bulgaria was liberated, but didn’t become fully independent from the Ottoman Empire. And this is why we celebrate both Liberation Day and Independence Day nowadays.

Independence Day ofBulgaria

Map of South-Eastern Europe after the Congress of Berlin, 1878
photo by:

Some say it’s not appropriate to celebrate Liberation Day on the 3rd of March. The ceasefire, which was signed on this day, was only preliminary and never came into power. Nevertheless, it started the chain of events, which ultimately led to Bulgaria’s Liberation. Also this date is deeply intrenched in Bulgarian celebrations and traditions, so we’ll carry on celebrating on 3rd March.

Independence Day

In the late summer of 1908, 30 years after the Liberation, there were multiple complications in the international relations between Europe’s Great Powers. Germany and France were in a diplomatic conflict about their respective influence in the Moroccan colonies. Austria-Hungary was preparing to openly violate the provisions of the Berlin Treaty by annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Ottoman Empire was also in deep political and military crisis because of the Young Turkish revolution.

The Bulgarian government saw all of this as the perfect political circumstances to declare the country’s independence. It was time to remove all the political and – more importantly – economic setbacks, with which we had to comply as vassals to the Ottoman Empire.

Declaring Independency

The independence event took place on the 22nd of September in Veliko Turnovo – Bulgaria’s old medieval capital. A manifesto was issued by Prince Ferdinand and ratified by the Council of Ministers. From this point on the Bulgarian state gained full legal capacity in international relations. It also stopped paying taxes to the Ottomans and Prince Ferdinand officially began to style himself as Tsar. This is why we celebrate our Independence Day on this date.

It should be noted that such an act was obviously also a violation of the Berlin Treaty. The government, however, correctly predicted that it would be overlooked, considering the much more blatant violation, committed by Austria-Hungary. Also, the internal problems of the Great Powers, which would prevent them from going to war with one another over such a relatively minor issue as the Bulgarian independence. This is why the European states, despite their initial outrage, quickly agreed to a diplomatic solution.

As the manifesto was ratified in Veliko Tarnovo the celebrations on 22nd September are always enjoyed by Bulgarians who visit from all over Bulgaria to spend this special date in the city where it all took place.

Recognition of Bulgarian Independence Day

Throughout the few months following the manifesto, most of the other countries voluntarily recognized our independence. In the summer of 1909, the Ottoman Empire was the last state to do so. That was after the Russian Empire absolved the remainder of the reparations due because of the war from 1878. The amount absolved was approximately 80 million francs. The Ottoman government viewed that as an exchange for the taxes, which Bulgaria would no longer have to pay. To compensate the Russians, the Bulgarian government was obliged to pay them the sum throughout the next 75 years. Thus the dispute that arose as a result of the Bulgarian Declaration of Independence was resolved peacefully.

Independence Day parade in Veliko Tarnovo on 22nd September

So, nowadays we celebrate both the Liberation Day on the 3rd of March and Independence Day on the 22nd of September. Together with the Unification Day (6th of September), they form the three biggest national holidays in Bulgaria. Hopefully your trip will coincide with one of these holidays.

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