Bulgaria’s Uncertain Future

Most North Americans know nothing about the country of Bulgaria, except maybe that it was the birthplace of Quidditch superstar Victor Krum.

This is not surprising. After all, there are a lot of countries in the world, and Bulgaria is a relatively insignificant one. It has a population of only seven and a half million, and an economy that is smaller than all but five of America’s fifty states. Americans tend to learn about other countries only when newsworthy events take place in them, and Bulgaria has not generated many of these in recent history. Lying quietly behind the Iron Curtain between 1945 and 1989, then spectating as its Balkan neighbours descended into violence during the 1990s, Bulgaria has largely managed to avoid any wars or ethnic unrest since the Second World War. In that conflict, however, Bulgaria played an active role, taking part in both a Nazi-led occupation of Greece and Yugoslavia in 1941 and an Allied invasion of Hungary and Austria in 1945.

Bulgaria’s current level of anonymity may disappear in the not-too-distant future. In fact, it can be expected that in the approaching decades Bulgaria will attract a level of attention from the rest of the world that it has not experienced in many decades. This notoriety will not come about as a result of Bulgaria`s own accomplishments (sorry Bulgaria). Rather, it will emerge as the product of Bulgaria`s relationship with its increasingly powerful Turkish neighbours.

The land border between Bulgaria and Turkey currently serves as the southeastern frontier of the European Union, and it also Turkey’s most vulnerable one. Whereas Turkey’s eastern borders are separated from the majority of the Turkish population by over a thousand kilometers of hills and mountains, the distance between Istanbul and the Turkish-Bulgarian border is less than 200 kilometers, and the terrain is flat the whole way. Not incidentally, it was from the area that is today Bulgaria that the Romans conquered Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) in 173 BC, and that European forces conquered Constantinople (also today’s Istanbul) during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 AD. In fact, the Turks themselves conquered Constantinople from this direction, in 1453 AD, though in their case they approached the city from both east and west rather than from the west alone.


If Turkey were to dominate even just the southern half of Bulgaria, as its Ottoman predecessors did for nearly five hundred years between 1396 and 1885, the distance between its western border and Istanbul would effectively double. Even more important, Turkey would then be able to anchor itself on the Balkan Mountains instead of on the relatively flat lowlands which today comprise much of the border between the two countries. This would give Turkey a defensible buffer in the north, while also allowing it to outflank any theoretical threat that might emerge on its border with Greece, its long-time rival, which is also located near to Istanbul and the rest of the Turkish heartland. Obviously, the Turks would find such a state of affairs to be quite beneficial, all other things being held equal.

This is important, because there is not much reason to think that Turkey could not dominate Bulgaria if it wanted to. Turkey is a much wealthier and stronger country than Bulgaria is. Its gross domestic product is 20 times larger than Bulgaria`s, and its population is more than 10 times larger than Bulgaria`s. Turkey devotes an amount equal to 2.3% of its GDP to military spending, compared to only 1.5% for Bulgaria and 1.7% for the European Union as a whole. There is also a large Turkish diaspora living within Bulgaria, accounting for more than 10 percent of the country’s total population and more than half of the population within two of its 28 provinces.

A few decades from now, Bulgaria will probably become even weaker relative to Turkey than it is today. Turkey’s economy is expected to perform well, since the country is populous, relatively underdeveloped, and strategically located as a land bridge between Europe and Asia, a naval bridge between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and a cultural bridge between the West and Islam. Indeed, Turkey was the second fastest growing large economy in the world between 2008 and 2012, trailing only China. Turkish birth rates are at a healthy 2.1, compared to Bulgaria’s 1.5, which is among the lowest in the world. Finally, Bulgaria is highly dependent upon exports for its economic growth, while Turkey is not. As a result, any economic slowdown among Bulgaria’s trade partners in Europe and other areas of the global economy would hurt the Bulgarians far more than the Turks.

Bulgaria is also economically dependent on Turkey. The value of Bulgaria`s exports to Turkey are currently equal to about 10 percent of all Bulgarian exports, making Turkey the country’s third largest export destination, slightly ahead of Romania and slightly behind Germany and Italy. However, Italy and Germany have economies that are 2.5 and 4.3 times larger than Turkey`s. As Turkey`s economy grows, therefore, its appetite for Bulgarian exports seems likely to grow faster than Italy`s or Germany`s would if they were to experience the same level of growth — and they are not expected to grow nearly as fast as Turkey is. As a result, it is quite conceivable that Turkey will become Bulgaria’s leading export destination in the near future, possibly by a large margin. In fact, an amount of Bulgarian trade accounting for approximately 20-25 percent of Bulgaria’s gross domestic product already passes through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits every year on its way to and from other markets around the world.

For all of these reasons, Turkey`s only real barrier to dominating Bulgaria is that, as a member of both the European Union and NATO, Bulgaria has been guaranteed to be economically, militarily, and politically shielded from external threats by Western Europe and the United States, both of which are much more powerful than Turkey. Russia is another country interested in Bulgaria; both Russia and Bulgaria are Slavic, Orthodox Christian countries, and the Russians sell a lot of energy to Bulgaria in order to make Bulgaria’s next-door neighbours, the Romanians (who are Latin rather than Slavic), feel uneasy, so that the Romanians will not become too pushy within their own next-door neighbour, Ukraine. Indeed, the fact that Bulgaria is not being controlled by Turkey as we speak is probably more a testament to the strength of the United States, Western Europe, and Russia than it is to Turkish timidity or Turkish indifference towards Bulgaria.

Ultimately, however, it is easy to imagine that in the future Bulgaria will become the site of a geopolitical tug-of-war that will involve Turkey, various European countries, and the United States. It is also not so difficult to imagine that the Turks will win this tug-of-war, given that they care much more about Bulgaria than the US or any European powers do, and given that Turkish economic prospects look promising. In that case, the level of independence that Bulgaria has enjoyed for the past 23 years could come to an unexpected, perhaps even violent, end. The only silver lining for Bulgaria is that it might benefit economically from Turkish growth.



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